FOUND LIVING IN CUBA
Published, Oct. 11, 1987
[photo: Ozier Muhammad]
By Ron Howell
Newsday Staff Correspondent
HAVANA, Cuba — JoAnne Chesimard, one of the most hunted fugitives of the 1970s radicals, is living as a “political refugee” in Cuba, where she is studying for a master’s degree in social sciences, raising her 13-year-old daughter and holding fast to her views as a revolutionary.
Chesimard, who uses her adopted African name, Assata Shakur, said in a series of lengthy interviews over four days last week that she broke out of a New Jersey prison in 1979 in part because she felt she was being set up to be murdered there. She also said she continues to believe blacks must use “armed struggle” as one of many approaches in their quest for a better life in the United States.
The conversations with Newsday are the first published interviews with Shakur, whom New York police once called the “soul” of the Black Liberation Army. A deputy police commissioner in 1971 dubbed her the “mother hen” of the group, who “kept them shooting” at police officers and directed them in perhaps a score of bank robberies and other holdups.
The BLA was linked to more than a dozen killings and assaults of police officers in the early 1970s, and Shakur was convicted in the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper.
In 1977, when Shakur got a life-plus sentence in the shooting death of the trooper, there was joy in the law-enforcement community. But two years later, Shakur broke out of the maximum-security wing of Clinton Correctional Facility in New Jersey, pistol in hand as she and three cohorts sped out of the prison grounds.
Last week, Shakur, a thin-faced, soft-spoken woman of 40, laughed at the characterization of her as the “soul” and “mother hen” of the BLA.
“I think this `soul of the Black Liberation Army’ stuff was cooked up by the FBI or the [New York] Daily News,” she said. “I can’t speak with authority on every action or activity of the Black Liberation Army. As a matter of fact, I can’t speak with authority on most. ”
She declined to discuss any assaults or robberies committed by the BLA. And asked whether she ever shot at a police officer, offensively or defensively, she turned her eyes away. “No,” she said, and immediately turned to another topic.
When asked if, as police alleged, the BLA systematically robbed banks and other businesses in order to fund their activities, she answered, “There were expropriations, there were bank robberies. ” She refused to say where she was from 1979 to the summer of 1984, when she says she arrived in Cuba. She said she still has friends in the United
States and is concerned about saying anything that would get them in trouble with the law.
Despite her reticence on the matter of her leadership, Shakur was described by another former Black Liberation Army member, speaking on condition of anonymity, as having exerted a significant influence on the members of the group. New York City police estimated that there were about 20 hard-core, gun-toting members of the BLA and as many as 400 associates nationwide.
“Let me put it this way,” the former group soldier said cautiously, “She was a soul of the group. She was very activist. She was very strong. ”
An FBI official who asked not to be named said yesterday that Shakur was still being sought for the prison escape. “Her apprehension is very important to us,” he said.
Thursday evening in Shakur’s book-cluttered, modestly furnished one-bedroom apartment, where paintings by Cuban artists hang on the walls, a Newsday photographer snapped photos while Shakur, dressed in a Malcolm X Tshirt and jeans, talked with a reporter.
Several feet away, a man – a Communist Party worker who is Shakur’s friend and liaison during her stay in Cuba – sits on the couch watching a nationally televised speech by Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Though she said she has never met Castro, Shakur is a great admirer of the Cuban leader and commander in chief. She called him a hero of the oppressed and contrasted his battlefield exploits with what she called the cowardice of President Ronald Reagan.
Shakur receives her living expenses, including her rent, which she says is less than $50 a month, from the Cuban government, while she studies the social sciences in a program sponsored by the Cuban Communist Party.
Cuban officials interviewed last week refused to speak on the record about Shakur’s presence in their country. They said publication of a newspaper story about her refugee status could anger the United States. And they said that while they would not interfere with attempts to interview her, they did not want to aggravate relations even further by praising Shakur as a black revolutionary.
Although they did not say it, the Cubans apparently see in Shakur an opportunity to appeal to black Americans. She is awaiting publication of her book, “Assata: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary,” which is to be published this fall in the United States by Lawrence Hill Publishers.
Attending classes for several hours a day, and then studying several hours more at night, all in Spanish, Shakur is becoming well-versed in the fine points of politics, sociology and philosophy as taught in Cuban universities. She is clearly trusted by the Cubans, who left her free to come and go with a reporter and photographer.
Shakur said that, politically, she has grown tremendously in the last few years, and sees more than ever the global nature of the struggle against oppression. There are 20 in her class at the Escuela Superior del Partido, and she is the only American. She is sensitive about her nationality.
