Quickly moved from the middle to the top of my to-read list with the surprising and disturbing addition of her name to the FBI’s “Most-Wanted Terrorists” list earlier this month. The short version of her story is that she was a former Black Panther and BLA member, convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper under highly dubious circumstances. She was eventually broken out of prison and, later, fled to Cuba, where she was granted asylum and continues to live today. The long version is described here, powerfully and convincingly.
Shakur alternates descriptions of her capture, imprisonment, and subsequent trials with the events of her childhood and early adulthood that spurred her to political action. In these more personal chapters, she documents her education and gradual awakening to her own power and to the systems at work around her - she’s a complex person and portrays herself as such. The opening statement for her assault and burglary charges (for which she was rightly acquitted) is one of the most passionate and well-argued pleas for justice I’ve read - she speaks to the injustices committed against her, but she places them in broad historical context, showing that her case is simply one glaring instance resulting from a larger and well-established system of oppression. Frankly, the more research one does on some of the historical events she describes in this statement alone, the more it becomes apparent that not only is what she describes accurate, but the injustices were often worse than she indicates (see the New York City draft riots). Worse still, reading it 40 years later, it becomes apparent how little has changed, and when it has, it's often changed for the worse.
She published this book from Cuba in 1987. Her anger remains palpable, and it’s hard not to share that anger while reading her story. Yes, this is her version of events, so it’s necessarily going to be sympathetic; however, the inconsistent testimony of witnesses and the large amount of forensic evidence do seem to support her story, and her description of the cultural and historical context is accurate. Her inclusion on the FBI list, to me, is truly astonishing, especially with distorted versions of her case presented without context, and it seems clear that there are larger political motivations here. Whether or not you believe her guilty, the discussions her book invites - on race, wealth, the role of government agencies, the American education and prison systems, drug culture - are crucial. Each of these is among our most critical issues, yet they remain below the surface. How can this happen?
Certainly, parts of the story are omitted, and it's hard to buy into the final chapter, an idyllic picture of Cuba where citizens are free and racism is non-existent. Questions remain on both sides. One wonders about her life since this book was published, and why she still remains a political target.