Critique of Interview of Assata Shakur with
NBC journalist Ralph Penza
Assata Shakur, in Covert Action Quaterly
[26 October 1998]
In January of 1998, during the Pope's visit
to Cuba, Assata agreed to do an interview with NBC journalist, Ralph
Penza, about her letter to the Pope, her experiences in the NewJersey
court system, and her views on the treatment of Blacks in the U.S.
during the last 25 years. The interview, as edited and broadcast,
read like something out of the Police Gazette. It catapulted Assata
Shakur into the limelight once again, prompting the NJ state Police
to state openly that they are willing to do whatever is necessary
to have her brought back from Cuba It also prompted an unprecedented
intervention by Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Assata
wrote a lengthy critique of the show, which stated, in part:
agreed to do this interview because I saw this secret letter to
the Pope as a vicious, vulgar publicity maneuver on the part of
the New Jersey State Police, and as a cynical attempt to manipulate
Pope John Paul II. I have lived in Cuba for many years,and was completely
out of touch with the sensationalist, dishonest, nature of the establishment
media today. It is worse today than it was 30 years ago. After years
of being victimized by the "establishment" media, it was
naive of me to hope that I might finally get the opportunity to
tell "my side of the Story." Instead of an interview with
me, what took place was a "staged media event" in three
parts, full of distortions, inaccuracies, and outright lies. NBC
purposely misrepresented the facts. Not only did NBC spend thousands
of dollars promoting this exclusive interview series" on NBC,
they also spent a great deal of money advertising this "exclusive
interview" on Black radio stations and also placed notices
in local newspapers... In an NBC interview, Governor Whitman was
quoted as saying that "this has nothing to do with race, this
has everything to do with crime."
Either Governor Whitman is completely unfamiliar
with the facts in my case, or her sensitivity to racism and to the
plight of Black people and other people of color in the United States
is at a sub-zero level...
The NBC story implied that Governor Christine Whitman
raised the reward for my capture based on my interview with NBC.
Whitman claimed that she was writing Janet Reno for federal assistance
in my capture, based on what she saw in the NBC interview. The fact
of the matter is that she has been campaigning since she was elected
into office to double the reward for my capture... Anybody who knows
anything about NJ politics can be certain that her motives are purely
political. She, like Senator Robert Torricelli and several other
opportunistic politicians in NJ, came to power as part-time lobbyists
for the Batista faction-soliciting votes from right-wing Cubans.
They want to use my case as a barrier to normalizing relations with
Cuba, and as a pretext for maintaining the immoral blockade against
the Cuban people.
In what can only be called deliberate deception
and slander, NBC aired a photograph of a woman with a gun in her
hand implying that the woman in the photograph was me. I was not,
in fact, the woman in the photograph... It was a vile, fraudulent
attempt to make me look guilty. NBC deliberately misrepresented
the truth... Not once have the NJ State Police, Governor Whitman,
or NBC come forth and stated that I was not the woman in the photograph,
or that I had been acquitted of that charge...
In a clear attempt to discredit me, Col. Karl Williams
of the NJ State Police was allowed to give blow-by-blow distortions
of my interview. In my interview I stated that on the night of May
2, 1973, I was shot with my arms in the air, then shot again in
Williams stated, "that is absolutely false.
Our records show that she reached in her pocketbook, pulled out
a nine-millimeter weapon and started firing." However, the
claim that I reached into my pocketbook and pulled out a gun, while
inside the car, was even contested by Trooper Harper.
Although in three official reports, and when he
testified before the grand jury, he stated that he saw me take a
gun out of my pocketbook, he finally admitted under cross-examination
that he never saw me with my hands in a pocketbook, never saw me
with a weapon inside the car, and that he did not see me shoot him.
