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50 years after shootout killed NJ cop, Black power folk hero Assata Shakur has a complex legacy

Published Apr 29, 2023


Published Apr 29, 2023


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Five decades after a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike left a state trooper and a radical Black activist dead, the case remains a flashpoint. Some people know the surviving woman at the center of the story as Joanne Chesimard, a cop killer on the lam. But to others, she’s Assata Shakur, a folk hero of the civil rights movement.

“In so many of the different organizations of Black Lives Matter, they start their meetings with a poem from Assata,” said Donna Murch, a historian at Rutgers University and author of the book “Assata Taught Me.” “The phrase that they use in order to talk about racism is ‘anti-Black violence’ and ‘anti-Blackness.’”

Shakur’s story rankles many in New Jersey, especially those involved with law enforcement, who typically only refer to her legal name, Joanne Chesimard. She was convicted of murdering a state trooper, and she’s living in exile. Those who want to see her returned to live out her sentence believe she got away with killing a cop in 1973.

But despite a racial profiling scandal that forced the state police to enact reforms, the shootout with Black radicals a half-century ago has never seen a formal review from state authorities.

The way the traffic stop began is not under dispute. On May 2, 1973, Shakur and two other members of the Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panther Party, were driving south in a beat-up Pontiac on the New Jersey Turnpike. They were pulled over for a broken taillight by two state troopers. Shots were fired, and Zayd Shakur, a passenger in the back seat, and one trooper, Werner Foerster, were killed. Assata Shakur was shot twice and seriously wounded.

But exactly what happened that night is still contested. James Challender, a retired detective with the state police, recounted his experience of the story to Gothamist a half-century after he first investigated it. He was called to the scene shortly after the shooting that night, and found Assata Shakur lying in the grass near the abandoned Pontiac, he said.

“She had been shot. She was screaming in pain and everything,” Challender said. He went with her to the hospital and processed some of the physical evidence, he said.

The state police say the three Black Liberation Army members, who had been on the run, shot trooper James Harper first. Challender said he believes Assata Shakur shot Foerster point blank with Foerster’s own gun. During Assata Shakur’s 1977 murder trial, a driver who was passing by testified that he noticed the trooper car lights and saw two people wrestling by the side of the road.

Retired New Jersey State Police Detective James Challender stands alongside images of troopers killed in the line of duty. Among them is Werner Foerster, who died in a shootout with Black Liberation Army activists in 1973.

“There was only one person in that shooting scenario that had AB negative blood, and that was Werner Foerster,” Challender said. “That came to be an important factor in the case because part of Chesimard’s [Shakur’s] clothing, especially her socks, were saturated with AB negative blood.”

In her trial, Shakur told a different story. She testified that her friend who was driving got out of the car to present his ID to Foerster, while the other trooper, Harper, came to her window on the passenger side. Harper asked her where they were going, and then suddenly told her to put her hands where he could see them, she said.

“He had a gun in my face, and I put my hands out like this, and in a matter of seconds, I was shot. I mean, it was just, it was like a nightmare,” Shakur said in 1987 on “Like It Is,” a public affairs TV program that focused on Black life, on New York’s ABC affiliate.

Shakur was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury in New Jersey and sentenced to life in prison, plus 33 years.

But in 1979, two men who were visiting Shakur smuggled guns into the New Jersey women’s prison in Clinton. They took two guards hostage, drove off with Shakur in a prison van, then abandoned the van and left the guards unhurt. She turned up several years later in Cuba, where Fidel Castro gave her political asylum. She is believed to be still living there today.

In 1987, she published “Assata: An Autobiography,” which has sold more than half a million copies.

In the book, she describes growing up in Queens and meeting civil rights activists for the first time when she attended Manhattan Community College. She got involved in student government and community organizing, and soon got involved in the Black Panther Party when a chapter first opened in 1968.

But law enforcement agencies targeted the Panthers, especially through the FBI’s Cointelpro, a national program that infiltrated, disrupted and attacked civil rights organizations and leaders. In 1969, the 21 Blank Panther leaders were indicted in New York City, accused by undercover agents of coordinating attacks on two police stations and an education office — though they were later cleared . Later that year in Chicago, police killed two Black Panther members, including Illinois party chair Fred Hampton, spraying more than 100 bullets into an apartment. The raid has been described by several scholars and activists as an assassination.

In her autobiography, Shakur says those incidents led her to flee and live underground, and help form the Black Liberation Army. The group believed it should meet police violence with violence.

Murch, who has studied Shakur’s impact on the Black Lives Matter movement, says her incarceration and refusal to give in inspires many young people today.

“She did the impossible, which is to escape the prison system in the United States and to become a political exile who retains her voice in Cuba. She’s literally a symbol of liberation,” Murch said.

The image of Trooper Werner Foerster hands in New Jersey State Police headquarters alongside those of others killed in the line of duty. Assata Shakur, known to law enforcement by her legal name of Joanne Chesimard, was convicted of his 1973 killing.

