U.S.

Who Is Assata Shakur? Backlash After Conference With 2020 Dems Starts With Words of Activist And Convicted Killer

An National Association for the Advancement of Colored People speaker sparked a backlash Monday when he opened a conference in Washington, D.C. with the words of activist and fugitive Assata Shakur, who was convicted of killing a New Jersey police officer in 1977.

Calling Shakur a "leader," NAACP vice president of civic engagement Jamal Watkins led the audience of 2019's We the People summit in a chant of:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

2020 Democratic candidates including Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders took part in the conference, but were not on stage during the chant. Booker, who is a New Jersey senator, did not immediately respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.

New Jersey officials condemned Watkins’ choice of words Tuesday on social media. State police Colonel Patrick Callahan wrote on Facebook: “It is an affront to every man and woman who wears the badge that someone would choose to evoke the words of a convicted cop killer and fugitive from justice at a political conference.”

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal wrote on Twitter: "There are many inspirational leaders. Assata Shakur is not one of them. To invoke her words is to dishonor the @NJSP State Trooper she was convicted of murdering."

Born JoAnne Deborah Byron in Flushing, Queens, on July 16, 1947, Shakur grew up in New York City and Wilmington, North Carolina. She joined the Black Panther Party after graduating from college in New York, before becoming a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA)—an underground militant activist group. 

Shakur was involved in a 1973 shootout that killed State Trooper Werner Foerster and fellow BLA member Zayd Malik Shakur. Assata Shakur, BLA member Sundiata Acoli and state trooper James Harpur survived the incident on the New Jersey Turnpike. 

Acoli, also known as Clark Edward Squire, was sentenced to life in prison in 1974 for Foerster’s murder. Initially acquitted on several charges, Shakur, also known as Joanne Chesimard, was also convicted in New Jersey in 1977.

She escaped from prison in 1979 and fled to Cuba in 1984. Surveilled by the FBI during her time with the BLA, she is currently on the agency’s "Most Wanted" list under the name Joanne Deborah Chesimard.

Shakur, who spent time in and out of correctional facilities from the time of the shootings until her eventual escape, is considered a political prisoner by some activists. In a foreward to Assata: An Autobiography, activist and author Angela Davis called her a "compassionate human being with an unswerving commitment to justice."

Per The Guardian, Davis has said Shakur’s story exemplifies the police brutality black activists faced in the 1970s. “Forty years seems as if it were a long time ago; however, at the beginning of the 21st century, we're still dealing with the very same issues—police violence, healthcare, education, people in prison and so forth,” she said.

The NAACP did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment.

Assata Shakur, 2020 election Jamal Watkins is pictured in a C-SPAN screen capture of his address to the "We the People" summit in Washington, D.C., April 1 2019. C-SPAN

Editor's Pick