Russell Maroon Shoatz: Rage, humiliation, testosterone, youth and the politics of liberation


by Russell Maroon Shoats/z

Steve Bloom, a comrade and veteran activist, asked me several questions regarding my contribution to “Look for Me in the Whirlwind.” The questions delve into aspects of our political struggle against oppression back in the 1960s and ‘70s and are still pressing concerns.

Steve: Today, looking back almost 50 years, what do you think of the idea that in the 1960s “revolution had come” and it was “time to pick up the gun?” What is your present-day assessment of the choice by a wing of the Panthers and the BLA (Black Liberation Army) to engage in an armed offensive against the established state power in the USA, starting in the last half of the 1960s? What were the consequences? What was achieved? What failures or setbacks were suffered as a result? What balance sheet would you draw for us today?

What would you say to me today about the manner in which the Oakland Panthers chose to announce that decision to the world?

Maroon: From my vantage point as an individual who joined what Malcolm X defined as the struggle for human rights, 50 years ago, in 1967, I co-founded Philadelphia’s Black Unity Council, an organization that merged with Philly’s Panthers in 1969. That led to me being forced underground for a year and a half in the ranks of the BLA. Captured in 1972, I have subsequently been a political prisoner, serving multiple “natural life” death-by-incarceration sentences due to my political activities.

My expressions here are of a deeply felt personal nature, but time, reflection and study has allowed me to recognize how our politics of the struggle for human rights, more often than not, is intertwined with rage, humiliation, testosterone (amongst males) and a youthful lack of clarity.

In my case, from the age of 5 until I was 34, I was consumed with a smoldering sense of rage, fed by feelings of humiliation.

I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1943 – my parents, my siblings and I in a mostly Black working class neighborhood known as “The Black Bottom.” Tiny row houses, treeless and narrow streets and trash clogged empty lots is what I most remember about my early years.

All symbols of power and authority there were white: white corner store owners, bill collectors, cops and later school teachers.

The only white family I knew of was the Pfifers, with their little girl who would beg for bread and their “crazy” son Paul.

At the same time, at 5 years of age, I had never heard anyone discuss anything in racial terms, or how white skin privilege operated to form my world.

In my case, from the age of 5 until I was 34, I was consumed with a smoldering sense of rage, fed by feelings of humiliation.

Seared in my memory is an event that twisted my personality into knots for decades. Something I witnessed at the age of 5. My father and I were gazing out our tiny living room window, watching two white cops brutally beat and drag a Black man to their parked patrol car, directly across the narrow street from where we stood.

At that age, I had never witnessed such violence – not in our home or my small world of vacant, trash filled lots, alleyways or on the one lane streets that I was allowed to play on.

My emotions revolved around wide-eyed unasked questions that can be summed up in one word: Why? Though everything came back to that one word, my young mind really wanted to know why were those cops beating and using such loud, forceful sounding words against that guy?

Why was my father standing so still, while I peered up to see his reactions to what we were witnessing with my questioning eyes – that never caught his attention? Why were the neighbors, who I could see across the narrow street, all watching from their own doorways and windows and themselves as well seemingly frozen in their movements and not even talking loud enough to be heard through our open summer evening window?

I felt no fear, but my young mind could sense fear in my father and the neighbors. I just wanted someone to tell me why?!

My emotions revolved around wide-eyed unasked questions that can be summed up in one word: Why?

Once the cops got the Black guy in their car, one of them turned and blurted: “Any of you other niggers want some of this?” And I saw our neighbors begin to shut their doors and withdraw from their windows, while my father took my hand and pulled me away from our window as well.

Right then, at the age of 5, I determined that what had occurred was wrong. And I also immediately passed judgment on my father and those neighbors: They were afraid to do anything about that wrong, and that caused me to lose respect for all of them.

Entering elementary school the following year marks another experience that added to the warping of my character.

During one of my first classes, I failed to follow a white female teacher’s instructions on some forgotten matter, and that caused her to sharply smack me across my face, and then force me into the cramped well beneath her desk, and I had to remain there for quite some time.

I had never been slapped or otherwise beaten. My parents did not believe in or practice beating their children, nor had I ever witnessed any fighting between the two of them. In fact, aside from the two cops beating of the Black guy the year before, the only violence I ever saw was during a rare trip to the movies; and our family, relatives or neighbors had no TVs to watch such things.

Thus, the slap stunned and confused me, causing me to start crying. Not from the pain, but from the frustrating realization that the teacher had displayed – like the two cops – that she also had the ability to exercise a power that was hard to resist.

