Nothing but a Northern Lynching:
The Death of Fred Hampton Revisited
December 4, 2009
Forty years ago, on December 4, 1969, 21-year-old Fred Hampton, a
charismatic leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, was murdered
as he slept in his home on Chicago's West Side. Shortly before dawn,
fourteen armed police officers, ostensibly serving a search warrant,
shot nearly one hundred rounds of ammunition into his apartment,
killing Hampton and twenty-two year old Mark Clark and wounding
several other young members of the Black Panther Party. The
Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police
Murdered a Black Panther, by Jeffrey Haas, tells the story of the 13
year legal battle that eventually uncovered a conspiracy between the
FBI, the Illinois State's Attorney's office, and the police, to kill
Fred Hampton and destroy the Black Panther Party.
Jeffrey Haas was one of the lead lawyers representing the Hampton and
Clark families and those who survived. In a riveting memoir that
reads like a docudrama, Haas introduces the reader to the politics of
the late 1960s and to young Fred Hampton, a magnetic public speaker
and community organizer. Haas then provides a play by play history of
the tensions between the Black Panther Party and the police, and a
guide through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the legal struggle
waged to avenge Hampton's death.
The book tells an inspiring story of underpaid, indefatigable lawyers
who eventually forced powerful government officials to admit a truth
they had stonewalled for more than a decade.
His account is one of egregious abuse of power by state, local and
federal law enforcement. Haas takes the reader through a series of
attempts to whitewash the illegal conduct of the law enforcement
officials who staged and carried out the raid. State's Attorney
Edward Hanrahan charged the survivors of the raid with attempted
murder of the police. An internal police department investigation
exonerated the officers who shot Hampton and Clark; the Cook County
Coroner ruled Hampton's death justifiable homicide. Later, a federal
grand jury refused to indict the police or State's Attorney Hanrahan,
even though it issued a report containing damning evidence that the
police shooting was unprovoked by the Panthers.
The court dismissed Hanrahan's charges against the survivors in the
face of the physical evidence. All but one of the 90 plus bullets
came from police weapons and had been shot into the apartment, and
Hampton had been shot at close range, with two bullets to the head.
Yet, as Haas explains, the dismissals of criminal charges against
them brought the surviving Panthers, and the Hampton and Clark
families, no closer to justice.
Outraged civil rights leaders and community members demanded that
those who killed Hampton and Clark should be held accountable. As one
elderly woman put it after viewing the blood-soaked mattress where
Hampton was slain, "this was nothing but a Northern lynching."
Haas and his colleagues at the People's Law Office filed a federal
civil rights suit on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families and the
raid's survivors. The judge threw their case out of court. While that
decision was on appeal, continuing pressure from the community and
the press prompted the Chief Criminal Court Judge to appoint a
special prosecutor, respected Chicago attorney Barnabas Sears. Haas
writes that when Sears sought indictments against the State's
Attorney and the police, the judge who had hired him ordered the
indictments sealed and cut off his funds. Only after an appellate
court intervened were these indictments unsealed. Three years after
Hampton and Clark's deaths, the independent prosecutor indicted the
police and State's Attorney Hanrahan, albeit for "obstruction of
justice" rather than murder.
As Haas tells it, throughout this ordeal of justice delayed and
denied, he and his law partners took heart from one of Fred Hampton's
speeches: "If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not
struggle, then damn it, you don't deserve to win."
And struggle they did. Just when the reader begins to hope that the
bad guys will finally get their due, Haas shows us how difficult it
was for the truth to emerge in the face of persistent government
denials. In the criminal trial against the police and State's
Attorney Hanrahan, lawyers for the indicted officials focused almost
entirely on the purported violence and anti-police rhetoric of the
Black Panther Party, rather than on the evidence against their
clients. Ruling that the prosecution had provided "insufficient
evidence" of a conspiracy, the judge found all the law enforcement
defendants not guilty. The acquittals came just a few days before an
election in which State's Attorney Hanrahan was trying to keep his
job. The only solace the Panther families and their lawyers could
take from this turn of events was that Chicago voters threw Hanrahan
out of office.
