How Art Freed a Political Prisoner
by Kanya D’Almeida
Almost three years ago to this day, a group of artists gathered together in a wildly colorful apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to discuss the prison industrial complex.
The conversation quickly moved to those most damned of all inmates, the political prisoners, of whom there are nearly 100 in penitentiaries across the United States.
These men and women, in varying shades and black and brown, comprise that very special brand of people who do not compromise on their beliefs. Members or former members of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, the Communist Party and other formations that bellowed a battle-cry for self-determination in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they have been to hell and back in some of the toughest penal colonies this country has to offer: Alcatraz. Attica. Pelican Bay. Huntingdon.
One of them, in particular, pulled at our attention and our heartstrings – the one who has escaped twice from maximum security prisons and lived to tell the tale: a Black Panther named Russell Maroon Shoatz.
His name alone sketched a story, evoking the great and glorious “maroons” of Jamaica, Brazil, Suriname and Guyana, who plotted in the thick fields of terror and cotton and sugar to break their chains and never return to the plantation. The maroons of old built their own ways of life, resurrecting the routines and rituals of ancestors who required no wretched chain gangs to reap their harvests.
Thus Russell Maroon Shoatz was born in our eyes as an icon. Though buried deep in a pit of injustice, his words rang out from the hole to assure us that the only way out – for him, for his comrades, his family – was revolution: a re-thinking of the very foundations on which we tread, a re-making of the very world in which we live.
He chose us, a group of artists, as his spokespeople. He asked us to infuse the fight for his freedom with our belief that art and politics must walk hand in hand towards a new age, honoring the towering traditions of Black liberation that rang in the ears of the world with the music of John Coltrane, the poetry of Langston Hughes and the ferocity of Malcolm X.
He tasked us with the impossible: bringing him out of the dungeons on a wave of creativity that had not been seen here for decades.
And so we rose to the challenge. We dug up his writings – those dawn and dusk ramblings of an aging genius alone in a cell, which speak to the youth on the verge of addiction and oblivion and pull them back from the dark abyss – and published them. We moved like pied pipers along the great concrete arteries of this country that penetrate every city, town and village, singing and dancing of Maroon’s freedom.
From Tennessee to Texas, from Washington to Vermont, we brought artists onto the streets and up to the stage and into classrooms, calling for an end to the torture of extreme isolation. We brought music into the law, and paintings into our meetings, and color into the dull, gun-metal grey from which prisons are hewn; and the newness of our fight caused his captors to stumble and, finally, relent.
Today he was released. That man who was entombed in the most impenetrable of holes, the man who guards vowed to eject only in death and not a moment sooner, now walks among his comrades once more. Still in prison, but out of solitary confinement. And while we thank the stars, the loved ones, and our luck, we give thanks also for the power of art to inspire a world where walls have been reduced to small heaps of brick and dust, over which a child leaps on their rush to the horizon.