More than 51 years after becoming a political prisoner of the United States, Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald died in a California prison last week, according to independent media company Democracy Now.
The news trickled through social media over the weekend as multiple Black-owned media outlets began to highlight Fitzgerald. He was 71-years-old when he died.
Born in 1949, Fitzgerald grew up in the South Central California neighborhoods of Watts and Compton. He joined the Black Panthers as a teenager, aiding in community empowerment and breakfast programs, according to Moguldom.
More than just a traffic stop
Fitzgerald’s five-decade experience as a political prisoner began after events on September 7, 1969. That night, a California Highway Patrol officer pulled over his Volkswagen, with two other members of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party in the car. Though reports claimed the stop was due to a bad tail light, members of the community have long argued it was a pretext to arrest political dissidents.
A shootout ensued, the officer and “Chip” were wounded, and the Panthers fled. Days later, another shootout broke out as police cornered the Panthers at their home. After the death of a security guard, an informant eventually named “Chip” as one of the men involved. Yet, no eyewitnesses were able to tie him to the murder. Even so, he was convicted and has spent the next half-century being shifted from one California prison to the next. Officials convicted him on two life charges for the murder of a security guard and attempted murder of the highway patrolman.
Despite being eligible for parole since 1976, officials have repeatedly denied it to he and other Black Panther freedom fighters, making him the longest-imprisoned member.
Stroke in prison left Fitzgerald frail and sick
Harry Carey is a longtime friend of Fitzgerald’s who helped coordinate the campaign for his freedom, telling Liberation News, “We were brought together in this movement by the four little girls who were blown up in the 16th Street Baptist Church. We got a chance to redeem ourselves by protecting them from those who killed him. We got a chance to stand up to that violence that is a part of American reality,” Carey said.
The stroke Fitzgerald suffered, which occured in 1998, had left him frail and in a wheelchair for the remainder of his incarceration.
Yet, his revolutionary spirit never died. Artistically, he articulated his thoughts about what freedom will feel like, writing,
“I will always give special devotion to finding peace and moving full speed to overcome the damaging impact associated with the daily screams of terror and absence of dignity that have engulfed my prison environment.
Most of all, I will be dedicated to the journey and opportunity of spending my remaining life giving. Giving of myself to achieve the many treasures of what it means to be a valued human being; embracing freedom.”
Mainstream media silent on Fitzgerald’s death
Sick and unable to walk, his supporters never stopped fighting for his release. Supporters garnered more than 21,000 signatures on a petition that was directed to Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom. It went unanswered. And in May of 2018, Fitzgerald and his lawyer agreed to a 5-year parole denial.
Various Black-owned and socialist media outlets have reported on Fitzgerald’s death. But Democracy Now remains the only nationally-recognized daily news broadcast publication to report the story. All eyes remain fixed on the trial of Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd. His death represents the exact kind of injustice that sparked the Black Panther Party. So one would think media outlets would be quick to compare these two stories in their coverage.
To be sure, Hollywood’s embrace of the film Judas and the Black Messiah seemed to indicate a change. Initially, it seemed there was now a new willingness to expose and explore the revolutionary ideas that have long been silenced by the mainstream. Yet, no mainstream media company found it newsworthy to report on the death of a Black Panther freedom fighter. Moreover, California, one of the most liberal states in the country, allowed the longest-imprisoned Black political prisoner to die behind bars as a sick, frail old man in a wheelchair.
The FBI still lists Assata Shakur, a Black Panther Party leader who was also a leader of the Black Liberation Army and now exiled in Cuba, as one of its most wanted terrorists to this day. Perhaps then, it makes sense why mainstream media has no tangible interest in promoting the death of Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald. American society’s embrace of Black liberation has never gone beyond the superficial. It’s never gone beyond what industries can commercialize or exploit.
Shining a light on decades of injustice
Others, however, refuse to allow these kinds of stories to die. Sophia Dawson, an artist and activist, is launching a book featuring stories of Black political prisoners. One of those stories includes Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald.
“It is my sincere hope that through this visual, artistic exploration, we will shine a light on decades of injustice, and humanize the men and women that led the charge in the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Dawson said in a statement to Complex.
Anyone wanting to learn more about “Chip” and other Black political prisoners can pre-order Dawson’s book here.