The Deadly Side of Activism
Huey Newton (center) gives the Black Power salute as he leaves Alameda County Courthouse on August 5, 1970. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

The Deadly Side of Activism

‘Revolutionary Suicide,’ the title of Huey Newton’s memoir, speaks to what…

On February 8, 2016, MarShawn McCarrel texted his mother, “Hey Mom. I love you.” Later that day, he took his own life on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.

He was 23 years old.

McCarrel was a well-known artist and activist in the capital city and beyond. He performed spoken word throughout the city, founded multiple community activist groups, and worked heavily with statewide organization Ohio Student Association. Yet, he also struggled, fighting to find his place as a Black man in the U.S. while also working to topple its oppressive institutions. Ultimately, he succumbed to that struggle. “My demons won today. I’m sorry,” read his last Facebook post.

In his famed 1973 memoir, Revolutionary Suicide, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton describes the titular concept as the willingness to die for political liberation. It was much more than a theory; as the Black Panthers were systematically targeted and infiltrated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and other law enforcement agencies, numerous party members were murdered by police. Throughout his trial and subsequent sentence following a 1968 conviction for voluntary manslaughter — after being shot first by a police officer — Newton spent 33 months in solitary confinement. In the book, Newton refers to solitary confinement as “the soul breaker,” detailing the sensory deprivation and squalid conditions intended to punish beyond punishment.

In the decades since publication, Newton’s memoir has become a landmark text for activists, providing a valuable framework for radical resistance against an oppressive power. But read only as a memoir, stripped of the context of what Newton and his Black Panther compatriots faced at the time, it loses a crucial dimension: Acknowledging the grief and trauma many activists encounter and discussing how to overcome it.

McCarrel’s passing is a tragic example of the consequences of clinging to revolutionary suicide as a framework for activism and life. He is not the only one: At least two other men who protested alongside McCarrel in Ferguson have since taken their own lives. With the legacy of Newton’s work still looming over the work of activists today, it’s all the more pressing to salvage light from the cracks between the image of the revolutionary and the reality.

A few minutes into our conversation, Leatha Wellington reminds me that it’s the four-year anniversary of her son MarShawn’s passing. “People always reach out every year to make sure I’m okay,” she says. “I was grieving really, really hard for the first three years. This past year, I finally began to have some type of closure, some type of healing. I’m really in a good place.”

Quiet as a boy, MarShawn started performing at poetry events as a young teen, dazzling older audiences at open-mic events in Columbus. After high school, he became involved with an area humanities program, speaking frequently to high school audiences; a brief encounter with homelessness galvanized that outreach into something more pointed. He and his twin brother, MarQuan, started Feed The Streets, an organization that worked to feed homeless people throughout the city of Columbus. McCarrel also began to organize after police officers shot and killed an Ohio man, John Crawford III, in a Walmart. Ultimately, he joined the Ohio Student Association, an activist group involved in statewide issues.

“He was just a funny, charismatic person, but also very serious as well about what he wanted to do for his community,” says Alwiyah Shariff, a longtime organizer in Columbus and a pivotal member of the OSA. “You could tell he’d been through a lot.” The two frequented demonstrations, meetings, and trainings together, forging a friendship. At a 2013 demonstration that they both attended in front of the Ohio Statehouse in 2013, McCarrel recited a poem with the lines, “You say my generation is in trouble/I say my generation is on fire.”

In the midst of that fire, McCarrel and Shariff became siblings in arms, friends and comrades swept up in a political struggle that connected the hood, the creative world, and the movement. For McCarrel, activism work was both personal and political, especially in his west side Columbus neighborhood. “It seemed like every week there was someone he knew that had been killed,” Shariff says. During a 2014 demonstration outside the National Governors’ Association meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, McCarrell and four other activists were arrested, becoming known as the “Nashville 5.”

As the struggle against police brutality became a national issue, Shariff and McCarrel were catapulted into local and national initiatives, training new social justice activists. In September 2015, McCarrel moved to Washington, D.C. to start a new job. To his friends, he seemed to be managing well, but his mother could feel him becoming distant — beyond what even his work would demand.

