Having witnessed police officers mercilessly beat up a group of young hippies, Assata Olugbala Shakur, at the time a young activist in the Black Students Union in New York, had an epiphany. It was this: she was not going to change a thing by smoking weed in the park and complaining about brutally racist police. If she was going to call herself a revolutionary – and she was – she had to instead get “high on revolution”.
This revelation caused her to seek out the Black Panther Party (BPP), an organisation which she respected for several reasons. Firstly, because they “didn’t try to sound all intellectual”, ruminating on the bourgeoisie or ‘the military industrial complex” or the “concerns of the ruling classes”. Secondly, they were “clear who the enemy was: not the white people, but the capitalistic, imperialistic oppressors”. Thirdly, the BPP supported revolutionary struggles in Africa, Asia and South America, and to Assata this was no bagatelle. And last but not least, as Shakur writes in her intensely personal and insightful book, Assata: An Autobiography, because “They simply called a pig a pig”.
Having joined the BPP, Assata discovered that it was far from perfect. The leadership, or as she puts it, the “macho cult” was often self-serving, corrupt and disorganised. (“Cotton was a big mouth and a drunk” for example. “[Robert] Bey’s problem was that he was non-too bright.” He “later became Huey Newton’s bodyguard, a job for which he was much much more suited”). Later, after leaving the party, and after having discovered that many of its shortcomings were being “carefully manipulated and orchestrated by the FBI”, Assata appreciated at least their solemn determination to fight for black people’s rights.
That same sentiment is at the core of her own lifelong activism. As she writes, “Black people need someone to stand up for us or we will always be victims”. She goes on to say, “I wanted to be one of the people who stood up. These were serious times.”
“Serious times” mark race relations in the US today too. On 9 August 2014, Michael Brown, an eighteen year old resident of Ferguson, Missouri was murdered by a white police officer when, despite having committed no crime, Brown seems to have raised his arms in surrender. This was the cue for the officer to shoot him six times, twice in the head.
Sadly, such acts are not an anomaly in the US where a recent study showed a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 hours. From 2006 to 2012 a white police officer kills a black person at least twice a week. The numbers of black men and women killed by police are staggering.
In 1973, Assata was shot by a white state trooper, and she too was shot with both her hands up in the air. Yet because of racism and inflammatory publicity she was found guilty of a crime she did not commit. In 2013, forty years later, and in exile in Cuba for a crime she didn’t commit, Assata became the first woman to make the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list.
Shakur’s recently republished autobiography is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how black liberation and police brutality against blacks is an enduring legacy of injustice. Hers is a voice that encourages us to never forget the poetry of living but also to never, ever forget that “a pig is a pig”. It is a voice like that of another liberator who also once was labelled a “terrorist”, Nelson Mandela, who reminds us, as he said, “Dangers and difficulties have not deterred us in the past. They will not frighten us now. But we must be prepared for them like men in business who do not waste energy in vain talk and idle action.”
Assata: An Autobiography is available now from Zed Books.