Read “The End of Rage” by Ashley Lucas on the story of Russell Maroon Shoatz.
I began contacting the members of the Shoatz family in early 2021 after an editor put me in touch with Russell Shoatz III, who had for years wanted someone to tell his family’s story. Russell III and Plough editor Peter Mommsen were previous collaborators on BLU magazine (1998–2001), and several other members of the Bruderhof community that publishes Plough knew Russell III and his sister Sharon, and had visited the elder Russell in prison.
A number of other writers had begun and abandoned attempts to write books about Russell. Despite his extraordinary and fascinating life and his significance to the Black Power Movement, he has been almost entirely left out of the history books – though he does turn up in a brief Wikipedia entry and is listed in the same site’s entry on the Black Liberation Army. (The newspapers are another matter. There is a great deal of coverage, much of it salacious, in US media in the days surrounding the Von Colln and Harrington shootings, as well as Russell’s escapes and many legal proceedings.)
As a scholar who studies the carceral state and the child of a father who spent decades in prison, I may have seemed like a writer capable of filling in the gaps in Russell’s story in a way that would humanize him in the eyes of a larger readership. But Russell Shoatz is already human, whatever I do. The story itself has proven to be, like any family’s when dedicatedly pursued, infinitely complex. This is a story about the impossibility of reconciling seeming contradictions, and about the imperatives that remain when we accept that they are impossible to reconcile.
From January to March, I spoke over Zoom or the telephone with Russell Shoatz III, Theresa Shoatz, Thelma Christian, and Claude Barnes, quoted here, and with Derrick Shaw (a childhood friend of Russell III also befriended by Barnes) and Virginia Grise (a playwright who interviewed Russell in prison) on background. I also met with Russell III in person in August, and had several more calls with him and Thelma in August as well. Although these and other figures in this story have had radically different experiences and perspectives on the events depicted, I deeply believe that all of the sources that I have found in my research, both original and secondary, have told as full a truth as they can.
I provided the text of the article to Russell III, Theresa, Thelma, Russell’s attorney Bret Grote, and others closely connected to the case prior to publication for fact-checking. In one instance, I found out after the print edition went to press that Thelma remembers an event described by Theresa differently: Theresa remembers sleeping in the cold and receiving blankets from strangers when she was about five, while Thelma says they were never homeless or lacked for blankets. This episode has been omitted from the digital version.
Members of the family told me that Bonnie has never spoken to anyone making inquiries about Russell. I fully respect the fact that many of the people in this story – including Bonnie, her three children, two of Thelma’s children, and the officers’ families – do not wish to speak to a stranger writing about them. Crime stories and political ones are easy to sensationalize, distort, or tell with a pointed slant that serves the writer rather than the facts or the people who lived these events. Even those who do agree to talk may find it painful and draining. At the end of a very generous interview, Theresa said to me, “You will most likely be my last interview that I ever do again.” She said she wanted to “get away from this prison thing … I didn’t know that my whole life would revolve around it … I want something new.”
Since February 2021, I have also corresponded with Russell Maroon Shoatz through the highly limited and potentially censored prison email system. I could not be as direct with him as I would have liked. He made an agreement with the prison authorities when he was released from long-term solitary confinement into the general prison population that he would not participate in any political organizing or even discuss political issues with others. This agreement and the limitations of the prison mail and email systems interrupted and constrained our communication. Having never met one another in person, we also had to try to get to know one another without much room for introductions. The prison limits each email to 2,000 characters, including spaces. Trying to have a meaningful correspondence in this format feels like trying to write about the most confusing and ambiguous passages of one’s life on a hostile corner of Twitter. My messages would sometimes be delayed a week or more in reaching Russell (presumably so that the censors would have time to read what I’d written). Sometimes our messages would cross one another before the last one had been received. The email system itself does strange things to the spacing of the lines we typed to one another, so Russell suggested early on that we put a ~ in between each sentence to make it easier for him to read. In quoting these communications, this functional symbol has been removed.
Our correspondence mostly focused on his family and his health. Russell does not know the full extent of his family’s struggles and certainly not those of the Von Colln or Harrington families, but he says now that he understands at least some of the implications of his actions and wants to live differently and make atonement. His express apology to many people, never before offered publicly, is included at the end of the article.
The history surrounding Russell and those from Philadelphia who went underground with him remains almost unknown. In conducting research, I could find almost no references to the BUC, the Philadelphia cell of the BLA, or Russell himself in the academic studies written about community organizing in Philadelphia, Black Panther Party, or the Black Power Movement, outside of Russell’s own writings.
