Sundiata Acoli was ordered released on parole by a state appeals court Monday, the uncertain finale in 40 year old case that still evokes deep emotions. Acoli was convicted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper along with fellow Black Panther Party activist Assata Shakur, formerly Joanne Chesimard.
Acoli, then known as Clark Edward Squire, graduated from Prairie View A&M in 1956 and spent several years working in computer-oriented industries before joining the Harlem Black Panther Party, an organization through which he worked as a community activist, rallying behind such issues as housing, schools and police brutality.
During this time Acoli and his cohorts were targets of the FBI’s growing counterintelligence program that strove to infiltrate and thwart militant Black organizations like the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army, both with which Acoli was affiliated.
The FBI’s most promising tactic perhaps was to implicate Black leaders in crimes they didn’t commit. It would be one of several ways the criminal justice system served to undermine the civil rights movement.
This approach was used so brazenly on Assata Shakur that between 1973 and 1977 she was indicted ten times, resulting in ten criminal trials. They charged her with two bank robberies, a kidnapping, and the attempted murder of two Queens police officers, but the evidence was so flimsy, she was acquitted of all charges.
As for Sundiata Acoli, in 1969, he was tried in the now infamous “Panther 21″ case in which New York authorities arrested 21 members of the Black Panther Party for conspiring to commit “terrorist” acts. After two years, all of the defendants were acquitted.
Then on May 2, 1973 tragedy struck. Assata, Acoli, and friend Zayd Malik Shakur, were driving on the NJ Turnpike when there car was stopped by state troopers allegedly for a faulty tail light.
According to Shakur’s account, the officer pointed a gun at them and demanded that they exit the car and stand with their arms up.
I complied and in a split second, there was a sound that came from outside the car. There was a sudden movement and I was shot once with my arms held up in the air, and then once again from theback. Zayd Malik Shakur was later killed, Trooper Werner Foerster was killed, and even though Trooper Harper admitted that he shot and killed Zayd Malik Shakur, under the New Jersey felony murder law, I was charged with killing both Zayd Malik Shakur, who was my closest friend and comrade, and charged in the death of trooper Forester.
According to court papers, Foerster was shot when Acoli’s gun went off during a struggle. To this day, Acoli says he blacked out after being struck by a bullet and remembers little from that day.
The state argued that Assata Shakur then took Foerster’s gun and shot the trooper twice in the head with it while he laid on the ground.
Key medical evidence refuted that claim, based on the location of her bullet wound and subsequent nerve damage. According to testimony from neurosurgeron Dr. Arthur Turner Davidson, after the second bullet severed a median nerve in her right arm, she would have been physically unable to pull a trigger.
Still, an all white jury convicted her on two counts of murder and 6 counts of assault. To be clear, they didn’t convict her because she pulled the trigger, but because she was present when both men died, and thus considered an accomplice.
Shakur’s subsequent escape from prison is now the stuff of legend. In 1984 she surfaced in Cuba where Fidel Castro granted her political asylum.
But New Jersey authorities have stopped at nothing to extradite the aging fugitive. In 1997 ,the superintendent of the NJ state Police wrote a letter to Pope John Paul. In 1998, the State Department allegedly offered to lift the Cuban embargo in exchange for the return of 90 US political exiles, especially Shakur.
Most recently, in 2012, the FBI put her on the Most Wanted Terrorists list with a $2 million reward for information leading to her capture. It was the latest, brazen attempt settle a score 4 decades old. Consider the national implications of Cuba harboring a terrorist, versus a fugitive. We’ve gone to war with countries for harboring terrorists. Is this woman really worth all of that?
Assata Shakur is nothing short of an obsession for the New Jersey state police and a deep source of resentment. She represents everything that the FBI and local police agencies fought against during the civil rights era. She was a Black, female, radical capable of leading an insurrection. Not only did she undermine dominant notions of Black womanhood, she ultimately outsmarted her captors, joining the ranks of just 7 successful prison escapees in the 20th century (most are captured within days). And to make matters worse, she took refuge with America’s sworn communist enemy.
And that’s why Acoli’s parole is being treated as a threat. Not only are authorities still bitter about Shakur’s escape, but there is lurking paranoia that a freed Acoli will be a living, breathing, idol. There is fear that the septuagenarian may still have the will and the power to incite.
I doubt it. I think the man just wants to live out the final years of his life in peace, but in spite of Monday’s ruling, that may never happen.
The Attorney General’s office plans to appeal the decision.
Chris Burgos, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, criticized the decision. ““We do not believe arguments that a person convicted of the murder of a law enforcement officer and conspiring the violent overthrow of the U.S. government can be rehabilitated, or considered to have paid their debt to society in full,” he said in a statement.
In response, the judges went on record saying”Make no mistake, we are completely appalled by Acoli’s senseless crimes, which left a member of the State Police dead and another injured…But Acoli has paid the penalty under the laws of this State for his crimes.”
As I finish this blog, I’m thinking about Shaneen Allen, the 27 year old single mother of two arrested for carrying a Pennsylvania registered gun across state lines into Atlantic City. Until last week, Allen faced 11 years in prison for a misunderstanding, her draconian penalty a “chilling” message to all who might consider carrying an unlicensed gun in New Jersey.
But perhaps their efforts weren’t only directed at the 2nd amendment.
I can only imagine that somewhere, deep, down in that inane decision, there was a twinge a pay-back for the other armed Black woman on the New Jersey Turnpike, the one that got away.
Ayesha is a writer, dancer, and the founder of WomenLovePower.com, a tech-enabled brand that provides resources on charm, seduction, sacred sexuality, and feminine warfare. A self-confessed afromantic, Ayesha's first love is romantic fiction and poetry. When away from her keyboard, she enjoys New Jack Swing throwbacks, 90's sitcoms, running, sleep, and Cabernet.
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