February 4, 2021 | 14 minutes read | Tags: Anti-imperialism & world revolution, Oppression and Liberation, History

Lessons from Assata

Assata Shakur’s ongoing life and legacy of revolution-building and the sharp analysis in her writings should serve as lessons for those of us who wish to follow in her footsteps — to become revolutionaries capable of striking fear into the heart of empire, and hope into the hearts of the oppressed.

Lessons from Assata

On 1st January 2021, bourgeois media outlets such as the New York Post kicked off the New Year by announcing the FBI’s renewed offer of up to 1 million USD in reward money for tips regarding the whereabouts of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur, who was framed and charged in the killing of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. After spending years in detention and on trial for this and various other frame-ups, she was condemned to life in prison in 1977, but two years into her sentence, Black Liberation Army members and accomplices facilitated her escape — first from prison, and then from the country. She lived underground in different locations for brief periods before finally making her way to Cuba as a political refugee in 1984.

Assata’s ongoing residence in Cuba is no secret — she writes about it in the final chapter of her 1987 autobiography — but the FBI maintains her entry on the Most Wanted Terrorists list and continually circulates calls for information, along with the number for a tip line where would-be snitches can call in to report on her. The New York Post’s write-up describes her as a “notorious cop-killer” and “black militant” and links to several other puff pieces whose headlines identify her the same way. Yet Assata Shakur is hardly the only person to be convicted of killing a cop, and as the article itself points out, her escape from prison occurred “more than four decades ago.” So why is the U.S. government still putting resources towards her re-capture, 41 years later? Why does the world’s most brutal empire so deeply fear and revile a single 73-year-old woman?

Considering our own place in the history of capitalism and anti-capitalist struggle provides a simple answer. Our party is largely a young party — a fact that has been raised both to our credit and against it — and as such, most of us in Red Fightback have no first-hand knowledge of the world before neoliberalism. While we may have been radicalised by the “War on Terror,” the fallout of the 2008 Great Recession, or other such landmarks of imperialist and capitalist degradation of our time, we missed out on arguably the greatest period of class consciousness and revolutionary activity in recent history: the 1960s-1970s. Most if not all of us born in the decades that followed have been processed through education systems specifically designed to beat back the previously growing awareness of racial capitalism and imperialism, erase the Black radical tradition from public consciousness, and reduce the revolutionary resistance of the 60s-70s to a whitewashed, cherry-picked version of history in which individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. “ended” racism, armed only with the liberal virtues of patience and nonviolence. But the capitalist approach to suppressing revolutionary consciousness has been two-fold: while the legacies of figures such as King have been rehabilitated to suit liberal sensibilities, emphasising and distorting their pacifist beliefs while stripping them of their radical anti-racist and socialist/communist politics, other revolutionary organisers — generally, those who espoused violence as a legitimate tactic in response to the violence of the state, such as members of the Black Panther Party — have been demonised as “extremists,” with the political and social context of their wider movement being all but erased.

Many such revolutionaries have been assassinated by the government outright, but many others remain imprisoned in maximum-security institutions, serving life sentences or on death row: Romaine Fitzgerald, Mutulu Shakur, Mumia Abu Jamal, to name a few. Their incarceration is just another method of erasing their resistance; to borrow Angela Davis’ phrasing, the state sought to “disappear” them, and their ideology along with them. Assata was subjected to the same fate — until, against the odds, she escaped it. The U.S. state’s ongoing fixation on her, its obsession with vilifying and containing her, points to the power she holds, the existential threat she poses, as a free Black revolutionary. Unable to keep her words locked behind bars, it must resort to attempts to discredit them instead. And it’s not hard to understand why: the points she makes in her book, Assata: An Autobiography, ring truer than ever today, after decades of “peaceful” liberal reforms have left the fundamentally imperialist and anti-Black logic of the capitalist state unaltered. What follows is a series of observations on the connections between the world Assata describes and the one we live in today, and reflections on what we can learn from her analysis as communists struggling within the imperial core in 2021.

Abolition of police, prisons, and anti-Blackness

Assata begins her narrative from the night she and two other members of the Black Panther Party were attacked by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike. The chapters in which she recounts her subsequent hospitalisation, incarceration, and trials alternate with chapters about her tumultuous childhood and, later, her journey to becoming a part of the Black liberation movement. Although the term “abolition” in the narrow sense of modern-day prison abolition does not appear in the text, the struggle to free Black people from the white supremacist, anti-Black institutions of prisons and policing is central in both halves of the narrative. From police using the claim of a “faulty tail light” as an excuse to pull over Black drivers, to white women being let out of jail with no consequences after being arrested with 40 pounds of marijuana, the structural white supremacy Assata describes is no different than that which prevails today. Her speech “To My People” was delivered 47 years ago,  but every word resonated as if it had just been recorded on the streets of Minneapolis in June 2020. In it, she says:

Black life expectancy is much lower than white and they do their best to kill us before we are even born. We are burned alive in fire-trap tenements. Our brothers and sisters OD daily from heroin and methadone. Our babies die from lead poisoning. Millions of Black people have died as a result of indecent medical care. This is murder. But they have got the gall to call us murderers.

