Exiled in Havana

With the FBI in pursuit, black activist Nehanda Abiodun a decade ago fled to Cuba, where she still dreams of fomenting a socialist revolution in the United States

The Black Liberation Army, forged in the very early Seventies by Panthers committed to armed struggle (many had formerly been aligned with Cleaver), also seemed to have faded away. After claiming responsibility for the murders of several police officers, BLA members became targets of a nationwide manhunt. Some were arrested; others were killed in police gunfights. In the aftermath of the much-publicized capture of Assata Shakur, little more was heard from them. Meanwhile the Republic of New Afrika, a group dedicated to transforming South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana into a separate black nation, also disappeared from the headlines. By late 1978 several Weather Underground members were getting press coverage, but for leaving their pasts behind and surrendering to authorities in the amnesty climate of the Carter administration.

But not everyone was so sanguine about closing the door on those wrenching and at times apocalyptic days, and it was those remaining faithful who would make up the Family. If their numbers were small, and if conditions for the overthrow of the U.S. government seemed remote at best -- well, that just meant they had to be all the more daring. After all, hadn't Fidel Castro begun his revolution by heading into the Sierra Maestra mountains with barely twenty men?

“First of all I wouldn't admit I was doing any of that, even if I was,” Abiodun said, alluding to her own involvement with Family crimes. Not that she would prove unwilling to discuss such matters, or to vigorously defend them. As for the Family's attacks on armored cars: “I don't consider it armed robbery. I consider it expropriation.... If your cause is just, if you're at war, then it's the booty of war.” The two police officers who were killed by Family members during one of those “expropriations”? “They were protecting the state,” she replied testily. “They were upholding the genocidal and oppressive policies of the United States. They were soldiers who were at war with us. When I say us, I don't mean just “us' in the African community; I mean people of color and poor people.” Nor would Abiodun express much sympathy for the fatal shootings of two Brinks guards. “They had a choice,” she explained. “They chose to protect the money of the state.”

Black Liberation Army cause célèbre Assata Shakur (center) during her 1973 trial for  the murder of a New Jersey state trooper
AP/Wide World Photo
Black Liberation Army cause célèbre Assata Shakur (center) during her 1973 trial for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper
The capture of Kathy Boudin (pictured here, second from right, after returning from Cuba in 1969) alerted authorities they were on to more than a simple robbery
The capture of Kathy Boudin (pictured here, second from right, after returning from Cuba in 1969) alerted authorities they were on to more than a simple robbery

Reflecting on her mindset in 1978, she continued, “I had seen the results of mainstream politics and I knew it wasn't going to work. I had traveled throughout the country, trying to do it the “correct' way, within the system. It wasn't going to happen.” In her eyes “the United States government had waged war against us,” a situation that demanded an equivalent response: to become a soldier and prepare for battle.

Ten years after fleeing the States for Cuba -- almost twenty years after first taking up arms -- Nehanda Abiodun is still at war.

In 1972 Abiodun graduated from Columbia University and went to work at a New York City methadone maintenance clinic. Trying to help drug addicts might seem far removed from formulating plans for a revolution but to Abiodun that career path was the catalyst that set her on that political road.

“At the time I thought methadone was a viable way to deal with heroin addiction,” she said. “[Soon] I began to understand the politics surrounding drug addiction, racism, and control.” To her methadone was just another toxic drug, one that purposely kept users incapacitated and reporting to the clinic every day. “It was a way of, once again, capitalism trying to destroy our lives.” She began clashing with the clinic's managing doctor, who balked at her attempts to detoxify addicts from heroin and also wean them off methadone.

Abiodun soon found kindred spirits working at an experimental detox program at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. Under the guidance of Mutulu Shakur, a charismatic Republic of New Afrika member, Lincoln Detox favored acupuncture over methadone, operated as a self-described socialist collective, and viewed the political radicalization of its patients as essential. For Abiodun, an activist who had been involved with mainstream community groups in Harlem, it was a heady mix: “There were ex-Panthers, ex-members of the Republic of New Afrika, members of the Young Lords -- the Puerto Rican movement. And there were white people who had been involved in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society].”

But to city officials, the presence of these radicals only aggravated an already offensive situation. In November 1978 New York Assemblyman Charles Schumer bitterly complained to the New York Times that “Lincoln Detox has compiled a well-documented record of millions of dollars in unsubstantiated payroll costs, overbilling for patient care and other egregious management failures.” Mayor Ed Koch subsequently evicted the Lincoln Detox program from Lincoln Hospital, stripped away its autonomy by placing it under hospital management, and had its Shakur-aligned staffers reassigned. Koch later explained that Shakur and his followers “ran it like Che Guevara was their patron saint, with his pictures all over the wall. It wasn't a hospital; it was a radical cell.”

But as far as Abiodun was concerned, those two concepts -- health care and radical politics -- needed some sort of fusion. “It was obvious that alternate methods of healing drug and alcohol addictions were not going to be stood for by the status quo,” she recounted. In her view the city's actions against Lincoln Detox dramatized the futility of trying to reform a corrupt system: “That's when I made a conscious decision that I was going to devote my life in a more disciplined way to try bringing about a change in the United States.”

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