My tears that day were from a powerless rage that even as a 6-year-old I knew was based in a deep feeling that something in the universe had to be out of place in order for me to be experiencing such emotions. A rage that I would harbor for decades to come, fed by a seemingly unending cavalcade of examples that I would face, or become aware that even my untutored mind had no problem in determining were simply wrong and unjust. A rage that for many years was misdirected.

In time, adding to my rage was my witnessing or learning of many other Black people suffering abuse in many ways. And my inability or efforts to resist such things caused me to expand the loss of respect for my father and neighbors into feelings of humiliation about myself and Black people in general.

And it is important to point out that once my family and neighbors began to rent, share and buy TVs in the early 1950s, the demeaning ways Blacks were depicted on the small screen: “Mammies,” buffoons and characters whose roles were designed to debase Blacks and afford whites a sense of inflated self-worth left me feeling more humiliated.

In time, adding to my rage was my witnessing or learning of many other Black people suffering abuse in many ways.

Rage and humiliation fed on each other.

In my mind, Blacks were essentially cowards. I did not place myself in that category, but it subsequently provoked a decades-long quest to prove to myself and the entire world that I was justified in not placing myself amongst such cowards.

Along the way I ran into the gang culture of the middle 1950s. And from 13 to 20 years of age, the gangs of Philly were my instrument and stage that facilitated my search for a form of recognition and a level of respect that could not be denied by anyone.

The young males who were in my gang and our counterparts in rival gangs were undoubtedly harboring similar feelings of rage and humiliation, though the fratricide amongst us left little time to reflect on such things. Our male dominated gangs were as testosterone driven as ancient gladiator arenas.

Unlike youth groups in better-off communities, our Black gangs never had any real adult guidance or supervision. We had our “old heads,” who were always older former gang members, but they too held firmly to the gang culture, and that never elevated beyond placing a premium on the search for recognition and respect – even after the old heads began devoting more time and energy to marriage and children.

The young males who were in my gang and our counterparts in rival gangs were undoubtedly harboring similar feelings of rage and humiliation, though the fratricide amongst us left little time to reflect on such things.

In Philly, the young Black women of that era generally displayed less of a desire to try to keep up with the testosterone driven competition, though some did participate as a means to wrestle with their own feelings of rage and their humiliation that was compounded by the overarching cultural practices that were more oppressive and abusive towards women.

Malcolm’s “By any means necessary!” approach to the human rights struggle changed everything.

Adding a new approach to the heroic civil rights struggle that was based in the South, a primarily nonviolent effort that caused me to reexamine my belief about Blacks being cowards. Still, nonviolence held little appeal for many who saw Malcolm’s teachings as more suited to serving to rid us of our humiliation and redirect our rage away from our Black-on-Black violence: seeking both our humanity and ­political, economic and social changes.

Some said revolutionary change was needed. Followers of that doctrine emerged to form the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California – albeit earlier Black Panther formations were already in motion in the South, amongst the urban based Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) and elsewhere. RAM, in particular, was heavily influenced by Robert F. Williams and his North Carolina NAACP chapter, who had practiced armed self-defense extensively in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Malcolm’s “By any means necessary!” approach to the human rights struggle changed everything.

The coming together of the “any means necessary” doctrine and an ever increasingly political strata of young Black men, who were full of rage and feelings of humiliation, proved to be a powerful formula for recruiting Black youth who remained unmoved by the nonviolent methods of the early civil rights struggles.

It is very important to recognize that Black women also harbored feelings of rage and humiliation. Given the history of the USA, Black women had to be experiencing even more rage and humiliation than most Black men! And the already mentioned heroic civil rights struggles that had been taking place in the South propelled to the world’s attention the now iconic Rosa Parks, Gloria Richardson, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and quite a larger number. And in the urban areas, untold numbers of lesser known women would populate and distinguish themselves, not only amongst the Black Panthers, but amongst the ranks and leadership of hundreds of forgotten formations.

It is very important to recognize that Black women also harbored feelings of rage and humiliation.

Still, the testosterone-fueled men usually smothered or pushed to the background those female contributions, especially in the urban areas, which were essentially youth movements that allowed, encouraged and elevated the mystique of “the bad motherfucker.” At the same time, the women, who did more than their share to establish and sustain all these groups, placed more value on working to solve the mountain of problems and difficulties being given voice to.