“I’ve never been an American in the sense that I’ve never benefited from the full rights of its citizens,” she said. “I feel I’ve been a victim of America. ”
During more than 10 hours of conversation about her past, her present and her hopes for the future, she appeared near tears only once. That moment came as she recalled the day she saw a Salvadoran woman receive an award for her activities as a leftist rebel in El Salvador.
The woman walked on crutches because of injuries received during torture, Shakur says. “I have been through a lot . . . in my life, but I could not approach that,” she says.
In fact, Shakur has experienced physical pain. In May 1973, when she and two companions got into a shootout with New Jersey state troopers, Chesimard was shot twice. Although one of her companions was convicted of firing the fatal shot, Chesimard was found guilty of murder for having participated in the shootout. She maintained she was innocent.
About a year before, under circumstances she still will not fully disclose, Shakur was shot in the stomach during a struggle with a white man at a hotel in Manhattan. Police reported the incident as an attempted robbery by Shakur. But a former BLA member in New York says the incident stemmed from the BLA’s attempts to intimidate and steal money from drug dealers. Shakur confirms that there was a drug connection but will not elaborate.
Shakur willingly displayed the scars from her wounds but showed no signs of discomfort. Cubans who know Shakur and her past said the wounds seem out of place on a woman so soft-spoken, and who smiles and walks with such self-conscious femininity.
The question of violence is, of course, in the forefront of any discussion of the Black Liberation Army. Shakur was asked to comment on the allegations by police officials that the prime, and maybe only, purpose of the BLA was to kill police officers. “In reality, armed struggle historically has been used by people to liberate themselves,” she says. “But the question lies in when do people use armed struggle . . . There were people [in the BLA] who absolutely took the position that it was just time to resist, and if black people didn’t start to fight back against police brutality and didn’t start to wage armed resistance, we would be annihilated.
“Other people took the position,” she continues, “that the priority should be to build networks of resistance . . . that we should organize on the basis of neighborhoods to be able to defend themselves against drugs or the police . . . or that black people should be in a position to defend themselves against a mass repressive act such as the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese citizens. ”
Of her personal beliefs about violence, she says, “Basically, where I came from, and where I am from now, is that . . . black people need to struggle on all levels and at different points in history, one or another level might take precedence . . . We need breakfast programs and we need armed struggle . . . ”
Life in exile has taken on an unaccustomed regularity for Shakur. She lives with her 13-year-old daughter, Kakuya, who was conceived and born while Shakur was a prisoner. Kakuya came to Cuba 2 1/2 years ago to live with the mother she barely knew and who now dotes on her. Kakuya had previously lived in New York City with Doris Johnson, Shakur’s mother.
Shakur said it is unlikely she will return to the United States. If she did, she would certainly be arrested. But she also feels her life would be in danger.
“There was a shoot-to-kill order on me,” she said. She said reports in newspapers that she had boasted she would never be taken alive were false and would have been used to justify killing her if she were captured. “After I escaped, the New Jersey police agencies didn’t make any mistakes about letting people know I was wanted dead or alive,” she said.
She said her life was also in danger when she was in prison between 1978 and 1979. She said that in a now-closed women’s federal prison in West Virginia she was the only black locked up with white women belonging to a group called the Aryan Sisterhood. “They walked around with swastikas on their jeans and they took pictures of themselves with their hands in a Heil Hitler salute,” Shakur said. She said when she was later sent to the Clinton prison in New Jersey, prison officials immediately moved to severely restrict women in her area. She said guards then used that to create an atmosphere of hatred toward her, leading her to believe she was being “set up” for an assault by other prisoners.
While she moves about freely in Cuba and has many friends, she is sometimes cautious. She admitted to being nervous and perhaps overly-guarded in her first hours with Newsday last week. “I’ve spent most of my life avoiding photos of me,” she said. No articles about her presence have appeared in the Cuban press.
It is unlikely, but possible, she says, that some unspecified Americans would try to harm her and her daughter or perhaps try to take her back to the United States in a covert operation. She refused to discuss in detail her whereabouts between 1979 and the summer of 1984, when she said she arrived in Cuba.
“There are people who risked their lives or whatever was at stake for them, and there’s noway I would talk about what cities I was in, and I think any responsible person would feel that way,” she said. She said there are still remnants of the black, white and Latino underground in the United States willing to help fugitives such as herself.
She implied she was not in New York City during the early 1980s when there were several supposed sightings of her. One of them led to a highly publicized raid in April, 1980, of a Harlem apartment building, where residents complained that 50 police officers and federal agents rousted them from their beds and forced them to stand outside while they searched fruitlessly for her. In October, 1981, dozens of Nassau County and Garden City police officers showed up to arrest a 23-year-old female wall cleaner, who a tipster mistakenly reported was Shakur.
In some newspaper accounts, Shakur was also reported to have been in the van from which two black men emerged on April 16, 1981, guns blazing, to kill one police officer and wound another in St. Albans, Queens. Anthony LaBorde and James Dixon York, both said to have been BLA members, were convicted of attempted murder in that case.
