Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald was born and raised in Compton, California. Upon his release from the Youth Authority in early 1969, he joined the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Bruce Richard, a former member of the Party’s Southern California Chapter with Chip, now a union executive, recalls:
“…Upon our release [from Youth Authority], we wasted no time joining the Black Panther Party. Chip worked tirelessly in various capacities in the Westside office of…the Chapter. To be a Panther was a 24/7 commitment, and every single day seemed like weeks due to the volume of activities during that explosive period. We were totally consumed in the Party’s Free Breakfast Program, the tutorial program, selling Panther papers, political education classes and other projects. Chip was a favorite of many in the communities we served, and the children, especially, loved him, reflected in their smiling little faces when he appeared….”
In September 1969, Chip was wounded and arrested in connection with a police shoot-out. He was tried for assault on police and other, related charges, including the murder of a security guard. He was convicted and sentenced to death. He was 19 years old.
“The Greatest Threat”
This was immediately following the early 1969 announcement by infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that “The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” As documented by Huey P. Newton in his widely-acclaimed Ph.D. dissertation War Against the Panthers, A Study of Repression in America, Hoover then pledged to use a special counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalists,” and, specifically targeted the Black Panther Party. Newton and other scholars document that, of the actions employed by the COINTELPRO program to carry out its agenda, 79% were “specifically directed toward destruction of the Party.”
In 1972, the California Supreme Court, in California v. Anderson, declared the death penalty unconstitutional, as a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against “cruel or unusual punishments” and of the State’s constitutional ban against both. Along with nearly 100 other men on death row at the time, Chip found his death sentence commuted to life, with the possibility of parole. Today, however, unlike 98% of those on death row in 1972, who have been released, Chip languishes in prison still, incarcerated for nearly 40 years now. In spite of his long and brutal incarceration, Chip’s dedication to the cause of the liberation of black and all oppressed people has not wavered.
THE FBI’S WAR AGAINST THE PANTHERSAlthough Hoover identified the Party as a “threat to the internal security of the country,” he boldly stated that it was the Party’s Free Breakfast for Children program, not its weapons of self-defense, that made the Party so “dangerous.” Begun in the Party’s base in Oakland, California, the Free Breakfast Program grew across the nation with the rise of Party chapters during 1969, in over 40 states. Hoover charged that the Program was spreading revolutionary propaganda to all the hundreds of thousands of black families whose children participated in it, a dangerous development. Newton stated: “Since its inception, the Party [was] subject to a variety of actions by agencies and officers of the federal government intended to destroy it …precisely because of the Party’s political ideology and potential for organizing a sizable group of the country’s population that has been historically denied equal opportunity in employment, education, housing, and other recognized basic needs.”
It is well-documented that, at the end of 1969, under the direction of the FBI, Chicago police assassinated the Party’s Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton and leading member Mark Clark and Los Angeles police created its SWAT Team and raided the offices of the Party there, at one-location in a five-hour gun battle.—This was the Party Chapter to which Chip belonged. He is a casualty of this war.
The War Continues
Chip’s incarceration cannot be viewed apart from this history of the FBI’s war against the Panthers. Chip is the definition of a political prisoner, and is the longest-held Black Panther Party political prisoner. Indeed, at his last parole hearing, in July 2008, he was vigorously challenged by a Board member about his political views, past and present, and summarily denied.
The Struggle Must Continue
This contradiction must be overcome, so that Chip can be set free. As Chip’s long incarceration is rooted in the political agenda of the State, his freedom is dependent upon political action.—At the same time, the Committee to Free Chip Fitzgerald has employed a new and savvy attorney, Keith Wattley of Oakland, California, who will be appropriately filing a habeas corpus application in the California courts to legally challenge the Board’s wrongful denial.—The Committee is mounting a vigorous campaign to obtain support letters to the Board from elected officials and other notables, whose power can and will be politically persuasive. It is our intent to convince the Board, as well as the Governor, who has the ultimate power to release Chip, that another unjust decision will be met with political consequences.