President Barack Obama: Remove Assata Shakur from the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” List

Dear President Obama:

We write to urge you to overrule the FBI’s decision to put Assata Shakur, aka Joanne Chesimard, on the “Most Wanted Terrorists List, with $1 Million FBI Reward Offered for Information Leading to Her Capture and Return,” as phrased by the FBI’s May 2, 2013 announcement.  This $1 million combines with the $1 million bounty already offered by New Jersey. We know of no support for the claims by the FBI in making that announcement that Ms. Shakur has used her asylum in Cuba to “promote” “terrorist ideology” and espouse “terrorism.” We ask that the FBI be directed to publicly produce documentation to support these claims, and that until and unless this is done, its officials be directed to withdraw these assertions. The FBI’s accompanying actions should also be immediately withdrawn for the following additional reasons. 

President Obama, commenting on the Boston Marathon bombings last month, you declared “Anytime bombs are used to target innocent civilians, it is an act of terror.”This is consistent with the generally accepted view of terrorism as "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence against civilians for the purpose of intimidation or coercion or changing government policy." There is no evidence that Ms. Shakur has taken part in any violence or threats of violence against civilians to intimidate or coerce changes in government policies. Going back 40 years, the May 1973 incident, which led to her only criminal convictions, was initiated by the New Jersey State Police.  They pulled the vehicle she was in off the highway based on an allegedly defective tail light. This type of police action was consistent with tactics used to harass Black people generally, particularly Black males; and, sometimes provoke incidents particularly against members of Black militant organizations during that period. The loss of life on both sides ensuing from that stop was clearly regrettable; and, we do not intend to retry here her controversial trial and conviction before an all white jury. We know that there were serious questions of fairness sufficient to draw international attention and for Ms. Shakur to be granted political asylum in Cuba nearly 30 years ago, although Cuba has returned some others wanted by U.S authorities.

We believe putting Ms. Shakur’s name on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist List,” and increasing the $1 million bounty to a total of $2 million, 40 years after the fact, only makes sense in light of recent press reports regarding your administration’s consideration to take Cuba off the U.S. list of nations that allegedly sponsor terrorism – a designation which is so unfounded that it has become an embarrassment to our country.  Opponents of steps towards normalization with Cuba have seized on this aged and disputed case in what we view as a transparent attempt to recast this history into today’s fears, using Assata Shakur as a pawn in their political maneuvering.

The FBI’s participation in this political maneuvering by joining with New Jersey to offer a $2 million bounty is a dangerous act, encouraging someone to try to kidnap her, breaking Cuban law as well as being a violation of International Law. Should the offer be taken seriously by someone, the foreseeable result would be bloodshed, if not also a major international incident.

The FBI’s stated rationale for these actions is also regrettable and dangerous because it equatesradical beliefs favoring fundamental social and economic change, with “terrorism.” These serve to intimidate and chill others who dare to speak out against United States’ domestic and international policies.  In this regard, these actions directly undermine the protections given all citizens under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  

Finally, this decision continues to racialize the United States criminal punishment system, a system that since the enslavement of African peoples has targeted Africans and African Americans for harsher punishments than those given particularly to similarly situated whites.  The accusation of terrorism has fallen prey to this continuing travesty of making the color of “crime,” now the color of “terrorism,” black.  One needs only recall the early reports of who was suspected of the Boston Marathon bombing to support this conclusion: the first reports were of a darker-skinned male, possibly African American.  This message scrolled continuously on CNN for a number of hours and then “African American male” was deleted, leaving darker skinned male.  But the alleged perpetrators were far from “darker skinned.” 

In conclusion, we ask that you stand behind the statements made by Attorney General Holder when he became the Attorney General in 2009 in addressing assistant United States attorneys and make these statements applicable to the FBI:  “Your job is in every case, every decision you make, to do the right thing.  Anybody who asks you to do something other than that is to be ignored.”  The FBI’s recent actions are far from the “right thing” for this country and we urge you to reverse them.

Sincerely,

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