How did the son of a convicted cop killer come to be raised by a Philadelphia police officer? The activist and educator Russell Shoatz III, son of the imprisoned Black Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz, speaks with Ashley Lucas and Peter Mommsen about the two men he counts as fathers and about how their complex stories became the Plough feature article “The End of Rage”.
Peter: The autumn 2021 issue of Plough features an in-depth article on prison and justice issues; I’m really pleased to welcome its author, Ashley Lucas, who’s written for us before. Ashley teaches theatre at the University of Michigan, where she works with the Prison Creative Arts Project and the Carceral State Project. She is the author of Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration. In this issue she’s writing on the incarcerated former Black Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz, who spent twenty-nine years in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania and is still in prison there.
I’m also welcoming my friend Russell Shoatz III, the son of Russell Maroon Shoatz and co-founder with me and others of the first magazine I was involved in, BLU Magazine. He’s an activist, educator, and live-event producer, and he worked with Ashley on this piece about his story and the story of his father. So we thought we’d have a little conversation about it, about the issue of incarceration, about families, about fathers and sons. It’s also a story about how telling stories can cast light on issues that are really hard to understand if you only view them through a political or statistical lens. With that, we’ll get into it a little.
Ashley, I thought I’d start with you. If you could just tell a little bit about your work, really fascinating work, working with theatre, working with the incarcerated in this country and Brazil, and how you got into it and what are some of the things that you wish more people knew about it.
Ashley Lucas: Thank you so much, Pete. It’s an honor to be here. It’s an honor to finally get to meet Russell Shoatz in person. We’ve been talking a lot on Zoom and on the phone for a long time, and it does my heart good to see you in person. I came to this work about prisons because my father went to prison in Texas when I was fifteen and stayed there for twenty years and five months. By the time I got to graduate school, I had spent most of my life not talking about the fact that my father was in prison. He’d been locked up for eight or nine years at the point when I decided to write a play, an interview-based play about other people who had family in prison, because I wanted to find out where the families were.
I’d spent all that time feeling like I didn’t know anybody else who had a loved one in prison, except for the people I met in prison visiting rooms. And then when I started telling people – by this point I was in graduate school working on a PhD in theatre and ethnic studies – it turned out that all of the other folks of color (my family is Latino, Chicano from the Mexican border) had at least one family member, sometimes many, who were in prison. And they had never bothered to tell me, even if they knew my father was in prison, because there wasn’t a good or safe reason to talk about it.
So, when I started working on this play, all these people came out of the woodwork as also having loved ones in prison. And they had plenty to say about it. I didn’t really have to interview people. I just said, “My father is in prison and I’m trying to find out what happened to your family.” Sometimes people would talk for four hours without me asking another question, because there was no other safe place to have that conversation. A lot of my work since has focused on finding ways to feel a part of that community of people who share this completely earth-shattering experience – it shapes everything about how I live my life – and also trying to figure out how to write about families and people in prison in ways that are thoughtful and honest, and tell the stories of our communities, because the vast majority of writing that people do about prisons is very deceptive and misleading and very focused on violence and crime and the drama of the law, as opposed to the real-life consequences for people’s families.
Now I’m a theatre professor at the University of Michigan, and we take students into prisons to do collaborative arts work with incarcerated people through this program called The Prison Creative Arts Project. (It’s more fun when we aren’t in a pandemic.) Some of you heard my husband, Phil Christman, talk a little bit yesterday about the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, a journal of writing by incarcerated folks that he edits and we publish. And I wrote a book called Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration, about theatre work I got to see incarcerated people doing in ten different countries. So that’s who I am. That’s what I do.
Peter: Russell, of course, you’ve done a lot of work, too, with the families of the incarcerated. I remember attending last September with my daughter an event down in Philadelphia, and it was really striking, the kind of support group you’ve built for those who never feel like they can mention their family member, the Mother’s Day events you’ve done. Could you tell a little bit about that work, how you got into it, and what’s become important to you from it over the years of working with families who have somebody in prison?
