News: What Price Freedom?

Hands Off Assata Committee brings documentary to Cincinnati

Jul 12, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Old and new images of Assata Shakur from

After seven months, Elian Gonzalez has left America for Cuba. After 20 years, Assata Shakur might never leave Cuba for America.

The difference? Both are free, depending on the definition, in a country not known for giving its citizenry a wide berth of privilege.

The young Cuban boy who appeared on Thanksgiving Day floating on an inner tube off the coast of Florida became an exaggerated poster child for modern-day Cuban-American relations. Meanwhile, Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party and leader of the Black Liberation Army, lives in exile in Cuba with a $100,000 bounty on her head.

How she got there remains as much a testament to this country's race relations as it does to America's long-standing anti-Cuban sentiment that's raged since the Cold War.

But the Hands Off Assata Committee (HOA), formed in 1998, is working to ensure that, even while in exile, Shakur remains alive.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd-Whitman issued a $100,000 bounty for Shakur's return to New Jersey, and in September 1998 the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 254 calling for Shakur's extradition from Cuba. If HOA can help it, though, Shakur will remain where she is, ominously free.

"We would hope that, at some point, the people that we love and care about could be home," says Walter Turner, a San Francisco-based member of the HOA steering committee. Turner also is a journalist and president of Global Exchange, a group that makes missions to Cuba, South Africa and Mexico.

"But they must be home safely," he says. "We're looking at every aspect of her case, her life and her work."

Shakur's case by now has been widely publicized, including debate in the nation's capitol. She documented her own life in Assata: An Autobiography, today a cult classic. She continues to write and publish work on political prisoners and is a prolific poet, painter and speaker.

Shakur's life and work in Cuba is a lifetime away from the life and powderkeg incident that brought her to the Communist island.

On May 2, 1973, New Jersey State Troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike stopped Shakur, along with Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur, for allegedly having a faulty taillight. The story goes that the troopers knew who they'd pulled over — three former members of the Black Panther Party.

A shootout ensued, and both Trooper Werner Foster and Zayd Shakur were killed. Assata and Acoli were wounded, Assata with two bullets in her back.

Shakur was jailed, allegedly tortured and prosecuted on a series of what seemed to be trumped-up charges. During the course of five separate trials, she was either acquitted or charges ranging from bank robbery to murder were dismissed because of lack of evidence.

Nevertheless, in 1977, after spending four years in prison, Shakur was charged with the killings on the New Jersey Turnpike. She was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 33 years. In 1979, she escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, resurfacing in Cuba where she applied for, and received, political asylum.

She's been there for 20 years.

Subsequently, a "movement" of sorts has emerged on her behalf. Rappers like Chicago's Common have begun speaking out on Shakur's arrest and exile. On his latest release Like Water for Chocolate, Common includes "A Song for Assata," complete with Shakur's search for the definition of freedom in her own, world-weary voice.

Why the sudden implosion of interest in Shakur?

"Many people are clear that one of the best ways to support the work of Assata and to keep her safe is to keep the campaign visible," Turner says. "At the same time, there's been a consciousness among rappers and Hip-Hoppers that, as much as it appears that things are changing, they're the same."

Turner himself has visited Cuba 15 to 20 times. He spoke with Shakur during one of those visits when they were both panelists on a symposium.

Is she bitter?

"The question is, were she in the United States she would be on death row," he says. "That fact right there is an element of peace. The people of Cuba have welcomed her, they've supported her.

"Cubans at the maximum believe in international solidarity. Cubans are very clear about her presence there. She's an amazing thinker. She uses every way possible to stay in touch with developments in African-American culture. Her concern is about others."

Calling Shakur "an inspiration for black women," it only makes sense that HOA supports the work of Afro-Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, who wrote and directed a 1998 documentary about Shakur called Eyes of the Rainbow.

Shot in Havana over two years, the film shows Shakur speaking candidly about growing up black and female in America and living the same aesthetic in exile in Cuba. The documentary will be shown at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Vontz Center Auditorium, Eden Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, in conjunction with the Crazy Ladies Center Birthday Week.

Turner says that HOA committee members travel the country showing the film as a way to keep Shakur's life and legacy at the fore of political consciousness.

"We've been trying to get it out in a way that, when it's shown, people from the committee can be there to discuss its contents," he says. "We want to use it as a means of dispensing information. It's an autobiography of a freedom fighter. It's ripe with Afro-Cuban images. As many times as I've seen it, it brings tears to my eyes.

"While it was being made, (Shakur's) mother died, and she cannot be there. Exile has been very, very tough. It's the life of an African-American freedom fighter in exile."

Turner says that showing the video and gaining the support of notables like Common, however, isn't the end of HOA's mission. It's not even the beginning. Such small victories are merely signposts dotting an ever-perilous journey fraught with debates over race, culture, gender, politics and freedom.

"There have been more people who've said they're interested," Turner says. "After resolution 254 in 1998 and after the governor's bounty, we knew our sister was in danger. The best defense is a good offense — to let as many people as possible know what's happening.

"This is a call for us to say, 'Hey! This is one of us!' We're saying that we're not going to be pushed around and we're going to stand up and speak for our human rights. We're saying to people, 'You've got to keep your hands off Assata. She's ours. She's not to be used in your political schemes, your Cold War schemes or your racial games.' "