The Deadly Side of Activism
‘Revolutionary Suicide,’ the title of Huey Newton’s memoir, speaks to what can happen when activists lose themselves in the struggle
On February 8, 2016, MarShawn McCarrel texted his mother, “Hey Mom. I love you.” Later that day, he took his own life on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.
He was 23 years old.
McCarrel was a well-known artist and activist in the capital city and beyond. He performed spoken word throughout the city, founded multiple community activist groups, and worked heavily with statewide organization Ohio Student Association. Yet, he also struggled, fighting to find his place as a Black man in the U.S. while also working to topple its oppressive institutions. Ultimately, he succumbed to that struggle. “My demons won today. I’m sorry,” read his last Facebook post.
In his famed 1973 memoir, Revolutionary Suicide, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton describes the titular concept as the willingness to die for political liberation. It was much more than a theory; as the Black Panthers were systematically targeted and infiltrated by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and other law enforcement agencies, numerous party members were murdered by police. Throughout his trial and subsequent sentence following a 1968 conviction for voluntary manslaughter — after being shot first by a police officer — Newton spent 33 months in solitary confinement. In the book, Newton refers to solitary confinement as “the soul breaker,” detailing the sensory deprivation and squalid conditions intended to punish beyond punishment.
In the decades since publication, Newton’s memoir has become a landmark text for activists, providing a valuable framework for radical resistance against an oppressive power. But read only as a memoir, stripped of the context of what Newton and his Black Panther compatriots faced at the time, it loses a crucial dimension: Acknowledging the grief and trauma many activists encounter and discussing how to overcome it.
McCarrel’s passing is a tragic example of the consequences of clinging to revolutionary suicide…