[Pnews] Russell Maroon Shoatz - A Son’s Fight for His Father’s Freedom

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Oct 21 11:26:38 EDT 2020

https://level.medium.com/a-sons-fight-for-his-father-s-freedom-6434464014d7 A
Son’s Fight for His Father’s Freedom
Russell Maroon Shoatz - October 15, 20020

[image: “My father deserves to be free.”]
‘Maroon’ Shoatz and Russell Shoatz III share how they built an unshakable
relationship in spite of incarceration and separation

[image: Russell Maroon Shoatz]

*This article is part of **Abolition for the People*
<https://level.medium.com/abolition-for-the-people-397ef29e3ca5>*, a series
brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and *LEVEL
<https://level.medium.com/>,* a Medium publication for and about the lives
of Black and Brown men.* *The series, which comprises 30 essays and
conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that
policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state
deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the
needs of the community first.*

Russell “Maroon” Shoatz is an activist, writer, founding member of the
Black Unity Council, former member of the Black Panther Party, and soldier
in the Black Liberation Army. Incarcerated since 1972 and now 77 years old,
Maroon is serving multiple life sentences in Pennsylvania as a U.S.-held
political prisoner of war. After escaping prison twice, in 1977 and 1980,
he earned the name Maroon from fellow incarcerated men, a nod to Africans
who fled chattel slavery and created autonomous communities throughout the
Americas. His son, Russell Shoatz III, is a longtime activist, educator,
and live event producer. For the past three decades, he’s worked tirelessly
for his father’s freedom and that of all U.S.-held political prisoners.

Below, Maroon and Russell discuss their life together while being kept
apart, the traumas they’ve suffered at the hands of the carceral state, and
how, in spite of all of this, they still have an unbreakable relationship
as educators, as freedom fighters, and as father and son.

*This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.*

*Russell “Maroon” Shoatz: *From as far back as I can remember, my son has
intrigued me with his analysis on a multitude of different subjects. I
guess it should come as no surprise since the Shoatz family is steeped in a
long tradition of education and profound thinkers.

*Russell Shoatz III: *Some of my earliest memories are of attending Samuel
B. Huey Elementary School on 52nd and Pine in West Philadelphia. My mother
worked at the school.

*Maroon: *My mother, Gladys Shoatz, was a trailblazer in supporting her
community and her neighbors’ families in Philadelphia. She made sure that
the educational systems worked for her community and that the people knew
exactly what they were supposed to receive from the school board.

My now-deceased sister Ida Shoatz also became an educational icon in
Philadelphia and abroad. In Peru, she helped organize school lunch programs
for over a dozen villages in the Andes. When she returned home, Ida
channeled her experiences back into her own community, challenging the
educational system to properly serve poor and disenfranchised communities
in ways few, if any, African American women had before. My other sister,
Dr. Suzette Hakeem, also became a lifelong education advocate and supported
countless students of all ages.

So over 40 years ago, when my son, Russell, began to ask me about a myriad
of topics — my criminal case and why I was incarcerated, my spiritual
beliefs, my cultural beliefs, what books I was reading, my relationships
with women — I immediately knew we would be engaged in a lifetime
educational journey.

*Russell: *From my formative years until I was a preteen, my mother was
extremely diligent in shielding me from any harm or danger and specifically
making sure that any of the political actions that my father was involved
in from the turbulent ’60s didn’t affect my growth, development, and
abilities to prosper in general.

In elementary school, though, I first began to recognize that I was a
little different than most children around me. My good friend Reginald
Barnes, whose father was a police officer and a pastor, would occasionally
invite me over to do homework. Mr. Barnes told me that every time I came
over to study with Reggie, he would bring us pizza. I was more than obliged
to take him up on this offer.

Shortly after, my father escaped from prison for the first time. It was a
surreal experience, especially in the context of Philadelphia in the ’70s,
widely experienced by Black and disenfranchised communities as a police
state. Frank Rizzo was the police chief, and police terror reigned.

That day started off as usual, but just as first period was beginning, we
were all alerted by the sound of a three-toned xylophone over the public
announcement system. Usually, the xylophone would be followed by a fire
drill or some other school-specific message. This time, however, it was
considerably different as the principal began delivering what can only be
described as a student’s dream: He stated that there would be an early
dismissal that day! The entire school, myself included, erupted in joy at
his proclamation.

But that joy would soon turn into bewilderment. As my classmates and I
exited the building, we discovered our school was surrounded by Rizzo’s
police force, armed to the teeth. A teacher walked me across the street to
my home. But it wasn’t the home that I had known. My home was filled with
intruders. The intruders were police officers — police officers who I
immediately saw as a threat. I witnessed my mother intensely arguing with
them. I watched those intruders set about destroying everything in the
house, from furniture to framed family photos. They claimed that they were
looking for my father.

>From that day on, school at Samuel B. Huey would never be the same.
Nonstop, classmates would ask me how my father got on TV. Regularly, some
of my childhood friends would bring up that my father was on the front page
of the newspaper. What stays with me the most, though, is classmates
casually saying, “Tell your father to escape again so that we can have
another early dismissal.” I was only 10 years old.

I was 10, trying to navigate anger and sorrow over my father’s absence. I
was 10, trying to make sense of the little information I’d overheard from
family members about my father taking up arms to defend our community
against police violence. I was 10, dealing with flashbacks of law
enforcement forcing their way into my home, claiming to be looking for my

Yet, to some of my peers, all that mattered about him was the possibility
of getting another day off from school.

“I was 10, trying to navigate anger and sorrow over my father’s absence. I
was 10, trying to make sense of the little information I’d overheard from
family members about my father taking up arms to defend our community
against police violence.” *— Russell Shoatz III*

*Maroon: *Like most people, Russell wanted to know the in-depth specifics
of how I ended up with a sentence of life without parole and all of the
gritty details surrounding my involvement with the Black Unity Council and,
later, the Black Liberation Army. I explained to him, as I’ve been
explaining to people until now, that those details, if exposed, could
incriminate me and others.

He recognized early on that phone calls and letters would limit him in the
information for which he was mining. This led to relentless visitations and
many hours of travel. I was always considered an escape risk, so I remained
in solitary confinement for nearly 30 years — 22 of them consecutive
At Dallas, Pennsylvania, they forced my family to unsafely travel through
the entire prison in order to visit me in my dark, dank basement cell, as
if I were Hannibal Lecter.

At one point, my son even traveled to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where I was
illegally transported following the Camp Hill prison uprising of 1989
<https://www.workers.org/2019/12/44714/>, in which incarcerated people in
Pennsylvania rose up against overcrowding and inhumane conditions.

After days of skullduggery, mental jousting, intense questioning, and
eating all of the vending machine food, including my favorites, coffee and
cake, Russell sat quietly in that Kansas prison, staring downward. Then he
raised his head to ask a question that took me by total surprise: He said
that based on the bulge in my pants, it seemed that he was not endowed with
the same size penis as me. I chuckled and explained to him that the bulge
came from repeated beatings, where my attackers would all kick me in the
groin until I was completely disfigured. Still thirsting for more, he would
ingeniously pry information from me and intensely debate me.

*Russell: *Historically, these conversations with my father have been like
mentally battling one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters of all
time. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu <https://gracieyoungsville.com/gracie-history/> has
nothing on the mental warfare I’ve endured and the ingenious ways by which
the crafty old veteran has forced me to tap out!

*Maroon: *I was never bothered by his mental attacks, as this was common
amongst the younger men in prison who, after failed physical attacks, would
resort to the intellectual bumrush. I welcomed these opportunities and
created African-centered solitary confinement study courses. As the
hardened young men would be sent to the hole, my comrades and I would
immediately engage them about why they were in prison and stress how
important it was that they educate themselves before leaving. It was
literally a mental boot camp in which I shared my personal library of books
that family and supporters would send me. The young students were engaged,
encouraged, and tested on what they had read until we felt they had
properly retained the information. Similar to the ongoing mental battles I
endured with my son, these young men became some of my greatest teachers.

A recent debate I had with Russell focused on Marvel’s movie *Black Panther*
and the character Killmonger. I proposed that someone had done some intense
research of our movements in the ’60s, including the Black Panther Party
and Black Liberation Army, and had synthesized our rage and anger into this
uncoincidentally Oakland-reared character.

“They forced my family to travel through the entire prison in order to
visit me in my dark, dank basement cell, as if I were Hannibal Lecter.” —
Russell “Maroon” Shoatz

*Russell: *I had to agree that, due to the Hollywood budget and cultural
context of the Marvel movie, there seemed to have been some significant
research of movements and strategies by our most recent freedom fighters.
But I’ve challenged some of my father’s analysis of the film, in particular
his overarching critique of Killmonger.

*Maroon: *I believe he is an example of how militants can be blinded by
thoughts of physical and military conquest as retribution. This blind rage
is a gateway to a host of schisms, from misogyny to power-hoarding to an
overall loss of focus on what Che Guevara famously stated as the reason why
we fight: “a love for the people.”

*Russell:* Most people that I’ve engaged with, be they activists,
academics, or everyday folks in my world, love Killmonger for his desire to
fight the oppressor and channel his anger, even if some in the village
didn’t understand his tactics. Personally, I’m a fan as well, though I do
have my share of questions surrounding the portrayal of some
not-so-glamorous details about his past, namely his father’s dirty dealings
with a mercenary and the sweeping trauma that defines his childhood as a
result of his father’s brutal death.

Hollywood continues to give credence to the stereotype of Black men not
being present in crucial ways and not being able to overcome particular
challenges. It’s not lost on me that I’m calling this convention to task as
a Black man whose own father was locked up or on the run since I was three
years old. But lurking beneath all of the great fight scenes and the
machismo and bravado that Killmonger embodies is his dysfunctional
childhood, which feeds his blind rage.

This narrative of the traumatized Black male child whose only outlet is
self-destruction, which in most cases leaks out onto his very own
community, is well-worn and cliche. Think about how this storytelling
technique shows up consistently throughout Hollywood depictions of Black
communities. I’m not knocking *Black Panther* as a whole. There’s plenty to
admire in its script, enactment, and production. But while I support the
broadening representation of Black folks in Hollywood and our ability to
shape our own narratives and tell our own stories, the critic in me can’t
help but point out these striking contradictions. What good is increased
access to large-scale cultural production if we’re reproducing outdated
tropes anchored in pathologizing Blackness? I suppose, then, my critique of
how Killmonger’s childhood is represented in the film ultimately overlaps
with some of my father’s concerns about the character as an adult.

Some years ago, my father encouraged my sisters and me to take on African
names. He urged us all to do it as a reclamation of cultural heritage
erased by our upbringing and socialization in the U.S. I picked “Jela,”
which in Swahili means “father was troubled around the time of my birth.”
Killmonger’s past also involved his father facing trial and tribulation
rooted in a commitment to liberating Black people when he was young.

Unlike the Hollywood caricatures, though, I’ve spent 40 years learning from
my father’s struggles. We don’t see eye-to-eye on all topics related to our
people’s fight for liberation. But when it comes to character, courage,
commitment, and critical thinking, I must admit that those disgruntled
teachers, authority figures, and police officers from my youth were spot
on: I *have* proudly ended up being just like my father — and my father
deserves to be free.

It is 2020. My father was born in 1943. He’s 77 years old. He is a
grandfather. He is an elder suffering from stage 4 colorectal cancer. He is
a threat to no one. He is a prisoner of a war waged against Black people
by the U.S. government. The only threat that he serves is to anyone who
believes that Black people are unworthy of defending themselves against
state-sanctioned acts of terror. He is a human being who has been
dehumanized, confined in a cage, alone
and tortured
My father deserves to be free. All political prisoners deserve to be free.

Free. Them. All.
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