Sundiata Acoli
Mugshot of Acoli on May 3, 1973
Born
Clark Edward Squire

(1937-01-14) January 14, 1937 (age 87)
Decatur, Texas, U.S.
EducationPrairie View A&M University
Criminal chargesFirst-degree murder
Criminal penaltyLife sentence with possibility of parole after 25 years
Criminal statusGranted parole on May 10, 2022

Sundiata Acoli (born January 14, 1937,[1] as Clark Edward Squire) is an American political activist who was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1974 for murdering a New Jersey state trooper.[2] Acoli was granted parole in 2022 at the age of 85.

Early life

Acoli was born on January 14, 1937, in Decatur, Texas, and raised in Vernon, Texas.[1][3] He graduated from High School in Texas aged 15, and graduated from Prairie View A&M University in 1956 with a degree in mathematics aged 19.[3][4][5] After university, he became a computer analyst for NASA working at Edwards Air Force Base in California.[3] In 1963 he moved to New York City, becoming involved in the civil rights movement, before moving again in the summer of 1964 to Mississippi, continuing that new Civil Rights activism.[3][6]

Acoli was radicalised by the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 and that same year joined the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party as its finance minister.[3][5] He was arrested on April 2, 1969, in the Panther 21 conspiracy case,[5] in which members were accused of planned coordinated bombing and long-range rifle attack on two police stations and an education office in New York City.[7] A group called Computer People for Peace raised $50,000 bail for him but it was rejected by the judge.[8] Acoli and the other defendants were ultimately acquitted of all charges in that case.[9]

New Jersey Turnpike shooting

Assata Shakur (pictured in 1971), who accompanied Acoli and Zayd Malik Shakur on the night of May 2, 1973

Further information: Assata Shakur

On May 2, 1973, at about 12:45 a.m.,[10] Acoli, along with Zayd Malik Shakur (born James F. Costan) and Assata Shakur (born JoAnne Chesimard), were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick for driving with a broken tail light by State Trooper James Harper, backed up by Trooper Werner Foerster in a second patrol vehicle.[11] The vehicle was also exceeding the speed limit.[10][12] Recordings of Trooper Harper calling the dispatcher were played at the trials of both Acoli and Assata Shakur.[11][13] The stop occurred 200 yards (183 m) south of what was then the Turnpike Authority administration building.[10][13][14] Acoli was driving the two-door vehicle, Assata Shakur was seated in the right front seat, and Zayd Shakur was in the right rear seat.[15][a] Trooper Harper asked the driver for identification, asked him to get out of the car, and questioned him at the rear of the vehicle.[10]

It is at this point, with the questioning of Acoli, that the accounts of the confrontation begin to differ (see the witnesses section of the Assata Shakur article).[16] However, in the ensuing shootout, Trooper Foerster was shot twice in the head with his own gun and killed,[11][16] Zayd Shakur was killed, and Assata Shakur and Trooper Harper were wounded.

According to initial police statements, at this point one or more of the suspects began firing with automatic handguns and Trooper Foerster fired four times before falling mortally wounded.[10] At Acoli's trial, Harper testified that the gunfight started "seconds" after Foerster arrived at the scene.[15] At this trial, Harper said that Foerster reached into the vehicle, pulled out and held up an automatic pistol and ammunition magazine, and said "Jim, look what I found",[15] while facing Harper at the rear of the vehicle.[17] At this point, Assata Shakur and Zayd Shakur were ordered to put their hands on their laps and not to move; Harper said that Assata Shakur then reached down to the right of her right leg, pulled out a pistol, and shot him in the shoulder, after which he retreated to behind his vehicle.[15] Questioned by prosecutor C. Judson Hamlin, Harper said he saw Foerster shot just as Assata Shakur was felled by bullets from Harper's gun.[15] In his opening statement to a jury, Hamlin said that Acoli shot Foerster with a .38 caliber automatic pistol and then used Foerster's own gun to "execute him".[18] According to the testimony of State Police investigators, two jammed semi-automatic pistols were discovered near Foerster's body.[19]

In Shakur's version of events, she says she was shot and wounded with her hands up and couldn't have killed Foerster. Acoli said at the time that he was hit by a bullet, blacked out and couldn't remember what happened.[3]

Acoli then drove the car (a white Pontiac LeMans with Vermont license plates)[14]—which contained Assata Shakur, who was wounded, and Zayd Shakur, who was dead or dying—5 miles (8 km) down the road.[11][10] The vehicle was chased by three patrol cars and the booths down the turnpike were alerted.[10] Acoli then exited the car and, after being ordered to halt by a trooper, fled into the woods as the trooper emptied his gun.[10] Assata Shakur then walked towards the trooper with her bloodied arms raised in surrender.[10] Acoli was captured after a 36-hour manhunt—involving 400 people, state police helicopters, and bloodhounds.[10][20][21] Zayd Shakur's body was found in a nearby gully along the road.[10]

Prison

A jury convicted Acoli of first-degree murder in 1974 and sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole until after 25 years served. With prison credits, his first opportunity for parole was pushed up to 1993 but he was denied and has been continuously denied parole seven more times until the New Jersey Supreme Court finally granted his request on May 10, 2022, after they decided that Acoli is no longer a threat to society.[22]

