ROMAINE “CHIP” FITZGERALD BIOGRAPHY
Romaine Fitzgerald was born April 11, 1949. His dad, Leon Thayer Fitzgerald, was born in Oklahoma and his mom, Marie Russell, was born in Shreveport Louisiana. His mother graduated from Jordan High in Watts, a suburb of Los Angeles. His parents met in Los Angeles got married, bought a home and started a family in the Watts/ Willowbrook community of Los Angeles. Romaine had 3 siblings; two older sisters, and one older brother.
Romaine's mother Marie worked as a domestic worker. At home, Mrs. Fitzgerald enjoyed working in the flower bed and vegetable garden, knitting and crocheting. With these skills she used to make a lot of her children's clothing and provide fresh produce for the family. Romaine's father Leon worked for the city of Los Angeles in the Department Of Water and Power. In his spare time, Mr. Fitzgerald enjoyed hunting and fishing. Growing up in the poverty stricken enclaves of Watts and Compton, Romaine remembered that his parents worked very hard to make ends meet. Nevertheless, the couple struggled, and by the time Romaine had turned five, they had divorced, with his mother winning custody and taking on the added responsibility of leading a household alone. A proud woman, Ms. Fitzgerald refused to accept county or state welfare. Instead, she supplemented her domestic job as a dishwasher at the Statler Hotel with additional domestic work in the homes of the wealthy in Beverly Hills. Unable to properly supervise her children because she worked multiple jobs, Ms. Fitzgerald’s frequent absences from home allowed Romaine to easily get involved in mischievous activities, including committing petty larceny and running with the areas local gang members.
Romaine attended grammar school at Lincoln Elementary and middle school at Ralph J. Bunch Jr. High School. Romaine was also a participant in the Boys Club of America. Despite trying his hardest to like school, he liked the streets better, desiring to one day emulate the pimps and hustlers who lived luxurious lives making their way in the streets. Drawn to this unproductive crowd, Romaine slipped deeper into criminality. Though his mother attempted to solve this problem by sending him to live with his father in Compton, Romaine’s attraction and deep affinity for the street life drew him back to his friends in Watts. This desire to live by his wits landed Romaine in Juvenile Hall and California Youth Authority (CYA) prisons on several occasions. Eventually his petty crimes caught up with him and he subsequently spent two years at DVI, a CYA and adult prison. Spending most of his time in solitary confinement, Chip decided to take up reading. It was the mid-sixties and the world seemed on fire with activism. Having had considerable contact with Nation of Islam members in prison, Chip already had a sense of the importance of Black history and Black culture and of the long term impact of racism on the Black community. At the same time, around 1967, he encountered literature about the Black Panther Party and decided to investigate further. He immediately noticed the Party’s desire to struggle for Black freedom and was outraged to discover that racism was the result of ignorance and greed. He also began to understand how capitalism undermined the legitimate demands of people seeking freedom and justice. Heartened by what he learned, Chip took himself through a process of reevaluation and concluded he no longer aspired to become a pimp or hustler. Instead, he made the decision to devote his life to the Black freedom struggle and to the ideals for which organizations like the Black Panther Party stood. Upon his release from jail in early 1969, he joined the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Like many youths during the turbulent 1960's, Romaine was rescued from a direction of criminality and became politically active. Ms. Fitzgerald would often reflect on what a positive change her son had gone through based on him becoming more responsible and taking an interest in participating in the civil rights movement. Tired of seeing racism prevent poor and oppressed people from exercising their human right to self-determination, Chip easily identified with the philosophy and tactics 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 Chip's release from jail, he 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. Chip was totally consumed by his work in the Party's Free Breakfast Program, the tutorial program, selling Panther papers, attending political education classes and distributing leaflets throughout the community that explained the philosophy and objectives of the Black Panther Party. He was a favorite of many in the communities we served. The children especially loved him, as was often reflected in their smiling little faces when he appeared."
Like many BPP members, Chip had learned the principles of socialism, the importance of organizational discipline, and how to handle and use firearms. Erroneously thinking the BPP would lead the revolution that would save Black people from further oppression, he identified with the ideology of armed struggle. In the process, Chip contributed to the Party’s coffers by expropriating funds from entities the BPP referred to as pigs and avaricious businessmen. To this end, his activities landed him in deep trouble when a California Highway Patrolmen performed a traffic stop on him and two other Panthers as they drove across town to expropriate funds for the impending revolution. A heated conversation with the officer quickly escalated into an armed confrontation and before long, the highway patrolman had been gravely wounded and Chip had been shot in the head. Though they fled the scene, Chip’s comrades were arrested and subsequently sentenced to prison.