Today, these words bring to mind the Grenfell Tower disaster; the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; the hugely unequal distribution of COVID-19 casualties along racial lines. In 1973, Assata spoke of the police shootings of Black children, naming Rita Lloyd (16), Rickie Bodden (11), and Clifford Glover (10); the decade from 2010 to 2020 echoes: Trayvon Martin (17), Tamir Rice (12), Aiyana Stanley-Jones (7). The historic uprisings over last summer, which drew the participation of an estimated 15-26 million people nationally, sought justice for the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless more. More recently, two prominent organisers of the summer movement — Travis Nagdy and Kris Smith — have also turned up murdered, just like many of the prominent organisers from the 2014 Ferguson uprising. The police, of course, have identified no suspects in any of these cases — and indeed, history leaves no room for anything as uncertain as suspicion, no question of who has it out for Black radical leaders and community organisers. The same forces that drove Assata into hiding and eventual refuge in Cuba, that imprisoned and assassinated many of her contemporaries, are still working today to suppress Black liberation struggle. The legacy of COINTELPRO lives on.

Assata also discusses the 13th Amendment as legalised slavery, showing clearly how police, prisons, and capitalism form a unified system for the purpose of controlling Black people and extracting their labour:

[…] so many Black people can’t find a job on the streets and are forced to survive the best way they know how. Once you’re in prison, there are plenty of jobs, and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you up and throw you in the hole. If every state had to pay workers to do the jobs prisoners are forced to do, the salaries would amount to billions.

This reality has only intensified since she wrote these words, with the U.S. prison population skyrocketing in the 80s-90s due to the intensification of the ongoing “War on Drugs” under politicians such as Bill Clinton. While private prisons did emerge out of this exponential increase in prisoners, and the use of private prison labour by corporations has drawn the bulk of critical attention in recent years, state prisons remain the pillars of the modern enslavement of Black people in the U.S., holding about 91% of the total imprisoned population. The financed aspect of the hunt for Assata since her escape has also revealed how the U.S. state itself, rather than just a few rogue corporations, is responsible for the monetisation of Black people. On the 32nd anniversary of the shooting for which she was charged, the FBI raised the bounty on her head to an unprecedented 1 million USD — the largest bounty ever placed on an individual in the state of New Jersey. In response, the state police superintendent remarked that “she is now 120 pounds of money.” The words of Dr Joy James come to mind: “[Black people] are monetised because we came here [to the United States] as monetary objects, and that’s tracked us through to our rebellions, so our rebellions become monetised.” Though Dr James is referring here to the academia’s appropriation of Black struggle into a profit-producing mechanism through research and knowledge production, the making of Assata into a monetary object in response to her rebellion is another example of the same phenomenon. To the United States of America, Black life is capital. Such a system cannot be rehabilitated or reformed: Black liberation demands its total abolition.

Reproductive justice

While being held for trial on a charge of bank robbery, Assata conceived a child with her co-defendant Kamau Sadiki. Her experience of pregnancy while incarcerated — as well as her thought processes leading up to the decision to risk this situation in the first place — speaks to issues of reproductive justice under white supremacy which are ongoing today. She describes being manhandled and denied basic prenatal care, having to fight to be allowed access to a doctor she trusted instead of the prison physician, who was complicit in the state’s intention to harm her. The treatment of pregnant prisoners effectively aims to induce miscarriage — or, put another way, normal conditions for all prisoners pose serious health repercussions, and no meaningful accommodations are made for pregnancies. Even before becoming pregnant, Assata knew she would face these obstacles as well as many more, and hesitated at the thought of bringing another Black life into a violently anti-Black world. However, she describes how she ultimately arrived at the belief that Black parenthood and procreation constituted another form of resistance against white supremacy:

I am about life,” i said to myself. “I’m gonna live as hard as i can and as full as i can until i die. And i’m not letting these parasites, these oppressors, these greedy racist swine make me kill my children in my mind, before they are even born. I’m going to live and i’m going to love Kamau, and, if a child comes from that union, i’m going to rejoice. Because our children are our futures and i believe in the future and in the strength and rightness of our struggle.

