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    Did Armed Black Radicals Fail?

    By Dax-Devlon Ross

    October 30, 2021

    This article is part of “The Beginning of Understanding,” a symposium in response to Ashley Lucas’s report “The End of Rage” in Plough’s Autumn 2021 issue.

    In law school I dated a young woman – and fellow law student – whose father was a former Black Panther. She had been named after the freedom fighter, Assata Shakur, and counted Afeni, Tupac’s mother, among her aunties. While I was infatuated with this radical pedigree, the young woman couldn’t be bothered with my fanboydom. Whenever her father’s past came up – typically because I brought it up – she physically recoiled and changed the subject.

    I found this baffling until her father passed through town one weekend. He hadn’t raised her but they still had a close though complex relationship that I chalked up to his commitment to the “cause” and hers to becoming a corporate lawyer.

    Right away, he and I hit it off. Turned out he didn’t share his daughter’s aversion to talking about the past, nor did he think of it as the past. At the time, I considered myself a budding student of the movement so smoking cigarettes and sipping cognac at 2 a.m. with someone who had been intimately involved in the things I had only read about was like being in a civil rights master class. I hung on to the man’s every word.

    Like many Panthers who had grown disillusioned with the party once Huey Newton purged his rivals and steered the party toward a more reformist agenda, my girlfriend’s dad had joined a Black Liberation Army cell and spent time underground in the 1970s. I can’t recall the details of his stories yet the impressions that night made on me remain. The stakes were so high. The risks, so extreme. The lines between right and wrong, so incredibly blurred.

    Toward the end of the evening, I finally broached the question I had been sitting with all night.

    “Where is everyone?”

    “The ones still alive?” he asked, as if to make sure I understood the gravity and complexity of my question. “All over. Some are still locked up. In mental institutions.” My face must’ve revealed consternation. “It gets to you,” he exhaled, “living underground, on the run, seeing your comrades murdered and tortured.”

    He was speaking from experience. Demons had stolen his daughter’s childhood. Now he counseled addicts for a living and spent weekends visiting the old comrades.

    It occurred to me then that my girlfriend's ambivalence had everything to do with her father’s war wounds. While I marveled at the romance of it all from a distance, she had painful memories of the instability and the absences.

    Ashley Lucas’s generous and winding essay on the life and times of Russell Shoatz reminded me of that chapter in my life. Reminded me that while most of us moved on (and up!) from the movement, some of those who put themselves at greatest risk are still wading through the debris.

    In one sense, it was just refreshing to encounter a careful, detailed recounting of a chapter in the Black liberation struggle that is typically redacted from the official civil rights chronology. The stories of the Black radicals who were willing to kill for the cause are indeed full of shady detours and dark dirt roads that many of us would rather avoid. Yet they are part of the legacy and have earned their place in the annals. In “The End of Rage” Lucas gives Shoatz’s story its due. In a world of hot takes and swift rebukes on social media, she tells an unflinching, often unflattering tale of a man whose commitment to liberation conjured the full force of the American justice system. Even more, she brings coherence and clarity to a life that, at a distance and absent context, appears to have been ruled by chaos and compulsion.

    While most of us moved on (and up!) from the movement, some of those who put themselves at greatest risk are still wading through the debris.

    But after a second read, I also can’t ignore the perception that Lucas’s utmost objective is to tender a requiem – and referendum – for a failed revolutionary whose violent, rage-filled choices shattered dozens of lives, most notably his own. In a piece otherwise beautifully crafted to inspire empathy, Lucas’s tone is strikingly intolerant whenever the matter of armed struggle surfaces.

    On the police killings that led to Shoatz’s conviction, she chides: “Apparently, the ethos of this war did not lead this combatant to distinguish between individual officers or take into account the context that one of the victims had been simply sitting at his desk and the other had been helpfully offering directions.”

    On the ultimate effect of his tactics, she chafes: “Whatever he believed then or now, Russell’s revolutionary actions as a member of the BLA did not free his people or prevent future harm. Instead, they called forth further violence from state institutions in ways that would brutalize the Shoatz family for decades to come.”

    These are the two most glaring examples of Lucas’s contempt for political violence but elsewhere subtle jabs pierce her narrative.

    Lucas is within her rights to question whether being a militant revolutionary was worth all it cost Shoatz, his family and the families of those whom he harmed. But to suggest that his choices yielded only suffering, as she does throughout the piece, misses a different role that armed resistance plays in an oppressed minority’s struggle for freedom against an oppressive majority that uses state violence to maintain its grip. In 1965, Malcolm X, who Lucas tells us inspired Shoatz to become an activist, framed the utility of political violence for an audience of militant young activists in Selma. “If the White people realize what the alternative is,” he counseled, “perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”

    My question for Lucas is this: Is it possible that the revolutionary worldview and radical actions of the BLA made space for more moderate views and appeals? And if that’s true, does that not count as an important, albeit costly, contribution to the freedom cause? Is this not at least part of the reason that Assata Shakur remains a beloved freedom symbol and potent terrorist threat four decades after her escape to Cuba?

    Or consider Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. Both failed in their attempts to liberate their enslaved brothers and sisters. Both were killed as were the freedom-seekers they led. Their actions stoked slaveholder fears that led to more repression but they also empowered generations to resist injustice by whatever means. Both men are now regarded as heroic American figures because they engaged in armed resistance to slavery. (Vesey now has a statue in a national park while Turner is featured in a recently unveiled monument in Richmond.)

    To bring my line of thinking into the modern context, I find it difficult to believe that White Americans would have paid attention to Black Lives Matter two summers ago were it not for a genuine fear that ignoring the movement would embolden some extremists to take revenge on police, which, if we recall, is exactly what happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge back in 2016.

    Lucas has written an essential meditation on the collateral damage of a cold war that this country waged on radical organizations after the official civil rights movement left center stage. It is only tarnished, in this reader’s view, by its need to admonish all forms of violence as equally abhorrent. Of course, killing is not the answer. Of course, it leads to more damage and destruction. But in a war such as the one Shoatz and others found themselves fighting against all-powerful state actors who refused to regard their rights, violence was a tactic they felt necessary to keep on the table, and to resort to should it come to that. That was their conclusion. And just because it may have been born of humiliation and rage, reflected point in time thinking, or led to tragedy does not render that conclusion illegitimate or ill-conceived. It merely reinforces the exigencies of a war the likes of which none of us who didn’t live through it will ever fully comprehend.

    Contributed By DaxDevlonRoss Dax-Devlon Ross

    Dax-Devlon Ross, J. D. is the author of several books, including The Nightmare and the Dream and Make Me Believe. His journalism has been featured in Time, the Guardian, the New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post Magazine, and other national publications.

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