His published writings are collected in Maroon the Implacable (2012), essays composed between 1995 and 2012 in solitary confinement that describe his changing political beliefs, the horrors of prison, the nature of violence, and a radical feminism that he came to see as the best hope for social healing. The title is inspired by early Panther terminology: “The Implacables were those who proved incapable of being appeased, significantly changed, or mitigated in their struggle for liberation from oppression and exploitation – though positive changes are accepted and encouraged!”
Circa 1997 to 2001, he composed an autobiography, mailing his daughter Sharon a few handwritten pages at a time, which she and Russell III transcribed into a 625-page typed document. It is unpublished but was made available as source material to me.
The autobiography feels a little like reading Faulknerian fragments. It sweeps through family relationships and folds back in on itself. Russell has twelve siblings and two wives (one legal and one common-law) with whom he has two sons and five daughters. The narrative hopscotches through time and place and names a great many people, some of whom without explaining who they are. Many of the people Russell describes in the manuscript have two or three names, which Russell, like a Russian novelist, uses interchangeably. Russell himself becomes Harun and then Maroon. Thelma also went by Lucy. Bonnie’s legal name is Loretta Fairly, but during her time underground, she called herself Sister Love, as did at least one other Black Panther in Philadelphia, and, for a brief time, Assata Shakur.
In court documents, the prison filing system, and media coverage of the time, Russell is identified as Russell Shoats. His children with Thelma all go by the name of Shoatz, and in his published writings and private correspondence, he does as well; this is the version of the family name I have used. In this essay, Russell III always refers to the son, Russell to the father.
Some of the significant lacunae in the narrative of Russell’s life cannot be avoided because even he does not know what happened. His decades of incarceration and solitary confinement prevented him from knowing what happened to his family in the free world. Other omissions in Russell’s manuscript are surely deliberate, especially in his descriptions of the BLA and his revolutionary activities.
In our correspondence now, he says, “I have NO reservations about anything you write; as long as it is based in truth.”
Other works cited or consulted:
An Ongoing Cost to be Free, dir. Vagabond, uploaded January 12, 2014, retrieved February 6, 2021.
“Former Black Panther Wins Settlement and Reprieve From Solitary Confinement,” The Guardian, posted July 12, 2016, retrieved June 8, 2021.
“People Serving Mandatory Life Without Parole Challenge Death-By-Incarceration Sentences as Cruel and Unusual,” Abolitionist Law Center website, posted July 8, 2020, retrieved June 7, 2021.
“Health,” Prison Policy Initiative website.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, (Brooklyn: Common Notions, 2016).
Marisol Bello, “Testimony in cop-killing, 27 years later,” Philadelphia Daily News, October 22, 1997.
Reginald Dwayne Betts, “Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me,” New York Times, posted October 20, 2020, retrieved June 14, 2021.
Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (New York: Penguin, 2015).
Brian Fulton, “40 Years Ago – State Police Capture Two Escapees from Fairview State Hospital,” Times-Tribune, (March 4, 1980).
Lisa M. Corrigan, Prison Power: How Prison Influenced the Movement for Black Liberation, (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2016).
Matthew J. Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
Virginia Grise, Your Healing is Killing Me, (Pittsburgh: Plays Inverse Press, 2017).
Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021).
Donald Janson, “Panthers Raided in Philadelphia,” New York Times, September 1, 1970, retrieved May 27, 2021.
Victoria Law, “How a Former Black Panther Could Change the Rules of Solitary Confinement,” The Nation, posted February 22, 2016, retrieved June 8, 2021.
Timothy J. Lombardo, Blue Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
Linda Loyd, “Phila. jury acquits fugitive in slaying of Sgt. Von Colln,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 4, 1997.
Beirnard McCormik, “The War of the Cops,” New York Times, October 18, 1970, retrieved May 27, 2021.
Gloria McCullough, “The History of Fairview State Hospital,” Tri-County Independent website, posted August 5, 2013, retrieved June 5, 2021.
David N. Pellow, “Political Prisoners and Environmental Justice,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 25, No. 4, (2018), 1-20.
Bob Retchko, “Caught at Roadblock, Hostage Safe, 27-Day Manhunt Ends,” Pittsburgh Press, 12 October 1977.
Russell Maroon Shoatz and Russell Shoatz, III, “A Son’s Fight for His Father’s Freedom,” October 14, 2020.
G. W. Shulz, “Frank Rizzo and Philadelphia’s 56-Year Legacy of Police Spying,” Reveal, (October 1, 2010), retrieved May 27, 2021.
Joseph A. Slobodzian, “Out of Solitary After 22 Years and $99,000 Richer, Cop-killer Russell Shoatz Ponders the Rest of Life in Prison,” Philadelphia Inquirer, posted July 22, 2016, retrieved June 14, 2021.
Ty Stump, “More Than an Institution: Fairview State Hospital,” Another Century: American History 1850-1950 website, retrieved June 5, 2021.