May 26, 2005

Barron Seeks Clemency for Cop Killer

Staff Reporter of the Sun

Infuriating law-enforcement organizations and his colleagues, a City Council member, Charles Barron, introduced a resolution yesterday urging clemency for a convicted and escaped cop-killer, Assata Shakur, formerly known as Joanne Chesimard.

On May 2, 1973, Chesimard was involved in a roadside shoot-out with New Jersey State Police after the vehicle in which she and two companions were traveling was pulled over because of a malfunctioning taillight. During an exchange of gunfire, a New Jersey state trooper, Werner Foerster, was wounded. Chesimard, then a member of the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1977 for seizing the incapacitated trooper's side arm and using it to shoot him in the head.

While serving her sentence at New Jersey's Clinton Correctional Institution for Women, Chesimard, with the help of fellow members of the Black Liberation Army, staged a prison break in 1979. She escaped to Cuba, where she was granted asylum and is now shielded by the island nation's communist dictator, Fidel Castro. On May 2, New Jersey law enforcement announced that the Justice Department raised the bounty on Chesimard, 57, to $1 million from $50,000, and added her name to the list of wanted domestic terrorists.

Mr. Barron's council resolution, which he announced yesterday at a press conference on the steps of City Hall, calls on the New Jersey State Police and the Justice Department "to cease portraying Assata Shakur as a terrorist, and ... to rescind the reward for Shakur's capture and grant her clemency." The Brooklyn council member's resolution praises the convicted murderer as "a social justice activist, a poet, a mother, and a grandmother."

Mr. Barron was joined at yesterday's conference by two fellow council Democrats, James Sanders Jr. of Queens and Larry Seabrook of the Bronx, along with dozens of members of black-power organizations, who held posters proclaiming "Assata Shakur is welcome here" and peppered the conference with outbursts such as "Free Palestine!" and, of the police, "They are our enemies!"

Messrs. Sanders and Seabrook are co-sponsors of Mr. Barron's resolution and joined in his defense of Chesimard as a "liberator" who "committed no crimes." Indeed, according to Mr. Barron, Chesimard is the victim. "Assata Shakur shot no one," the councilman said, adding that she was pulled over for "driving while black"; was herself wounded during the gunfight, and was convicted of trumped-up charges in "a kangaroo court" by an all-white jury. After being imprisoned, Chesimard "liberated herself from that process," Mr. Barron said, adding: "Personally, I'm glad she did."

Told of Mr. Barron's characterization of the process, a spokesman for the New Jersey police, Sergeant Stephen Jones, said Chesimard's case was under appeal when she escaped.

Mr. Barron said increasing the bounty on Chesimard increases the likelihood that further harm will befall her. Rapacious bounty hunters, he said, will have added incentive to hunt her down and put her life at risk, he said. According to Sergeant Jones, however, the bounty will be paid only if Chesimard is brought back alive and unharmed.

Mr. Barron's activism on behalf of a convicted cop-killer did not sit well with local law-enforcement organizations. The president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said: "It's beyond outrageous that a sitting City Council person should stand on the steps of City Hall and say that a cold-blooded murderer, somebody who tried to take down our government and killed a New Jersey state trooper, ... should be allowed to walk our streets safely."

While Mr. Barron has earned a reputation for striking provocative poses in the City Council, yesterday's antics were "beyond the pale, even for him," Mr. Lynch said.

The president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Edward Mullins, was similarly critical of Mr. Barron, who he said was putting policemen's lives in danger.

"In the event of a person committing a crime, what he's doing is raising the level of doubt in their minds as to whether they should attempt to take the life of a police officer or not, because people like him are going to be there to support them," Mr. Mullins said.

Mr. Barron's resolution is unlikely to pass - or come up for a vote. The council speaker, Gifford Miller, said yesterday he would not take up the measure. Mr. Barron, speaking on the phone after the conference, described that decision as "discriminatory and dictatorial."

On the City Hall steps and on the phone yesterday, he accused Mr. Miller of creating a double standard for council resolutions.

"How come a Jewish member of the City Council can criticize a black woman for being anti-Semitic and say we shouldn't even be dealing with her, and then I come to support a black woman and all of a sudden he says this resolution won't see the light of day in the City Council?" Mr. Barron inquired, referring to Lewis Fidler, Democrat of Brooklyn, who urged the council this month to denounce some remarks by the head of the Independence Party, Lenora Fulani.

Mr. Barron also unleashed his scorn on the 11 Council members who wrote him to object formally to his resolution, pointing out that all of them were white and saying they are "ignorant to history."

The leader of the group of 11, James Oddo, a Republican of Staten Island, said Mr. Barron had crossed a line with his resolution and was unnecessarily injecting racial politics into the Council. Mr. Oddo added that it was Mr. Barron who benefited most from double standards. "Should I say that Charles doesn't understand because he's ignorant and black, they'd run me out on a rail - I'd have to find a bed next to Chesimard in Cuba," Mr. Oddo said.

The Council's Republican leader also said Mr. Barron was wasting the Council's time with a meaningless, nonbinding resolution.

To Mr. Barron, however, it was important that the body send a message with his resolution, labeling the council "the most powerful legislative body in the world."

Mr. Barron took other steps to expand the case to the international level, lavishing praise on Mr. Castro for his assistance to Chesimard - one of hundreds of American criminals currently living free in Cuba under the strongman's protection.

"I want to personally thank Fidel Castro. He did right by protecting her," Mr. Barron said. Later, the councilman lauded Mr. Castro as a friend to the black liberation movement in Angola and Grenada.

"He is a true champion of human rights worldwide," Mr. Barron said.

The councilman was a member of the Harlem Black Panthers in the late 1960s. While he did not know Chesimard personally, he said, their paths crossed during the course of his affiliation with the organization.