Russell Shoatz III: Yeah. I just want to thank you, Pete, and your daughter, and the ’hof for coming to that family prisoners’ event. It was in West Philadelphia, on Fifty-Second Street. It was in the hood, but we have a full farm there, a little hof there. We have our animals, with our horses, with our green and our patio, and tiny houses that we’re building there. Pete came to support the One Art Community Center when we did a family prisoners’ dinner. We do a gang of work around families of the incarcerated, simply because I’m part of a family of the incarcerated, and that is work I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. The intersection is obviously my father, but that isn’t the end of that work and how it comes about.
So I will always be doing that work for some of the reasons that Ashley mentions. I think it’s super important for us, in our communities and as individuals, that we put proper energy into this work, that we do our due diligence. It’s not just ideology; action is key, and probably more imperative than our ideas around liberation, around religion, around the things that ground us or base us. It’s not just talk. It’s not just a book; we’re actually manifesting those things from whatever it is that you say that you believe, in everyday actions in community and as individuals. That’s a big part of my work; I’m just trying to daily manifest what it is that I say I believe.
Peter: So, let’s talk a little bit about Russell Maroon Shoatz. His story, it seems to me, touches on so many issues that have been widely and hotly discussed, not always helpfully, since the death of George Floyd. Ashley, perhaps you’d like to tell us how you first encountered Maroon’s story, why it is an important story.
Ashley Lucas: I hadn’t heard of Russell Maroon Shoatz until Pete asked me to write this article. I was actually not ignorant entirely of the work of the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army, groups that Russell Maroon Shoatz has been part of. But I had never heard of Maroon, which seemed really odd, the more research I did about his incredible life. He’s the person who to the best of my knowledge has escaped from Pennsylvania prisons more than anybody in history, unless somebody has surpassed him that I haven’t heard about yet!
He did incredible political organizing work outside of prison and inside of it, and he’s a man of many revolutions. He went through a lot of different journeys. Some of his political work was very violent, and some of it actually was incredible peacemaking work that really brought people together: he organized protests from when he was in solitary confinement, of families in the free world, and managed to change how visiting happened at the prison where he was held.
The range, the intellect, the amount of work that he has done in the nearly half century that he’s spent in prison is truly remarkable. I’m mystified as to why we haven’t been calling forth the name “Russell Maroon Shoatz” to a far greater degree than we have. In the academic literature, his name is almost entirely absent. So, I’m honored to be part of what I see as a very necessary recovery project of a significant portion of not just Russell’s family history, but the history of political organizing in the United States today.
Peter: There’s a really interesting twist to this story. Just so everyone gets the main details right, Russell Maroon Shoatz was a Philadelphia organizer connected with the Black Panther Party, convicted in 1972 of involvement in the shooting death of a police officer. Russell, it’s amazing: a few years ago, you told me for the first time about your foster dad, a Pentecostal minister from Philadelphia, Papa Barnes. Interestingly enough, Papa Barnes is a Philadelphia police officer himself who could well have been in the place of the man who died. Could you tell us a little bit of that story? How does it help us think about violence and justice?
Russell Shoatz III: For years, even the years that I produced BLU Magazine with the Bruderhof, I never really felt 110 percent comfortable with the duality, the dichotomy, the intricacies of the fact that I was literally raised by a man of the cloth who was also a police officer. There’s not many police officers that are men of the cloth, period, just period. My childhood friend – we were in first grade, doing the “bring your mom and dad to school to talk about their job.” And his dad comes in with the police uniform on. I hang out with this kid all the time. I’m young, so I can’t differentiate between Panthers and BLA members, and police, whatever. I’m a kid.
To make a long story short, this guy knows my dad. He knows my dad’s case. He knows who I am as a child, and he invites me over. Me and his son do homework together all the time. And he says, come on over, do some homework. So, I come over, it’s pizza. That’s cool. There’s pizza. I love pizza. Everybody loves pizza as a kid. So, after we do our homework, I’m about to get out of there. And he says, “Hey, you coming over tomorrow?” I’m like, “Nah, probably not.” He’s like, “Well, we’re going to have pizza again tomorrow.”
