Nehanda Abiodun, 68, Black Revolutionary Who Fled to Cuba, Dies
Nehanda Abiodun, a radical black nationalist who was charged in the deadly botched robbery of a Brink’s armored truck in 1981 and then spent decades as a fugitive in Cuba, a hero to would-be revolutionaries and a criminal to many others, died on Jan. 30 at her home in Havana. She was 68.
Her death was confirmed by Henry Louis Taylor Jr., a historian who has interviewed Ms. Abiodun for a biography of her he is writing with Linda McGlynn, a social worker and senior research fellow at the University at Buffalo, where Professor Taylor also teaches urban planning.
Self-described revolutionaries belonging to the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army committed a rash of domestic bombings and hijackings in the 1960s and ’70s in what they called resistance to the United States government. Ms. Abiodun (pronounced ah-BEE-oh-dun) was suspected of conspiring with members of both groups.
The radicals were charged with attacks against government targets and with helping another revolutionary, Assata Shakur (who was known as Joanne Chesimard before choosing an African name), escape in 1979 from an upstate New York prison. Ms. Shakur had been convicted in the killing of a New Jersey state trooper in a shootout in 1973. The groups supported their activities with armed robberies.
On Oct. 21, 1981, a group of radicals tried to steal $1.6 million from a Brink’s armored truck in Nanuet, N.Y., a little less than 30 miles northwest of Manhattan. Several gunmen ambushed three Brink’s guards while they carried money out to the truck, killing one of them, Peter Paige. During their escape the gunmen got into a firefight with police officers at a roadblock in nearby Nyack, N.Y., and killed two, Edward O’Grady and Waverly Brown.
Some of the conspirators stole cars and fled, and some were captured right away; one of those seized was Kathy Boudin, who was driving a getaway car and had been on the run for about a decade. Others, like Mutulu Shakur (not related to Assata), who was said to have been the heist’s ringleader, were not apprehended for years.
Ms. Abiodun was indicted in 1982 on conspiracy, racketeering and other charges in the robbery, though the authorities released few specifics about what they believed was her specific role. She went underground before she was indicted and was never captured.
Ms. Abiodun never admitted to taking part in the crimes, but she did defend the perpetrators. She told the black power website The Talking Drum that she had little sympathy for the police officers killed in the robbery.
“They were upholding the genocidal and oppressive policies of the United States,” she said. “They were soldiers who were at war with us.”
Ms. Abiodun hid out during most of the 1980s and had moved to Cuba by 1990, having received political asylum. There she joined dozens of American fugitives, including Ms. Shakur.
Many Americans viewed Ms. Abiodun and her comrades as unrepentant terrorists. Family members of the slain police officers and an officer wounded in the robbery expressed outrage when people who took part in the heist came up for parole or were granted it. At her death, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website listed Ms. Abiodun as a wanted domestic terrorist and offered $100,000 for information leading to her arrest.
Though Ms. Abiodun feared extradition to the United States, she made a point of speaking to activists and journalists.
“I have a commitment to those who have sacrificed their lives for us,” she told Ebony magazine in 2014. “I’m talking about from the time of slavery, the first Africans who were brought here, that gave their lives for us to be free.”
Ms. Abiodun was born Laverne Cheri Dalton in Harlem on June 29, 1950, to Wesley and Marge Dalton. Her mother worked for United Airlines, and her father was a bodyguard for Malcolm X for a time. Laverne grew up immersed in the black power movement.
After graduating from high school, she studied journalism at Columbia University. But she left before completing her degree to work in a methadone clinic in Harlem in the early 1970s, when an epidemic of heroin addiction was ravaging minority communities in New York.
She left the clinic to join an experimental rehabilitation facility in the South Bronx, the Lincoln Detox Center. The center, which was connected to activist groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican-American organization, treated addicts with acupuncture and coupled their treatment with political education and community engagement.
The center’s spending came under government scrutiny, and Mayor Edward I. Koch shut the facility down in 1978.
“I began to understand the politics surrounding drug addiction, racism and control,” Ms. Abiodun said in 2014. “It was a way of, once again, capitalism trying to destroy our lives.”
She became more radicalized after the clinic closed, taking the name Nehanda Isoke Abiodun and joining the Republic of New Afrika, which sought to create an independent black country in the Southern states.
In Cuba Ms. Abiodun became a kind of grande dame of revolution. She taught political education and championed Cuban hip-hop, forming a Havana chapter of Black August, a grass-roots group that promotes the genre, and working to further the careers of Cuban rappers like the duo Obsesión. She said she saw hip-hop, at its best, as a way to address social problems.
Ms. Abiodun is survived by a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.
Professor Taylor, her biographer, said Ms. Abiodun told him that “all she wanted was to be a mom and lead a normal life, but the government created a condition where she had to fight back.”
Ms. Abiodun said that once she had committed to revolution, there was no turning back.
“I don’t have the luxury of changing my mind,” she said in 2014. “Freedom is freedom, and I’ve been fighting for freedom since I was 10 years old.”