Sundiata Acoli is an 84-year-old grandfather, mentor, teacher and artist who has been in prison for more than 48 years. He and Joanne Chesimard (Assata Shakur) were both convicted and sentenced to life in prison (with the possibility of parole) for their role in the tragic shooting on the New Jersey State Turnpike which resulted in the death of New Jersey state trooper, Werner Foerster and Black Panther Party member named Zayd Shakur. The highly publicized trial and Assata Shakur’s subsequent escape from prison in 1979 have framed Sundiata’s imprisonment as one of the most emotional and passionately debated cases in the history of the state of New Jersey. Though Sundiata has been eligible for parole for more than 25 years his petitions for parole have been summarily denied eight times.
By the grace of God, Sundiata has endured almost five decades of imprisonment in some of the most torturous prisons in America. He has expressed deep remorse and regret and has taken full responsibility for his actions that fateful night almost 50 years ago. There is so much that this veteran freedom fighter can teach a country that does not seem to be able to move beyond the cycles of protest, retaliation and revenge. I am a pastor at a historic Black Church in Princeton, N.J. and I am blessed to serve as Sundiata’s “faith based” counsel and representative in the Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance.
I first “met” Sundiata Acoli over 25 years ago after sending him a letter to where he was imprisoned in a maximum security prison in Leavenworth, Kan. Sundiata Acoli is a graduate of Prairie View University in Texas and was a mathematician and computer analyst who worked for NASA prior to committing his life full time to the civil rights movement and as a leader in the Black Panther Party. When I learned about Sundiata, I was a recent college dropout turned full time activist working as a Human Rights Fellow for Amnesty International-USA. I was intrigued by his story and I wanted to learn more. I was assigned the responsibility of working on a wide range of domestic human rights projects including the abolition of the death penalty and advocacy on behalf of those identified as “political prisoners” in the United States. I came to learn that Sundiata Acoli was so much more than his political history or an iconic symbol drawing passionate responses from both supporters and opponents.
As an octogenarian COVID-19 survivor in the early stages of dementia, currently suffering from heart disease and emphysema, Sundiata does not represent a safety threat to anyone, anywhere. As recently as May 2021, the N.J. Board of Parole seemingly ignored the fact that Sundiata has had a perfect disciplinary record for almost 30 years and teaches a class in federal prison for young prisoners preparing for re-entry into communities on parole.
Currently, Sundiata sits in a federal prison cell on the verge of what many of his supporters see as a politically motivated death sentence. At last count, close to 10,000 women and men have signed an online petition calling upon New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to grant compassionate release and allow Sundiata to go home to his family. I pray every day that those in power will submit to the call of a higher power which calls humanity for forgiveness, mercy and grace.
Over the decades of his incarceration, I have come to know him as a father of two daughters and grandfather that longs to hug his grandchildren outside of a prison. I know Sundiata as a source of wise and calming counsel to scores of young activists who needed to understand the connection of one generation of freedom fighters to the next. I know Sundiata as a mentor who encouraged me to be a committed father to my newborn children, return to college and complete graduate school as I discovered my true calling as an activist-minister. Two decades ago, I would have jumped at any opportunity to debate the details of Sundiata’s case and argue the tragedy of political calculations which extend prison sentences for prisoners such as Sundiata and many other aging political prisoners. No more. Today, I am focused on the moral tragedy of a government that waits for aging prisoners to die through the use of de facto death sentences. In this hour, I am committed to calling upon communities to prevent these political death sentences from being executed. The deaths of those identified as “political prisoners” stigmatize freedom movements, institutionalize vengeance and revoke our best hopes for healing and reconciliation.
I remember in one of our first telephone conversations, I asked Sundiata, “When do you think that you will be released?” He answered, “That’s up to you. The people make that decision.” It is a decision that is overdue. If not now—Sundiata Acoli will die in prison. It is time for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to do what is right and exercise his executive power to release Sundiata Acoli by commuting his sentence to time served.