New Jersey Troopers Have Selective Amnesia
About How They Victimized People Like Assata Shakur
Date: Tuesday, May 03, 2005
By: Tonyaa Weathersbee, BlackAmericaWeb.com
day, a colonel with the New Jersey State Police said something that
ought to rankle any black person who has even the vaguest familiarity
of how police brutality and racial injustice once had a vise grip
on the nation.
“We have pretty long institutional memories,”
one Col. Rick Fuentes said during a news conference to announce
that the reward for the capture of former Black Panther Assata Shakur,
who was doing time in prison for the slaying of a trooper when she
escaped in 1979, had been upped from $150,000 to $1 million.
Fuentes and the rest of his gang might have long
institutional memories about what Shakur was convicted of doing
to one of their own. But they –– as well as the Justice
Department –– have selective amnesia about what they
were doing to black people like her during that time.
For decades now, law enforcement authorities have been obsessed
with capturing Shakur, who has lived in Cuba since 1986. Formerly
known as Joanne Chesimard, two troopers stopped her and two companions
for a broken tail light on the New Jersey State Turnpike in 1973.
A gunfight ensued, and when it was over one state trooper, Werner
Foerster, was dead, as was one of Shakur’s companions, Zayd
Shakur. She was severely wounded.
What happened afterward was typical in the era
of COINTELPRO –– the FBI’s crooked, covert operation
intended to destabilize black movements and their leaders ––
and out-and-out racism.
Shakur was tried six different times on various,
flimsy charges. She was acquitted each time. But an all-white jury
ultimately found her guilty in the murders of Foerster and Zayd
Shakur. They found her guilty in spite of the fact that forensics
experts testified that she was shot when she was in a position of
surrender and that no evidence existed to show that she had fired
But the jury, them being white and all, convicted
her anyway. But Shakur continued to proclaim her innocence and in
1979, decided she wasn’t going to do any more time for a crime
she didn’t commit. So she escaped.
I doubt that Shakur killed Foerster. The forensics
testimony, as well as the context of the times, is what makes me
And as a black person in America, I’d be
a fool to ignore context.
I’m dubious because throughout the late 1950s
to the early 1970s, the FBI targeted black revolutionaries like
Shakur for ruination. They did it through flagrant abuses of power,
such as planting evidence, weapons and informants. One need only
look to the case of Geronimo ji jaga Pratt, a Black Panther who
was fingered as the killer of a white woman by Julius “Julio”
Butler, another Panther who, as it turned out, was an FBI informant
–– and a liar. Pratt spent 27 years in prison before
the late Johnnie Cochran, his longtime attorney, helped him get
a new trial, and the judge declared that he had been sentenced unfairly.
I’m dubious because the New Jersey State
Police had then –– and still have –– a reputation
for being notoriously racist. In many cases, stopping someone for
a busted tail light tends to be more of an excuse to target someone,
namely black people, for harassment rather than to advise them to
get the light fixed. And while neither I nor any of the white people
who convicted Shakur were there when Foerster was shot, it’s
rather interesting that up until that time, she only had a record
of organizing free breakfast programs and other community empowerment
programs, and not a record of provoking violence.
I’m dubious because, as much as people like
Fuentes are calling for justice for Foerster, some of their own
are still doing the same injustices to black people as they did
in Shakur’s day. In 1998, troopers on that same New Jersey
turnpike upon which Shakur was stopped shot and wounded three unarmed
black and Latino men whom they suspected were carrying drugs. They
weren’t. The next year, the New Jersey Attorney General’s
Office issued a report that found that racial profiling by the troopers
And as recent as 2003, the Philadelphia Inquirer
reported that internal affairs officers for the New Jersey State
Police looking into racial and sexual harassment allegations found
a T-shirt with the letters LOD. The initials, which stand for “Lords
of Discipline,” represent a secret society that many black
and women officers say is sexist and white supremacist.
I’m also dubious because Shakur was convicted
by an all-white jury –– a jury that was, at that time,
probably was more consumed with administering punishment to black
people than in administering justice to them.
Some bounty hunter in Florida said he plans to
try and capture Shakur. I hope he fails. I hope he fails not only
because I believe that Shakur was wrongly convicted, but because
I believe it is the height of hypocrisy for the Bush administration
to put her on the same terrorist watch list as Osama bin Laden.
It is also hypocritical because right here in the United States,
we are harboring a number of fugitives and murderers from other
countries. And it’s sheer political lunacy to compare Shakur
to bin Laden; she hasn’t killed 3,000 people, nor does she
have the capability of carrying out terrorist attacks against the
At the very least, Shakur ought to be guaranteed
a new trial –– complete with DNA evidence and all ––
as a condition of her return. But in the meantime, we need to focus
on catching real terrorists. Not someone like Shakur who was, for
all practical purposes, a victim of the racial terrorism that once
existed against black people.
The kind of terrorism that has managed to escape
Fuentes’ institutional memory.