The Murder of Fred Hampton

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Last week’s screening Black Power Mixtape provided an overview of some key players in the black power movement. This week, we will look specifically at the murder of two black activists by the State and the coordinated collusion between the FBI and the Chicago Police Dept. to eradicate the Chicago arm of the Black Panther Party through terror and violence.

On the night of March 8 1971, a handful of activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the federal offices in Pennsylvania and raided file cabinets. The stolen documents they obtained confirmed earlier suspicions of how far the FBI was willing to go to infiltrate and destroy domestic organizations dedicated to issues of human rights and social justice. The FBI’s program went by the name COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program), and its main target was the Black Panther Party, which it deemed a terrorist organization and a threat to national security due to its calls for black empowerment and especially its anti-capitalism. The FBI used false communications, agent provocateurs, and, with the aid of local law enforcement, assassination to splinter and destroy the organization.

The Chicago chairman of the BPP was Fred Hampton, a charismatic leader whose first arrest in 1968 was for stealing $71 in ice cream and delivering it to children in the neighborhood. Above all, Hampton was a brilliant networker and speaker, a builder of bridges between groups with like social agendas, however tangential. Even among South Side’s apolitical gangs, he worked hard to push the Party’s message of empowerment and community control and actively sought their solidarity and support. Like the BPP more broadly, he saw Socialism as the only answer for working black people in America and championed international unity among oppressed people of color, promising solidarity with any group, black or white, that would align themselves with the BPP’s ideals of transnational liberation for all suffering under capitalism and colonialism.

The FBI decided Fred Hampton had to go. The State would not tolerate a supreme teacher in the mold of OAAU-era Malcolm X, delivering radical messages of global outreach and p.o.c. unity that transcend religious divides. Through a manipulative quid pro quo, they pressured a 19-year-old black man earlier arrested for car theft to act as an informant; William O’Neal gained access to the BPP’s brownstone headquarters and, even more effectively, became head of security and Hampton’s bodyguard. He provided floorplans of the apartment and flagged the location of Hampton’s bedroom.

On December 4, 1969, at 4:30 am, there was a knock on the door of the BPP apartment. Mark Clark, on security watch and armed, walked to the door and asked, without opening, who it was. “It’s Tommy,” a voice said. “Tommy who?” Clark asked. “Tommy gun” came the prearranged cue. Through the door, Mark Clark was shot in the heart and died instantly. As he body convulsed, he pulled the trigger of the gun he was holding as the Chicago Police fired 90 rounds into the apartment. Fred Hampton, who had been drugged earlier by informant O’Neal and possibly never regained consciousness, was badly injured on the mattress in his bedroom; a later autopsy showed that he was killed from two shots fired into his skull at close range, finished off by the cops once inside, who were overheard saying “He’s good and dead now.” With their main target dead, they continued to fire into the other rooms, later charging all of those shot and injured with attempted murder, including Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s 8-mo-pregnant fiancee.

Despite the falsified ballistics tests, Mark Clark’s reflex shot was the only bullet fired by the BPP. Hence, there was no “wild firefight” as reported by the Chicago Police, who quickly held press conferences to laud the great achievements of their officers and proclaim the community safe from the militancy of the Panthers and their dangerous breakfast program for children. Within hours of the assault, the Panthers called in the film crew who had been filming Hampton’s speaking engagements. This team began to make a documentary quite unlike the one they started out to shoot. Their footage, which contradicted accounts given by the CPD and FBI, would further open up massive holes and inconsistencies in the State’s official version of events. Crucially, the Panthers also opened up the crime scene to the public, and over 25,000 Chicagoans filed through to see the blood-stained execution space for themselves, to see the nails in the wall the CPD attempted to falsify as bullet slugs fired from BPP guns. The Chicago Tribune, initially supportive of the police’s version of events, changed their coverage when the amount of contradictory evidence became clear, and their reporting added to the damning documentation already gathered by the BPP and the photographic evidence taken by the filmmakers.

The civil case would drag on until 1982, as the FBI and CPD worked hard to stall the proceedings of the Hampton and Clark families. Two FBI documents obtained in that 1971 classified file theft, including O’Neal’s map of the apartment, revealed his role, and the feds involvement and attempted cover up. In the end, “justice” (if one could call it that) prevailed in the form of a monetary settlement of 2 million. None of the police officers, nor Cook County/State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, and obviously none of the FBI agents, were ever indicted in the murders. The ensuing public scandal did cut short Hanrahan’s political ambitions and facilitated increased black activism within the city, but the Chicago BPP never fully recovered from the blow. It says volumes about America’s political class and the mainstream media’s subservience to it that Watergate became the historic benchmark for the abuse of State power and not COINTELPRO. It seems the state-sanctioned murder of leftist minorities always takes a backseat to hotel break-ins and tape recordings if the political elite are the ones being wiretapped.

I would never say that Fred Hampton is currently in the national spotlight because he is a revolutionary person of color buried and obscured by the white power structures of our nation, his execution a footnote at best within our so-called institutions of higher learning. But the number of times I have seen this documentary and this case mentioned over social media in the past 12 months is more than I have seen in the past 20+ years combined. A new generation of people of color are keeping Hampton’s memory and message alive, screening this documentary in communities, engaging in important conversations, and exposing the continuum of white supremacy and violence that is still a hallmark of American capitalism.

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