Dozens of activists, supporters, and former members of the Black Panthers Party showed their solidarity Saturday for Romaine 'Chip' Fitzgerald, a former member of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party who has been imprisoned for 39 years.
A national groundswell of support is growing for the incarcerated political prisoner and nearly 3,000 signatures have been compiled on a "Petition for the Release to Free Romaine 'Chip' Fitzgerald." The activist is currently incarcerated at Centinela State Prison in the Imperial Valley.
The rally, which was held at the KAOS Network in Leimert Park and organized by The Committee to Free Chip Fitzgerald, was held to show support for the former Black Panther whose parole date was July 2.
Fitzgerald, who has been in prison for 39 years, is the longest incarcerated Black Panther in history. At the age of 18, he was convicted of murder and attempted murder. In 1972, the state of California renounced the death penalty and commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment.
Showing their support for the long-time political prisoner were community activists and former members of the Black Panther Party Elaine Brown, David Hilliard, Roland Freeman, George Robinson, and Sherwin Forte.
"Some people have said, 'What crime needs 39 years in prison to make amends?'" said Dominique DiPrima, host of KGFJ Radio's The Front Page, who hosted the event. "We need to continue to show 'Chip' Fitzgerald that he has a network of support so that he can come home. We need to spread the word of his case by writing to the governor."
David Hilliard, a founding member and chief of staff of the Black Panther Party, flew in from Oakland to attend the event.
Hilliard, a college professor who is also director of the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, recalled that from the beginning, the party was a target of governmental opposition. "The Los Angeles and Chicago branches of the party were the chapters that suffered most of the heat," he recalled.
Like other Black Panthers who became targets of COINTELPRO and the FBI, Hilliard observed, "Fitzgerald was a victim of the FBI's war against the Party. He became involved in a shootout with the California Highway Patrol in Sept. 1969 and got shot in the head. A week later, police arrested Chip for allegedly shooting a security guard, but a witness testified that he was at home at the time recuperating from his head wound."
Holding a reprint of the Black Panther Intercommunal News Service newspaper, Hilliard then read the names of nearly 20 Black Panthers who had been murdered by Los Angeles police or FBI operatives between 1968 and 1970, including Black Panther co-founders Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. Hilliard said that Carter and Huggins were assassinated in 1969 by members of the FBI on the campus of UCLA.
"The state reserves the right to enact violence for itself," observed Hilliard. Waving the newspaper, Hilliard declared, "I just wanted to show you the impact of the oppression that the Black Panthers faced."
Declaring that Fitzgerald was his hero, Hilliard said, "Chip hasn't lost his self-respect. He is a paradigm of what a political revolutionary soldier really is. We support his dignity, strength, and courage. We want our brother back in the community. He's done his time and we want him home."
Emani Bey, one of the organizers of the event, said that Fitzgerald has written letters stating his commitment to non-violence. "He is helping to form a cease fire group for black and brown unity," said Bey. "He wrote me about the black and brown violence in the prisons and how it spills out on the streets. He wants to work with the youth to stop the spiral of violence," she said.
Elaine Brown, former chairperson of the Black Panther Party who flew in from Savannah, Georgia, to attend the event, said, "We need the state to understand that Chip Fitzgerald has done enough time. We have to let the Board of Parole Hearings know that we support Chip's parole and we're asking people to sign the online petition we have established to get him home."
Noting the lack of elected officials at the rally, Brown added, "We need our politicians to come out and say that they support this man. We need to raise the number of people showing Chip support as much as we can."
Brown recalls that Fitzgerald joined the party in the '60s at the age of 18 with several other youths who had just been released from the California Youth Authority. "Of the seven who came into the party together, only two are still alive," said Brown. "One is Chip and the other one is Bruce Richard, executive vice president of 1199 SEIU in New York."
Brown, a lifelong friend of Fitzgerald, observed, "Chip is so humble, he has never wanted a lot of publicity around his cause. He's a true soldier."
Brown said that no matter what the pending outcome of Fitzgerald's hearing, his supporters must remain vigilant. "Let's keep the momentum to free Chip going," she said.
Forte observed, "We need a high level of unity and we want to do everything civilly and legally to get Chip out, whether it's with phone calls, letters, or emails. Let's keep each other's spirits high. Stick it out and we will win."
The online petition for Romaine 'Chip' Fitzgerald can be accessed at www.freechip.org.