Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, a former member of the Black Panther Party, has served 50 years within the California State Department of Corrections. He is the longest-incarcerated Black Panther in U.S. history. Fitzgerald entered the state prison as a young man when he was in his teens. He is now 70 years old and a great-grandfather. He suffered a stroke, is in ill health, and gets around with the use of a cane and a wheelchair, if and when he can. It is clear he is no longer a risk to society. So why is Chip Fitzgerald still in prison?
Community members are asking just that. Many other prisoners have been released who had similar sentences. Yet Chip remains in prison. Why? Friends and family members have set out to free Chip Fitzgerald with the sole purpose of getting information out about his circumstances and getting to the bottom of why he is still incarcerated while others walk free. Petition signature gathering, community presentations, letters, and direct appeals to the State Board of Parole and governor have been organized. But time is running out.
In the turbulent 1960s, the Black Panther Party was being organized in cities throughout the country. Fitzgerald was one of many young Black men interested in participating in this new community organization. In this time of anti-war protest and inner-city riots, Chip, like many others, turned to the Black Panther Party for answers and looked up to its founders as role models. This decision shaped his life.
Chip grew up in the Watts and Compton areas, in the community that was known as South Central Los Angeles (now more often called South Los Angeles). Along with many Black men and women, and influenced by the civil rights movement, he became interested in the activities of the Panthers. At the time, the BPP had a community empowerment program. This is important because there is a need to understand the significance of what the party meant to the community. It provided an outlet to express anger over the mistreatment of Blacks in the past and a way to stand up to the status quo. It was an empowering movement that for the first time allowed Black men and women to have a voice.
Chip would later become involved in the Panthers’ community breakfast program. He was committed to the party. Nothing like this was ever developed in the Black community, by the community. However, it was no secret that COINTELPRO and the FBI sought to destroy the Black Panthers. Chip Fitzgerald was one of those who got caught up in the movement of the time, for which any paid a heavy price.
On a breezy, hot summer night in 1969, three young Black Panther members were driving down the streets of South Central L.A. A bright red light shined in the rearview of their car. The car was pulled over. The sweltering heat made the men sweat even more. Each one knew that the Black Panthers were not welcomed by any of the police authorities. But they were not about to give an inch to what they considered an oppressive police force.
A tense situation was about to unfold. A California Highway Patrol officer walked up to the car. The men inside complied with all the police demands. Shouting began. Something wrong happened. Within a few minutes, a struggle took over the streets. No one really knows what happened that night. There was, of course, the Highway Patrol version and the Black Panther version. But whatever happened, the situation turned violent. Within a very short time span, Chip was wounded, as was the officer in brief shootout. Chip escaped but was arrested weeks later. The two others in the car also escaped but were later captured. According to the police, the car was stopped because it had a broken taillight.
Upon his arrest, Chip pleaded not guilty to the charge of attempted murder of a CHP officer. But there was something else in play against Chip. During the days before his arrest, Chip was accused of being involved in the death of a security guard. Although the evidence against him was weak, and Chip has denied any involvement, he was still convicted and sentenced to death. Chip, however, never gave up on his principles of struggle and due process.
Though Chip was sentenced to death, the California Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972. He and others on Death Row had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, but he has been denied parole over a dozen times.
During his 50 years of confinement, he’s been housed at every major California prison. He was recently moved from R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility San Diego and returned to Lancaster State Prison.
The system in which Chip has served time is no country club. Chip has served many years in what is considered a maximum-security prison. The infamous Security/Special Housing Unit where he was once housed is known as a mental and physical torture chamber. It was meant to degrade and break inmates. In the main population, inmate on inmate violence often occurred. Prison guards also commonly inflicted violence on inmates. Conditions were so bad that the entire California prison system in 2006 was placed under federal receivership because the state failed to provide a constitutional level of medical care.
Chip Fitzgerald has survived under some very harsh conditions. No one claims that Chip is a saint, but neither is he an evil man. He has continued to say he has remorse but not in a begging way or pleading forgiveness. He only seeks due process for release and says he is not a menace to society. Chip’s parents’ dying wish was to see Romaine free, but they both passed with this wish unfulfilled. Romaine has one son, eight grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and 15 nephews and nieces whom he seeks to be united with.
One of many appeals written on behalf of Chip Fitzgerald to the governor states: “Scores of other prisoners convicted of the same offenses as Romaine at around the same time (1969) have since been paroled. There is no logical reason, justifiable or legal reason to continue to incarcerate Romaine….”
So why is Romaine Chip Fitzgerald still in prison? Many believe that he is still in prison due to his past political beliefs and activism as a member of the Black Panther Party some 50 years ago.
To learn more, go to: www.freedom4chip.org.