Struggles around reproductive issues came to mainstream attention several times in 2020 and were, predictably, met with painfully white bourgeois analysis. In mid-September, the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg triggered an eruption of panic and anguish among liberal U.S. feminists who venerated her as the last bulwark standing between Roe v. Wade — a landmark Supreme Court decision, but one which provides a only a bare-minimum protection of abortion rights — and the government’s Christo-fascist campaign to criminalise and ban abortion completely. Meanwhile, only four days prior to Ginsburg’s death, former ICE nurse Dawn Wooten had blown the whistle on mass hysterectomies being performed on migrants detained in ICE facilities, who neither consented to the procedures nor had any medical reason to be subjected to them. Throughout the year, the inhumane conditions in these same facilities also caused high numbers of COVID-related deaths among detained children. And in the days leading up to Christmas 2020, a tweet was widely circulated from Breonna Taylor’s account, originally posted on Christmas Day in 2019: “I hope next year I have a kid so I can be super excited about today like y’all” — making a shattering example of how anti-Black violence by the state directly deprives Black people of the autonomy to create new life, as well as live out their own. The already-present reality of these examples, though, did not dissuade white liberals from framing a  judge’s death as a unique and unprecedented threat that brought on the mere possibility of the future loss of reproductive rights.

After all, in mainstream political discourse, “reproductive rights” is usually shorthand for white women’s access to birth control and abortion, i.e. the right not to become pregnant or give birth. In her book, though, Assata discusses the struggle of herself and other Black women for the right to become pregnant and give birth on their own terms. While white women have been encouraged and sometimes coerced into pregnancy for the sake of perpetuating “the white race,” Black women (and non-Black women of colour) have been subjected to white supremacist policies of total sexual and reproductive control — eugenics and medical experimentation on the one hand, enslavement and forced reproduction on the other. Access to both safe, autonomous reproduction and natal care and abortion/birth control are systemically denied to Black people; to make either choice is often a struggle, and constitutes a reclamation of political power and bodily sovereignty. “Reproductive rights” are meaningless unless they include the rights to gestate and give birth safely and raise children in prosperity — rights which are systemically denied to Black and Indigenous people. There can be no reproductive justice without anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and police/prison abolition; reproductive justice must centre colonised and incarcerated people.

Gender, white patriarchy, and trans ‘inclusion’

When Assata is a 13-year-old runaway, she meets a woman, Miss Shirley, who is heavily coded in the text as transgender — to use today’s terminology —  though Assata’s teenaged self within the narrative is unaware of this at first. Miss Shirley is “big, tall,” flirtatious and flamboyant; she wears heavy makeup and false eyelashes, and is strongly implied to be a sex worker. She immediately sees through Assata’s made-up story about why she is out on the streets and begins to look out for her in many ways: feeding and sheltering her, helping her find safer work, teaching her how to do her makeup, and giving her life advice. A little while after they meet, Assata learns that Miss Shirley is (again, to apply current terms) not a ‘cis’ woman as she had assumed:

She opened the door with a razor in her hand. I almost fainted. She was shaving her face. Miss Shirley was a man. When she saw my reaction, she fell out laughing. “You got a lot to learn, sugar. Ya got a lot to learn.” We both sat there laughing up a storm. Somehow, it was funny as hell.

In the context of present-day trans politics, this scene could easily be read as problematic. But when Assata writes that “Miss Shirley was a man,” is she actually attacking or denying trans womanhood? This exchange would have occurred circa 1960, the book was written and published in 1987-1988, and the language frameworks around non-normative gender have changed and developed rapidly over the past 30-60 years. Focusing on the material rather than linguistic aspects of the scene reveals something more important than a choice of vocabulary: Assata continues to refer to Miss Shirley as a woman, the way they relate to one other does not change, and the narrative she constructs around this part of her life presents Miss Shirley as a mother figure whose experience is aligned with, not oppositional to, her own.  This portrayal could be sharply contrasted with the currently prevalent bourgeois politics of trans ‘inclusion,’ by which ‘progress’ equals assimilation to white gender norms, appropriation of various Indigenous genders as a talking point to validate white colonial frameworks of non-binary identity, fixation on biomedical pathology as a form of legitimation/validation (i.e. the medicalisation of gender dysphoria), and generally putting trans people on pathways to legal and social normality — however oppressive ‘normality’ might be under racial capitalism.

Pronoun-sharing, declarations of clearly demarcated identity, and all the other hallmarks of 21st century ‘progress’ towards trans ‘acceptance’ and ‘inclusion’ are absent from this scene, yet it is still more humanising, and more human, than much of the discourse around trans women (particularly Black trans women) that can be seen in the world today. The text’s treatment of Miss Shirley is a demonstration of radical solidarity between women, regardless of their designated ‘biological’ sex according to white patriarchal ideology, which uses the body as justification for hierarchical social order (in the form of both gender and race). In the dominant logic of the coloniser, “Miss Shirley was a man.” But materially, the situation shows rather than tells readers that she was a woman — she shared with Assata the precarious social position of Black womanhood, and the mother/daughter-like relationship between them is plainly one of solidarity. Their laughter at the absurdity of the situation and Assata’s youthful naïveté, grounded in a plain acknowledgment of their common positionality as Black women, shows a joyful, healing approach to transness — ‘accepting’ and ‘inclusive’ in a meaningful sense, and so distinct from the pathologising focus on trauma and tragedy that plagues white bourgeois narratives of gender-nonconforming people.

