good glass ceilings

Meet the FBI’s First Most Wanted Lady-Terrorist

Photo: FBI

Today, Joanne Chesimard — better known as Assata Shakur — became the first woman to make the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists. In 1977, an all-white jury convicted Chesinard of killing a New Jersey state trooper, and she was given a life sentence. A former member of the Black Liberation Army, she escaped from prison in 1979 with the help of fellow activists, including her brother Mutulu Shakur, the rapper Tupac’s stepfather. Chesimard inspired Common’s “Song for Assata,” which in turn inspired conservatives to protest Common’s visit to the White House.

Chesimard’s supporters believe that she, like other former members of the Black Panthers Party, was the victim of FBI misconduct through Cointelpro. In the early seventies, she was linked to a string of bank robberies and police killings that prompted a multistate manhunt. Those charges were later dismissed, acquitted, or mistried, but she was wanted for questioning when she, Sundiata Acoli, and Zayd Malik Shakur were pulled over on the New Jersey turnpike for a broken tail light — a confrontation that ended in the shootout that left Trooper Werner Foerster and Zayd Malik Shakur dead.

Photo: Frank Hurley/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Chesimard fled to Cuba, where she received political asylum due to racial persecution and — despite periodic political maneuvering to have her extradited — lived openly, giving interviews and publishing her autobiography. She went back underground in 2005, when she was reclassified as a domestic terrorist and the reward for her capture rose to $1 million. Today, the fortieth anniversary of the killing, the F.B.I. and the state of New Jersey doubled it, contributing another $1 million dollars.

The terrorist attacks on Boston — like the shootings in Newtown and Aurora — are a reminder of the glaring gender imbalance among mass killers. (As if the logical conclusions of women attaining equality would be their equal participation in murder, as opposed to, say, less oppression in general.) But in this particular instance of bad glass-ceiling-breaking, Chesimard seems like something of a token appointment.

Meet the FBI’s First Most Wanted Lady-Terrorist