The women’s closer connections to the children left them with little appetite for the usual “king of the mountain, last man standing” syndrome that the raging, testosterone “drunk” men were practicing. And unlike the Southern civil rights struggles, the urban youth in question lacked a mass of older people who they trusted, who could afford them with a wealth of learned experiences the leading urban youth could weigh while making important decisions.

Even on matters concerning armed self-defense, only practiced on the margins of the usual nonviolent Southern struggle, people like Robert F. Williams and the Deep South’s Deacons for Defense and some lesser known local formations had quite a number of professionally trained military veterans, who went forward to use their training to organize and lead the defense of the civil rights struggle against both the police and Ku Klux Klan. The urban formations only sporadically produced such effective armed self-defense.

After the Southern civil rights struggle succeeded in winning major reforms in voting rights, public accommodations etc., that arena of our struggle became preoccupied with consolidating those gains, while Malcolm’s human rights struggle evolved into the Black Power/Black Liberation struggle – revolutionary doctrines and political, economic and social programs that were almost always led by youthful Black urban men.

When I joined that urban struggle in 1967, rage, humiliation, testosterone, youth and politics had all come together, and I found a movement dominated by kindred spirits. Our philosophies, ideologies, doctrines, programs, strategies, tactics and practice were always overshadowed by those elements.

When I joined that urban struggle in 1967, rage, humiliation, testosterone, youth and politics had all come together, and I found a movement dominated by kindred spirits.

We idolized Che Guevara, the Tupamaro urban guerrilla group of Uruguay; we doggedly held on to Mao Tse Tung’s quote, “Political power grows from a barrel of a gun.” We trained and practiced armed self-defense against the police, FBI and any others we believed were enemies. “The Mini Manual of Urban Guerrilla Warfare” and Panther Field Marshal Don Cox instructed on “Forming Self Defense Forces.” Later his urban guerrilla writings in his “For the Liberation of America” reached us from exile.

By 1971, not only the Panthers, but scores of other “bad motherfuckers” across the U.S. had taken on the police and FBI in defense of their offices, homes and persons. They robbed banks to fund the struggle, highjacked planes to seek exile in foreign countries, staged retaliatory attacks against the police drug suppression measures, escaped after capture, and developed an extensive and effective underground system that may never be properly exposed because of actions that could still endanger the freedom of many.

Malcolm X had been assassinated by then, but our actions paid homage to him for teaching us how to channel our rage and humiliation against those who were oppressing us.

The youthful male testosterone was stoked in other ways. Elaine Brown, who would become the only female to lead the Black Panther Party, made a record album where she crooned, “Believe it, my friend, for this silence to end, we’ll just have to get guns and be men.”

Before the Los Angeles Panther head Bunchy Carter was assassinated, he wrote a powerful poem for his mother that we reworked into an oath for new recruits: “If I should fall, weapon in hand, you’ll be free, and I a man. For a slave of natural death who dies cannot balance two dead flies. If I should fail to follow our goal, may burning cancer torment my soul.”

Those of us who went underground wound up on a “run and gun” mission, and that, coupled with our rage and humiliation, further distanced us from the political programs that kept us connected to the Black community. And since that community was not ready to join or adequately support our urban guerrilla activities, and our youthful minds could not find any way forward except more of what we were doing. Our fate was death, injury, prison or exile, and those who suffered those fates have still not been determined.

Freedom ain’t free!

Those of us who went underground wound up on a “run and gun” mission, and that, coupled with our rage and humiliation, further distanced us from the political programs that kept us connected to the Black community.

We raged on. Every blow struck lessened our burden of suffering humiliation in silence. And those of us who survived found time to read “The Wretched of the Earth,” where the author and veteran of the Algerian war of national liberation in the 1950s and early 1960s, who was a psychiatrist who had a chance to study both sides of the conflict, discovered that often in liberation struggles the overarching political goals are sidetracked by the powerful needs of many amongst the oppressed to lash out against their oppressors in order to simply regain their feelings of being human.

In my case, I distinctly remember the exact moment that occurred with me – when I again started feeling fully human since suffering the trauma of a confused, defenseless 5-year-old, watching my father and our neighbors all being forced to stand by while the two white cops beat and arrested the Black guy, then hurl humiliating threats our way on departure.

After my 1972 capture, by 1976 I had been transferred to the state prison at Huntingdon due to unsuccessful escape attempts from two other prisons. Huntingdon at that time was known as the “breakin’ camp” because of its brutality. It was there in 1977 that four comrades and I took over a cell block, held the guards hostage, and then were able to escape into the surrounding mountains and forest of Central Pennsylvania.

