The Public Eye - Summer 2010 Edition


The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther

Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009, 424pp., $26.95, paperback

I was born in 1971, two years after the death of the Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. Working as a union representative in Providence, Rhode Island, I first took an interest in the Black Panther Party in the summer of 1994 to fill a gap in my political education. My curriculum included David Hilliard’s book This Side of Glory: The Autobiography of David Hilliard and the Story of the Black Panther Party (Lawrence Hill Books, 2001); Mario Van Peeble’s 1995 film Panther; and a play about the Panthers followed by a rousing talk by Bobby Seale. For all this schooling, however, I never bought into the line that “the FBI murdered Fred Hampton.” Although I would feign assent when activists mentioned Hampton’s assassination, on the inside I assumed (or hoped) this rhetoric was intended metaphorically. I should have known better.

Jeffrey Haas is a trial lawyer who started representing Panther cases at Hampton’s request soon after law school. Now retired in New Mexico, Haas has mined deep through trial records and his own memories of the late sixties and seventies to tell the story of what the FBI and the Chicago Police Department did to Fred Hampton, a community organizer with a revolutionary political consciousness. As you would expect from a trial attorney, Haas methodically demolishes the myth that Hampton died in a shootout in his Chicago apartment. He confronts the reader with undeniable physical and direct evidence that the Chicago police murdered Hampton at the behest of the FBI. Haas tells the story chronologically, peeling back the layers of truth in the same order that Haas and the heroic legal team at his People’s Law Office (PLO) discovered it during an epic, thirteen-year-long civil rights lawsuit.

Although Hampton was very young, many in Chicago recognized his unique leadership potential. He was born in Chicago and grew up in Maywood, a suburb just west of the city. At age seventeen, he started the West Suburban Youth Chapter of the NAACP, which grew to more than 200 members in less than a year in 1965. Haas writes that under Hampton’s leadership, young Black people in Maywood accelerated the campaign for a public pool and ultimately a recreational center. One member of the Maywood Village Board wrote,

“Fred was a master orator. His rhetoric was stunning as he confronted his White audience with a picture of America’s unjust society that most had never imagined before.”

In 1968, Hampton joined the Black Panther Party (BPP), which had begun its rise to national prominence, and founded the party’s Illinois chapter with a downtown office. As a Panther leader, Hampton organized food pantries, free breakfasts for schoolchildren, educational and recreational programs, and a free medical clinic. Significantly, he helped to make peace among the city’s rival street gangs. He viewed the provision of these social services as opportunities for political education. Then in 1969, he was convicted and sentenced to two-to-five years in prison for the strong-arm theft of $71.00 worth of Good Humor ice cream bars, which he allegedly gave away to neighborhood children. The decision was overturned, but the experience made him more militant. By the age of twenty, he had become a respected community leader among Chicago’s Black population. By all accounts, he was on the way to becoming one of the most articulate and persuasive African American leaders of his time.

However, to the Chicago police and the FBI, Hampton’s talents as a communicator and organizer marked him as a major threat. Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover was determined to prevent the formation of a cohesive Black radical movement in the U.S. “by any means necessary.” Believing that coalitions among the Panthers and street gangs, such as that forged by Hampton, were frightening stepping stones toward the creation of a revolutionary body, Hoover initiated a covert program, COINTELPRO, whose stated goal was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” individuals and organizations the Bureau characterized as national security threats. Local FBI offices were encouraged to devise creative means for undermining the BPP, including promoting violence. For instance, Chicago’s Special Agent in Charge sent a memo to Hoover in 1969 suggesting that he send a fake letter to Jeff Fort, the leader of the Blackstone Rangers street gang, accusing the Panthers of planning a hit on Fort, in the hope that it would incite the Rangers to “take retaliatory action” against Hampton and the Panthers. (The Fort memo was revealed to Haas’ cocounsel, Flint Taylor, in November 1975, by a staff member for the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee, which was investigating illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens.)

