When the FBI announced last year that Assata Shakur had been placed on the most-wanted terrorist list at the age of 65, it felt like a new generation of activists was being given a glimpse of what happened during the heyday of the US counterintelligence programme. The security service clearly still has confidence in our complacency, and given the revelations about the extent of today’s state surveillance, that confidence, appears well-placed.
In the UK, we now know that the British police have been conducting a counterintelligence programme against members of the public they labelled “domestic extremists” for years. During that time, thousands of activists were monitored by undercover officers and informants. We also know that both GCHQ and the NSA are involved in data-mining on a vast scale, with the Tempora and Prism programmes being two examples that we know of. Last week, the data retention and investigatory powers (Drip) bill was cynically pushed through parliament in one day, without members having sufficient time to scrutinise its contents.
Predictably, growing public concern about state surveillance is dismissed with the familiar mantra that “the innocent have nothing to fear”. Of course, history has told us a very different story.
Assata: An Autobiography by Shakur, republished this month, underlines the extent to which she was targeted by Cointelpro, the secret counterintelligence programme.
In the early 1970s, FBI director J Edgar Hoover spent the final years of his life intensifying the campaign against all political activists considered a domestic threat. As a founding member of the Black Liberation Army and former Black Panther, Shakur was targeted and falsely accused in six different criminal cases; all of which she was either acquitted from, or the charges were dismissed.
However, in 1973 she faced a seventh case for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper, and spent the next four years in custody awaiting trial – two of which were spent in solitary confinement within two separate men’s prisons.
Controversially, though the prosecution failed to refute any of the evidence that established her innocence, Shakur was convicted in 1977 by a jury filled with relatives, partners and friends of state troopers, and sentenced to life imprisonment. She escaped from prison two years later, and claimed asylum in Cuba under international law as a victim of persecution for her political beliefs. She has remained in exile as a political refugee ever since.
This infamous chain of events was presented as the rationale behind the $2m bounty offered by the FBI and the state of New Jersey in 2013. US authorities still allege that Assata “opened fire”, despite FBI forensics showing that she didn’t handle any weapon found at the scene. Furthermore, ballistics evidence established that trooper Harper shot Assata twice, and the trajectory of the first bullet proved that she was surrendering with both hands in the air at the time. Harper fired the second bullet into Assata’s back.
Thanks to the Church Committee of the 1970s, we now know that the US government was covertly targeting thousands of innocent people, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton and Zayd Shakur. State agents and informants helped to persecute countless other activists, such as Mumia Abu Jamal, Geronimo Ji Jaga, Sundiata Acoli and the Angola Three.
Although evidence of criminality was never a prerequisite for “neutralisation”, many innocent victims of Cointrelpro still remain in prison today, serving terms that effectively amount to death sentences.
This history of systematic injustice provides the real context for Shakur’s conviction and subsequent escape from prison, and explains why the Cuban government continues to grant her political asylum. When we acknowledge the scale of surveillance and covert policing that we face today, the FBI’s renewed attempt to “recapture” Assata should disturb every single one of us.
In an age of austerity and inequality, what are the implications of individuals being targeted for their political beliefs? Fifty-thousand people marched against government cuts last month, and up to a million joined public sector strikes on 10 July. How can we be sure that these grassroots movements are not also being targeted by the state?
If history has shown us anything, it is that the power of the establishment must never go unchecked. Despite the targeting of high-profile whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, it is imperative that we as citizens do not live in fear of our elected governments. Speaking last year, Dr Angela Davis was adamant that Shakur is being targeted now because she remains an international figure of defiance against political persecution, and a symbol of hope.
If we allow this innocent grandmother to be dragged back to the US in chains, what precedent are we setting ourselves for the future?