Today’s activists should heed the story of Assata Shakur

State surveillance is justified by saying ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’, but renewed attempts to capture Shakur show we cannot be complacent


When the FBI announced last year that Assata Shakur had been placed on the most-wanted terrorist list at the age of 65, it felt like a new generation of activists was being given a glimpse of what happened during the heyday of the US counterintelligence programme. The security service clearly still has confidence in our complacency, and given the revelations about the extent of today’s state surveillance, that confidence, appears well-placed.

In the UK, we now know that the British police have been conducting a counterintelligence programme against members of the public they labelled “domestic extremists” for years. During that time, thousands of activists were monitored by undercover officers and informants. We also know that both GCHQ and the NSA are involved in data-mining on a vast scale, with the Tempora and Prism programmes being two examples that we know of. Last week, the data retention and investigatory powers (Drip) bill was cynically pushed through parliament in one day, without members having sufficient time to scrutinise its contents.

Predictably, growing public concern about state surveillance is dismissed with the familiar mantra that “the innocent have nothing to fear”. Of course, history has told us a very different story.

Assata: An Autobiography by Shakur, republished this month, underlines the extent to which she was targeted by Cointelpro, the secret counterintelligence programme.

In the early 1970s, FBI director J Edgar Hoover spent the final years of his life intensifying the campaign against all political activists considered a domestic threat. As a founding member of the Black Liberation Army and former Black Panther, Shakur was targeted and falsely accused in six different criminal cases; all of which she was either acquitted from, or the charges were dismissed.

However, in 1973 she faced a seventh case for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper, and spent the next four years in custody awaiting trial – two of which were spent in solitary confinement within two separate men’s prisons.

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