This article is based on episode 1, “Assata’s Chant,” from Assata’s Chant and Other Histories anthology and the first original series by multipurpose production house Nello, founded by MIP contributor Weyland McKenzie-Witter. The series can be found on all podcast streaming apps (Apple, Spotify, Google, and YouTube via Black Power Media) For more background on the anthology, read the editor’s introduction on MIP or visit Nello’s website.
Who is Assata Shakur?
Assata Shakur, formerly JoAnne Chesimard, was a member of the Black Panther Party and is a Black Liberation Army member (BLA). She was shot in the chest and convicted (along with BLA members Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur) of killing White New Jersey State Police trooper Werner Foerster in 1973. A charge she has always rejected. After years of confinement, abuse, and giving birth in prison, she was liberated by the BLA in 1979 during a day breakout and granted political asylum in Cuba, where she lives to this day. For her return from Cuba, she was (the first woman) placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list with a $2 million bounty on her head. Since her escape, she’s been popularised in songs and documentaries and continues to inspire a new generation of activists. In recent years, activists from the US and the world have been wearing Assata t-shirts with the phrase “Assata Taught Me” and shouting Assata’s Chant as a rallying cry.
What’s Assata’s Chant?
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love each other and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains”
Those words chanted by the people in the years since BLM emerged were written, taped and broadcast by Assata on July 4, 1973, in a statement entitled To My People while she was held captive at Middlesex County Workhouse.
The people might claim her name and chant her words, yet do they know her history? “When you talk to former members of the Black Panther Party, they’ll tell you that while they love Assata’s words being carried on by a new generation. They worry that it’s often being done without taking into account the revolutionary tradition and history her and her comrades were fighting in,” says Weyland. Assata’s Chant and Other Histories seeks to tell the story of the Black revolutionary Assata Shakur and her comrades in the Black Liberation Movement.
In Assata’s own words from Cuba:
“In 1979 I was able to escape with the aid of some of my fellow comrades. I saw this as a necessary step, not only because I was innocent of the charges against me, but because I knew that in the racist legal system in the United States I would receive no justice. I was also afraid that I would be murdered in prison. I later arrived in Cuba where I am currently living in exile as a political refugee”Assata Shakur, Letter to the Pope, 1998, Havana, Cuba
Why the history lesson?
Because its a history that involved an FBI-led illegal COINTELPRO program. A secret op involving harassment, murder, and imprisonment of Assata’s comrades in the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the wider Black Liberation Movement. In the 60s and 70s law enforcement used counter intelligence techniques against the Black movements in the US. These techniques had been tried and tested in wars against foreign enemies like the Soviet Union. The FBI was instructed to disrupt, discredit and neutralize the Black movement from MLK to the BPP. Their activities included organizing a death squad that gunned down Fred Hampton in the middle of the night. They used psychological warfare, with infiltrators, forged docs, and anonymous threats, to split up the BPP and alienate its supporters. They harassed the churches and merchants that cooperated with the BPP. Essential to COINTELPRO was getting critical party activists arrested, prosecuted, and jailed on trumped-up charges. Charges to keep them out of the party and community and redivert community resources and energy to release them. The false charges and political trials include the “New York Three,” who were three members of the BPP, Anthony Jalil Bottom, Herman Bell, and Albert Nuh Washington. Albert passed away in prison, and after nearly 50 years in custody (some of the longest held political prisoners in the world), Herman and Jalil were released in 2018 (on parole) and last year, respectively,
To this day, our people are locked up in prisons for their radical and revolutionary activities against racism, White vigilantism, state police terror, occupation, and imperial militarism. Edward Poindexter, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, and Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin are some of our siblings, to name a few.
In Assata’s own words from her biography:
Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography, 1988
“We must gain our liberation by any means necessary… we must fight on”