In 1968 and 1969, the Chicago police launched an all-out assault on the Panthers and their allies, treating them as criminal gangs. Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan organized a special prosecution unit to which police officers were permanently assigned, and an FBI informant, William O’Neal, achieved the position of security chief in the Panthers. On November 13, 1969, two Chicago police officers were murdered in a shootout with alleged Panthers. In response, O’Neal provided his FBI handler, Agent Roy Mitchell, with a floor plan of the apartment where Hampton and other Panthers lived, so detailed that it showed all the furniture, including the bed where Hampton and his fiancé, Deborah Johnson, slept. Mitchell gave the floor plan to Hanrahan and his unit, with whom he met regularly.

At 4:45 a.m. on December 4, fourteen police officers from Hanrahan’s unit entered 2337 West Monroe Street to search for illegal firearms. The police chose that time even though O’Neal had told the FBI that at 8:00 p.m. no one would be home, and the police could easily search for the firearms then. An early morning raid made sense only if they wanted to provoke a firefight. The police claim that Panthers began firing at them the moment they knocked on the door. However, forensic evidence shows that no shots were fired into the door from inside the apartment. A single shot fired at the intruders by Hampton’s roommate Mark Clark did not damage the door but instead struck the wall outside the door above officers’ heads, suggesting that the door was already open. The bullet’s trajectory indicates that Clark fired from below, probably while he lay on the floor, fatally wounded. His was the only shot that could have been fired by a Panther. No other occupants had weapons in their hands. The police, who were uninjured, fired 90 to 99 shots into the apartment with a .45 caliber submachine gun, shotguns, pistols, and a rifle.

Two officers found Hampton in his bed, wounded in the shoulder. Harold Bell, one of the Panthers, reports that he heard one say,

“That’s Fred Hampton.”
“Is he dead?” asked the other. “Bring him out.”

“He’s barely alive; he’ll make it.”

Then Johnson heard two shots, and an officer said, “He’s good and dead now.” The shots were later discovered to have been fired point blank into Hampton’s head.
Hampton’s body was dragged to the doorway of the bedroom and left in the pool of his own blood, as the surviving Panthers—Johnson, Blair Anderson, Doc Satchell, Harold Bell, Verlina Brewer, Louis Truelock, and Brenda Harris—hid in another bedroom. Police fired at them and then abandoned the scene in a hurry. Haas writes,

A police photo showed Fred’s body…in polka dot underwear and a T-shirt, with blood pouring from his head wounds. Another photo showed the uniformed police officers carrying Fred’s body down the front steps on a stretcher. They smiled for the police photographer. Their grins reminded me of the spectators’ smiles in the lynching photos from the South.

Haas, along with Flint Taylor and other lawyers from the newly formed People’s Law Office collective sprang into action to defend the survivors from criminal charges and to hold others responsible for the deaths of Hampton and Clark. Satchell, Brewer, Harris, and Anderson had been shot and wounded by the police. The county grand jury indicted each of the Panther survivors on at least one count of attempted murder, as well as on armed violence and numerous weapons charges. Haas interviewed the survivors at the jail and in their guarded hospital rooms. He examined the paths of the bullets and discovered that they converged on the bed where Hampton had been sleeping that morning. An autopsy taken shortly after Hampton’s death showed the presence of barbiturates in his blood, although he never used drugs. According to Johnson, Hampton never moved during the entire siege.

In a brilliant tactical move, the legal team filmed the cataloguing of all evidence at the apartment, which they opened for tours to the media, community leaders, and the public. The tours not only prevented police from returning to manipulate the scene but also built popular support and exposed the nonsensical claim of a “shootout.” People witnessed the blood stains on the bed and observed that there were no bullet holes in the door. It seemed obvious that the police had broken in and killed Hampton. Civil rights and community groups—even the African American Patrolmen’s Association—united in demanding an independent probe.

The tours were emblematic of the confrontational style of the PLO attorneys, who aggressively countered government lies through the media and seized any opportunity to mobilize public opinion and apply pressure against an unjust legal system. A federal grand jury eventually did investigate, in 1970, but it found Hampton’s death to be “justifiable homicide” and indicted no one. (A document eventually surfaced showing that the FBI had made a deal with Deputy Attorney General Jerris Leonard, who led the grand jury investigation: the FBI agreed to drop its criminal charges against the seven Panther survivors, and in return, the grand jury ruled in favor of Hanrahan and the police raiders. The deal insured that the FBI’s role and the classified COINTELPRO program would remain concealed for several more years.)

