Assata Shakur was a political activist in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. As a member of the Black Panther Party, she was targeted by the FBI under its counter-intelligence programme, COINTELPRO. She was framed for the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1979 she escaped from prison and since 1985 has been in political exile in Cuba. David Yaffe spoke to her there on behalf of FRFI.
FRFI: How did you come to be in Cuba?
Assata Shakur: Well, I have admired Cuba since I was at college. I read everything about Cuba that I could get my hands on. So, when I escaped from prison, my first idea was Cuba. But it took me five years to get here. I couldn’t write beforehand and say ‘Dear Fidel, I would like to come to your country’. I just had to come and, luckily, people here knew who I was and they gave me the status of a political refugee.
I chose Cuba not only because of its politics but because of its closeness to the United Stales, so my family and friends could come and visit me.
FRFI: You escaped from prison in the United States. You were a politicalprisoner.
Assata Shakur: I was a political prisoner. I was a political activist since the mid-l960s in a number of community organisations struggling for social justice. I went back to college. I became involved in the student movement and in the movement to end the war against the Vietnamese people and to stop the United States intervention not only in Vietnam but in south east Asia in general, in the world in general. I later became a member of the Black Panther Party, which at that time was targeted by the FBI, by J Edgar Hoover.
There was a programme – we didn’t know anything about it – called COINTELPRO, the Counter-Intelligence Programme. Under that programme the government used means at its disposal to ‘neutralise’ political activists. I was in the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party and the first major move against us was the arrest of 21 of our leaders in what became known as the New York Panther 21 Conspiracy Trial. Those charges were insane. They were charged with conspiracy to blow up department stores at Easter and there was one very strange charge that nobody could understand – still nobody understands it – they were charged with conspiracy to blow up the botanical gardens. We couldn’t figure out the basis of that. How do you defend yourself against conspiring to blow up flowers? But insane as it was, each Panther was given $100,000 bail. Most could not raise it so they stayed in prison for more than two years, When they finally went to trial it was one of the longest trials in New York City history but the jury acquitted them all in less than 45 minutes and many jury members actually apologised to those who were on trial and said ‘We are really sorry you have had to go through this injustice’.
The Black Panther Party came under attack on every level. In Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, the police raided and attacked Black Panther Party offices They were trying to destroy the Black Panther Party and they would shoot first and ask questions later.
They also used many divide and conquer tactics. They tried, for example, to pit the Black Panther Party and other organisations, like the United Slaves in Los Angeles or the Black Stone Rangers in Chicago, against one another, and actually tried to make them fight one another. Inside the organisations they tried to fuel disputes and eventually in the Black Panther Party they targeted Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton and wrote false letters to Huey signed by Eldridge and vice versa. It had very serious consequences. Eventually there was a split between the so-called East Coast or Eldridge Cleaver faction and the West Coast/Huey Newton faction.
The FBI dominated evcrything. There was no thing too dirty for them. The would call your landlord and say you were selling drugs. They would call your employer and say you were stealing from the job: they would call your lover and say ‘I just saw your wife going into a motel with another man’. They did everything to assassinate people’s characters. And they also used outright assassination. Many Panthers lost their lives and in one case, that of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, they actually had a police agent drug them, the police went in and shot everybody, killed Fred Hampton, killed Mark Clark, and said it was a shoot-out. The ballistics later proved that all the shots were going from outside to inside and it was an FBI-directed assassination.
The other thing they did was to falsify charges against people. This happened in my case. Originally they broke down my door, charging me with aiding and abetting and harbouring a fugitive. Even though I was never formally charged with that, they raided my house, took everything out of my house, and I was forced to go underground. Then the FBI systematically started to leak story after story to the press, accusing me of every incident a woman was involved in, and some stuff that just men were involved in – they tried to say that I dressed up as a man. It was a total character assassination but it created the conditions where any police in the United States could blow my head off and be justified. It wouldn’t be a human being they’d be shooting: it was this monster, this terrorist, this horrible creature.
In 1973 I was captured. I was shot, once with my hands in the air and once in the back. I was left to die. They kept coming back and saying ‘Is she dead yet? Is she dead yet?’ I was finally taken to hospital and kept for four days incommunicado, questioned. interrogated and tortured, evon though I was paralysed. Finally, there was a demonstration in front of the hospital, because it was clear what was happening inside, and two weeks later they moved me to another hospital, with another set of guards. I was accused of killing a New Jersey State Trooper and the people guarding me were New Jersey State Troopers, so you can imagine what that was like.
FRFI: You had been involved in community politics.The Black Panther Party wasorganising health care and food for people.
Assata Shakur: Even though what the Black Panther Party was doing was a free breakfast programme for children, free health clinics, free clothing drives, struggling to get decent housing for people, the whole media image was of this terrible, terrorist Black Panther Party with guns, waging the armed struggle.
