Opinion: Columnists

Gregory Kane: The rest of the Chesimard story

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Opinion,Gregory Kane,Columnists

Just how bad do folks at the FBI think our memories are?

Last week the FBI added Assata Shakur to its list of Most Wanted Terrorists. She's the first and only woman to achieve such a dubious distinction.

Shakur is also known as Joanne Chesimard, the name the FBI uses when referring to her. In the 1960s, she joined the Black Panther Party, a radical African-American organization that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover designated as the greatest internal threat to the security of the nation.

After things in the BPP went south (more on that later), Shakur/Chesimard was said to have not only joined a group called the Black Liberation Army but to have been its leader. "The queen of the Black Liberation Army" was how some media organizations characterized her.

On May 2, 1973, Chesimard was in a car that two New Jersey state troopers stopped for a traffic violation on the New Jersey Turnpike. Chesimard was riding with two men she identified as Sundiata Acoli and Zayd Shakur.

A firefight broke out between the occupants of the car and the troopers. Zayd Shakur was killed, as was trooper Werner Foerster. The other trooper was wounded.

Chesimard was eventually convicted of Foerster's murder in 1977, but escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979. She turned up in Cuba in 1984 and has been there ever since.

On the 40th anniversary of Foerster's death, FBI Agent Aaron Ford of the agency's Newark, N.J., field office explained why Chesimard had been added to the list of Most Wanted Terrorists.

"Joanne Chesimard is a domestic terrorist who murdered a law enforcement officer execution-style," Ford said. "Today, on the anniversary of Trooper Foerster's death, we want all to know that we will not rest until this fugitive is brought to justice. ... While we can't right the wrongs of the past, we can and will continue to pursue justice no matter how long it takes."

It's interesting that Ford would refer to "right[ing] the wrongs of the past," because in bringing up Chesimard's sins, some might be reminded of the FBI's sins.

Anybody remember COINTELPRO?

Sorry to burst Agent Ford's bubble, but the fact is many of us do. It was an FBI operation that sought to neutralize radical groups.

It ended up being one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in the history of the nation, and that's the best that can be said about it.

Part of the COINTELPRO mission was to drive a wedge between various black militant groups. About 1971 the BPP split into two factions, one dedicated to Huey Newton, who founded the organization, and the other dedicated to Eldridge Cleaver, who was in exile in Algeria.

FBI agents proudly boasted that the split was at least partly their doing. Members of the Cleaver faction eventually formed the Black Liberation Army, whose members ended up killing about a dozen law enforcement officers.

I'll cut straight to the chase: By causing the BPP to split into Newton and Cleaver factions, the FBI practically created the BLA.

And let's accept at face value Ford's claim that Chesimard killed Foerster "execution-style." You might have noticed that, while calling Chesimard a "terrorist," Ford never mentioned that she was wounded in the firefight.

At her trial, at least three defense witnesses, all neurologists, testified that her median nerve had been hit by gunfire, which would have made her incapable of firing a weapon.

Those same witnesses also testified that her clavicle had been shattered by gunfire, probably as she sat in the car with her hands raised.

Nice try, Agent Ford, but some of us don't accept at face value what the FBI tries to sell us. About a year before that gunfight on the turnpike, FBI agents in Los Angeles were helping to frame Panther leader Geronimo Pratt for murder.

Knowing that the agency helped frame Pratt, should we really believe anything the FBI tells us about Chesimard?

Washington Examiner Columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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