Militant brother Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald has died in prison after being locked up for over 51 years in California. He was 71 years old. We share these memories of his life to pay homage to this brave fighter.
It was the mid-sixties and the world seemed on fire with activism. Having had considerable contact with prisoners who had formed reading groups and subsequently read extensively about the Black movement, Chip quickly developed a sense of the importance of Black history and Black culture and of the long term impact of racism on the Black community. In 1967, while serving time, Chip encountered literature about the Black Panther Party and decided to investigate further. He and scores of other prisoners immediately noticed the Party’s desire to struggle for Black freedom and they were outraged to discover that racism was the result of ignorance and greed. He also began to understand how capitalism undermined the legitimate demands of people seeking freedom and justice. Heartened by what he learned, Chip took himself through a process of reevaluation and concluded he no longer aspired to be involved in the streets. Instead, he made the decision to devote his life to the freedom struggle and to the ideals for which organizations like the Black Panther Party stood. Upon his release from jail in early 1969, he and a group of fellow prisoners from DVI, joined the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Tired of seeing racism prevent poor and oppressed people from exercising their human right to self-determination, Chip enthusiastically delved into community work assigned him by local Black Panther Party leaders. From education and housing initiatives to selling the Black Panther Party newspaper and serving kid’s free breakfasts, he became enthralled with the positive work of refashioning his community from one that was oppressed, excluded and subservient to one that was self-determining and self-sufficient.
Bruce Richard, a union executive who in 1969 joined the Black Panther Party’s Southern California Chapter with Chip, recalled that, “Upon Chip’s release from jail, he wasted no time joining the Black Panther Party. Chip worked tirelessly in various capacities in the Westside office of the Chapter. To be a Panther was a 24/7 commitment, and every single day seemed like weeks due to the volume of activities during that explosive period. Chip was totally consumed by his work in the Party’s Free Breakfast Program, the tutorial program, selling Panther papers, attending political education classes and distributing leaflets throughout the community that explained the philosophy and objectives of the Black Panther Party. He was a favorite of many in the communities we served. The children especially loved him, as was often reflected in their smiling little faces when he appeared.”
Like many BPP members, Chip learned political principles, the importance of organizational discipline, and the proper handling and use firearms. He identified with the ideology of armed struggle and it’s revolutionary potential. His commitment and fervor came to a head when the pig Leslie Clapp, a California Highway Patrolmen, stopped him and two other Panthers as they drove across town to expropriate funds for their work. The Panthers defended themselves and at the end, Officer Clapp lay on the ground gravely wounded and Chip bled profusely from a gunshot wound to the head.
Chip managed to remain at large for several weeks until his arrest for the September 1969 killing of a Los Angeles-area security guard. Two weeks after this incident, the police located and arrested Chip, who at the time still wore the bandage from having been shot by the California Highway Patrolman. A kangaroo court in state of California tried and convicted him for this incident and a second murder. During this fatal incident, Chip was intervening in an ongoing armed confrontation between the security guard and another member of the Black Panther Party. Within a few years, the state of California ruled the death penalty unconstitutional and relocated Chip from San Quentin’s Death Row to that prison’s now infamous Adjustment Center.
Words by Chip:
“The prison administrators and their advocates within the state want to create fear in the minds of the public in an effort to persuade the people to give state authorities carte blanche in the inhumane treatment of convicts, and allow the prison administrators to operate without oversight and accountability.”
UPON MY RELEASE,
I will welcome the warmth and laughter of my grandchildren. I look forward to their hugs and smiles. I will be the Grandpa present to soothe them through occasional scrapes after they show me their somersaults and expert bike riding maneuvers.
I will have the chance to witness numerous bird species and listen to their songs. I’ll hope for a rain to nourish the vegetables and flowers i planted days before, just as my mother used to do, and reach for the rainbow stretching across the sky after the rain. I will feel the mist on my face and rejoice.
I will experience the waves of the ocean reflecting the moon filled sky and the cozy breeze and graceful winds upon my skin. I will be outside in nature’s healing environment as it soothes and comforts my body allowing my age filled bones to heal and rejuvenate in ways lost for most of my life. At the end of the evening I will look forward to a soft bed and sinking my head into fluffy pil lows as I curl up in soft covers and dream sweet dreams knowing I will awake to a new day of freedom.
I will have my eyes dazzled by the spectrum of radiant colors that only a city can sparkle. I look forward to enjoying the sights from a car window, recognizing the aroma of the city’s possessions all converging together.
I hope to share love and laughter, the joys and hardships of life with a special woman. We will lift each other’s hearts as equals to face a brighter tomorrow.
I will continue to appreciate the love and challenges of family. I imagine our dialogue will include our sense of community, our country, the world, our contributions and help to our neighborhoods and, of course, sharing my personal sorrows and hope. I will lead by example with spontaneous acts of love, compassion and kindness thereby demonstrating my belief in the transformation of others. I will enjoy volunteering in preschools and/or visiting the elderly in convalescent hospitals.
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.
Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald spent 21 years of his life on this side of the walls, and 51 years in a cage for fighting for the liberation of people. We mourn that he was not able to achieve freedom at the end of his life, and commit to the struggle ever more diligently in his memory.