Sandra Bland and Assata Shakur: Imagining Liberation from Persecution

This post is part of our online roundtable on Sandra Bland, coinciding with the third anniversary of her death. The forum includes historical and contemporary perspectives–and creative pieces–on Black women’s susceptibility to state-sanctioned violence.    

March for Sandra Bland in Minneapolis, MN, on July 31, 2015 (Photo: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr).

On July 10, 2015, Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian T. Encinia arrested Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American woman in Waller County, Texas, after which she died in Waller County Jail. On the heels of the three-year anniversary of Bland’s death, I am reminded of an essay that former Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur published in The Black Scholar in 1978, one year before being liberated from prison.

In her essay “Women in Prison: How it is With Us,” Shakur reflected on the experiences of Black female political prisoners: “There are no criminals here at Riker’s [sic] Island Correctional Institution for Women, (New York), only victims. Most of the women (over 95%) are black and Puerto Rican. Many were abused children. Most have been abused by men and all have been abused by ‘the system.’” Regarding the prison guards at Rikers Island, Shakur added that most were “aware that there [was] no justice in the amerikan judicial system and that blacks and Puerto Ricans [were] discriminated against in every facet of amerikan life.” Yet, those guards also believed, according to Shakur, in the theory (and myth) that anyone can ‘make it,’ as long as they try ‘hard enough.’

Here, Shakur’s essay highlights the historically-rooted brutal experience of Black women within the U.S. prison industrial complex. It is a conversation largely missing from today’s mainstream discussions regarding mass incarceration and persecution. Of course, the key movement around prison abolition led by Angela Davis and others places the persecution of Black women at the center of any discussion about mass incarceration, police brutality and state repression. In contrast, mainstream media remains overwhelmingly focused upon Black men in its coverage. The experiences of Black women with police officers has yet to reach the larger public sphere around issues of police brutality. Thus, in writing this short essay, I am interested in not only joining a group of scholars and activists who are already participating in this movement but also to conjure Shakur’s presence with Bland’s memory as a reminder of the brutal realities that the prison system means for Black people. In conjunction with Bland’s story, I also employ Shakur’s voice as a source of inspiration for dreaming and imagining liberation from state violence and persecution.

It has been widely noted that “routine” traffic stops have frequently become death traps for Black Americans. Indeed, the nationalized and internationalized trial that would eventually convict Shakur for the attempted murder of a police officer (among other charges) in 1977, resulted from of a “routine” traffic stop. This traffic stop led to the death of Shakur’s friend Zayd Shakur and the critical injury of Assata. The trial ended in a conviction from an all-white jury, despite unsubstantiated legal arguments from prosecutors. Shakur, in fact, spent much of the 1970s fighting U.S. federal persecution. Between April 1971 and May 1977, Shakur faced 10 trials related to trumped up charges on bank robbery, armed robbery, and later murder.

Fast forward a few decades later, and we arrive at Sandra Bland’s encounter with state trooper Encinia on July 10, 2015. Like many others, Bland’s arrest offers an example of the very dangers that traffic stops pose to brown and Black people. Yet, for years, Bland had already been bogged down by traffic fines and fees incurred both in Texas and Illinois. It is, of course, a familiar story. Across this country, police officers are much more likely to pull over brown and Black individuals than white people. This form of accumulation by dispossession—cities relying on fines and fees to generate capital—often leads to imprisonment (or death), as many folks often cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars to court systems. If not already dehumanized, people become slaves to an economic system that plagues their daily lives. By the time Bland would die in a jail cell, she was all too familiar with a system from which she could not be liberated.

Bland’s experiences with the legal system and her death in prison, a space that symbolizes for many what it means to live on the streets of the United States, should raise questions for us about the ways in which the state’s legal apparatus continues to accumulate through the dispossession of brown and Black people and what it would mean to break free from it. As Shakur contended in her essay:

For many the cells are not much different from the tenements, the shooting galleries and the welfare hotels they live in on the street. Sick call is no different from the clinic … The police are the same. The poverty is the same. The alienation is the same. The racism is the same. The sexism is the same. Riker’s [sic] is just another institution. In childhood school was their prison, or youth houses or reform schools or children shelters or foster homes or mental hospitals or drug programs.”

Shakur eventually broke free from the imprisonment of the United States both literally and figuratively, receiving refuge on an island that also had broken free from a U.S. imperialist prison. Years after being liberated from prison by the members of the Black Liberation Army, in 1984 Shakur received political asylum in Cuba. Since her exile in Cuba, the U.S. federally-led witch hunt of Shakur has continued. Throughout the past few decades, government officials have repeatedly called for the return of Shakur to the U.S. Cuba, then, has served as a fugitive space for Black activists like Shakur who continue to defy and resist U.S. surveillance, policing and persecution. It is not helpful here to offer a romanticized construction of Cuba and the revolution, as scholars have already complicated the relationship between Cuba’s revolutionary ideals and the actual realities of race and racism on the island. Yet, Cuba remains an important symbol that can contribute to historical constructions of the Black radical imagination. What does it mean to break away from U.S. imprisonment and its capitalist roots? Arguably, it was a racist and capitalist system—which generates profit from the backs of the oppressed—that ultimately led to Bland’s death.

Where is the anti-capitalist discourse so needed in today’s struggles for Black liberation? In the end, Shakur’s words perhaps offer some insight: “It is imperative to our struggle that we build a strong black women’s movement . . . The poison and pollution of capitalist cities is choking us.” Of course, this is not to say that socialism would easily solve the issue of mass incarceration (or state repression); however, I am reminded of Angela Davis’ point that we need an alternative vision. What is that vision? Perhaps, in calling for the abolition of prisons, we also can imagine the abolition of the very system that upholds the prison industrial complex today: capitalism.

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Cristina Mislan

Cristina Mislán is an Assistant Professor of Journalism Studies in the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Her research focuses on media activism, social movements and media representation. Her current book project examines how the black press has imagined Cuba post-1959. Follow her on Twitter @c_mislan.