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When I Actually Got to Hang out with Assata Shakur

Assata Shakur portrait

Some folks actually follow celebrities from city to city with the objective of taking pictures with these well known actors, musicians, athletes, etc. You’ll never catch me doing anything like that. I’ve actually had opportunities to meet many people in those fields whose work I admire such as George Clinton, Chris Webber, Forest Whitaker, and Derek Jeter. But I passed on walking up to them because although I respect their craft, I just don’t see what they do as something deserving of that level of adulation. At least not from me. What I mean is, it’s not like Jeter, Michael Jordan, or Prince— as talented as they are, have made significant contributions towards eliminating oppression or racism with their basketball, acting, or performance skills. Besides, those people, as a result of the favorable position they occupy within the capitalist system as people whose skills are utilized to promote profit over people, are consistently approached by multitudes of people. So, as a rule, I’d never walk up to celebrities under any type of circumstances. 

On the other hand, I view people who decide to dedicate their lives to standing up against injustice, especially when their decision and actions cause them to experience immeasurable suffering and consequences, as people worthy of whatever respect and adulation I can give them. As a result, some of the most exciting moments I’ve experienced in my life were the many times I picked up the late Kwame Ture (formally Stokely Carmichael) from the airport. The time I helped bodyguard for the late Dr. Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X’s widow). Or, when I met the late Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) shortly after he was finally released from 27 unjust years in prison. Then, there were the many times I visited the late Marilyn Buck in federal prison. 

Right at the top of that list was the time I got to visit with Assata Shakur in Havana, Cuba. I went to Cuba in July of 1994 with one of my longtime comrades within the All African People’s Revolutionary Party. We went with a group called Global Exchange. One of the things they asked us in preparation for the trip was who we wanted to meet in Cuba. I wanted to list Fidel Castro and Aleida March Guevara (the widow of Che Guevara), but I didn’t think meeting either of them was realistic, so I left them off my list that already had Assata Shakur and Harry “Pombo” Villegas. Once we arrived in Cuba on July 15th, 1994, and got settled into the Federation of Cuban Women, just down the street from the famous Revolution Square where the huge outlined image of Che stares at everyone for miles, I was informed that I’d get the opportunity to meet both Assata and Pombo. I was delighted beyond belief when I was informed that I’d be meeting sister Assata later that afternoon. I was overwhelmed with excitement. Although my ex-wife, who I still remain comrades and co-parents with to this day, had traveled to Cuba the year before and met Assata, I still wasn’t sure I’d get the opportunity. I didn’t even know if Assata was located in Havana. I mean, this lady was a legend to me! I first learned about her when I was about 17. One of my first mentors, brother Kehinde Solwazi  from the Pan-African Secretariat, told me one day about a sister named “Joanne Chesimard.”  I read a communique from the Black Liberation Army and from there I gobbled up everything I could about her. She joined the Black Panther Party as a young lady and ended up going underground. The story on the street was that she became the leader of the Black Liberation Army. The BLA was the military wing of the African liberation struggle. Viewing (correctly in my opinion) the masses of Africans in the U.S. as prisoners of war, the BLA , just like any military, sought to battle the state for our liberation. There was a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973 in which a state trooper was killed, Zayd Shakur was murdered, Assata was injured, and Sundiata Acoli escaped, only to be captured later on. Assata was imprisoned in a number of facilities like the Clinton Correctional Facility where she was liberated in 1979. She surfaced in Cuba in the eighties where she requested, and received, political asylum. She was the latest in a long history of African revolutionaries who sought and found safety in the Cuban revolution. Robert Williams, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and now Assata. Then her autobiography entitled Assata came out in the late eighties and her legend intensified. She became a cultural icon within the African community. I still remember being at a Public Enemy show in 1990 and hearing the crowd go crazy when Chuck D rapped “supporter of Chesimard” from their “Rebel without a Pause” song. You bet I was excited to meet her.

When she strode into the room on that hot July afternoon, I was overwhelmed. She radiated beauty, strength, and courage. Her smile absolutely lit up the entire room. Her long neat locks seemed regal to me. we made introductions and she immediately asked me several questions pertaining to who I was and what work I had done. Since my ex had met her the previous year, I remember mentioning that to her off the bat and seeing her eyes light up at the mention of spending time with my ex-wife. She even remembered that my ex and I had been raising our daughter, who was 7 at the time, to know who she was. At five years old, my daughter could tell you details about Assata’s life (and Assata remains one of her main role models to this day). I was excited at how moved Assata seemed to be by this very simple gesture that to me, was the least we could do to insure our child had a proper sense of who she should look up to. An African woman who had courageously stood up for all African people and all of humanity. 