To make a long story short, one comrade got trapped inside, another was killed on a mountainside, two others were captured that night, while I was chased through the mountains and woods for a month before being recaptured.

Once returned to the prison, I was viciously beaten and, since I had been beaten by guards previously and that was what they would do to try to break prisoners’ spirits “normally,” I expected as much.

Within a couple days I was taken outside the prison to a court hearing, and the police presence was so large, I suspected the different agencies and departments that had obviously come together after our initial escape and during the month long hunt were all trying to get in on “the picture,” as it were. And the press did show up in large numbers – reporters with their microphones, notebooks and cameras.

The court was a long way from Philly or Pittsburgh, where most of my family and supporters lived. Still I could see five of them surrounded by a lot of the cops and prison guards.

That hearing didn’t last long, and I was not allowed to say anything to my people, but was besieged by the press and gawking cops, while my handlers were frantically trying to force a way through the crowd to the waiting cars.

The reporters were firing questions my way, while I rummaged through my brain for something that would make an impact. My capture had forced me out of my run-and-gun posture, back into the political arena where words are weapons.

When the cops got to the cars, before they could get me secured inside, I turned and blurted as loud as I could: “Tell everybody the slave got caught and is going back to the plantation.” That caused the cops to slam me against the car they were forcing me into. Apparently, they were embarrassed by my continuing defiance, even after the epic, month-long chase through the mountains and words they no doubt hunted in. They thought a “nigger” from the city would head for the first fast food place to try to rob someone, get a burger, fries and coke, then head for the city, not come within a day or two of the “hunters” throwing in the towel.

When the cops got to the cars, before they could get me secured inside, I turned and blurted as loud as I could: “Tell everybody the slave got caught and is going back to the plantation.”

Once back in the prison isolation cell, I began to ponder what had happened before, during and after my escape: my refusal to accept the natural life (death-by-incarceration) sentence, my earlier unsuccessful escape attempts, my growing awareness of how massive the search for me had been, and just how shook-up the angry cops and prison guards remained.

That’s when it happened! The humiliation I had been suffering all those years seemed to lift from my shoulders and land directly on that faceless mass of oppressors and authorities who were represented by the cops who packed my hearing, and who all had been out of their minds by how much it took to capture a single implacable rebel!

I stood up, out of earshot of anyone, and as loud as I could shouted: “That’s right. I’m a bad motherfucker!” Then I gently laughed to myself and lay down on my bunk with a “knowing” smile on my face.

The rage and humiliation simply disappeared. I had forced the world to recognize me as a human being; and I knew it.

Since then I have again felt rage at injustices and due to personal wrongs I’ve suffered. But the burning, overpowering rage never again returned.

I have also been forced into degrading and humiliating situations during decades of imprisonment since that time, but nothing has been able to take away the dignity I discovered as a human being, now knowing that I am as much as anyone, and more than most.

The rage and humiliation simply disappeared. I had forced the world to recognize me as a human being; and I knew it.

I remain committed to the struggle for human rights for all of humanity. Since I’m wiser and understand more now, I can better weigh the socioeconomic and sociopolitical as well as the historic factors that preceded their formations. Absent the rage and not suffering the humiliation that once tormented me, I can better help formulate and carry out what is decided about the kinds of far reaching changes that are needed.

When I recognize rage in younger people, I understand how that can dominate their thinking. The same with the humiliation they cannot easily escape or avoid, while the testosterone and its ability to cause a hard to control exuberance amongst young males, in particular, are factors I advise others to always factor in while moving forward.

I remain committed to the struggle for human rights for all of humanity.

My story is closer to what untold numbers of highly motivated 1960s and 1970s “revolutionaries” usually don’t write about or discuss nowadays. And I believe I have answered comrade Steve Bloom’s earlier questions, if one sets aside the usual self-congratulatory narratives related to how the Black Panther Party, BLA and other related groups and formations served the communities, though they did do some of that as well.

Younger activists, and oppressed people in general, can benefit more from the veterans of the struggles from earlier generations working even closer than when our veterans spend so much time on fine tuning their ideological, philosophical positions and worldviews. The looming threats that could very well lead to the next 10 or 20 years!

Straight Ahead!

Copyright © 2017 Pampata. Send our brother some love and light: Russell Maroon Shoats/z, AF-3855, SCI Graterford, P.O. Box 246, Rte 29, Graterford PA 19426.

 

source: Russell Maroon Shoatz: Rage, humiliation, testosterone, youth and the politics of liberation

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