Although the chapter including Miss Shirley is the only point in the narrative where anything intelligible as ‘transness’ is in the picture, Assata discusses at several other points how Black people experience white gender structures differently. She identifies several reasons for this, one being generational trauma stemming back to the social relations enforced between Black men and women during slavery, another being the way that white society in the mid-20th century defined gender by an idealistic economic division of men as breadwinners (productive labour) and women as domestic figures (reproductive labour), not accounting for the reality of many Black families in which both parents were heavily exploited workers:

Black people accepted those [bourgeois white heterosexual] role models for themselves even though they had very little to do with the reality of their own existence and survival.

She also connects this issue to the media representation of white bourgeois families as the norm that all should aspire to, the overall absence of representation of societies other than the white U.S. and Europe in media and education, and her consequent lack of awareness of material conditions in Asia, Africa, and Latin/South America. Bourgeois media convinced her as a child not only to uphold a particular mode of gender and sexuality as the norm, but also to believe in imperialist and capitalist propaganda about conditions in other nations. Without saying so outright, Assata’s analysis shows how patriarchy and capitalism are intimately interlinked, and how — contrary to the “one-dimensional,” single-issue modes of feminist and queer identity which the bourgeoisie has strategically proliferated over the last thirty years — the liberation of oppressed genders will never be achieved without racial justice, international solidarity, and the total rejection of imperialism and colonialism.

Revolutionary organisation and party ethics

Discussing her experience in leftist political spaces prior to joining the BPP, Assata identifies arrogance, both (inter)personal and political, as the primary blight of white socialists and communists. The trends she describes sound all too familiar to anyone involved in radical left politics today: mindless dogmatism; disdain for workers and the masses; loyalty to the bourgeois media and the imperialist propaganda it peddles against other countries; a chauvinistic belief that white Westerners in reading groups are the rightful arbiters of what ‘real’ socialism is and whether non-Western countries are successful in their pursuit of it. She observes that white-led organisations and white socialists/communists in general would “spend more time arguing over who had the correct line” than uniting to take necessary action against common enemies, as well as showing a pervasive lack of respect for active liberation movements — for example, insulting the struggle in Vietnam because the Viet Cong did not approach their own situation as white leftists thought they should, or idolising the texts of Marx and Lenin without considering the specific applications and adaptations of Marxism-Leninism being developed by colonised people outside of the imperial core. The situation today is pathetically similar: the political ‘left’ is plagued by those who parrot the U.S. State Department’s every line on Cuba, China, and the DPRK, seeming almost eager to participate in imperialist smears against these countries, and using their own supposed ideological ‘purity’ — an imagined commitment to ‘true’ socialism, which they alone have the authority to determine — as a justification for sympathising with reactionaries over revolutionaries.

Later, after finally joining the BPP, she found that arrogance and attitudes of superiority persisted even there, among the party’s senior cadre members. This often had a negative impact on the party’s otherwise impressive ability to develop effective praxis, organise the masses, and recruit new members (herself included — she had been put off joining by the abrasive demeanour of many cadre members). Based on this experience, she argues that the failure of party members to self-criticise and reflect on their interpersonal relations will not strengthen the party, but will reduce it to an unapproachable clique, driving a wedge between the party and the people. As she writes:

The only great people i have met have been modest and humble. You can’t claim that you love people when you don’t respect them, and you can’t call for political unity unless you practice it in your relationships.

In the years since Assata penned these words, a frustrating number of self-described socialist and communist organisations have damned themselves to positions of complete ineffectiveness (at best) and outright reactionary antagonism to class struggle (at worst) by allowing such problems of conduct to fester, cultivating party cultures of disdain for the masses and, notably in many cases, wanton chauvinism towards oppressed groups. Perhaps the most important takeaway from Assata is this: holding the correct political line is not the sole basis for a successful revolutionary movement. In this time of intensifying struggle, it is vital that every aspect of our organisational practice be in alignment with our theoretical ideals of liberation for all those oppressed under racial capitalism. Assata Shakur’s ongoing life and legacy of revolution-building and the sharp analysis provided in her writings should serve as lessons for those of us who wish to follow in her footsteps — to become revolutionaries capable of striking fear into the heart of empire, and hope into the hearts of the oppressed.