“Don’t believe everything you hear. Real eyes realise real lies.”
Assata Shakur is now a Muslim. Well, she didn’t actually convert to Islam. But in the eyes of the United States government where “terrorism” and threats to the state have become synonymous with Islam and Muslims, the recent placement of Assata Shakur on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist List”, has for all intents and purposes, made her one.
While her being named to the list shocked many, is it really that surprising, especially when one considers how the “war on terror” has been used as a logic of control to systematically target, undermine and destroy any challenge to the domestic and global realms of US power?
Welcome to the Terrordome
Recently while in New York, I was on a panel at the Riverside Church that explored the links between the “war on crime” and the “war on terror”. I joined an incredible group of mostly black and Muslim activists, individuals (including Yusef Salaam, one of the “Central Park Five“), and family members of individuals who have been persecuted and incarcerated due to the policies of these proxy “wars”.
As I discussed on the panel, it’s no coincidence that the figure of the “black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist” both emerged in US political culture in the early 1970s due to the neurotic fears of Black Power domestically, and the threats to an expanding US imperial footprint in Muslim countries abroad.
For the individuals and family members who have been deeply scarred by these violent state policies, their powerful testimonies of life on the frontlines made plain to all of us there the deep connections that exist between the “war on crime” and the “war on terror”, between the “black criminal” and the “Muslim terrorist”.
Take the logic of “crime” for example. Cle Shaheed Sloan’s 2005 documentary Bastards of the Party and Mike Davis’ book City of Quartz suggest that the criminalisation of blackness in the late 1960s and early 70s was in essence a counter-insurgency strategy against black communities in the shadow of Black Power, as the “war on crime” (and “war on drugs”) became an extension of the dirty wars waged by COINTELPRO that sought to prevent the future emergence of the exact kinds of political activities that Assata Shakur and others were involved in.
As scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Khalil Gibran Muhammad have noted, once the US state defined particular activities as “crime”, it then sought to crack down and control it. As the fears of the “black criminal” were stoked, the political will was generated in mainstream America to pass repressive laws that normalised “crime” and linked it almost exclusively to blackness, making all black people suspicious, and leading to state-sanctioned racial profiling, the creation of an urban police state, and the explosion of a massive prison archipelago that Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow”.
The “war on terror” has used the face of the “Muslim terrorist” to narrow the scope of dissent, expand state control, and prevent the creation of alternatives to exploitation and war.
Similarly in the “war on terror”, the US has named particular acts as “terrorism”, delegitimising them and generating the political will through fear to normalise the figure of the “terrorist”, making Muslim-looking people, and even Muslim countries themselves, suspects under deep suspicion in their struggles for self-determination.
As a result, the need for state security created broad “anti-terrorism” measures that expanded state power, making Muslim countries subject to invasions, sanctions, bombs, and drones, and making Muslim bodies subject to indefinite detention, torture, surveillance and targeted murder, as Muslims got marked as people who don’t have the right to have rights.
While the system of mass incarceration used the face of the “black criminal” to legitimise itself and disproportionately target black men and women, the tentacles of incarceration soon expanded to include Latinos and other poor people in its orbit.
Similarly, the “war on terror” has used the face of the “Muslim terrorist” to narrow the scope of dissent, expand state control, and prevent the creation of alternatives to exploitation and war. But while the Muslim has been the face of this, the logic of “terror” is now being used to target other countries and also black and brown communities domestically, as the fluid category of the “terrorist” continues to morph.
While many were shocked that Assata would be placed on the “Most Wanted Terrorist List“, some argued that not only is she innocent of the charges against her, but that what she was struggling for as a black revolutionary could not possibly make her a “terrorist”. But this begs the question: who is a “terrorist”? And what does he do that would make him one? Would he by chance have a beard? Wear flowing garb? Be a Muslim?
By all credible accounts, Assata is not guilty of killing Officer Forester in 1973. But the focus by many on her innocence as the reason why she is not a “terrorist” misses the point completely. Because whether she’s innocent or not, the labelling of her as a “terrorist” has more to do with her political beliefs and the liberation struggles that she was a part of. In fact, it’s those very beliefs and activities that led to her (and others) being targeted under the FBI’s COINTELPRO, persecuted, put on trial, convicted and then forced to ultimately flee the country and live in exile in Cuba. For the US state, when it comes to labelling a “terrorist”, innocence or guilt are simply irrelevant details.
