Who is Assata Shakur, the FBI's Most Wanted Female Terrorist?


(FBI Handout)This week marked a dubious moment in women's history. On Thursday, the FBI added Assata Shakur, to the list of the country's most wanted terrorists. Shakur, born Joanne Chesimard, became the first female on the list, for incidents that date back forty years. Shakur, now in her 60s, was convicted of killing New Jersey state trooper Werner Foerster and sentenced to life in prison in 1977. She managed to escape and has been a fugitive for the past three decades. But Shakur, who is the step-aunt of Tupac Shakur, never disappeared, in fact she might be one of the most well-known fugitives on the FBI's list. Here is a rough timeline of Shakur's case.

1973: Shakur and two fellow passengers were stopped for a broken tail light on the New Jersey Turnpike. After a heated exchange, they exchanged fire with police officers, and allegedly Shakur shot and killed Foerster. You can read the FBI's account of what happened here. You can also read conflicting accounts from witness reports, collected by a member of Shakur's defense team, here.

1975: Leading Shakur's defense team, for the drawn-out trial, was civil rights activist and lawyer William Kunstler, known for defending the Chicago Seven and the Central Park Five.

1977: Shakur was found guilty of first degree murder, assault and battery of a police officer, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault with intent to kill, illegal possession of a weapon, and armed robbery, according to a statement by the FBI. She was sentenced to life in prison.

1979: She escaped a New Jersey maximum security prison, allegedly aided by the Black Liberation Army—a militant civil rights organization which she joined after leaving the Black Panther party long before her arrest. In November, the New York Times reported her prison break, ushered by three armed men who had commandeered a police van to get her past the prison limits. From there she hid out in safe houses on the East Coast, while her family and friends were tracked tirelessly by authorities in hopes of tracking Shakur down. 

1984: She surfaced in Cuba and remained there in political exile.

1987: She published her autobiography from exile in Cuba, recounting her experiences with corruption in the justice system, and emerged as a prominent critic in the discussion of racial conflicts within the U.S. over the next two decades.

2000: Hip hop artist Common wrote "Song for Assata" and, reflecting on the incident 40 years ago, asked "I wonder what would happen if that would've been me?"

2005: The FBI classified Shakur as a domestic terrorist and added a $1 million bounty for her capture.

2013: On the 40th anniversary of the Foerster's death, the FBI added her to their "most wanted terrorist" list, alongside a roster of suspects in bombing attempts on American soil. It was also announced the reward money for her capture had doubled to $2 million.

New Jersey State Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes called the Shakur's case an "open wound" in the history of state troopers. The fact that she "flaunts" her freedom in exile, according to Fuentes, is particularly stinging for state officials who want closure in the case. On the other end of the spectrum is James Braxton Peterson, Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University, invoked a dark time in our country's history when Black Panthers and political activists were considered national threats to the security. In an essay for The Grio, Peterson calls Shakur a "prosecuted and persecuted" revolutionary. Hundreds of supporters of Shakur have taken to twitter using the hashtag #handsoffassata as a show of support for the controversial figure.

Today she's being called everything from a freedom fighter and a hero to a fugitive cop-killer. No matter where you stand, the biggest question being asked on social media is what actually qualifies her as a terrorist? On Thursday evening, one Twitter user raised the question in so many words: "Can anyone explain FBI rationale for putting Assata Shakur on 'most wanted terrorist' list at all, and why today?" So far, the question—speculation aside—remains unanswered.