Haas then takes us through years of civil rights litigation to hold the police, Hanrahan, and the FBI accountable for Hampton’s murder. Lawyers and legal workers with less political commitment would surely have given up or gone broke. As a lawyer myself, I was awestruck by the legal team’s poise, perseverance, and tenacity in the face of enormous obstacles. The attorneys for the police were paid by the government, while the PLO had scant resources in what became a war of attrition. Defense lawyers representing the police and public officials made a deal with the clerk of the court to pay three times the normal cost for daily transcripts, as long as the clerk agreed to charge PLO the same rate. The Panthers were also up against a federal judge, Joseph Sam Perry, who openly stood against them. When a police sergeant swore that he had not relied on the FBI plant’s information, Perry refused to compel the police to name the person who had been their informant. When the jury seemed deadlocked, Perry directed a verdict for the defendants.
Throughout the long ordeal, Haas and the legal team overcame problems of missing information and discovered proof of perjury and conspiracy. At the same time, the PLO took on additional important cases of political repression, defending Attica prisoners, Puerto Rican independistas, other Panthers, and more.

Haas’s account of the lawsuit would make for a John Grisham-style legal thriller but for its unsatisfying ending. True, the underdogs confronted corrupt officials, a villainous judge, lying cops, and a team of arrogant, well-funded lawyers. They achieved a victory because of the confluence of many factors: the larger political struggle outside the courtroom; the 1971 liberation of FBI files by activists in Media, Pennsylvania, which revealed COINTELPRO; the U.S. Senate Church Committee hearings on the illegal domestic surveillance; the reinstatement of the case by appellate judges who overturned the verdict for the police; and a lot of luck along the way.

Against all odds, the PLO forced the city, county, and federal government to settle for $1.85 million. However, that’s a modest sum. In the words of Hampton’s mother, Iberia Hampton,

“They got away with murder.”

The anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world.” However, Haas’s book is a reminder that we should also never doubt the lengths to which the state will go to defend the status quo. The COINTELPRO documents detail official efforts to subvert the Panthers. Because these documents predate the Freedom of Information Act, they were written with the expectation that they would never be revealed to the public. Consider Hoover’s retort to questions raised by San Francisco’s special agent in charge on May 27, 1969:

You state that the Bureau under the Counter Intelligence Program [COINTELPRO] should not attack programs of community interest such as the BPP “Breakfast for Children.” You state that this is because many prominent “humanitarians,” both white and black, are interested in the program as well as churches which are actively supporting it.

You have obviously missed the point. The BPP is not engaged in the “Breakfast for Children” program for humanitarian reasons. This program was formed by the BPP for obvious reasons, including their efforts to create an image of civility, assume community control of Negroes, and to fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.

The story of Hampton’s murder is a reminder of the nature of domestic intelligence and policing institutions. Today, political repression is likely to be even more sophisticated and hidden, but no less disruptive. For example, in October 2009, police and FBI agents raided the warehouse of Detroit Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah due to firearms charges, shooting him eighteen times and killing him. Just as Hanrahan did, the U.S. attorney used Abdullah’s militant rhetoric to justify the police tactics, as if revolutionary rhetoric justifies the serving of a warrant by FBI agents and local cops with guns ablaze.

In many terrorism prosecutions, the FBI has paid con-artists to act as informants who hatch outrageous plots, not unlike William O’Neal, whose role as a provocateur Haas documents. Unfortunately, since 9/11, consent decrees and FBI guidelines that were enacted to prevent abuses such as COINTELPRO have been seriously weakened or undone, in the name of counterterrorism. This reaction provides all the more reason for us to follow PLO’s example of tirelessly confronting power to expose the truth and defend political freedom.

Thomas Cincotta is the Civil Liberties Project Director for Political Research Associates and a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild.

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Summer 2010 Edition:

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