We were certainly convinced that people who are oppressed, no matter where, had the right to liberate themselves by whatever means they deemed necessary and we thought that, given the nature of the 1960s and 1970s, it would be criminal to attack armed struggle. When the Vietnamese people were being napalmed and bombarded, there was no way we could say ‘We're for struggle but we’re not for armed struggle’. And, given the violent nature of imperialism, we took the position not only that armed struggle was legitimate but that we had to fight to defend ourselves. People were suffering police brutality on a daily basis in the black communities, the Puerto Rican communities, the poor communities. The police are like an occupying anny and we said, ‘We have the right to defend ourselves. We can’t just be permanent victims.’ And we called ourselves the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence. But that got all blown out of shape by the media who accused us of being the aggressors and the police of being the victims.
FRFI: In some ways, though, the most dangerous thing you were doing was showing that people didn’t have to tolerate the appalling conditions of US capitalism. It was possible to organise health care and so on outside of the system. And isn’t that why they want to destroy Cuba as well? Cuba itself has shown that there is an alternative way, that people can organise their own situation.
Assata Shakur: That’s a good analogy. For example, when I came to Cuba, I thought everybody was going to be walking around in fatigues! My image of Cuba was so shaped by what the media had projected and when I got here I saw all these people who were laid-back and there was nothing military about Cuba. It was incredible how brainwashed even someone politically committed to Cuba was.
The first thing you come into contact with in Cuba is the humanness of people and the thing that hits you hardest is all these open doors, in a big city, with millions of people. You’ll never find an open door in New York or Chicago; everybody has a million locks on their doors and they are all shut. That openness, that peace, was something I’ve never known in any other place I’ve been. And that kind of commitment to human beings.
People here don’t have a lot of material things but they have enough to live on and there are not these huge contrasts between huge $30,000 a month apartments, on the one hand, and people eating garbage, on the other. Even in the Special Period we don’t see the kind of poverty in Cuba that we see in the United States. I’ve never seen people here sleeping in doorways and parks; I saw it every day in the United States, So, even if you don’t have a lot of resources, it’s how you distribute the resources that’s important. Cuba is not perfect. Cuba is not fantasy-land, but it’s a place where people are committed to making a better life for everybody, which is different to most of the rest of the world.
Most governments right now are committed to a more selfish agenda, making rich people richer, a more racist agenda, a more sexist agenda, Cuba is threatening to them because if one, two or three places exist and say ‘Wait a minute, you can live another way’, then people may say ‘We have a choice’. I think that one of the things that happens in the United States and places like it is that people believe that this is the way life is. That everything has to be unequal. That everything has to be violent. That it has to be resolved in terms of the powerful having control. So when you live in a place like Cuba you see that things don’t have to be like that; there can be another way.
FRFI: As a black woman you have suffered double oppression throughout your life. Would you like to say something about racism and about the oppression of women in the United States, and then any points you would like to make about Cuba.
Assata Shakur: My whole life in the United States was shaped by racism and sexism, so at a pretty young age I decided I had to struggle against them and to dedicate my life to the struggle against them. I still feel that way. When I came to Cuba I didn’t know what to expect. I had no idea. It was clear that a revolution was not a magic wand that you wave and all of a sudden everything is transformed. The first lesson I learned was that a revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice.
The difference now between Cuba and the United States is like night and day. In the US you have all the major candidates running on a basically racist agenda. Everything is in code-words: ‘We are against affirmative action’ means ‘We are against blacks and Puerto Ricans’; ‘We are against immigration’ means ‘We don’t want anybody to come into the United States unless they are white and have a university degree’. That is the acceptable kind of immigrant: all others are unacceptable unless they serve some kind of political purpose. The code-words are endless but they all mean racism, privilege and sexism.
FRFI: So you think that Cuba has a social system that eventually through struggle will wipe out racism and sexism?
Assata Shakur: Yes, I think so. You cannot wipe out racism or sexism unless you have some kind of system that guarantees basic human rights, and food and shelter, and is humanistic. Because in a dog-eat-dog society, with a dog-eat-dog philosophy, you have a dog-eat-dog way that people interact and right now in the United States you have a system with a high level of technical sophistication, a high level of technology, of industrial capacity, and you have some very barbarian- thinking people. It’s like cavemen with computers. The only way you can completely eradicate racism or sexism is to have a society which is very well-founded in social justice.
FRFI: You are an internationalist. You have said, ‘Unless people who are oppressed internationally come together, we are going to be a long way from making any change’. Given the depth of racism in the major capitalist, imperialist powers, how can this be overcome?
