Remembering Mutulu Shakur and U.S. political prisoners

Mutulu Shakur was a Black liberation leader, and one of the pivotal figures in developing a system of acupuncture to treat heroin addiction. The stepfather of Tupac Shakur, his passing brings attention to a life of political organizing and the dozens of political prisoners still jailed after decades.

Life-long activist and leader of the Black Liberation Movement, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, born Jerald Wayne Williams, died July 7, 2023 after a courageous battle with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. He was 72 years old. A statement from Shakur’s family reminds people of his commitment to social change and his love for the people. 

“As we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, let us remember him as a healer, an unyielding revolutionary, and an advocate for social change. His contributions as an acupuncturist and his unwavering dedication to the Black liberation movement will forever inspire generations to come. May his spirit of resilience and commitment guide us as we strive for a more equitable and just world.” 

The former political prisoner was released on conditions of parole from federal prison in 2022, after serving 37 years of a 60 year sentence. Dr. Shakur was convicted of conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, in connection with the 1981 robbery of a Brinks’ truck where a guard and two police officers were killed. 

Although there was no proof linking Dr. Shakur to the evidence used against him, he was also convicted of conspiracy in the escape of revolutionary, Assata Shakur, from a New Jersey prison in 1979. She was charged with killing a state trooper after a traffic stop on the New Jersey turnpike ended in a deadly shootout, which also claimed the life of Zayd Malik Shakur. Today, the former Black Panther who is still on the FBI’S Most Wanted list, says she is “a 20th century escaped slave.” She has been living in exile in Cuba since 1984.

While evidence at Dr. Shakur’s trial alleged that others may have been responsible for the deaths connected to the Brinks robbery, his activities in the Black Liberation Movement made him a target of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) from the 1970s and on.

Evolution of a revolutionary

Born in Baltimore and raised in Queens, New York, Dr. Shakur began his activism as a teen. Like many Black youth who became politically aware in the 1960s and 70s, he was drawn to the focus of the Black Nationalist Movement. While active, he became an adviser with the Black Panther of Self Defense (Black Panthers), supporting Harlem’s chapter leader, Lumumba Shakur; and its minister of information, Zayd Malik Shakur. This was one of many revolutionary organizations Dr. Shakur spearheaded.

Dr. Shakur was a founding member of the New Afrikan People’s Organization (NAPO), Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Organizations initiated by young Black revolutionaries, they believed in Black liberation by any means necessary, including armed struggle. 

In the late sixties, Dr. Shakur was politically active with the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a Black Nationalist organization that worked for Black self-determination and socialist change in America. The first community branch of RAM was established in December 1962 in Philadelphia. Queen Mother Audley Moore, who went on to establish the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), was an adviser. Most affectionately known as Queen Mother Moore, she was a global Black nationalist who was introduced to Pan-Africanism as a Garveyite, or member of Marcus Garvey’s, Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

Read: Until revolution becomes our normal rhythm. Reflections on the past, preparing for the future during Black August

Black studies pioneer Playthell Benjamin, who helped organize the Philadelphia Branch of RAM, gives context. “By 1970 I was a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst,” explained the award-winning journalist and broadcaster. “I was convinced by 1970, that there wasn’t going to be any armed revolution here in the United States and that everyone involved was going to meet an unpleasant fate. By the time [Mutulu] came along, COINTELPRO was well-established and would do anything to get them [Black revolutionaries] off of the streets. The FBI had the movement thoroughly infiltrated and knew what everybody was doing.”

An activist of  the New Afrikan Independence Movement, Dr. Shakur also was a conscious citizen of the Provisional Government of the RNA. Created in 1968, the organization proposed an independent Black republic be forged out of the southern states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Working for RNA, he was a political officer and served as a dedicated soldier in their Black Legion from 1968-1970. 

Although Benjamin didn’t know Shakur, he gives praise to his courage and that of the young revolutionaries. “I think Mutulu and them were real soldiers. They were very brave warriors in a situation where a revolution like that had been possible.”

