Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz and Russell Shoatz III share how they built an unshakable relationship in spite of incarceration and separation
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, 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 father.
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, 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 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.