TRENTON, NJ - "Assata's Prayer" - a brief, impassioned clarion call to fight for freedom in the face of injustice - is being chanted at the beginning of more and more protest rallies in New Jersey and beyond.
According to a news report, "Assata's Prayer" was recited before last week's rally in Boonton, where the Morris County town swelled with 1,000 or so protestors.
"It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains."
It's unclear how many of these protestors know these words were originally spoken by a woman who was convicted in a New Brunswick courtroom in 1977 of the murder of a state trooper.
Joanne Chesimard, who also went by the alias Assata Shakur, has been an inspiration to some. To State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan, she's been a source of irritation.
Callahan, in a recent statement, stopped short of calling for protestors to stop chanting "Assata's Prayer."
He nonetheless has stern words for those who have taken to the streets of New Jersey and the rest of the United States since George Floyd died on May 25 after being pinned to the ground under a Minneapolis police officer's knee.
"There are few people as undeserving of praise as Chesimard, who has achieved a folk hero status to a fringe group of radicals that has created a false narrative based on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated evidence," Callahan said in the statement.
The events of May 2, 1973, are still fresh in the minds of longtime New Brunswick residents.
New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster responded to a traffic stop of a vehicle with Vermont license plates at the New Brunswick Station on the New Jersey Turnpike to assist fellow Trooper James Harper.
The stop escalated into a shootout between the troopers and the three passengers of the vehicle, and Foerster was shot multiple times in his chest before being executed by his own weapon.
Chesimard was eventually arrested and treated for injuries at Middlesex General Hospital, which has since been re-named Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
The New York Times noted that Chesimard, who was a member of the Black Liberation Army, wore a floor-length yellow gown with a matching scarf when she was convicted and sentenced for the murder of Foerster.
She was sent to what is now known as the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County, but escaped custody Nov. 2, 1979, following a brazen breakout by three armed Black Liberation Army members.
It has widely been reported that she fled to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum by then-President Fidel Castro.
She was listed on the FBI's Most Wanted list for decades and she remains on the most wanted terrorists list. The FBI is offering a $1 million reward for information directly leading to her apprehension.
State and federal officials have failed in several attempts to have her extradited, leading President Donald Trump in 2017 to demand that Cuba return “the cop-killer Joanne Chesimard.”
Last year, JetBlue apologized and removed posters of Chesimard the airline had included as part of a Black History Month tribute at New York’s Kennedy airport.
“Many people believe Shakur to be a political champion who is innocent of the criminal accusation against her," the poster read.
Although there has seemingly been no sight nor sound from Chesimard in decades, she has managed to remain an inspiration to some - much to Callahan's dismay.
"I owe it to the Foerster family and to all of the men and women who have ever worn the uniform as a New Jersey State Trooper to speak clearly and unequivocally regarding the truth about Chesimard," Callahan said in the statement. "She is not an inspirational figure. She is a convicted murderer that participated in the execution of Trooper Werner Foerster. We will never cease in our efforts to have her serve the remainder of her sentence in a New Jersey prison.
"The members of the New Jersey State Police will continue to meet with community partners and organizations that are genuinely committed to partnering with law enforcement to engage in meaningful dialogue surrounding police transparency and accountability. The men and women of the New Jersey State Police remain committed to holding our members to the highest standards."