Excerpts from an Interview with Assata Shakur
Excerpts from an Interview with Assata ShakurLa Habana Cuba, Fourteenth Youth Festival
August 3, 1997, Chris Zim for BLU
Q: Where do you think the Movement-the struggle for justice-is heading, and how do you think it could or should go forward?
Assata: Well, from my perspective, in the 1960s and 70s we talked at people; we were very narrow; we were sectarian. We relied on rallies, on passing out leaflets, on trying to organize people. This was necessary, but I think, looking back, that now we need to humanize the Movement. We need to be much broader; we need to have a more creative vision that includes other people and other people's needs.
We need to include children; we need to make space to help them be part of the social change. At Party meetings the kids were always in the back playing games at the table, and we'd shush them up. We had no time for them! We need to get to know each other as human beings; to care about whether people are having problems at home, in their families, and so on.
If we are going to change the world, we need to change ourselves and the way we relate to each other. People are so alienated. They are afraid to say good morning to each other, to say hi, to look at each other in the elevator. It's hell. There's really no community at all. Yet everybody is talking about community.
How do you organize community if there is no community there? Social and revolutionary change is not about the faceless masses. It's about community-about learning from each other and listening to each other, because all of us, no matter how experienced we think we are, have a lot to learn.
Our primary task is to build community in our homes, in our work places, and in our immediate neighborhoods. That's the only way we will ever achieve true revolution in our society.
We've been socialized to believe that unless we see what we do on the 6:00 news, it's not worth it. Forget it. There's been a basic news blackout of worthwhile progressive/alternative stories since 1970! A dog with three ears will make the news, but a gathering of 10,000 for a political rally won't: that's not regarded as a legitimate story.So don't worry about the news. Just keep your sense of opposition alive. Keep talking, and keep organizing…Also, focus on local happenings. I know it's a cliché, but "think globally, act locally" is an important piece of advice. We have to act locally if we're going to be effective. Of course, there's always the problem of splintering, and we need to organize nationally whenever we can.
I won't romanticize the sixties, but it does seem that today's rampant individualism is making it harder than ever to organize. Everything is so separate, so contradictory. There's so little discipline. Society teaches us a dog-eat-dog, me-first mentality. And even if we reject that attitude in our politics, if we're honest with ourselves we have to admit that every one of us acts like this at one time or another on a personal level, even if subconsciously. So the first part of being an activist, in my experience, is changing the person in the mirror. You cannot be dogmatic and talk all the time, also as a group. You cannot always be trying to spread your message to other people. You need to listen, you need to learn, you need to appreciate others-also their differences.
Oppressed people are wounded people. They're disrespected every day. They may be angry, but you have to listen to them. Some times they're misunderstood because they take out their anger and their indignities on each other, in their families; this happens a lot in our black communities. We need to be healed, also on a spiritual level. In the US this was not a possibility for me, but in Cuba it is. If you're black or poor, the US is a war zone. Cuba is the first place I've been able to live in peace…
Q: Is there something that could hold us together? So many people are fighting the same injustices, but they often work against each other.
Assata: Work for unity. But avoid uniformity. Look instead for ways to connect. And don't look for unity to shine down like a light from above. Unity is born from within. Not everybody in the world is going to have the same vision. There will always be divisive issues; we won't all be liberated in the same way. But even if we disagree with each other, we need to respect each other's viewpoints. After all, we're all trying to work for a better future.
Q: Do you have a message for young people in the US?
Assata: Yes. Become more conscious of your identity in the sense of assuming leadership and responsibility. Know your strengths and weaknesses. I'm not saying we need the macho, talking-head type of leadership I saw in the Movement in the 1960s. That had too much to do with the ego and its contradictions. People would say one thing on the podium and then go home and do the opposite. They'd be for freedom in public, but at home they'd be the oppressor-the bourgeoisie. But you have to have confidence.
As the '90s started, I was depressed. Seemed it was just going to be the end of one more bloody, oppressive century. But there is hope. And doesn't the next century belong to you?
Assata Shakur began her political activities in the 1960s while she was going to school in Manhattan and organizing ac-tivities to oppose the Vietnam War. She joined the Panthers and was targeted by COINTELPRO around the time when NYC’s “Panther 21” were accused of conspiring to blow up downtown department stores. Assata’s house was searched and she was continually harassed. The FBI offered immunity if she would co-operate with them, but she decided to go underground. This resulted in a nationwide manhunt led by the NYC police, the FBI, and the Daily News. There was a reward for her capture, dead or alive. She was wanted for several bank robberies, for which she was eventually tried and acquitted more than once. In May 1973, during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike, Assata was shot with her hands in the air and left to die. When the cops realized that she wasn’t dying she was taken to a Jersey hospital. She was chained to the bed, tortured, and denied access to lawyers for many days. After being tried by an all-white jury she was sentenced to life, 30 months, and 30 days. With the help of other anti-imperialist activists she escaped from prison and now lives in exile in Cuba. She firmly believes, as do Mumia and many others, that the US does not have a justice system, but a criminal system.