Shakur’s name surfaced after the so-called $1.6-million Brink’s robbery in Nanuet, N.Y., in which former BLA members and whites associated with the so-called Weather Underground of the 1970s were arrested. In the aftermath of an intensive roundup of radicals that followed, Sekou Odinga and Silvia Baraldini were arrested and later convicted of federal conspiracy and racketeering, stemming from the U.S. Attorney’s contention that they assisted in Shakur’s 1979 breakout.
The evidence concerning the breakout came from Tyrone Rison, who said he participated in the escape and testified in a deal with prosecutors. In “The Big Dance,” a book about the Brink’s heist and the people involved in it, author John Castellucci says 11 black and white radicals joined forces in the planning of Shakur’s escape. To obtain money needed for the weapons, lodging and transportation, according to Castellucci, the group pulled off a $105,000 armored-car robbery two months before in Paramus, N.J.
Shakur refused to discuss details of the breakout. Most of the hard-core members of the Black Liberation Army were either killed or sent to jail by the end of the 1970s.
Reflecting from time to time on the people, dead and alive, she has left behind in the United States, Shakur became philosophical. She grew up a religious person, she said. She converted to Catholicism as a child in Queens and, when it came time to choose a high school, she went to Cathedral High, which is attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She stayed on about six months before transferring to public school. She eventually became disenchanted with the Catholic Church and renounced it. Shakur’s mother was a schoolteacher, and her mother’s sister, Evelyn Williams, was an attorney who would later represent her.
But Shakur was a rebel, and by the time she went to Borough of Manhattan Community College and after that to City College, she was taking over buildings and associating with campus radicals.
Today, she says she regrets very little. She is sad that for 10 years she was not able to give her daughter, a large-eyed, shy girl, the attention she craved. To help Kakuya’s adjustment in Cuba, Shakur has taken her to a family psychologist.
In a draft of her forthcoming book, Shakur explains that she conceived Kakuya with Fred Hilton, known as Kamau, while she and Hilton were sequestered in a room behind the court during their 1973 trial on Bronx bank robbery charges. They were acquitted on the charges. In the book, Shakur wrote about her loneliness and vulnerability at that time and of how she and Kamau discussed the repercussions of having a child while she was facing life imprisonment. “Do you think you were put on this earth to fight and nothing else? ” Kamau asked her. She relented.
Shakur writes that one of the most painful words ever spoken to her were those of her then 4-year-old daughter, who came to visit Shakur in prison just before her breakout in 1979. “You’re not my mommy and I hate you,” Kakuya screamed at Shakur. Shakur hugged her daughter, who started to punch her. Finally, the little girl settled down and the two of them talked. When the visit was over, Kakuya walked out with “her head high” and waved goodbye. Shakur was so upset she went back to her cell and cried until she threw up. More than ever, she knew she had to get out of prison, she said.
She now says her life has not been all bad.
“I’ve maybe been unlucky in some ways,” she said. “But in other ways, I think I’ve been lucky – in the sense that I can say I’ve had friends, good friends. I’ve had the kind of friends I’ve been really proud to know.
“If I owe allegiance to anything, it is my ancestors, especially the ones who came over the slave ship. I feel I am answerable to them. I want to be able to say I tried, and that I tried to stand on this earth proud.”
1971-73. Four New York City police officers are ambushed and shot to death and others are wounded in incidents police attribute to the militant Black Liberation Army. JoAnne Chesimard’s name appears on a list of suspected members.
May 2, 1973. On the New Jersey Turnpike, state troopers Werner Foerster and James Harper stop a car containing Shakur and fellow BLA members James Costan and Clark Squire for a traffic check. In the ensuing shootout, Foerster and Costan are killed and Shakur and Harper wounded. Shakur is captured after a chase.
Jan. 26, 1974. Shakur’s trial in the Foerster murder is severed from Squire’s when she is found to be pregnant. Squire is later convicted and sentenced to life.
April 16, 1977. Shakur is convicted of murder in the turnpike shootout and sentenced to life. During the trial, prosecutors said she opened fire on the officers. Defense attorney William Kunstler said her hands were raised when Harper opened fire. At this point, Shakur has been acquitted of bank robbery, armed-robbery and kidnaping charges and is awaiting trial for shooting a man to death in a Brooklyn social club.
Nov. 2, 1979. Shakur escapes from the maximum security wing of a women’s prison in Clinton, N.J., with the help of three armed men.
1983. Members of a radical gang best known for the 1981 Brink’s robbery in Rockland County are convicted and imprisoned for their part in the robbery and for helping Shakur escape.
Shakur is reported to have been smuggled to the Bahamas.