For her supporters and those on the Left who deny that she’s a “terrorist”, we have to understand that to the US government that’s exactly what she is. But instead of denying it, it’s high time that we instead challenge the prevailing logic of “terrorism”, refuse to normalise it, and recognise it for what it is: not only a political label used to discredit and undermine struggles for self-determination, but also a legal frame that then gives the state the sanction and power to narrow the scope of dissent and violently crackdown and arrest, incarcerate, torture, bomb, drone, invade, and even assassinate those deemed threats to state interests.
But if her allies continue to accept “terrorism” as the ruling paradigm, and make the false and fatal distinction between the struggles of black radicals like Assata from the struggles of Third World peoples fighting for dignity against racist, imperial power in places such as Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, then these supporters are not only misunderstanding and undermining the internationalist legacy of Assata Shakur and the Black Panther Party (who supported the Palestinians and other Third World struggles), but they are also ironically reinvigorating the very same violent state forces that she and the Black Power movement struggled to eliminate.
No coincidences, only consequences
More than just targeting Assata, the FBI and the Obama Administration have essentially labelled the Black Power movement as “terrorists”. But in trying to rewrite and destroy that past, the labelling of Assata as a “terrorist” is also an attack and warning to those who are organising today against the very same forces that Assata was over 40 years ago: police brutality, militarism, imperial war, economic exploitation, and racist state practices that continue to perpetuate black suffering and the decimation of the Global South.
And if that wasn’t chilling enough, in calling her a “terrorist” and Cuba a “state sponsor of terror”, could a drone attack on Assata be that far-fetched? Could the official state policy of targeted assassinations – a policy that ironically mimics the targeted killing by COINTELPRO of Fred Hampton, Bunchy Carter and others – and that now murders Muslims who are deemed threats to US and Israeli interests be in the offing for her?
And what about those artists and activists who have supported her and other Cuban solidarity activists: are they not now subject to the “material support for terrorism” law that has imprisoned so many and also severely curtailed the work of Muslim charities seeking to help those in Kashmir, Palestine, Pakistan and elsewhere?
If there is a silver lining in this, its that for those black, Latino, Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities who are involved in political work that is now or soon will be lumped into the category of “terrorist”, this is an opportunity for us to use our collective exclusion as suspect communities and deepen our links and points of solidarity to vigorously fight the violent forces that target us in a different ways.
Despite the mainstream Muslim, black, Latino and South Asian communities who have assumed the logic of “anti-terrorism” and have tied their fates to successes of white supremacy and US empire, the internationalist legacies we have inherited from Malcolm X, Assata Shakur and others within Black radical movements endures.
It’s seen in the black, Latino, South Asian and Arab organisers in New York and Los Angeles doing work around the NYPD “Stop and Frisk” programme and the “Stop LAPD Spying” campaigns; it’s present in the work of artists and activists struggling for migrant justice around the US-Mexico border. It’s also evidence in the beautiful work of Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Robin Kelley, Cynthia McKinney and others who recently travelled to Palestine and have spoken out against Zionism and US empire, and in favour of Palestinian self-determination; and it’s also born witness in the collective statement of solidarity signed by many black activists and scholars in 2012 called “African Americans for Justice in the Middle East & North Africa”.
These are exactly the kinds of internationalist political positions that Malcolm X and later Black Power advocates like Assata Shakur took, as they understood the urgent need for global solidarity, seeing the racist links, for example, between the NYPD programme of “Stop and Frisk” and the Bush Doctrine of “Pre-emptive War”, between Pelican Bay and Guantanamo Bay, and between Abner Louima and Abu Ghraib.
For to not question how the logic of “terrorism” is now being used to silence black and Third World voices is to undermine the very movements that Assata (and so many others) have so valiantly sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for.
Let’s remember that yesterday it was Nelson Mandela who the United States labelled a “terrorist”, and today it’s a Palestinian, an Afghan and now Assata. Tomorrow it could be a labour organiser, a student activist, a teacher, or maybe even you.
Sohail Daulatzai is the author of Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America and is co-editor of Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic. He has written liner notes to the 2012 release of the 20th Anniversary release of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media Studies and the Program in African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Follow him on Twitter: @SohailDaulatzai
You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets