In the year 2000 the project of Pastors For Peace, run by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, had the opportunity to interview Assata Shakur, a Black revolutionary from the United States, in Havana.
According to Karen Lee Wald, some parts of this transcript had to be summarized when questions or answers couldn’t be heard because of problems with the tape recorder:
[In the lost excerpts] Assata spoke about how she became a Black Panther in the 1960s, and was targeted by the FBI. She spoke of the role of the press in collaborating with this campaign until she and other compañeros were finally forced underground. She told how she was captured in 1970, and accused of killing a New Jersey policeman although medical testimony showed that she had been shot twice — once with her arms up in the air — and so could not possibly have shot anyone after that. Nevertheless, she was convicted by an all-white racist jury to a sentence of life-plus. She spent 6.5 years in prison, two of them in solitary confinement.
Some corrections were also made by Assata afterwards.
Assata managed to escape prison and find political refuge in Cuba. She has been on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list since 2013 (as Joanne Deborah Chesimard), and was the first woman to be added to this list.
Assata: In 1979 I was liberated by some comrades and friends, and in 1984 I came to Cuba, where I was united with my daughter and was able to bond with her for the first time. And to begin healing the wounds. Here, I worked, studied, mothered and continued to be an activist.
I found that Cuba was much different from the US; its government was genuinely trying to erase racism. But racism had grown out of slavery and exploitation and was very hard to eradicate quickly and completely. Cuba has been undergoing a process to eliminate racism.
Cuba, like every other place, has got to struggle against the whole racist ideology that it inherited. The culture, the eurocentric way of viewing the world where Europe is this big [shows with her hands] and Africa and Asia and Latin America are these little microscopic dots on the map. That’s a process that has to be helped and contributed to by everybody, because the whole way the world is viewed now — the way that science, literature and history are used — is totally distorted and eurocentric. In order for the world to be free of racism, that is a struggle that has to be waged on all fronts by all people.
I think that, more than anything, the whole cultural imperialism that is going on today where people — whether they’re in Senegal, South Africa, Indonesia — are looking at this USA vision of the world that is totally distorted, totally unreal, that really diminishes and minimalizes the cultural values and wisdom of people all over the world, and sells this kind of McDonald-ized vision of the world that everybody is supposed to aspire to.
Cuba is very important in that struggle, because Cuba is not only talking about racism in abstract terms, but connecting it with imperialism, which is the underlying motor of racism today. The underlying reason that racism keeps on being promoted in all of its various forms today. I think anybody who is honestly struggling against racism must struggle against imperialism and vice versa.
Pastors: You could have gone to many countries for asylum. Why did you choose Cuba?
Assata: I decided to come to Cuba for a variety of reasons.
One, because it was close to the United States, and I considered it to be a very principled country. It has a long history of supporting victims of political repression. Not only of people in the United States, like Huey Newton, Robert Williams, Eldridge Cleaver (a long list of people), but also people who were victims of political repression in other places, like Chile, the apartheid government of South Africa, Namibia, etc. I felt this was a place that held the principle of internationalism very close to heart, so I felt comfortable coming here. It was geographically close, so I wouldn’t be separated from my family and friends. And I really wanted to see for myself what happens in a place that is trying to build socialism, that’s trying to construct some form of social justice. That’s trying to feed people, to make health care and education a right.
When I came I had some very silly ideas, to be honest. My fantasy of Cuba was that everybody was going to be going around looking like Fidel, with green uniforms — it was very different from my vision of how Cuba really was. People in Cuba are really very varied and everybody has his or her own personal style. I also found that people had all kinds of levels of consciousness, all kinds of levels of education, but that Cubans in general were very educated politically. I could go sit on a bus and get into a conversation with someone and find that person had a wealth of knowledge. And energy! What most impressed me about Cuba was the optimism.
There are 11 million people on this island who have an incredibly optimistic vision of the world. My mother put it into words most clearly when she said: “If these people had not won, had not taken power, everybody would think they were insane!” [laughs]. People would think the whole revolutionary process was totally insane. How dare these 11 million people on this little island think they can change the way that this planet is going? How dare they think they can stand up against the United States, that they can have their own system? But that is the kind of magic of Cuba — that people have this optimism, this pride, this belief — not only in themselves but in other people.
That to me has been one of the psychic vitamins that has fed me since I’ve been here and that has taught me the power of people. I was a member of the Black Panther Party, and we used to say “Power to the People,” but here in Cuba is where I’ve seen that put into practice, where I’ve seen that internalized by people in such a way that people feel empowered to build this planet and to change it. And to contribute and feel privileged to do that, to feel that when they go to sleep at night that all is not in vain. There is some sense in living on this planet. That there is some beauty in constructing something better and giving to other people. And work is a source of pride, not “Oh, I’ve gotta go to work in the morning.” It’s another way of looking at the world and another way of living on this planet.
Pastors: Describe the experience of being in Cuba, being exiled here. To what extent have you been able to continue being the political person you were in the United States?
Assata: Well, exile is difficult. Anyone who says it’s nothing, that it’s easy, is simplifying things. Exile for me was hard. When I came here I spoke very little Spanish, like two words! I couldn’t communicate, and people would talk to me like I was a blooming idiot. Like, how did they know? The only conversation they could have with me were simple things like “Hello, how are you?” There was no way I could express my personality in Spanish, tell jokes, be specific, describe anything. It was a hard adaptation process. But I went through it and in some ways I guess I continue to go through it.
For me personally Cuba has been a healing place. When I first got here I had no sense that I had to heal or anything. When you’re struggling for your life and you’re in the midst of things, you don’t feel all the blows.
But after awhile I began to see that oppressed people — just by being oppressed — suffer serious wounds. You might go into a store, and somebody might follow you around the store, and you would have a choice of how to react. You could confront them and say “Why are you following me around the store?” or you could say to yourself “Well, I came here to buy some socks, so let me just concentrate on buying the socks.” But you still feel the pain. The obvious racism before had affected me, and in addition to that — prison, torture — my whole life had created wounds, scars in me, that in Cuba I was able to find a space to begin to heal. To begin to think, “Yeah, this happened,” and I can look at it and see it for what it was but not be there, not be destroyed by it, not be turned into something bitter and evil by it. And not be like my enemies, because I think that the greatest betrayal that a revolutionary can participate in is to become like the people you are struggling against. To become like your persecutors, your oppressors, I think that is a betrayal and a sin.
I think that people who want to change this planet have to seriously understand that as human beings we have to work to be good. I’m saying that in many ways: good at what we do, better people, better in the way we related to people, that we treat other people. Better in our ability to outreach to people. Better in so many ways. And the wounds that are inflicted on our families, on ourselves, we have to heal. We have to work within our families, within our communities, within our neighborhoods, to make them livable.
My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units.
They were afraid of interaction, of contact, they were very lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here.
One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbors, about how you want to live on this planet.
Pastors: Some people have voiced concern that the end of the blockade will bring many negative things from the United States to Cuba. What do you think about the blockade ending?
Assata: I think that it’s all positive. I think that any time anybody gets rid of oppression, intervention, exploitation, cruelty — that’s positive. I think that the effects of lifting the blockade are all positive.
Now that’s another question from the effects of exposure to US consumerism, violence, militaristic culture, greed, institutionalized sexual exploitation, Barbie-doll vision of women — those are different things. One thing is lifting the blockade; the other is cultural imperialism, materialism, etc. Tourism, for example, has affected Cuba, because tourists come and they bring racist, sexist ideas. They bring a whole vision that there are rich people all over the world and that’s the way it should be — you know?
The only way to struggle against that is ideological struggle in terms of values. And also improving the economy. People here being able to say, “You have your vision of the world but we have ours, and we are committed to ours.” That’s a struggle of ideas, of values. And hopefully not only in Cuba, but all over the world, people are saying that this kind of McDonald’s, Barbie-doll culture that is being pushed by the United States and other big powers, is a very empty, sad, alienating kind of culture, and there are much richer values on this earth.
Pastors: How did you get involved in the struggle and become an activist?