Back in court on a civil rights complaint reinstated by the Seventh
Circuit Court of Appeals, Haas and the team of largely unpaid lawyers
and students faced an uphill battle. The defendants were represented
by high-priced lawyers paid at public expense and the judge was
openly hostile to the plaintiffs.
After several more years, another dismissal and another appeal, Haas
and his colleagues finally gained access to the evidence that the FBI
had buried for so long. The judge granted a hotly contested discovery
motion for material about the FBI's covert intelligence program and
the FBI eventually turned over more than five hundred boxes of
documents in response.
Painstaking review of the discovered documents turned up proof that
the FBI had planted an informant in the Black Panther Party and had
concealed that information from all the previous investigations and
trials. The FBI's informant, William O'Neal, was Hampton's trusted
friend and bodyguard, and ironically, the person in charge of
security for the Panthers on the night of the killings. The
connecting link between the FBI and the police who carried out the
raid was a blueprint of Fred Hampton's apartment which the FBI had
provided to the Chicago police. The blueprint had been drawn by
O'Neal for the FBI. The location of Hampton's bed was clearly marked.
The conspiracy was proven.
The lawyers had uncovered an explicit FBI plot to destroy the Black
Panther Party and to bring down its leaders. It was this evidence
that ultimately led to a victory, of sorts. In 1983, Haas and his
colleagues at the People's Law Office achieved some justice for their
clients, a $1.85 million settlement, paid out in equal part by
federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
Haas' story is also an indictment of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI for its
covert attempts to, in words taken from COINTELPRO documents,
"neutralize" the Black Panther Party and prevent the rise of an
"electrifying leader." Fred Hampton, as portrayed by Haas, was just
such an electrifying leader. Haas shows us the impact Hampton and the
Chicago Panthers had on their community: they initiated free
breakfast programs for children, organized against police brutality
and worked to create cross-racial coalitions. He quotes a mother's
lament, from Iberia Hampton: "People should not forget that State's
Attorney Hanrahan, the Chicago police, and the FBI murdered my son .
. . .Who knows what he may have become, if they hadn't killed him?"
Haas spent four and a half years researching and writing this book.
He read thousands of pages of transcripts and interviewed dozens of
the major players in this saga. The result is a story that helps us
see the complex history of the Black Panther Party and the police in
a new light. The Black Panthers talked about self-determination and
carried guns. Law enforcement officers reacted negatively. The
Assassination of Fred Hampton is a cautionary tale of what can happen
when government officials forget that no one is above the law and
there is no working system of checks and balances.
Although it took more than a decade for those who murdered Fred
Hampton to be held accountable, it is perhaps some additional measure
of justice that the American people recently elected another
brilliant community organizer from Chicago, Barack Obama, as the
first black president of the United States.
Susan Rutberg is a Professor at Golden Gate University School of Law
in San Francisco. In 1975 she volunteered with the People's Law
Office to work on the Hampton civil rights suit.
Youths See Slain Black Panther as Role Model
by Chip Mitchell
December 04, 2009
Today is the 40th anniversary of a Chicago police raid that killed
young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and one of his comrades, Mark
Clark. Hampton and his cadre promoted socialism, created their own
social programs and forged alliances with like-minded Latinos and
whites. They also took up arms in what they described as self-defense
against police. Four decades later, some Black Panther tactics may
seem antiquated. But a new generation of African American activists
is embracing Hampton as a role model. We report from our West Side bureau.
Students at Chicago's Crane High School file into their auditorium
for Career Day.
The program includes 21-year-old poet Jessica Disu, also known as FM
Supreme. Disu tells the students about today's anniversary.
DISU: It's not only Jay-Z's, my favorite rapper's, birthday, but it's
also the 40th year anniversary of the murder and assassination of
Black Panther Fred Hampton, who was 21 years old, who was killed by
the FBI and the Chicago Police Department. Google him...
At the University of Chicago, Hampton's widow Akua Njeri addresses a
packed hall that includes students as young as ninth graders.