Upon entering New Jersey State Prison he was subsequently confined to a new and specially created Management Control Unit (MCU) created for him and other politically associated prisoners. He remained in MCU almost five years.[5]

In September 1979, Acoli was transferred to Marion, Illinois, federal prison. In July 1987 he was transferred to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. In the fall of 1992, Sundiata Acoli was denied parole.[5] He was up for parole again in 2012.[23] On September 29, 2014, a New Jersey state appeals court officially granted Acoli's request for parole,[24] though the state of New Jersey appealed this ruling.[24] A higher court reversed this ruling in February 2017. On November 21, 2017, the appeals board denied parole, and Acoli was not scheduled to be eligible to apply again until 2032 when he would have been 94 years old.[25] However, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered that he be made eligible to apply for parole again sooner, and he was finally granted parole in May 2022 at the age of 85.[26]

Popular culture

Sundiata Acoli is hailed in the song "Sunshine" by hip hop music artist Yasiin Bey alongside Mumia Abu Jamal and Assata Shakur. He is also given a "revolutionary salute" at the end of the Dead Prez song "I Have A Dream, Too", along with Zayd Shakur and Assata Shakur.

Notes

  1. ^ Note that the New York Times source given here reverses the roles of Zayd Shakur and Acoli.

References

  1. ^ a b "Who is Sundiata Acoli?" SundiataAcoli.org.
  2. ^ Johnston, Richard J. H. (March 16, 1974). "Squire Sentenced to Life For Killing State Trooper". The New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Chesler, Caren (March 13, 2021). "A former member of the Black Panther Party seeks parole nearly 50 years after he was convicted of murder". Washington Post. Retrieved March 18, 2021.
  4. ^ Safiya Bukhari, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison & Fighting for Those Left Behind, Feminist Press at CUNY, 2010.
  5. ^ a b c d e Joy James, Imprisoned Intellectuals: America's Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, September 1, 2004.
  6. ^ Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement, New York University Press, 2013, p. 108.
  7. ^ Ron Christenson (ed.), Political Trials in History: From Antiquity to the Present, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1991, p. 351.
  8. ^ Evans Asbury, Edith (December 29, 1970). "Judge Revokes Bail Set for Seven Jailed Panthers". The New York Times. Retrieved January 19, 2019.
  9. ^ "Black Panther Party Members Freed After Being Cleared of Charges". The New York Times. May 14, 1971. Archived from the original on October 4, 2017. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Sullivan, Joseph F. (May 3, 1973). "Panther, Trooper Slain in Shoot-Out", The New York Times, p. 1.
  11. ^ a b c d Waggoner, Walter H. (February 14, 1977). "Jury in Chesimard Murder Trial Listens to State Police Radio Tapes". The New York Times, p. 83.
  12. ^ Burrough, Bryan (2016). Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Penguin Publishing Group. p. 246. ISBN 9780143107972.
  13. ^ a b Johnston, Richard J. (February 20, 1974). "Squires Jurors Hear Chase Tape". The New York Times, p. 78.
  14. ^ a b Kirsta, Alix (May 29, 1999), "A black and white case – Investigation – Joanne Chesimard". The Times.
  15. ^ a b c d e Johnston, Richard J. (February 14, 1974). "Trooper Recalls Shooting on Pike", The New York Times, p. 86. Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  16. ^ a b Sullivan, Joseph E. (March 25, 1977). "Chesimard Jury Asks Clarification of Assault Charges", The New York Times, p. 50.
  17. ^ Johnston, Richard J. H. (March 9, 1974). "Jury Deliberations Begin in Murder Trial of Squire", The New York Times, p. 64.
  18. ^ Johnston, Richard H. (February 13, 1974). "Squire Charged With 'Execution'". The New York Times, p. 84.
  19. ^ Sullivan, Joseph F. (February 24, 1977), "Chesimard Attorney Acts to Call Kelley; Wants F.B.I. Director and Others to Testify on Program Aimed at Harassing Activists", The New York Times, p. 76, column 1.
  20. ^ Sullivan, Joseph F. (May 4, 1973). "Gunfight Suspect Caught in Jersey", The New York Times, p. 41.
  21. ^ Kupendua, Marpessa (January 28, 1998), "Sundiata Acoli", Revolutionary Worker. No. 94. Retrieved on May 9, 2008.
  22. ^ https://www.njcourts.gov/attorneys/assets/opinions/supreme/a_73_20.pdf?c=Zn2 [bare URL PDF]
  23. ^ "Sundiata Acoli, political prisoner for 39 years, wins appeal and is up for parole again", Prison Radio (April 29, 2012).
  24. ^ a b "Sundiata Acoli, Man Who Murdered State Trooper, To Be Released On Parole" Archived October 31, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, Huffington Post, September 29, 2014.
  25. ^ Feltz, Renée (November 29, 2016). "Former Black Panther serving life sentence for murder denied release: New Jersey police have opposed the release of Sundiata Acoli, who killed a state trooper more than 40 years ago, since he became eligible for parole in 1992". The Guardian. Retrieved January 14, 2018.
  26. ^ Funk, Luke (May 10, 2022). "NJ Supreme Court orders Sundiata Acoli eligible for parole; killed state trooper in 1973". Fox 5 New York. Retrieved May 10, 2022.