Assata: Well, basically, it was hard not to. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the 60s — not to idealize the 60s, but there was a lot of political activism going on.
I had dropped out of school and was working at this terrible 9-to-5 drudge clerk-type job. I was miserable and not going anywhere. So I decided to go to school. I was in school like two weeks or something and my whole world changed!
First of all I met all of these wonderful people who were doing things and were active and positive. Then I started to learn about myself. I grew up in the United States totally ignorant of the history of African people in the United States, of the literature. I knew about the music and parts of the culture, but in terms of the history of African people I knew nothing. So all of a sudden I was exposed to these people who were talking about Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Du Bois — so many people — and it was like waking up from a semi-sleep. It was like saying, “Oh, wow! We were there; we struggled, we resisted!” For me as a Black person, it was like coming into touch with the reality of my ancestors, my history.
I had grown up at a time when people were being lynched, being attacked with water hoses. Becoming active and learning a different way of viewing my life was a healthy reaction to what I was seeing every day. I actually believed then and still believe that activism is fun! I think that the movement has done more for me as a human being than I will ever be able to do for the movement, because there’s something nice about being able to go to sleep at night saying “You know, tomorrow I’m gonna get up and I’m gonna do this and I’m gonna do that…”
I think that being an activist on this planet is a privilege and a pleasure.
Pastors: Could you talk about the Black Panther program? I know that it influenced other activist groups like the American Indian Movement. How could we use some of those ideas? And could you also tell us about the methodology the FBI used to try to infiltrate and destroy these movements?
Assata: The Black Panther Party had a Ten Point Program and Platform. We talked about the right to control our communities, to be free from capitalist exploitation, to be free from induction into the military, the right to food, housing, clothing, jobs, and freedom. The BPP was an anti-imperialist, pro-people party — not a racist party. It participated in coalitions with all progressive organizations, with Puerto Rican, Chicano, Asian, and other liberation movements all over the world.
Because of this, the BPP came under siege by the police. It became the number one target of the FBI COINTELPRO program. The FBI framed people on false charges, murdered people, including murdering them in their beds as they did with Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
Pastors: What advice would you have for activists in the US?
Assata: First of all, we need to put real democracy on the agenda in the US, because there is no real democracy there now. To go along with the notion that there is democracy in the United States, is like perpetuating the fairy tale that the emperor has clothes on.
I also think we need to treat activism as fun — because it is fun. We need to develop a political style that’s interesting and fun and personal, to celebrate together.
Pastors: I’d like to sort of pull this back to Cuba.
The reasoning behind the debate about whether or not to pass a law allowing the sale of food and medicine to Cuba is because the United States has laws imposing unilateral sanctions against trade with what are defined, by the US government, as “terrorist nations.” Cuba is on the list of “terrorist nations,” but not because it has put bombs on civilian airlines that exploded in mid-air — that’s what has been done to Cuba. The most important reason that has been given for a number of years now about why Cuba is on that list, why the US calls it a “terrorist” nation, is because Cuba gives political asylum to individuals who the US calls “terrorists.” And the US government has demanded that Assata and others who have been given political asylum be returned to the United States.
The question that has been raised often is, are you worried that Cuba will turn you back over to the US government in order to resolve this problem? And if you don’t think that Cuba will do that, what does that mean to you?
Assata: I think, first of all, I trust Cuba as a principled country. Cuba’s strength is that it has been steadfast in its commitment to the principles of liberation, freedom, of resistance to the kind of institutionalized terrorism that the United States government does every day. The US has attacked countries like Grenada, Panama, Libya — the list of victims of US terrorism is almost infinite. And the US government’s participation in torture, whether in El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, is well-documented and widely known.
I believe Cuba’s strength has been its denouncing that kind of terrorism, torture. It does this politically not only by providing asylum for exiles from terrorist regimes but also fighting in the context of the United Nations Organization, in world organizations, in denouncing all kinds of terrorist torture in governmental policies.
