assata shakur day: thirty-four years since the black liberation army broke her out of prison

by Tim Phillips

Assata Shakur joined the Black Panther Party (BPP) as a college student. Like many East Coast members of the BPP, she later went underground to build the Black Liberation Army (BLA). According to Shakur’s autobiography,

It was clear that the Black Liberation Army was not a centralized, organized group with a common leadership and chain of command. … Many members of the various groups had been forced into hiding as a result of the extreme police repression that took place during the late sixties and early seventies. Some had serious cases, some had minor ones, and others, like me, were just wanted for “questioning.”

On May 2, 1973, state troopers stopped Shakur, Zayd Shakur, and Sundiata Acoli on the New Jersey Turnpike, claiming their white Pontiac had a defective tail light. A shootout erupted, leaving Zayd Shakur and state trooper Werner Foerster dead. State trooper James Harper sustained a minor injury, Acoli escaped but was captured a day or so later, and Assata Shakur was critically wounded and arrested at the scene.

Several charges brought against Shakur while she was in hiding (e.g., bank robbery) were dismissed, resulted in acquittals, or were dropped for lack of evidence. As to the May 1973 shootout, the absence of gun residue on Shakur’s fingers meant she had not shot a weapon. Yet in 1977 she was convicted on flimsy evidence of four charges related to that incident: being an accomplice to Foerster’s murder, assaulting Harper with the intent to kill, possessing weapons, and attempting to kill Harper.

Shakur was sentenced to life plus 33 years. On November 2, 1979, a BLA unit broke Shakur out of prison without firing any shots or hurting anyone. She surfaced in 1984 in Cuba, where she was granted asylum.

This past May, Shakur was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List. She is the first woman and the second U.S. citizen to appear on the list. In response to Shakur being labeled a terrorist, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, Project SALAM, and the Jericho Movement declared today to be “Assata Shakur Day.”