The autobiography is taught in college classes, including those by Ashley Farmer, an associate professor of history and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas in Austin.

“I think for the next generation, they have less of a tangible sense of her and what she stood for and what happened to her, and more of a sense of being a revolutionary icon,” Farmer said. “You may not understand every single bit of what transpired in her life or why she is in exile, but you understand her as a figure, or a symbol, or an emblem of somebody who defied and challenged the state.”

But Shakur’s status as a folk hero is a painful subject for many in New Jersey who believe she escaped justice. At state police headquarters in West Trenton, a long corridor has been named the Hall of Honor, and photo portraits of every officer who died in the line of duty cover the wall.

“And here’s Werner Foerster,” Challender said, pointing to his photo with a sigh. Challender remembers being at the hospital when Foerster’s wife, Rosa, arrived to see his body.

“I can still see her screaming today. I couldn’t stop her,” he said.

Challender sees it as an affront that Shakur has not been extradited from Cuba to serve out her sentence – a sentiment shared broadly among New Jersey State Police, who’ve repeatedly called for her return. She remains atop the New Jersey State Police most wanted list. In 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the shooting, the FBI placed her on its own “Most Wanted Terrorism” list.

But Challender isn’t satisfied. He says the power of the U.S. government has not been fully exercised.

“No one really made an effort to get her back. No one wanted to go that extra mile to get her back,” Challender said. “That’s the thing that bothers me the most in this whole case – besides the loss of Foerster and his family and all that – I’m talking about politically speaking, that’s the thing that bothers me the most.”

Still, state troopers have been successful in securing calls for Shakur’s extradition from nearly every top politician in New Jersey in the 43 years since her escape. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who describes himself as progressive, opposed parole for Shakur’s co-defendant, Sundiata Acoli, who is in poor health and was released last year after 49 years in prison. The State Parole Board had blocked his release for 30 years, a legal fight that eventually was decided by the state Supreme Court.

“I am deeply disappointed that Sundiata Acoli, a man who murdered trooper Werner Foerster in cold blood in 1973, will be released from prison,” Murphy said in a statement following the May 2022 court decision.

For 50 years, the case has remained a captivating and divisive story in New Jersey. But in that time, the public’s understanding of the relationship between police — including New Jersey state troopers — and Black communities has changed.

Assata Shakur is escorted from federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, April 20, 1977. Shakur was serving a life sentence after being convicted of murder in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper.

In 1998, four young men on their way to a college basketball tryout were shot during a traffic stop on the Turnpike. They say they were pulled over for no apparent reason, and that the driver accidentally let the car roll backward into the trooper’s bumper.

Danny Reyes was 22 years old and sitting in the passenger seat when a trooper came to his window.

“So he took his baton out and just breaks the window with his baton and that moment, you know, I tried to show him that I wasn’t trying anything funny, so I just showed him my hands and he just cocked the pistol, started firing,” Reyes said in a 2021 News 12 New Jersey interview.

Eleven shots were fired into the van. All four men survived, and eventually the two troopers were fired for falsely accusing the men of attacking them. It prompted a series of lawsuits and a federal investigation that exposed a racial profiling scandal.

The documents their lawyers were able to obtain showed a pattern of racial profiling that led to unconstitutional searches, harassment and sometimes violence.

“It was bigger than just two bad troopers,” Reyes said in the News 12 interview. “It was a whole system.”

The state paid a $13 million settlement to the young men and also settled a lawsuit with the federal government in which the New Jersey State Police agreed to undergo a long list of reforms that would be monitored by a federal judge. The agency was required to change the way troopers were trained, traffic stops were monitored and troopers were required to keep records on the number of Black drivers who were stopped. Several layers of oversight were added to analyze that new data.

When settling lawsuits by the four men, the state attorney general’s office dropped charges against dozens of people who said they were wrongly stopped because of their race.

More recently, the office created a unit to review wrongful convictions. But Shakur doesn’t qualify because the request for a review must come from an incarcerated person. And the revelations about racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike never triggered a rethinking among state authorities about what might have happened that night.

“It’s that one piece of the conversation, of the discourse, that is always left out,” said Jason Williams, a criminology professor in Montclair State University’s Justice Studies Department. “The first light bulb that went off for most people who were watching back when this happened is that this was a pretextual stop.”

The term refers to a police stop under false pretenses — when an officer suspects a more serious crime, and uses an allegation about a mundane infraction to investigate. In the stop at the center of Shakur’s story, the car was pulled over for a broken taillight.

He said Black drivers believed they were being targeted on the Turnpike well before the time of the Shakur shooting.

“It bewilders me why that wasn’t even part of the discussion way back then,” he said.

And even after other high-profile killings by police, like the death of George Floyd, outcry about state violence against Black people is seen as an outlier, he said.

“It’s this sort of ongoing denial of our lived experiences, of our reality that’s part of the sickness,” Williams said. “It’s part of the infection that is police brutality.”


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