On May 2, 1973, Black Panther Assata Shakur (aka JoAnne Chesimard) lay in a hospital, close to death, handcuffed to her bed, while local, state, and federal police attempted to question her about the shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that had claimed the life of a white state trooper. Long a target of J. Edgar Hoover's campaign to defame, infiltrate, and criminalize Black nationalist organizations and their leaders, Shakur was incarcerated for four years prior to her conviction on flimsy evidence in 1977 as an accomplice to murder. This intensely personal and political autobiography belies the fearsome image of JoAnne Chesimard long projected by the media and the state. With wit and candor, Assata Shakur recounts the experiences that led her to a life of activism and portrays the strengths, weaknesses, and eventual demise of Black and White revolutionary groups at the hand of government officials. The result is a signal contribution to the literature about growing up Black in America that has already taken its place alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the works of Maya Angelou. Two years after her conviction, Assata Shakur escaped from prison. She was given political asylum by Cuba, where she now resides.
Assata's story made me feel as though I could do more in my community and that I was not helpless. Great read. I recommend this book for any and all.
Eventually, though, she gathered experience and knowledge, and the increasing politicization that went with that pushed her to join the Black Panther Party. She doesn't spend much time giving background on the Panthers, instead discussing her evaluation of their effectiveness and weaknesses, especially critiquing their education program for members (lots of socialist political theory, but no history) and their lack of emphasis on self-critique. In the chapters about the Panthers she also describes being under surveillance by the FBI. (Particularly eerie to me was the detail about how when she stopped paying her phone bill because she could no longer afford a phone, the phone company never cut off her service. Instead, the phone bills just stopped arriving.) She also describes COINTELPRO's successful attempts to sow discord within the Panthers, eventually disintegrating the organization from within.
The alternating chapters, all set after the shoot-out on the New Jersey Turnpike, are a detailed portrait of how the U.S. treats -- or has allegedly treated, depending on how generous toward the U.S. government you wish to be -- its political prisoners, and the ways in which Shakur and her lawyers (most notably Evelyn Williams, her aunt, and William Kunstler, "the most hated lawyer in America") fought back. Shakur's story of the New Jersey Turnpike trial (which was the last of seven, and the only one in which she was convicted), is an unremitting account of judicial bias and government conspiracy. She tells of jurors who were family members of New Jersey state troopers; jurors reading Target Blue in the jury room; her lawyers' offices being burglarized; one of her lawyers dying under suspicious circumstances and the legal strategy documents in his possession being confiscated as evidence, and not being returned by the police.
There are two major silent periods in her autobiography: the time between her membership in the Panthers and her arrest in New Jersey (the time period that spanned the alleged crimes she was indicted for), and the time between her deciding to escape from prison and her resurfacing in Cuba, where she now has political asylum. (According to Wikipedia, since the FBI offered a $1 million bounty for her capture in 2005, she hasn't been very visible in Cuba lately.) Both periods are jumped without announcement or explanation -- not that an explanation is needed, but I did experience a bit of "Wait, what just happened?" each time. And also, much curiosity as to what she would have to say about those periods, if she had the freedom to say it.
I shall absolutely be following up on this one with more reading about the Panthers (including Elaine Brown's autobiography, if I can find it) as well as the autobiographies of Shakur's lawyers Evelyn Williams (again, if I can find it) and William Kunstler.
Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Front, was accused of being involved in the killing of a New Jersey police. The chapter's alternate between a moment in her childhood and her time being in prison.
Intense book!! Definitely gets you pissed off at the U.S. government and racist bullshit they pull.
Recommended to everyone!