I remember how Assata asked me an awful lot of questions that first day. She was friendly, but in a distant sort of way. Then, the next day we saw her again and she was much more open with me. Although I’m sure I understand why, I won’t speculate. But I will say that we spent several additional days with our beloved sister and by the time we were prepared to leave Havana and return to Miami, we were cracking jokes and playing the dozens. I especially remember our last day together when I asked her if I could videotape her. There were a number of people there who made the same request and I was the only person she agreed to let do it. Her only question was what would I use the footage for. I replied that I would use it for the same thing I use all my resources for, to educate and organize my people for liberation. She was quite satisfied with that answer and permitted me to conduct a 45 minute interview with her. It was a rambling loud discussion filled with plenty of laughter. I’m no journalist, but I certainly knew what I wanted to ask Assata Shakur! The only people permitted to participate in that session were myself, my comrade brother, and another young white ally female who decided early in the trip that she wanted to hang with the African revolutionaries instead of the other academic white folks who made the trip. 

After the interview, and I mean months afterwards, I had to deal with repeated phone calls from people, identifying themselves as friends of people on the trip, who begged me to send them footage of Assata. I refused and told them why. I assumed some, if not all, of those people were police agents. No matter, I still have the interview tape. I’ve showcased it for hundreds of people. Of course, it’s not as big a deal today as it was years ago because social media like Youtube makes Assata available at the click of the mouse, but 20 years ago, footage of her was hot property. 

During one of our final conversations, Assata told me that since I lived in Northern California, and I was active in the African liberation struggle, I should make an effort to look up Marilyn Buck, a white ally member of the Weather Underground. I was always told that Marilyn was the only white member of the Black Liberation Army. I don’t know that for sure, and in spite of the many conversations I had with Marilyn in the years to follow before her death in 2010, I never asked her anything like that because it didn’t matter. What we do know is that Marilyn was convicted, at least in large part, based on the state’s charges that she, along with Mutulu Shakur and others, played a role in helping Assata escape. That was enough for me. Marilyn became my mentor and friend. I think often about her and the fact she was forced to spend decades in prison for standing up for African people and justice.

The point of all this is that the filthy FBI maintains it’s notorious “bounty” on Assata’s head at $2 million for the death of the New Jersey state trooper during the 73 shootout. They also placed her at the top of their terrorist list. Their intentions are of course to encourage someone to try and collect that ransom. Here’s my warning to any fool who is even thinking of doing this. You better realize that the Cubans are among the best in the world at security. They are committed to protecting Assata Shakur. They have done an outstanding job of doing so for 37+ years now and they will continue to remain committed to that principle. It’s best that you leave our sister alone. There are also many people who live in this country who will not tolerate any efforts to harm our sister. She is a freedom fighter persecuted by the U.S. government. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that or not, you better respect it. The late David Brothers, co-founder of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party and longtime leader within the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, was fond of saying “bombs in Africa get you bombs in America.”  

Regardless of what you think. Regardless of what you believe. We will absolutely not sit still and permit you demons to attempt to harm our sister. You should put your energies into helping your so-called troops struggling and suffering on street corners around the country. Those are the people you claim you support so much. You focus on them and leave our troops and soldiers alone. 

As for me, I can’t even say for sure that Assata even remembers meeting me 27 years ago. Our time together seems like it happened just yesterday. But whether or not she remembers doesn’t matter. What matters is that she inspired me in ways that have helped me develop further in this struggle over the years. I think of her often. I think of Marilyn and Geronimo often. I think of Kwame often. I think of Malcolm all the time. Assata Shakur is a living, breathing example that we can defeat this pig system and you better believe they know it. That’s why they are so focused on trying to destroy her. They are desperate to stop us from having people like her that we can look to for hope. Well, I have news for them. It’s too late. Our heroes and heroines have already inspired us and they continue to do so. The question now isn’t what will happen to Assata. The question is what will we build?  What will we do?  History awaits your answer.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.

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