Reflecting on Dr. Shakur’s organizing abilities, Benjamin says, “I think that his life was a great tragedy, almost a classic tragedy. He was in a situation where nobody could have done what they did better than or more honorably, but there was no chance for victory. It was what Bobby Seal called revolutionary suicide. By the time they came along, I was convinced of that.”

In 1975, he married Afeni Shakur, Tupac Shakur’s mother, and had a daughter Sekyiwa “Set” Kai Shakur. This would be Afeni’s second marriage. Her first to Lumumba Shakur, was a polygamous arrangement. While married to Afeni until 1982, Dr. Shakur adopted Tupac, mentored him and influenced many of the political and social messages in his lyrics. Even while imprisoned, Shakur would call Tupac to make sure he stayed on track. It was he, who with Tupac, developed the Thug Life Code that created a code of conduct for street gangs to follow and a framework for a social movement.

To be healthy is revolutionary

Dr. Shakur was an internationally-renowned acupuncturist, healer and holistic health activist. His health and social activism began as he sought to help his blind mother navigate the social service system to access needed resources. Later on, he became interested in using acupuncture to heal. Studying in Canada and China, eventually, he earned a doctorate in acupuncture, and became certified and licensed to practice. 

Dr. Shakur’s work at the Lincoln Detox Center in New York is a huge part of his legacy. He became noted for using acupuncture to detox addicts with his five-point auricular technique. The natural, therapeutic method helped reduce withdrawal symptoms and emotional distress. Still, it remains widely used in addiction treatment worldwide, and is recognized as the most effective of its kind by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, National Acupuncture Research Society and the World Academic Society of Acupuncture.  

Watch | Dope is Death tells the story of how Dr. Mutulu Shakur, the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords created the first acupuncture detoxification program in America. 

Although there were waves of social and political change in America, heroin was devastating inner city communities nationwide. Witnessing the devastation, people wanted to intervene in a radical way. In 1970, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican liberation organization with branches in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities, formed an alliance with the Black Panthers and other community activists. Together, they took over a portion of Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. At the time, Lincoln was the main source of health care for the poor Black and Latino residents in the area, but offered ineffective drug treatments. They wanted rehabilitation, but didn’t want to replace heroin with methadone, another drug that was used to detox heroin addicts.

During the takeover, they demanded a community drug treatment program, run by the community, be established. After a 12-hour occupation on July 14, 1970, local officials agreed to their ultimata. Initially, Dr. Shakur was hired by the Lincoln Detox Program as a political education instructor, but advanced to the program’s assistant director. During his tenure, he included counseling and treatment of withdrawal symptoms with acupuncture. He left in 1978, to co-found the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA) and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture.  In addition, he developed the anti-drug program of the Charles Cobb Commission for Racial Justice for the National Council of Churches.

Carlos “Carlito” Rovira, who joined the Young Lords at the age of 14, remembers interacting with Shakur as an activist. In a Black Agenda Report article, Rovira says, “Dr. Mutulu was meeting with our people on a consistent basis. The Young Lords drew so much energy from Dr. Mutulu and Mumia Abu-Jamal and so many other Black activists. That is why the government targeted them for destruction. All of our most successful struggles were led by Black revolutionaries.”

Mumia Abu-Jamal, now the world’s most famous political prisoner, was a young, radical journalist who covered grassroots Black and other liberation movements in his broadcasts in the 1970s. In 1982, he was convicted to death for killing a Philadelphia police officer, but his sentence was changed to serving life without the possibility of parole. A highly politicized trial with evidence of blatant racism in its handling, a judge recently denied him a new trial. Abu-Jamal is one of several dozen political activists who have been detained for decades.

Support political prisoners still in captivity

Amnesty international defines political prisoners as “one who is detained for his or her beliefs, color, sex, ethnic origin, language, or religious creed, regardless of whether the individual has advocated the use of violence and includes those detained without trial or prosecuted as a form of persecution.” Scores of political prisoners are in captivity worldwide, many in the U.S. “You hear the United States talk about political prisoners in other countries, but we have them right here,” stated Benjamin. “It’s amazing that these countries let them get away with that. The situation with political prisoners is very under-reported in this country. The average person, if you ask them if the United States has political prisoners, they would say no.”  

