REFLECTIONS OF A FRIEND,
By Bruce Richard
At Tracy during the 60’s, was the last state prison in California to jointly house adults and problematic Youth Authority prisoners under the same roof, in a dual way. Chip was among those black youth at Tracy that came to represent a necessary departure from the previous generation. Most of the young people that came to prison, generally made different choices, many of whom fell down an abysmal gutter, into a cesspool of no return.
A segment of this new generation in prison, on the other hand became products of the civil rights and social justice movement, flourishing throughout the country. Overnight it seemed there was a shared maturity, becoming aware of a vast new terrain. It was the result of public momentum internationally, more powerful than any addiction. The impact into the social fabric was so potent, it would plaster a smile on your face, straighten you up in a vertical fashion, tighten your gut, and propel you into the future.
Chip and the group at Tracy underwent an awareness of having been rescued, not from immediate danger, but from the corruption of old values and principles. These mostly young men, had been resuscitated from what seemed a predestined path, and were overwhelmed with excitement about the new possibilities in the world and how they might fit in. They formed into an activist group made up of 60-70 adult and youth prisoners.
Those in the regular population spent a portion of everyday going to the library, exercising, and having group discussion about what was being learned; achieving the low hanging fruit of avoiding profanity, particularly not using the N…. & B…. words.
Chip and the group discussed politics, recited poetry and circulated jazz, referred to as cultural art, on a small battery-operated record player, which was a tremendous transition from their strictly R&B backgrounds.
Though in prison, these young men experienced a profound sense of freedom, free to roam the Kenyan mountains of Jomo Kenyatta, soothed by thoughts of the struggle in the Sierra Maestra of Cuba, refreshed by the Long March of China, healed by the psychopathology of Franz Fanon in Algeria, warmed by contemplations of the cold winters of the Russian Revolution, aroused by the crashing waves of Cape Town that mothered and fathered another movement, embraced by the sun filled comfort of Napoleon’s defeat by the slave controlled country of Haiti in the Western Hemisphere, while imagining themselves riding down the Mississippi river talking with Langston Hughes and singing “I’ve known rivers, those ancient dusty rivers,” , escaping to survive yet another day in the hills of Bolivia with Che and Tanya, only to find themselves shedding yet another tear for Richard Wright’s “black boys”.
Chip and the much older Brother Sekou, both exceptionally kind and considerate, carefully guided crucial dialogue and played an enormous mentoring role. An effective method was discovered, and folks learned tremendously from each other through their daily interactions, stimulating progress among themselves.
The group transformed their prison environment into something different. Everyone was held responsible for studying books & literature, to run laps and engage in a physical fitness program. You could visibly observe the dynamic of supporting and encouraging each other becoming more a part of the prison’s atmosphere.
To better calibrate the prison radar, they often came together in groups of twos and threes, threes and fours, debating current events and pursuing various aspects of political ideology. If only a new social movement could replicate such positive change among black youth. If only a prison rehabilitation program could imagine and harness such enormous possibilities for human growth & development.
The Tracy group saw themselves mentally and physically preparing for the struggle to help remedy the still fresh racist murders of the four little girls in Birmingham, the Emmett Tills’, the lynching’s, and the avalanche of attacks on human rights.
One summer weekend afternoon, before the prison yard’s daily closure, nature presented the most spectacular balance between the clouds, the sun’s rays and a refreshing breeze, creating magnificent shadows along the natural landscape that beautifully eluded the distorted presence of gun towers, barbwire and concrete. Sitting in a large circle, it was dramatically agreed that the cultural artist Donald Byrd’s song “Cristo Redentor” encapsulated the group’s funeral dirge, as the possibility of death was openly romanticized.
The group heard about the Black Panthers, protesting with guns at the California State Capitol, during a State Assembly. This was quite impressive, and during a time when the group sought to figure out who to join. They conducted research and learned about the work many organizations were engaged in, and decided together, to join the Black Panther Party. Surprisingly within the following year, some having Youth Authority status, had the possibility of being released.
Chip and 5 other young men did get out that following year, and all joined the Black Panther Party. It’s unquestionable, that unfortunate and regretful things happened doing that era. It’s also importantly noted, that because of how the Social Justice Movement is viewed by the ultra-conservative California State Prison System, Romaine Chip Fitzgerald has been imprisoned for the last 51 years. This matter remains a critical part of the 60’s unfinished business.
Enough Is Enough