The cover of Assata Shakur’s Autobiography

Lessons and Quotes From Assata Shakur

Osama Alkhawaja


Assata is a former Black Panther, dubiously convicted “cop killer,” and wanted “terrorist,” whose story carries with it profound insights on our political, social, and legal systems that everyone needs to understand.

Her crucifixion by the state began in 1973 when New Jersey Police officers pulled Assata over on the side of the road. During the encounter, Assata was unarmed and her hands were high in the air in a sign of compliance; but this mattered little to police officers who fired two shots directly into her body. Assata’s last memory before loosing consciousness was the image of police dragging the lifeless body of her friend across the street.

She was then repeatedly beaten by police in captivity, and against the objections of her lawyer placed in an all-male jail. After she was transferred to a federal prison, she was routinely locked in solitary confinement solely because of her political views; she believed in a society that is free from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and class, and was willing to fight for it. Her motivating ethos was one of radical love. These positions are not as controversial as they once were, but at the time, it turned Assata into a fugitive. Her existence as a black women refusing to live anything but a true and full life criminalized her in the eyes of the state.

Therefore, the government did not seek to give her a fair trial. Instead, they tried to convict her with whatever dubious evidence they could find. As a result, her cases ended in acquittals or dismissals six times over the span of four years. On the seventh try, they were finally able to convict her. Assata described this “political persecution [as] part and parcel of the government’s policy of eliminating political opponents by charging them with crimes and arresting them with no regard to the factual basis of such charges.” At one point, Assata’s lawyer was held in contempt for walking out of the court room in protest, and Assata herself laments that, “By participating, i participated in my own oppression. I should have known better and not lent dignity or credence to that sham. In the long run, the people are our only appeal. The only ones who can free us are ourselves.” (sic)

Assata was “locked by the lawless,” and everyone from the police, to the prosecutor, to the judge in her case should all be held accountable for their lawlessness. Our generation is bursting at the seams with stories similar to Assata’s, and anyone who is not actively resisting the conditions that allowed for Assata to be kidnaped, tortured, and then forcibly exiled under threat of death is at least partially responsible. There are many ways this resistance can manifest itself, especially in today’s political climate, and it is particularly imperative on those seeking a legal education to resist, since it is often the law itself that enables this type of oppression.

But before we act, we must first learn, and her autobiography is just one story that cuts against the pretenses of the conventional U.S. narrative— many of the doctrines and policy decisions that inform our society and legal system could not be justified if her story was told and understood. Her narrative undoes both the myth of American exceptionalism and the notion that the legal system, as it currently stands, is something worth upholding.

The following are select quotes I found noteworthy from her autobiography.

History & Context

  • “The usual way that people are taught to think in amerika is that each subject is in a little compartment and has no relation to any other subject”
  • “Anybody, no matter who they were, could come right off the boat and get more rights and respect than amerikan-born Blacks”
  • “The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives”
  • “The almighty dollar is king”
  • “As far as i’m concerned, “liberal is the most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privileges, then they are “liberals.” But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull of that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.”
  • Her response to being too hung up on the race question of certain words. → “I found it impossible to separate the word from its history.”
  • “As far as I was concerned. the police in the Black communities were nothing but a foreign, occupying army, beating, torturing, and murdering people at whims and without restraint. I despise violence, but I despise it even more when it’s one-sided and used to oppress and repress poor people.”
  • “I knew that they were indirectly responsible for the babies being burned to death. “I wondered how they would feel if they were forced to take moral responsibility for that
  • In her own words, she was “locked by the lawless” and she laments that, “By participating, i participated in my own oppression. I should have known better and not lent dignity or credence to that sham. In the long run, the people are our only appeal. The only ones who can free us are ourselves.” (sic)
  • “When the government finds it convenient to follow its own laws and administrative procedures, it does. And when it finds that these same laws are inconvenient for their own purposes, it simply ignores them.”


  • “I believe in living. I believe in the spectrum.”
  • “I believe in life. And i have seen the death parade”
  • “Love is contraband in Hell, cause love is an acid that eats away bars.”
  • “Love is my sword and truth is my compass. What is left”
  • “People think that in order for something to work, it has to be complicated, but a lot of times the opposite is true. We usually reach success by putting the simple truths that we know into practice.”


  • She learned and grew: In college, she thought the US was fighting for “democracy” in Vietnam. “There he was, talking about the u.s. government just like somebody would talk about a criminal. I just couldn’t relate to it.”
  • “They call you mad. And almost had you believing that shit.”
  • “Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions. Shaped by our oppression.”
  • “They had bought the amerikan dream lock, stock, and barrel and seemed unaware that, for the majority of black and Third World people, the amerikan dream is the amerikan nightmare.”
  • “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”
  • “Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.”
  • “Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.


  • “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
  • “I’d come to see revolution as a process.”
  • “No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, it’s stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is.”
  • “Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of the white colonists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalistic economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists.”
  • She hated “Abstract, intellectual theories, totally devoid of practical application”
  • “Any community seriously concerned with its own freedom has to be concerned about other people’s freedom as well.”
  • “Black revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions. Shaped by our oppression.”



Osama Alkhawaja

Lawyer writing on politics, history, and anything that interests me in at the moment