All of the maneuvers by the US government to keep the blockade alive is a manipulation by the US government because “Cuba poses a threat.” The real reason Cuba poses a threat has nothing to do with my being here or anyone else being here. It’s because Cuba is an example of a country that is actively fighting against imperialist domination and insists on its own right to self-determination and sovereignty. The US government’s most acute fear is that other countries are going to follow the Cuban example. They want everybody to know that, if you follow this example, we will attack you in every way that we can. That is the reality as I see it about the blockade and why it is being continued.
The Miami Mafia (as everybody here calls them) has some input into that, but I believe it is not the money the Miami Mafia contributes to both parties that is making US policy what it is. It is the United States’ government’s insistence on being able to control the world, to tell all the people how to live, to export their version of “dollarocracy” to everybody else and to make every country in the world subservient to the interests of big business.
I think that as long as Cuba continues to be strong, I have nothing whatsoever to fear from the Cuban people. In fact I think I have much, much, much to gain in understanding how a people can unite, how people can be strong, and how people can take a little piece of earth and try to mold that piece of art into a work of art and a work of love.
Pastors: Can you comment on the importance of religion and spirituality?
Assata: I think that spirituality is important for all people to develop. I don’t mean there necessarily has to be a religious aspect to spirituality. Some people are spiritual in a religious way, other people are spiritual in their work and in their art and in their treatment of other people.
In my case, spirituality has been important to me because at periods in my life there’s been very little else that I’ve had going. I’ve actually needed to call on, to feel the forces of good in this universe to be able to survive. I’ve always been a student of different ways of looking at the world, different religions. That’s been part of my survival mechanism, and also part of my curiosity as a person — because I believe that some people spell “good” with two o’s and some people spell it with one — and there shouldn’t be a contradiction between that.
In Cuba I was able to broaden my vision of spirituality. Here, for the first time, I became aware of the African and African-Cuban religions, and began to study them and see how people interacted and made very common things — rocks and leaves and shells — into things that were very precious. I saw how people respected history, not only in terms of the revolutionary government preserving history.
Because I think that one of the great things that the Cuban revolution has done is preserve history. I came here and there’s a museum called the Museum of the Revolution. I got to one little case and there were these shoes of one of the revolutionary heroes who died before the victory. And as I looked at those shoes, tears began to come out of my eyes, because this was someone who gave his life for the Revolution. So the Revolution didn’t have this person, but made sure that this person was remembered.
And in the African religions, one of the things that was very important to me was that somehow the struggle of so many slaves is remembered. The ancestors are remembered. All of my experience of studying religion, studying spirituality, studying natural healing, traditional medicine, has kind of enriched my vision of the world. Not only seeing reality as this moment, but as a culmination of all of the history behind us, and all of the fruit that hopefully we will be able to grow from the seeds that we are trying to plant now, of goodness and peace and beauty and equality.
Pastors: In the movement to free Mumia Abu Jamal in the US we’ve seen increasingly repressive tactics against the protestors, jailings and fines against protestors. One of the caravanistas who is usually with us had her passport taken away from her, she cannot be here in Cuba this week because she participated in a protest in support of Mumia last summer. What can you say about where the movement in support of Mumia stands right now?
Assata: Looking at the repression from Cuba is like looking at Martians. Whether it was in Seattle or Washington or at the Conventions, the visual image looks like these space monsters that are attacking people. Because you don’t see that here! Nobody here lives that reality. And people in the United States take that reality as normal.
The survival of the movement around Mumia is absolutely one of the most important struggles that needs to be waged, that must be waged right now. And it is more and more obvious that the US government is willing to… I don’t know, to set extraordinary bail for acts of civil disobedience. Some of the fines and bails have been out of this world in a so-called “free country.”
But in spite of that, I think that what the government can’t do is squash everybody. So what the main thrust needs to be right now is to incorporate as many people as possible into the struggle to save Mumia, and to do whatever is needed to save that man’s life.
Because Mumia is not just one person. Mumia represents, at this particular time in history, opposition to the United States government. He represents opposition to the prison-industrial complex.
The death penalty is used in such a blatantly racist way in the United States. There is no way that can be defended under any kind of definition of justice by anybody.