Organizations like the Jericho Movement, that promote the fact that political prisoners exist in the United States, despite the government’s continued denial, works to inform people about, and win amnesty and freedom for these political prisoners. On August 15, 2020 Glen Ford, the late executive editor of Black Agenda Report, made the following heartfelt remarks at the Black is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations, virtual national conference. “If you threaten to lead Black people on an independent political path, the U.S. State will attempt to neutralize you, imprison you, or kill you . . . Say their names, because we owe them a debt that can only be repaid by a lifetime of service to the people – as our political prisoners have already done. Free them All!”

Mr. Ford’s words frame the ongoing movement to bring light to political prisoners and place pressure in getting them released.

Read | Aging and incarcerated: U.S. political prisoners face ‘execution by medical neglect.’

Another annual observance acknowledging political prisoners is Black August, a month-long collective action paying tribute to Black resistance throughout the world. While one can celebrate the imminent release of 84 year-old Ruchell Cinqué Magee, who spent 67 years in captivity since age 16 for the alleged rape of a white woman, others did not make it out of incarceration or died shortly after their discharge. Like, Dr. Shakur and Delbert Africa of the MOVE 9, who were released only a few months before their deaths. However, Merle Africa and Phil Africa died in prison, while others like Abu-Jamal and Ed Poindexter, suffer from a list of issues due to years of inhumane medical neglect.

Also, the movement to free all political prisoners is working hard to free other elderly political prisoners like Abu Jamal, Poindexter, Leonard Peltier and Imam Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown).  Joe Piette, who is in the forefront of the Philly movement to free Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners, gets straight to the point on the necessity to continue working for abolition. “As activists are being unfairly charged with heavy crimes for resisting Cop City in Atlanta – representing a new generation of political prisoners – the fight to free prisoners who were unfairly convicted in the struggle for Black liberation decades ago continues to this day,” states the dedicated activist who’s been in the struggle for decades. 

Piette continues, “In fact, it’s the same struggle today against a continuing capitalist system that profits from the increased exploitation made possible by discriminatory oppression, whether it’s racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism, and ageism. The soldiers captured in these wars against the system deserve our support, no matter when they were put behind bars.”

There are ways to keep updated and support political prisoners. Organizations like PhillyABC are working to keep people informed and updated on the plight of political prisoners. They have a prisoner wiki as a way of solving the problem of inaccurate prisoner lists and foster solidarity with the prisoners. Prisoners are categorized by movement, state, country, release date, birth date, parole hearing date, cases, prisons and those without support groups.  People who have a particular affinity for a political prisoners can adopt wiki page and become responsible for making sure it stays up to date.

On September 17, Philadelphia Anarchist Black Cross (PhillyABC) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement will celebrate Dr. Shakur’s life at the 6th annual Running Down The Walls. A revolutionary 5K run/walk/roll founded by the Anarchist Black Cross Federation, plans to recommit to the ideals to which Dr. Shakur dedicated his life.

The Anarchist Black Cross Foundation works to show solidarity with others. One way is to raise funds for numerous political prisoners. This year, the day of solidarity at FDR Park in South Philly will amplify the voices of political prisoners. The event will benefit the Anarchist Black Cross Federation War Chest program to send monthly donations directly to commissary accounts of vetted political prisoners with little, or no financial support during their incarceration. 

For more resources on the issue, the Monthly Review (MR online), a forum for collaboration and communication between radical activists, writers, and scholars around the world, has a list of political prisoners currently detained as categorized by the U.S. government.  As well, Abolition Notes has a guide to political prisoners in the U.S. and articles on abolition and political prisoners going back to the 1800s. Included in the repository is Paul Robeson’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Another platform focused on supporting political prisoners is  Prison Radio, an outlet centering the voices of incarcerated people in the public debate. Here audiences can listen to commentaries, podcasts and news updates by Abu-Jamal and other detainees.

Marilyn Kai Jewett is a veteran journalist reporting and living in Philadelphia. Her interests are culture, business and politics.

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