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River Views

A recent billboard in New Jersey.
A recent billboard in New Jersey.

I know you’ve all been wondering, what do Assata Shakur and Jackie Robinson have in common? No, Assata Shakur is not a lefthanded pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds. Born JoAnne Deborah Bryan in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in major league baseball, by the early 1970s Shakur was a member of the Black Freedom Movement, the most militant wing of the group known as the Black Liberation Army. 1973 found her involved in a deadly shootout in which a New Jersey state trooper was killed. When the charges stemming from the shooting finally came to trial four years later, Shakur’s defense team included William Kunstler of “Chicago Seven” fame. The shootout alongside the New Jersey Turnpike involved two troopers and two other individuals in the car in which Shakur was a passenger. Shakur maintained that she was not involved in any of the violence because she had been shot twice while holding her hands above her head in compliance with one of the trooper’s orders. Nevertheless, in March, 1977, an all white New Jersey jury convicted her of murder and several assault charges.

On November 2, 1979 Shakur escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women with the aid of three armed members of the Black Liberation Army. Shakur survived as a fugitive within the United States, possibly for as long as five years, before fleeing to Cuba. She has lived in relative peace and anonymity there ever since, despite many extradition attempts by New Jersey and federal authorities. About a month ago the FBI declared Shakur a “terrorist” and doubled the bounty for her capture to $2 million.

Was Assata Shakur accused of other crimes besides the 1973 New Jersey Turnpike shooting? Yes. Those charges included armed bank robbery and kidnapping, with the legal outcomes varying from hung juries to dismissed charges and acquittals. Shakur is a self-professed revolutionary, but has she been involved in 9/11 or Boston Marathon style bombings or anything else that we now call terrorism? No.

The reason for the FBI announcement lies in the ongoing lobbying strength of the anti-Castro, pro-Cuban blockade movement. You might think that more than fifty years after the Cuban revolution threw out the corrupt Batista regime, most Batista supporters and those who fell out with Castro early on would have died off or become enfeebled, but not so. That lobby is still strong enough to influence the FBI to use figures like Shakur as a wedge against stabilizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Here’s where we get to Jackie Robinson. The power of the anti-Castro lobby is on view in the recent film 42. The filmmakers changed the locale of the Dodgers 1947 spring training from its actual site in Havana to Panama. Allowing impressionable American children to see the heroic Jackie Robinson spend a single spring training in Havana might make them somehow sympathetic toward the Cuba of today.

Why did the Dodgers train in Cuba in the spring of 1947? During 1946 spring training in Florida, Robinson and fellow Negro league alum John Wright (one more detail glossed over in 42: there was another African-American ballplayer in the Dodgers camp in 1946) had received many death threats. By 1947, the Dodgers had signed three more African-Americans, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Roy Partlow. Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey felt his black players would be safer amidst Mafia run casinos and bars in Havana than in Jim Crow Florida, but he segregated them. White Dodgers housed at the team’s training facility. Black Dodgers slept in a downtown Havana hotel where cockroaches were only outnumbered by fleas.

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