I think that struggling to save Mumia’s life will save many other people’s lives, and in that struggle we need to have a new definition of what justice is. A new definition of how people are treated in the society. And how people are not some kind of disposable item that you throw away, you destroy. You have a government that is sentencing 20-year-olds to life in prison without parole, for drug offenses. When you’re 20 years old and you sell not even a huge quantity of drugs — we’re not talking about the dons or the godfathers or anybody else, we’re talking about small quantities of drugs, and they write in the newspapers “this is a drug kingpin” and they sentence this person to life without parole — what kind of reality is that creating? What kind of future for the United States is that creating? If these people ever get out, who will they be? After years of watching beatings, tortures, suffering… You know what I’m saying?
So I think the struggle around Mumia is important, to defend all of those people who are struggling against this system. I think that the more that people feel they can win that struggle, that they can go to their neighbors, that they can have signs on their blocks, that they can do things where they live, and not make it so abstract. Bring it home, take it to work, put a sign where you work. Take it to your church, to make it more and more a people’s struggle. I think people’s struggles are the only ones that in the long run cannot be defeated.
Pastors: [Inaudible question about media manipulation.]
Assata: [Inaudible, discussing how the US portrayed Grenada as a danger to its security.]
Grenada has about 100,000 people.
I remember Ronald Reagan holding up this map, an aerial map of an airport, and saying this was gonna be a military airport that was gonna threaten the people of the United States. And actually they convinced a huge amount of people that Grenada, a little, tiny island, that wasn’t even the size of Brooklyn, was a threat to the United States government! And people really believed it. It was like convincing people to believe in the tooth fairy. [Laughter.]
So people have to be aware of how the media manipulates the way we think. Because they have really created a situation where all the US government has to do is say that such-and-such a government is terrorist, and they can wipe people off the map! The language that is being used in the media today is incredible.
I must have been about 14 years old when I read “1984.” It never occurred to me that anyone would name a nuclear missile “Peacekeeper.” It never occurred to me that thousands of people would be killed in the name of “peace-keeping.” But that is what is happening today.
They have referred to the deaths of 200,000 people in Iraq as “collateral damage.” How can you justify that? They are making a language that is a callous language of imperialism, and we are using it. That doesn’t mean we are going along with their language, but that we have not developed our own. The average person living in the US may not even be aware that those are 200,000 women, children, babies that are dead, and they are not even called human beings. They are called “collateral damage.” “Friendly fire” — what the hell is that? It is sickening when you listen to it, but you are inundated by it.
Because they’ve developed these code words, they have been incorporated into the language of politics, and people see that as normal. Just as they see the police dressed up as Martians beating people up as “normal.” So the abnormal, the sick, the vicious have become more and more interwoven into the violent culture of the United States. Into the way news is seen, into the way movies are seen.
I watched this movie, they had it on TV here, called “Instinct.” Black actor Cuba Gooding, a very good actor, is playing the psychologist, and his patient is this white anthropologist who has been extradited from some African country for killing three people. And Cuba Gooding is trying to get at the roots of what has made this man “mad.” The man has a relationship with gorillas that he’s been studying and is beginning to bond with gorillas; he finds that the gorillas have this good gorilla way of living. And this anthropologist becomes like a hero in this movie. And he’s talking about what liberation is, how gorillas have achieved a stage of liberation, although you are never clear what he means by that.
And because this guy stands up to this system in prison in which the roughest prisoner gets a turn to go out on the exercise yard; they deal out a deck of cards and the one who gets the ace gets to go out. And the one who is the strongest and the most evil takes the ace and always goes out into the yard. So this anthropologist stands up against this strong guy — who also happens to be black — and he becomes the hero of the prison. In the end he escapes. And he’s like this great white hero who escapes.
And nowhere in the whole movie, there is not one word about these three people he killed. All three of them were Africans, and they were portrayed as poaching on the animals, capturing the gorillas. And this guy kills them because of the gorillas.
In the way that this whole history is told, we feel so much for this guy. We begin to love him; he becomes the hero, the symbol of liberty and justice. He and his relationship to the gorillas become principal, and the three Africans that he killed are totally irrelevant.