In January 2016, Wellington picked up her son from the Columbus Greyhound bus station. “He wasn’t his usual upbeat, dapper self,” she says now. “There was a darkness in his eyes when I look back, when I look at the pictures [we took at that time].”

At home, Wellington received a call from an NAACP representative informing her that McCarrel had won a humanitarian award, yet noticed that he didn’t seem excited about the news.

This feeling of being in the eye of the storm and having to do whatever it takes for the cause exists both at the beginning and the breaking point of every radical organizer’s journey.

“I knew it was hard for him,” Shariff says. “You go to these big national things, these events, you get these awards, and you come home and your friends are still getting shot. You’re still broke. We weren’t getting paid through this process. People had a lot of expectations of us as community leaders. We didn’t have the support, and the capacity wasn’t there to hold us. It took us a long time to realize we even needed to be held, honestly.”

McCarrel was to fly to California to accept the award; he insisted that his mother, who had never been on a plane before, accompany him. She did — never suspecting that once they returned, her son would be gone the next day.

In a 1972 profile of Newton, Rolling Stone chronicled the almost exile-like nature of his 25th-floor apartment in Oakland, which Newton moved into after his 1970 prison release. On the apartment’s balcony, he had a pair of binoculars fixed on the courthouse across the lake, the site of his trial and his former 10th-floor jail cell. Before and during Newton’s time in prison, the Black Panther Party was caught between hypervisible militarism and bravado and survival programs, like the Free Breakfast Program or Freedom Schools — which McCarrel would later propagate in Columbus. These internal conflicts and the weight of state repression through COINTELPRO made Newton’s imagery more important for a Black America attempting to fight back against the establishment.

This feeling of being in the eye of the storm and having to do whatever it takes for the cause exists both at the beginning and the breaking point of every radical organizer’s journey. Life becomes measured by the ability to stare down what others turn away from.

When Gil Scott-Heron recited, “The revolution will not be televised,” he was right in ways he may not have even intended. There are things that an image or text convey that they or their author didn’t intend either — and some things they meant to convey that faded away in spite of their intent. As with Revolutionary Suicide, it is a sense of how we grapple with life when the intensity of political work wanes.

For activists who knew or worked alongside McCarrel, his passing prompted thoughts and conversation around community and self-care. For his mother, the work to live on involved battling depression, trusting in her faith, being the mother that her sons needed, and the support of those around her.

For Newton, his fate was much different. After jumping bail and fleeing from Oakland to Cuba, he returned to California in 1977. By then, he may have realized that solitary confinement wasn’t the only “soul breaker” he would encounter. Watching his friends die or go to prison; seeing drugs overtake Oakland; becoming addicted to drugs himself; constant FBI surveillance; the poverty that would almost force him to sell Panther memorabilia. In 1989, Newton was shot and killed during an argument with Tyrone Robinson, a man some say Newton had previously robbed.

If she could speak to McCarrel in time, Shariff says, she knows what she would tell him: “There’s a lot of time to learn the skills and tools to live through this. You can live through this. There is another side to this.”

For Wellington, his mother, those words are even simpler. “I always longed to be able to embrace him just one more time,” she says, “To say, ‘I love you.’”

As a guide to radical resistance against an oppressive power, Revolutionary Suicide is a landmark text. When I first read Revolutionary Suicide in 2015, I was fresh out of college, burnt out from a year of student organizing following the murder of Michael Brown and feeling like the ugly parts of the U.S. were trying to claim me. While working in Montana, I had put a drunk White man in a shower and turned the cold water on as he sobbed, “I’m just trying to say this country ain’t what it used to be. Don’t you understand?”

Reading the book did not put an end to that feeling, but it informed the experiences that came after. I would be kettled by police in Paris. I would watch people get shot with rubber bullets in Standing Rock. By the time I sat with a friend at a bar and told her that I thought the radical life would kill me by 35, Revolutionary Suicide was the only thing on my mind. I felt trapped by how little this country has changed, and how it strips us of hope.

But in Shariff and Wellington’s words, something vital thrums. Not only must we fight the brutal systems aiming to destroy us‚ but we must do so while recognizing that we are human beings in need of care ourselves. One without the other is not enough to sustain revolution — or life.