“You’re going to have pizza again tomorrow?” With a police officer standing with a pizza pie, a pizza and a police officer. I said, “Yeah, that’s a bet. I’ll see you. …And what about the day after that? Pizza on a third day?” “Oh, we got pizza every day if you want it.” We’ll be doing math every day, then! And so that relationship grew into him not just mentoring me, but this whole block, Fifty-Second and Delancey, at that time one of the biggest drug blocks in Philadelphia. He comes out and scrapes up the dead bodies of the young who’ve been shot in the middle of the street, and he continues mentoring. He continues trying to get people to go to church and all that, but he never put any pressure on me to go to church. He never put any pressure on me to not be on his block, doing the things in the street that I shouldn’t have been doing. No pressure, but always mentoring, like, “What are you doing out here this time of night?”
This interaction was tough on me in the context of me trying to embody a specific type of ideas and ideologies that are put out around people like myself and my dad – who you are, what you should be associating with, who you should be associating with. And probably about five years ago, I just grasped the ability to be able to say, “This is my non-biological father. He’s a police officer and a minister. And I support him in the movement the same way that I support my biological father. And you need to do the same.” We had always had conversations about my father, but this brought him to a space where he was saying to me, “What is it that I need to do for your father as a police officer? What is it that I need to say as a pastor? What is it I need to say as a Bishop to your father, for your father, in a paper, in a visit? Whatever it is I need to do, I’m here for you to do that.”
That is a kind of condensed version of Papa Barnes. And I really actually don’t feel comfortable having this conversation about him without him being here – we all tried very hard to get him here, but moving forward, he is an integral part of Maroon. He’s an integral part of the Shoatz family. He’s an integral part of just who I am developmentally. I really can’t say enough about the intersection of him and my father, and having more than two fathers, but him being probably at a strong number two, and just how to embrace that all.
Now I’m very happy to say my father is a police officer. And he’s not the police officer that you think about. He’s not the cop that you all know. Half the cops that you all know and that people support, they don’t have it. They can’t cut it. They aren’t police that have a spiritual context. They aren’t police that go up and scrape up the dead bodies off the block. They aren’t the police that stayed in their community and didn’t move out.
They aren’t the police that won’t stand up against police brutality that they see happening. They aren’t the police that won’t stand up and say, “Hey, that’s not a proper code of conduct. I’m crossing the blue line.” So, I’ve been afraid to say who this officer is for all of these years for all of the wrong reasons.
Peter: Thanks, Russell. One thing about your dad. I had the privilege of meeting him twenty years ago now, and it struck me at the time that I’d never met somebody more self-disciplined. At that point, he had been in solitary confinement, I think eight, nine years. And he had another twenty years in solitary to go, so twenty-three hours a day by yourself, one hour a day out for exercise. And he had committed himself to this extremely intense regimen of physical training and reading, just a huge amount of reading to lift his spirit from the confines of where he was. Ashley, you’ve done some research into solitary confinement in the course of writing this article. People aren’t allowed to be locked up for twenty-nine years in solitary anymore.
Ashley Lucas: Technically, it shouldn’t have happened to Maroon. The United Nations has said that more than fifteen days in solitary confinement constitutes torture, and yet we are actively torturing men, women, and children, many of them, in the United States today, every day. And there are lots of ways that people get around the sanctions on torture – if twenty-three hours a day is what constitutes solitary confinement, then we only lock you up for twenty-two and a half; we skirt the UN regulations. The United States is a shameful leader among nations, and has been for the vast majority of our history in how we lock up and torture our own citizens and many immigrants in this country. Yet we tend not to think about it a whole lot.
What I’ve found – it’s certainly true of your father in my interactions with him – is that many people who are placed in these conditions become these hyperdisciplined, really thoughtful, highly intellectual people who are bent on improving their own lives. Some of those folks turn to literature, the way that Maroon has done. Other people turn to the arts or to constant letter writing to try to connect with their families. There are lots of different modes of survival tactics for solitary confinement, but almost all of them are these really deep, thoughtful projects of self-improvement. And the people who don’t do that literally don’t survive. They commit suicide. They go crazy. They’re not able to endure those conditions. Particularly children: the suicide rates among children in solitary confinement are absolutely astronomical and appalling. Yet we are able to sit in comfortable spaces like this one and not think about all the folks who aren’t here with us today.