And from the beginning to the end of the movie, that’s the way it goes. And I’m looking at this and thinking, “this is incredible!” When Malcolm X created ‘tricknology’ as a word to describe how the mind can be twisted and distorted and manipulated into believing that the enemy is the victim and the victim is the enemy — the United States is a master of it! You have a bill “Feed Cuba! Food for Cuba!” that not only tightens the blockade, makes things harder for the Cuban people, and they say “oh, this is a wonderful thing to open trade with Cuba.” And they have people believing it.
We’re living in a very tricky world, and unless we become analytical and expose the tricknology, people will become sucked into that. It is very easy, it is very, very easy.
Pastors: Cuba has been fighting against globalization. What do you think the potential for the anti-globalization movement is?
Assata: I think that the movement against the policies of the World Bank, of the IMF, is very important. People are really beginning to see the mechanisms of imperialism. When colonialism existed people could see colonialism. When racial segregation existed in its apartheid form, people could see the “whites only” signs. But it’s much more difficult to see the structures of neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, neo-slavery.
I think that the movement against the World Bank, against the globalization process that is happening, is very positive. We need a globalization, a globalization of people who are committed to social justice, to economic justice. We need a globalization of people who are committed to saving this earth, to making sure that the water is drinkable, that the air is breathable.
When I was a child, if someone had talked to me about buying water, I would have thought it was a joke. If we are not committed to saving this earth we will be buying designer air filters and gas masks with little Nike swishes on them. [Laughter, applause.] The people who are running this planet are insane — they are literally destroying it. I don’t know where they think they’re gonna drink water, breathe air… This planet is a wonderful place, but a vulnerable place. And they are making and implementing policies that are destroying the earth in all kinds of ways.
The movement against the kind of global assassination that is going on, in terms of whole countries — because every African country is facing an ecological disaster in terms of becoming deserts, in terms of fuel, Africa is one of the richest continents in the world but its people are the poorest in the world. A lot of that poverty is directly related to the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. Ending those policies is very important not only to Cuba, but to people all over the world who want to see their children grow up and have access to health care, to live somewhere that is not a desert, where they can drink water, where they can breathe air. So I think that movement against the IMF and World Bank policies is one of the most important, most optimistic struggles that is going on at this moment.
Pastors: In 1965 US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said the Pentagon was planning for 100 years into the future. Most of us don’t even plan for 5 years ahead. I don’t know how Cuba is coming along with it’s planning. But most of us are always reacting to what the world powers do. What is our pro-active plan for 5 or 10 years from now?
Assata: I wish I had those answers. [Laughs.]
I believe that the first part of planning is to really believe that you can put your plan into practice. And I think that one of the problems that exists in the United States and in many places in the world is that people don’t believe that they can make a difference. So a lot of times we’re defeated before we even start.
We’ve become consumers of a world vision, of Kentucky Fried Chicken, of McDonalds, and we’re convinced that Kentucky Fried Chicken tastes better than any other thing, or that a hamburger made by McDonalds is something special other than a piece of greasy meat and some bread. McDonald’s is an idea we’ve been sold on.
And we’ve also consumed the idea of powerlessness, of the idea that “you can’t fight City Hall”; of “you can’t change things, the government is strong, that’s just the way things are.” And as long as we continue to have that vision of the world, the planning of a better world is going to be a hard nut to crack.
So I think that one of the things as a step towards the phase that we plan years and years ahead is to actually believe that this world is redeemable, changeable; that we can eradicate poverty, that we can eradicate alienation, that we can eradicate this tremendous consumerism, this disease that we have to buy everything that exists, everything that the television says we have to have.
We have to have a vision of the world we want to make in 100 years. And maybe when we have that vision, when we convince enough people that that is a realistic vision, and that the opposite vision is basically that if we don’t do something, a hundred years from now this world is gonna be so destroyed, so raped and ravished that we won’t have much of a world to save.
Internalizing the importance of this century, and how much work we have to do, will give us at least some ways to invent a system of planning. I think it’s really hard to plan if you don’t believe you can implement those plans. I have faith in our ability to transform this world from a hellish reality, to one that will eventually lead us toward heaven. [Applause.]