Assata Shakur: First of all, workers in the developed capitalist countries have to be educated to realise that their lives, how they live and how well they live, can cease to depend on how well big corporations in those countries can suck people’s blood in the Third World, and can depend instead on different worldwide priorities.
A worker in a developed capitalist country is subsidised by Third World workers. They have a higher standard of living, a higher ability to buy all the available junk: tape-recorders, sneakers, clothes, cars, etc. But they pay a very high price. For example, in the United States a worker can afford an expensive watch, but he can’t wear it anywhere because the crime rate is so high. And most workers have to work so hard and so long, double time and overtime, Saturdays etc, just to make ends meet.
Recreation is extraordinarily expensive there. Here in Cuba you can go almost any place for three to five pesos. In the United States that is unheard of. Here any young person can go to a concert on the Malecon and dance until dawn: in the United States you just can’t do that: it’s too dangerous or too expensive.
Human development is so expensive in the developed capitalist countries. You have to pay an enormous amount of money to play sport, go dancing, learn painting, whereas over here kids go to the Casa de Cultura and just sign up and play whatever they want to. That human development is available. If you want to be a sportsperson (and everyone knows that Cuba wins everything!) you can develop your abilities. This is one of the fundamental things you don’t have in capitalist countries. There they study for years and years, take tests in subjects they don’t even like, to work for a company they don’t even like, to do a job they don’t like, so they can make money to send their kids to a school they don’t like!
Workers in the developed capitalist countries don’t even like being workers, so they don’t even defend their own interests, Long live the Queen! What did the Queen ever do for them? I’ve never understood the fascination of the Queen and Lady Di. It’s crazy, These people not only waste goodness knows how much of the world’s resources, but they have common people defending their right to do so and buying papers to read about their million-dollar divorces! But I think that when people in the developed capitalist countries realise that it is in their interest to have a society based on justice, things will change,
Right now, even the water and the air are becoming so contaminated by big business, whose only interest is profit. that in a little while you are going to have to have your own business just to breathe, So, if you want a society where your child has education as a right, where the air and water are protected, where you can live freely, then you have to think of some kind of society that has a socialist point of view, that is dedicated to the social good of the majority of the people.
I’ve studied what happened in the Soviet Union, A lot of people thought, ‘We’ve got rid of communism and we’re going to have the same things they have in the US. We’re going to have some tennis shoes and stuff’. But what they got is a mafiocracy, a mafia-led government, where the mafia control everything. The people are poorer than they ever were: they have lost all of the social guarantees. So, being brainwashed carries a very high price and workers have to work out which side they’re on. If you don’t have enough sense to be on your own side, then you are well and truly brainwashed. One of the real problems in capitalist countries is that people are so brainwashed they will believe anything. They believe soap operas are the truth. There is no group of human beings in the world as politically ignorant as those in the United States (although maybe England can compete). That is why they are so easily controllable by people who are working against their interests.
FRFI: You were critical of socialism in the USSR. Cuba is trying to solve the problems the USSR never managed to solve and which contributed to its collapse. Do you think that Cuba is showing us a different way which has universal application?
Assata Shakur: Cuba is thinking and rethinking how to build socialism. Twenty years ago the Soviet Union was saying, ‘This is the only way you should build socialism. This is the only way you should build a revolutionary movement. This is the only position you should have in terms of party-building and alliances and whatever.’ People all over the world got caught up in that. It was unavoidable.
I think that everybody who is interested in social change and social justice today, whether they are in Cuba or Mozambique or Poland, wherever they are, they have to say: ‘The phase we are in, in building socialism, in conceiving of socialism, is the infancy, the beginning of human beings coming together and saying we have to construct societies that are for the people, that are fully democratic, that offer full human rights’. The process of conceiving and building that society has to constantly grow. Because if you just have a narrow idea of what socialism is, you are going to build some terrible socialism.
I feel very hopeful and encouraged by Cuba’s openness, Cuba’s willingness to change and grow and create. If you build a house and don’t put any paintings on the wall you have an ugly house. The same is true about building a society. It is important not just to have an education programme, but that it is creative education; it is not just important that young people gather together to have fun, but that they do it creatively. When human beings become divorced from their creativity and their inventiveness, they stagnate and die a little. A revolutionary process is the same; it has to be creative, dynamic and loving. When you feel good in a place, even if you don’t have a lot of material wealth, you have a lot of spiritual and human wealth, and you are not as interested in trying to buy all those little trinkets and gadgets. The way we can conceive of building a socialist society has to be more on the human level, rather than on the material aspects. I’m not saying material aspects are not important but that when it comes to building socialism both are important and in order to build an enduring socialism you have to go way, way beneath the surface to the human psyche and the human heart.
FRFI would like to thank the UJC and Susan and Helen for helping to make this interview possible.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 131, June/July 1996