A former member of the Black Panther Party and its revolutionary underground sect, the Black Liberation Army, has been released from prison after spending nearly 50 years behind bars – 22 of which he spent in solitary confinement.
Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, 78, is living with stage 4 colon cancer. In October, he was released from prison after his request was finally approved to die peacefully at home surrounded by family and friends.
Shoatz was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1972 after being convicted of storming a police station in Philadelphia. One officer was killed and another injured. Though the attack happened in 1970, Shoatz was on the run for two years prior to his arrest.
Born in 1943 in Philadelphia, Shoatz said he was no stranger to racism and police brutality. For years, Shoatz said he was the victim of and witness to both. He said he was inspired to get serious about his militant activism after seeing Malcolm X give a speech in 1963.
“Within the first five minutes of hearing Malcolm speak, I knew this was not a man like any that I knew or ever heard about,” Shoatz told Plough. Malcolm X’s descriptions of “police brutality, the brutality that the community members visited on each other, (and) the absurdity of demanding that civil rights demonstrators not defend themselves from attack” resonated with him, Shoatz said.
Armed with that motivation, Shoatz became one of the founders of the Black Unity Council (BUC), which merged with the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969, according to a website that was campaigning for Shoatz’s freedom prior to his release.
In the 1960s, after seeing police murder a young Black man whom they had been chasing for allegedly joyriding, Shoatz said his disdain for police reached its highest peak. “I almost lost control of myself and had to fight down an urge to jump one of the policemen that was mingling in the crowd … to take his weapon and shoot him with it,” Shoatz said.
Eventually, the BUC became the BLA and in 1970, Shoatz and some of his fellow BLA members followed the example of other Black Panthers across the country. The most notable incident occurred in 1970 when Jonathan Jackson took a judge and five jurors hostage in an attempt to free his brother, the revolutionary activist George Jackson. The ensuing shootout left Jonathan Jackson, the judge, and others dead
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“My feeling was, in street language: the sh*t was on!” Shoatz wrote in an unpublished autobiography,
Sgt. Frank Von Colln, officer James Harrington and two other Philadelphia police officers were shot. Von Colln’s injuries were fatal. Five men were convicted in the shootings and murder, including Shoatz.
Once incarcerated, Shoatz escaped from prison twice, earning him the nickname Maroon. He was subsequently placed in solitary confinement for more than two decades, which led to various mental and physical health conditions.
In addition to living with colon cancer and a colonoscopy bag, Shoatz can no longer walk properly. He successfully sued the Philadelphia Department of Corrections for “cruel and unusual” punishment in 2014 after finally being released from solitary confinement into the general population, Rolling Out reported.
His son and namesake, Russell Shoatz III, said the DOC’s failure to get his father the timely medical treatment he needed led to the acceleration of his poor health.
“What’s in the transcripts are the evidence that the prisons don’t have the capabilities to take care not just of their healthy prisoners, they definitely don’t have the ability to take care of their geriatric prisoners, and that they have effectively killed my father,” Shoatz III said.
The elder Shoatz has returned to practicing Islam. He first converted to Islam in prison years ago. He has asked for forgiveness for his past actions in harming innocent people.
“I would like for you to place MY acknowledgments of having harmed MANY people in my life – my family and ALL those outside of that circle, including Philadelphia, PA, Fairmount Park Police Sgt. Frank Von Colln, who was killed on Aug. 29, 1970, and Fairmount Park Police Officer James Harrington, who was shot and severely wounded during the same incident, as well as Jack Powers, whom I shot in an attempt to steal his truck after my escape from prison in 1977,” Shoatz wrote to Plough. “My misdirected rage and racial humiliation played a part, but MY actions were WRONG!!! I here offer APOLOGIES to ALL those mentioned, and BEG for FORGIVENESS!!!”
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