Why Is FBI Going After Assata Shakur Now?

The first woman on the Most Wanted Terrorists list is exiled in Cuba. That may be a key reason.

Assata Shakur
Assata Shakur YouTube screenshot

Over the past quarter century, Shakur has intermittently made headlines, with former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman vowing to pursue her case. Shakur has become a kind of totemic figure, with young aspiring revolutionaries seeking her out as a living repository of an era they find both inspiring and confounding.

Although the FBI has characterized Shakur as a domestic terrorist, it’s important to note that BLA members defined themselves as revolutionaries in the mold of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and (in certain instances) George Washington and the soldiers in the American Revolution who engaged in asymmetrical warfare against a superior enemy.

However ill advised their vantage point, Shakur and hundreds of other “underground” soldiers of this era (including the Weather Underground, a violent offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society) viewed themselves as participants in a domestic war for liberation that was less about skin color and the fear of a race war and more about institutions (such as law enforcement and the federal government) that they found to be authoritarian, oppressive and therefore illegitimate. 

Cuba, not surprisingly, plays a central role in this drama. Its improbably successful 1959 revolution became a North Star for civil rights radicals and black power militants who, both before and after the State Department’s travel ban, visited the island and praised its government’s seeming commitment to racial equality.

Fidel Castro responded in kind, providing safe harbor for black fugitives Robert F. Williams and Cleaver, vowing to protect Carmichael from the reprisals of the U.S. government and offering a haven for representatives of the black liberation struggle that seemingly had no expiration date.

That is, at least until now. The declining health of Castro and the advancing age of his brother Raúl have triggered rampant speculation that Cuba’s socialist experiment is poised to conclude, or at least change dramatically. By announcing Shakur’s new status, the U.S. government is perhaps throwing out a trial balloon to test the contemporary strength of past commitments. Fidel Castro’s Cuba, on principle, would never give up Shakur to what it views to be an imperialist U.S. government with plans to imprison her. However, this is not Castro’s Cuba. Indeed, the easing of travel restrictions is only one example of the ongoing thaw in Cuban-American relations.

Whether or not Shakur will be used as a sacrificial lamb to ensure further progress remains to be seen. For now her reappearance in national media headlines (including on the Internet, which did not exist during black power’s heyday) reminds us of the ways in which our complicated racial past continues to inform our imagined postracial present.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton Fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. He can be reached online at penielejoseph.com. Follow him on Twitter.