So, I really appreciated Russell saying that he didn’t feel comfortable having this conversation about police without Papa Barnes here by our side. It’s very painful and difficult for me to have this conversation about people who are incarcerated without Russell’s father, Maroon, being here, without so many people who would love to be a part of this conversation today. There are a lot of really, really brilliant folks in prison who have far better answers than I do about what it is we need to do to get ourselves to a point where we actually believe in the sanctity of human life again, and where we honor what the gift of each human being is and looks like.
Until we fill spaces like this with people who’ve come home from prison, with people that we have helped; until we can say “We should not be locking up our own people like this every day, all the time”; until we have managed to have a room where we can have this conversation, where there are at least as many people who have survived prison as there are those of us who haven’t – then we’re failing at something really, really key to the fundamental principles of what it is to live in a democracy or in any kind of government that gives people actual liberty.
We’re also failing as people who believe in whichever faith calls them. We’re failing to honor each other and our God, when we forget the people who can’t be with us today because they’re in prison.
Russell Shoatz III: Thank you, Ashley. I just want to add to that quickly that I feel it imperative for communities like the Bruderhof to do the internal struggle and work to help us confront these issues. A community has a bigger voice than individuals. The community has the ability to leverage the state; the community has the ability to leverage police officers. The community has the ability to leverage writers and other artisans. In all communities there is a responsibility to do something. Now what the “do” is, how the “do” is done, is a different question, but that accountability is there. It does not go away. It doesn’t get any smaller. It doesn’t stop crying out to you to challenge yourself to figure where the community lands on these questions. Not to land on the question is unacceptable.
Peter: Thanks, Russell. I have one more question. We talked about your dad in particular; we talked about Papa Barnes and his prayer for peace for your dad. Would you mind talking a little bit, as much as you feel comfortable with, about your dad’s spiritual path living through 49 years of incarceration and where he’s come to now?
Russell Shoatz III: Yeah, it’s been a journey, Pete, as you know. Pete met my dad when my dad was of the mindset of a lot of political prisoners, like Black Panthers and BLA members at that time. They were just like: “Religion is the opiate of the masses. Thanks, ‘hof, for bringing me out of the hole, and we’re cool, and we love writing to the kids, and we want to support the kids, and we want to do all of that. But at the end of the day, I’m about liberation, and liberation and theology don’t really mix.”
So he was one of these people who just was kind of like, “eh, spirituality.” When he came into prison he studied Islam and then found that it had its schisms in prison, as everything has in prison. Some people did a lot of things Islamically that resonated with him; some totally didn’t resonate with him. A warden was murdered because he wouldn’t let them have prayer. He was feeding them pork sandwiches intentionally. My dad wasn’t interested in that kind of Islam.
Recently he’s gone through the removal of his upper and lower intestines, through stage four colon cancer and rectal cancer, through having Covid, all of that medical trauma, and a lot of times medical trauma brings us to spirituality; it makes you recognize your mortality. I think we all should question our mortality before that moment comes, before medical trauma has to make us question why are we here? How long are we here? What are we going to do while we’re here? If we die tomorrow, what have we done? Those questions rushed at him and he said, “I need to think about my spirituality, my connection to the all.”
So, he has embraced Islam, and a whole different outlook on what struggle means to him, what liberation theology means to him, what that would mean for him being a Muslim. So now I interact with a new dad who is … every phone call, Salaam Alaikum and peace be unto you. And, “When are you taking your Shahada?” and on and on and on. It’s great for me to see him finding something greater than himself, outside of himself to aspire to that is tied directly to his politics of liberation. And it’s new; my dad has gone through all these different iterations, to coming to a spiritual place and having some conversations with Ashley and the ‘hof. He’s revealing his need at this point in his life to have conversations; he feels it’s important now to come to people and say, “Hey, I’m a different guy.”
This interview took place as a live event at the Plough Writers Weekend on August 7, 2021 at Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York.