The announcement on May 2, 2003 of the FBI’s continued manhunt of Assata Shakur sparked a number of responses by Shakur supporters, detractors and political pundits. I personally read no less than 15 different articles exploring her case from feminist, nationalist, marxist and conservative law-enforcement points of view.
For our own part, I and others launched a petition drive in support of Ms. Shakur, calling on President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus to:
1. Launch a federal and state investigation to determine the validity of Ms. Shakur’s initial conviction and prison sentence
2. Rescind Ms. Shakur’s status as a “terrorist.”
3. Terminate the bounty or “reward” for assisting in her capture.
4. Exonerate Ms. Shakur of ALL criminal charges and the need to serve the remainder of her (unjust) prison sentence.
A segment of the Black community, skeptical and cynical, scoffed at the petition drive noting that the President is fully aware and likely supportive of Ms. Shakur’s persecution. Why would we appeal for justice to the very establishment hunting for Assata, they ask. Mere signatures on pieces of paper mean nothing and are powerless, they suggest. Responding to this in a previous article I noted:
I am not under the naive impression that the President is an advocate of Black liberation or nationalism….And while he is part of the system that hunts for and harasses Assata, we are nevertheless intelligent to use our constitutional rights to petition the government on this matter. Short of leading an armed cadre of comrades to Cuba for her protection and whisking her away to an undisclosed location, what are the other options available to us?
Students of history will note that most enslaved Blacks did not escape or participate in plantation revolts; yet many broke tools, deliberately slowed down work production, faked illness, and stole items from the plantation owners. In other words, they participated in acts of RESISTANCE, doing what they could with what they had.
As the petition drive approaches 3000 signatures and is now entering its second week, I still feel compelled to explain why this tactic is so pivotal and what we hope to gain from it.
- Through the process of signing a petition, people learn about the issue at hand and raise their social/political consciousness. Many people who knew nothing about Assata Shakur prior to the petition drive have now read her autobiography, viewed her documentary, and become more familiar with her case and political views, often from her own perspective. But Black oppression and repression did not begin nor will it end with Assata Shakur. Also sister Assata did not develop in an isolated vacuum, but she exists within a political and historical tradition that predates her and includes her. So the petition leads people to learn about Assata, and in doing so they learn about Cointelpro, the Black Power Movement, political prisoners, organizations like the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, imperialism, racism and our continual struggle for dignity, humanity and freedom.
- Every time someone signs the petition, a copy of the petition letter is emailed to President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus. Thus the petition helps people to voice their concerns to government leaders directly and without censorship or media misinterpretation. This process teaches citizens one way to exercise their First Amendment rights to freedom of the press and freedom to petition the government to address their grievances. This provides us with agency, transforming us from apathetic people grumbling about government policies among our friends, to active and civic-minded citizens engaging and critiquing the government on their own behalf. Some will even be compelled to organize rallies, demonstrations or teach-ins.
- As people sign the petition and share it with family members, co-workers, and neighbors, we practice something we often talk about….Black solidarity: Black people working together to achieve a common goal, despite differences in gender, class, and religious/political ideologies. It is precisely this type of united effort across differences that will be the salvation of Black people, and indeed the world.
- Last and obviously not least, is the issue of sister Assata Shakur herself. I believe in Black self-reliance, self-determination, in additional to being highly critical of government policy and practice. I hold no illusions that a simple petition drive will cause the President or this government to see the validity of our cause and suddenly reverse their position. But I do understand politics which I define as “The process of meeting objectives, securing goods, services, and support for one’s constituents, and of protecting and advancing one’s group interests regardless of opposition.” As I’ve written before,
People in power are not moved by appeals to morality and ethics. Powerful people and institutions do not speak this language. Their language is one of money, influence, image, property and self-interest. What certain other groups have learned (which seems to be lost on us) is that empowerment comes either from building strong independent bases of power and/or wielding the power to promote or threaten the money, influence, image, property and self-interests of the ruling elite. Without such power, we are simply barking into the wind.
This petition intends to use the pressure generated by large numbers of supporters to persuade the President to take Assata’s case seriously, and to know that a large community of people throughout America and the world value her and are protective of her. As the petition drive gains momentum, it will attract media attention which adds to this pressure. At best, the petition drive successfully wins all four concessions requested, or some of them. At worst, we draw critical attention to Assata Shakur, shining a spotlight on both her and the FBI, which just might spare her life and ensure her safety.
Therefore this petition drive is not the wasted effort of politically naive or self-deluded “patriots.” It is an active and engaging act of political resistance that raises consciousness among Black people around the world, reinvigorates the spirit of protest and political dissent, and aids the project of Black solidarity, all while supporting and defending Assata Shakur. I am confident that this tactic, in conjunction with rallies, demonstration teach-ins, and letter-writing campaigns will go a long way toward assisting sister Assata. I am equally confident that just complaining and becoming upset minus organized activism, will accomplish absolutely nothing.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.