Chip managed to remain at large for several more weeks until his arrest for the September 1969 killing of a Los Angeles-area security guard. Two weeks after this incident, the police located and arrested Chip, who at the time was still wearing the head dress from having been shot by the California Highway Patrolman. Chip was subsequently tried and convicted for assault on a police officer and other related charges, including the murder of security guard Barge Miller. Though Chip had been 19-years-old only months before his arrest, by the time the court sentenced him to death, he was 20 years old. Deeply saddened by having taken the life of another human being, Chip entered a deep depression from his feelings of shame and sorrow, which emanated from what he knew was the irreversible pain he had caused his victims and the families of his victims. Within a few years, the state of California ruled the death penalty unconstitutional and Chip was sent to San Quentin’s Adjustment Center, a maximum security prison that sits on the Bay only a few miles from San Francisco and Oakland.
Though numerous prison groups attempted to entice Chip by offering him all kinds of perks if he would join them, Chip had decided to avoid all avenues of trouble. Any potential for violence was no longer a part of his life. For years, he declined offer after offer because that was not where his head was at, and he had given the prison warden his solemn word that he “would not become involved in that kind of illegal activity.” Also, before being granted a prison job as an Administration Office Clerk, Romaine passed a rigorous polygraph test to confirm that he was not affiliated with any prison gangs or engaged in other illicit activities. Disillusioned with how the Black freedom struggle seemed to be imploding, he wanted “no part of anyone’s organization following his experience with the Black Panthers.” During this period, he poignantly wrote he “was far from proud of his crimes” and lamented the fact that he had brought trouble and shame to his family’s doorstep. Indeed, his actions and subsequent prison sentence led to his mother having a nervous breakdown and he knew he had to do something when the doctor informed his family that her mental collapse had been precipitated by her worry and grief over her youngest son.
Chip later turned to the prison psychiatrist for help, and over time, her counseling convinced him that only he could rebuild his self-esteem and turn his life around. As a result, he worked years to phase out all illegal prison activities and later received a transfer to Vacaville Prison to participate in special programs they had to help prisoners better understand themselves and their antisocial behavior. Experiencing positive gains during his 18-month stay at Vacaville, Chip made a successful break away from his criminal past. He understood that his anti-social behavior had derived from his human desire to be loved and respected. Once he realized how poverty and the breakup of his parents had left him vulnerable, using pimps and hustlers, and later the Black Panther Party as substitutes for people who might normally have given him the love and respect, unity, and warmth he craved, Chip could see how he had descended into a life littered with poor choices. Though he had to experience the deprivations of prison to reach this point, Chip ultimately turned his life around and evolved into a more caring and loving human being.
While confined Romaine has attended college studying anthropology, environmental biology , broadcasting, electronics, and a host of other subjects, taking courses whenever possible. At one point, Chip participated in UC Berkeley’s Prison Project, which in addition to helping incarcerated people with their reading and writing skills, also taught the principles of grant writing and public speaking. A top performer in the program, Chip’s Berkeley associates encouraged him to pursue a degree in Communication Arts and for many years they supported his endeavor in this area. A Jazz enthusiast, Chip worked as a DJ for the prison population for a number of years. In the process, he received a number of laudatory citations for good work and exemplary behavior in the performance of his duties. Romaine is very effectively self-taught and an avid reader in the disciplines of history and the social sciences. Over the years, he evolved into an educator and is a mentor to young people.
Imprisoned since age 20, Romaine has spent the last 50 years behind bars due to his wrongful and hurtful actions in the death of a security guard. He is now 70 years old. He is the longest confined former member of the Black Panther Party and has been eligible for parole since October 1976. Despite numerous visits to the parole board, he has been repeatedly denied a release date. These parole denials have continued since 2004, when a Board of Prisons Psychologist examined Chip and determined that he was “at a low risk of committing offenses” if released into the free community.
In February 1998, Romaine had a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and without the full use of his limbs. He is currently housed in California State Prison, Los Angeles County, where he has encountered significant roadblocks in getting proper medical care. Romaine remains hopeful that just as he found a way to forgive those responsible for the social injustices that have crippled the poor and oppressed communities, that others will forgive someday soon so that he can enjoy the remaining years of his senior life with family.
Romaine comes from a good and respectable family, and his parents’ dying wish was to see him set free. Unfortunately, they both passed away many years ago with this wish unfulfilled. After 5 decades, he still has hopes that he will one day be reunited with his son, 8 grandchildren, 2 great grandchildren, and 15 nieces and nephews.
IN PRISON 50 YEARS
50 YEARS IS ENOUGH!