Chris Christie Still Can't Keep His #HandsOffAssata 32 Years After Her Escape to Cuba
It's the same old song, but with a different feeling since President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 80 years: Chris Christie wants Assata Shakur back in a prison cell ASAP.
In a salty op-ed for the Record, the New Jersey governor and maybe kidnapping victim called once again for the extradition of 68-year-old Shakur, an activist and fugitive from the U.S. government who fled to Cuba in 1984.
"For more than three decades, the Cuban government has given safe harbor and refuge to a domestic terrorist," Christie wrote, "a cop killer who was duly tried and convicted by a jury of her peers, sentenced to imprisonment, and who fled justice rather than pay for her crimes.
"I urge the president to do what common sense and decency requires — that he demand the return of convicted murderer Joanne Chesimard," he added.
Background: Assata Shakur, born Joanne Byron in New York City, was convicted in 1977 for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster.
The incident occurred during a late night traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1973, in which Foerster and Assata Shakur's associate, Zayd Malik Shakur, were both killed. Another trooper was wounded, and Shakur was shot while sitting with her hands up.
Despite four years of mistrials, changes of venue, discredited witness testimony and a wealth of evidence suggesting her innocence, Shakur was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In 1979, she escaped from New Jersey's Clinton Correctional Facility for Women; she was granted political asylum in Cuba in 1984.
Today, the issue of the 68-year-old's continued freedom is in the public eye once again. Yet in the course of the president's meetings with Raúl Castro last week, the topic of Shakur's extradition appears not to have come up.
Enter Christie — the New Jersey governor and failed Republican presidential candidate who's been calling for the activist's recapture for years. In 2015, as the United States' diplomatic relations with the Caribbean nation began to warm, Christie famously called for Newark Liberty International Airport to ban all flights to Cuba until Shakur was returned to a U.S. prison.
But public opinion has been kind to the escaped radical. In the 32 years since her departure, Shakur has gained icon status among many activists in the U.S. — even becoming the namesake of one group, Assata's Daughters, at the forefront of black organizing in Chicago.
Shakur is now seen as perhaps the highest-profile surviving victim of the U.S. government's COINTELPRO counterintelligence campaign — which dedicated much of its energy during the 1960s, '70s and '80s to dismantling black activist groups — and is the subject of a long-running campaign, #HandsOffAssata, spearheaded by activists to secure her continued safety.
Shakur was being tracked by law enforcement long before her conviction in 1977, according to her autobiography, Assata. "I think it suggests to us that there had been a long pattern, at least from 1971 to 1973 in which police authorities and the FBI were actively trying to catch her doing something," professor Alondra Nelson of Columbia University told NPR. "But notably, all of these cases were dropped for lack of evidence."
Many supporters say Shakur's persecution continues today. In 2013, she became the first woman added to the FBI's Most Wanted list, with a $1 million reward attached to her head.