NJERI: A lot of you are familiar with the survival programs of the
Black Panther Party -- the breakfast program, the medical center, the
free clothing, free shoe giveaway, free prison busing programs. And a
bunch of people that didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to
throw it out of -- young people -- were organizing these survival
programs and demanding that businesses that existed in the city had a
responsibility to support and contribute to these programs.
But it's not clear how far the word about Hampton is spreading among
African American youths.
FLOYD: Two of you all were here before when I talked about the Black
Panthers and Fred Hampton ...
Danton Floyd, 27, volunteers as a counselor for young West Siders
caught up in the justice system.
FLOYD: They always want to know about their gang leaders, like Larry
Hoover and Jeff Fort. But this is a leader that they need to know
about, that was just as fearless, just as intelligent, and just as
dangerous as these gang leaders that they look up to but was positive
and was willing to do anything he had to do for his people at the same time.
Floyd says the youths pay attention when he tells them about Hampton,
but he wonders what comes of it.
FLOYD: That fire is sparked, but there's no consistency. There's no
way to follow up with it. It's not taught in schools. Honestly, a lot
of these sessions that I do, their parents need to be here as well,
because their parents don't know a lot of this information.
BIONDI: In many ways, things are worse than they were when Fred
Hampton was organizing here in Chicago.
Northwestern University historian Martha Biondi points to the city's
deindustrialization. That's pushed unemployment among black youths to
levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many have turned to the
informal economy, including drug sales. Biondi says politicians have
responded not with large-scale jobs programs but police crackdowns.
BIONDI: And it seems like, well, therefore, we should have as
militant or radical leaders as we did then, in 1969. But we've had
years now of assaults on African American families, assaults on
African American communities that have produced a great degree of
disorganization, incarceration, permanent unemployment, and it's very
hard to find the political leadership, and build political movements,
out of that.
Few know this better than Southwest Youth Collaborative organizer
Charity Tolliver, 27.
TOLLIVER: Our youth are put in a position where they feel that the
reason that they are poor is because they didn't work hard enough --
this idea that we've overcome: 'The slaves, Marcus Garvey, Martin
Luther King, they handled all that stuff back then. And now you have
no one to blame but yourselves.'
The Youth Collaborative uses Hampton's memory to inspire people like
Chris Bufford, a 22-year-old working on a campaign to improve
conditions at Cook County's juvenile detention center, where he's
done some time. Bufford tells how the campaign addressed a lack of
access to underwear in the center. The youths delivered 200 pairs to
County Board President Todd Stroger.
BUFFORD: Getting into the face of the people who hold the power.
Bufford says that's what Fred Hampton was all about. He says another
way his group emulates the slain Black Panther is by connecting
African Americans to other races.
BUFFORD: We all need to come together because we all face the same
issues. We all face poverty. We're all facing housing issues. We all
faced with health-care issues. We might not necessarily be facing
immigration like the Latinos are. But this isn't necessarily our home
either. They're not trying to put us out, but they're more so trying
to lock us up.
Not everyone thinks Hampton is an appropriate role model. The
Fraternal Order of Police helped scuttle a Chicago alderman's 2006
proposal to rename a block of a West Side street after him. Officers
of the union told newspapers that Hampton advocated killing cops and
took advantage of the communities he claimed to be serving. West
Sider Harold Moore, 24, doesn't see Hampton that way.
MOORE: He was just a damn good organizer.
Moore is no radical. He's interned for a County Board commissioner
and the State Department. Last year, he worked for the presidential
campaign of Barack Obama. Now he's directing an interfaith group in
Northwest Indiana. Moore says he's applying Hampton's principals there.
MOORE: He lived on both the revolutionary side as well as the reform
side. That's something that I need more of. And it's something that a
lot of us need more of. 'Let's go tear down the walls.' And, the
reform side saying, 'Hey, let's make sure that our community is
appropriately supported. They're physically eating, they're
physically healthy, and they're mentally healthy as well.'
Moore points out that a lot of youth organizing these days is led by
adults and funded by foundations. He notes it was Fred Hampton, all
of 21 years old, leading Chicago's Black Panthers.