The truth is that I was examined by three medical
specialists: (1) A neurologist who testified that I was paralyzed
immediately after being shot. (2) A surgeon who testified that "It
was absolutely anatomically necessary that both arms be in the air
for Mrs. Chesimard to receive the wounds." The same surgeon
also testified that the claim by Trooper Harper that I had been
crouching in a firing position when I was shot was "totally
anatomically impossible." (3) A pathologist who testified that
"There is no conceivable way that it [the bullet] could have
traveled over to hit the clavicle if her arm was down." He
said it was impossible to have that trajectory. The prosecutors
presented no medical testimony whatsoever to refute the above medical
In an obvious maneuver to provoke sympathy for
the police, the NBC series juxtaposed my interview with the weeping
widow of Werner Foerster. While I can sympathize with her grief,
I believe that her appearance was deliberately included to appeal
to people's emotions, to blur the facts, to make me look like a
villain, and to create the kind of lynch-mob mentality that has
historically been associated with white women portrayed as victims
of Black people. In essence, the supposed interview with me became
a forum for the New State Police, Foerster's Widow and the obviously
hostile commentary of Ralph Penza...
As I watched Governor Whitman's interview, the
one thing that struck me was her "outrage" at my joy about
being a grandmother, and my "quite nice life," as she
put it, here in Cuba. While I love the Cuban people and the solidarity
they have shown me, the pain of being torn away from everybody I
love has been intense. I have never had the opportunity to see or
to hold my grandchild. If Governor Whitman thinks that my life has
been so nice,that 50 years of dealing with racism, poverty, persecution,
brutality, prison, underground, exile, and blatant lies has been
so nice, then I'd be more than happy to let her walk in my shoes
for a while so she can get a taste of how it feels. I am a proud
Black woman, and I'm not about to get on the television and cry
for Ralph Penza or any other journalist, but the way 1 have suffered
in my lifetime, and the way my people have suffered, only God can
bear witness to...
It has been a long time since I have lived inside
the United States. But during my life-time I have seen every prominent
Black leader, politician, or activist come under attack by the establishment
When African Americans appear on news programs,
they are usually talking about sports or entertainment, or they
are in handcuffs. When we have a protest, they ridicule it, minimize
it, or cut the numbers of the people who attended in half. The news
is big business and it is owned and operated by affluent white men.
Unfortunately, they shape the way that many people see the world,
and even the way people see themselves.
Too often Black journalists and other journalists
of color mimic their white counterparts. They often gear their reports
to reflect the foreign policies and of the domestic policies of
the same people who are oppressing their people. In the establishment
media, the bombing and murder of thousands of innocent women and
children in Libya or Iraq or Panama is seen as "patriotic,"
while those who fight for freedom, no matter where they are, seen
as "radicals," "extremists," or "terrorists."
Today Assata Skakur's voice remains fresh and strong
She refuses to be silenced even in exile. She poses even more of
a threat as her messages are read on the Internet or in magazines
like Covert Action Quarterly. Concerned about issues particularly
those which affect the youth of this country, she extols.
Like most poor and oppressed people in the United
States, I do not have a voice. Black people, poor people in the
U.S. have no real freedom of speech, no real freedom of expression,
and very little freedom of the press. The Black press and the progressive
media have historically played an essential role in the struggle
for social justice.
We need to continue and to expand that tradition.
We need to create media outlets that help to educate our people
and our children, and not annihilate their minds. I am only one
woman. I own no TVstations, or radio stations, or newspapers. But
I feel that people need to be educated as to what is going on, and
to understand the connection between the news media and the instruments
of repression in America.
All I have is my voice, my spirit, and the will
to tell the truth. But I sincerely ask those of you in the Black
media, those of you in the progressive media, those of you who believe
in truth and freedom, to publish my side of the story and to let
people know what is happening.
We have no voice, so you must be the voice of the
voiceless. Free all Political Prisoners.
I send you Love and Revolutionary Greetings From
Cuba, One of the Largest, Most Resistant and Most Courageous Palenques
(Maroon Camps) That has ever existed on the Face of this Planet.