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

Abiodun joined other former Lincoln Detox staffers in a new collective headed by Mutulu Shakur: the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America (BAAANA), based out of a Harlem brownstone and dedicated to providing health care free from city control. It also was in 1978 that she stopped using her birth name, Cheri Dalton, and chose the moniker Nehanda Abiodun. “Nehanda” was an ancient spirit that inhabited the human form in order to lead the Zimbabwean people in their independence struggle against the British, while “Abiodun” was a word used in Nigeria to mean “born at the time of war.”

That name change was symbolic -- community health care was only one of BAAANA's activities. Several of the group's former Black Liberation Army and Republic of New Afrika members would form the core of the Family, and under the leadership of Mutulu Shakur, they began robbing banks. By late 1979 the Family had drawn in the remaining handful of Weather Underground members who also clung to armed struggle. The group moved up to hitting armored cars. They also sprung Assata Shakur (no relation to Mutulu) from a New Jersey prison at gunpoint and allegedly spirited her to Cuba.

By the summer of 1980, the Family had netted more than $900,000, funds that would ostensibly be used to finance further revolutionary activities. Details of these actions (and the disposition of the money) are still unclear. Although captured Family members would later proudly refer to several of the robberies as “expropriations,” at the time the group issued no public communiqués. In fact federal authorities were unaware that all the robberies, as well as the springing from prison of Assata Shakur, were committed by one organization.

On the run after the botched Brink's job, Family member Sekou Odinga was captured following a police gunfight
AP/Wide World Photo
On the run after the botched Brink's job, Family member Sekou Odinga was captured following a police gunfight
Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana
Brett Sokol
Revolutionary grandma: At age 50 Nehanda Abiodun continues her struggle from Havana

The Family's public debut came on October 20, 1981, during the attempted robbery of a Brinks truck in Nyack, New York. Ten members, divided into teams, allegedly were involved in the operation. One team attacked the truck while it was in a parking lot, killing a guard in the process. More than a million dollars was transferred into a waiting U-Haul, which was soon stopped at a police roadblock. In the shootout that followed, two officers were killed and a third wounded. The FBI believes Abiodun was driving a getaway car with several Family members, all of whom escaped. Another getaway car crashed and all four of its occupants captured.

The apprehended suspects were questioned, and authorities discovered, to their surprise, that one of them was Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground wanted by the FBI since March 1970, when she was last seen fleeing naked from a Greenwich Village townhouse rocked by an explosion. (The townhouse was being used by the Weather Underground to assemble anti-personnel bombs, allegedly for use against the Fort Dix military base in northern New Jersey; one such bomb accidentally detonated.)

With the dramatic re-emergence of Boudin, authorities realized they had stumbled across more than a simple gang of robbers. Three days later the police, now on high alert, tracked down two more Family members, Sekou Odinga and Mtayari Sundiata, via a license plate spotted during the Brinks heist. A car chase ensued, ending in a Queens warehouse district. After exchanging gunfire with police, Sundiata was killed and Odinga captured.

The Family began to unravel quickly as police uncovered a network of safe houses and supporters; six other Family members were subsequently captured as well. By 1986, of the members believed directly involved in the Brinks robbery, only Abiodun and Mutulu Shakur remained at large, crisscrossing the country together. Then in February 1986, on a Los Angeles street corner, federal agents tackled Shakur and threw him to the ground. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison. Abiodun, also thought to be in Los Angeles, managed to elude authorities for four more years.

“Someone said to me, 'Nehanda, if you get caught, it's a victory for them. But if you get away, it's a victory for us,'” she recalled. “That's what did it.”

She won't say exactly how she managed to reach Cuba, only that the journey allowed her to re-establish a relationship with her estranged mother. “The first time I called her [from Cuba], she hung up. But the second time she accepted the call. After we'd talked for a minute ...” Her voice trailed off, wavering a bit, as if Abiodun had changed her mind about revisiting the memory. Then a broad smile spread over her face, and she related a later story her mother passed along.

“The FBI went to see her and said, 'Could you tell us where your daughter is?'
“She said, 'You know where my daughter is. You've been listening to everything that goes on in my house.'
“So they asked her, 'Did she finish her acupuncture studies?' because when I went underground, I was six months away from getting my acupuncturist license.
“So she said, 'Nope, she's got a Ph.D.'
“The [FBI agent] is like, 'Oh God, this woman's finally talking to us, giving us information!' So they ask her: 'Can you tell us what she has her degree in?'
“'Of course.'
“'Well, well, what's her degree in?'
“'Fooling you motherfuckers, obviously!'”

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