If asked the question, “How much would you be willing to sacrifice for your beliefs?” the average individual would probably look bewildered. Would you be willing to give up your friends, family, freedom, even possibly your life for a cause that was dear to you? The cynic inside me says, “Probably not.” In this society, people have a tendency to speak with much grandiloquence about their beliefs but when asked to sacrifice for those same beliefs, they crumble. Assata Shakur did not. Assata Shakur is a revolutionary and one of the most wrongly convicted individuals in U.S. history. Her story is a sad chapter in American history, in which race, social class, political affiliation, and gender played a role in her subsequent exile from her homeland.
On May 2, 1973, racial prejudice would change the life of Assata Shakur. An incident of what would now be labeled “racial profiling” takes place on the New Jersey Turnpike. Ms. Shakur, an active participant in the Black Liberation Army (BLA), was traveling with friends, Malik Zayad Shakur and Sundiata Acoli when state troopers stopped them, reportedly because of a broken headlight. A trooper explained that they were “suspicious” because they had Vermont license plates. The three were made to exit the car with their hands up. All of a sudden, shots were fired. When it was all over, state trooper Werner Foerster and Malik Shakur were killed.
Ms. Shakur and Mr. Acoli were charged with the deaths of state trooper Foerster and Zayad Malik Shakur. While held in jail, she was shackled and chained to a bed, with bullet wounds still in her chest. She was also forced to undergo the jabs of shotgun butts of the New Jersey State troopers and heard their voices shouting Nazi slogans and threats to her life. In the history of New Jersey never had a female prisoner ever been treated as she, confined to a men’s prison and placed under a constant twenty-four hour surveillance of her most intimate bodily functions.
Ms. Shakur and Mr. Acoli were eventually sentenced to life plus thirty-three years. Although the verdict was no surprise since it was an all White jury who convicted them, many questioned the racial injustice of the trial because it was riddled with many human rights violations and constitutional errors. The pretrial publicity was extremely negative and African-Americans were purposely excluded from the jury. Even more incredible was the fact Ms. Shakur was shot with her arms in the air, making it anatomically impossible for her to commit the murders she was convicted of.
However, in the country of the United States where there is suppose to be freedom, justice, and liberty for all, the only people who have that luxury are the rich, particularly, White males. Ms. Shakur had the triple jeopardy of being Black, female, and poor and she was a member of a political organization that had been targeted by the CIA and the FBI because of its political views. Any organization that challenges the status quo has to be eliminated at all costs.
Assata Shakur spent six and a half years in prison, two of those in solitary confinement. During that time, she was beaten and tortured on a daily basis. Although there is no mention of rape, she was probably sexually harassed everyday of her imprisonment. While imprisoned, she gave birth to her daughter Kakuya, whom they took away a week after birth. On November 2, 1979, fearing for her life, she made a daring escape that continues to infuriate the United States government to this day. In 1984, she was granted political asylum by Fidel Castro, dictator of Cuba and was finally united with her daughter. On May 2, 2005, the federal government issued a statement in which they labeled Ms. Shakur a domestic terrorist. In addition to doing that, the government also increased the bounty on her head from $150,000 to an unprecedented $1,000,000.
When I first read about Ms. Shakur’s story, I cried. She was a young woman like me who was shot, beaten, sexually harassed and generally treated like shit because of her race, sex, class and political affiliation. She was unjustly sentenced to jail for two murders she did not commit for these same reasons. The part that is really scary is what happened to Assata can happen to me, my daughter and any other Black woman in this country whom the police and the courts deem deviant. Black women have been historically stereotyped as sexually deviant troublemakers who need to be controlled.
Also, according to the Labeling Theory, groups with the power to label individuals deviant, exercise total control over what and who is considered deviant. Ms. Shakur was deemed to be deviant by the courts and the U.S. government because of her race, gender, political beliefs, and class status; therefore, she was sentenced to prison without any due process of the law.
While in prison, she received horrific treatment at the hands of her jailers. During her pregnancy, she received no prenatal care and the authorities even tried to starve her so she would miscarry. Although this type of treatment of female prisoners is extreme, most do not receive adequate medical treatment while in prison. According to research, health care in women’s prisons is limited, and prenatal care is nonexistent. If pregnant, female prisoners’ babies are taken right after birth. They are also treated no differently than men in prison. Ms. Shakur experienced this first hand and she was beaten everyday the six years she was in prison.
Writing this paper was one of the most emotionally wrenching projects I have ever done. Reading about Ms. Shakur’s experiences brought up feelings of pain and anger but my feelings are minuscule when I think about the tears that she wept and still weeps. Imagine being convicted for the murders of two people, one of them your best friend and you are innocent. Imagine your other friend being convicted of the same murders and he was innocent too. Imagine being mentally tortured, beaten, and starved for six years of your life, living in a cage. Imagine giving birth to your daughter and having her taken away a week later. Imagine escaping from prison and being exiled away from your family and friends, knowing that you might not see them or the country of your birth again.
These are things that Assata Shakur experience everyday of her life and knowing that makes me as guilty as the criminal system that wrongly convicted her. I am guilty because I was ignorant of her history and had forgotten about the struggles of her and other African-Americans who fought for equality in this country. This woman in essence gave up her freedom for a cause she held dear and how many people are willing to that? She was and still is, a true warrior woman in every since of the word. The only thing I can do to repay Assata and the others who have sacrificed their lives in the battle for equality is to raise my children to be strong, productive members of their race who are proud of their heritage, and not afraid to fight for their rights.