Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pages From History: The Life and Struggles of Chairman Fred Hampton of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (August 30, 1948-December 4, 1969)

Pages From History: Fred Hampton
Fred Hampton 20th Commemoration (1989)
The December 4th Committee


Fred Hampton was born on August 30, 1948 in Blue Island, Illinois. He grew up in Maywood, and emerged as a student leader there in the mid-sixties. He attended Proviso East High School and was considered a leader by Blacks and whites, students and administrators alike. At the age of 14, he organized a student chapter of the NAACP in Maywood, and the chapter soon grew to 700 members. He led a march on the Maywood Town Hall and organized to build a municipal swimming pool there. After he graduated from Proviso, the administration asked him to come back to mediate a confrontation between Black and white students, then had him arrested when he did so. He spoke out strongly against police brutality.

Even during his Maywood days, Fred displayed unique leadership qualities. Influenced by Malcolm X, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the realities which he observed and experienced in the movement, Fred was radicalized and his politics became increasingly more militant.

The growing strength of the civil rights and Black liberation movements had not escaped the attention of federal and local law enforcement agencies, especially J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. In August 1967, the FBI issued a directive to its field offices across the country, calling on them to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” Black leaders and organizations. The organizations named were the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), SNCC, the Nation of Islam, and the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). This nationwide effort was coordinated under the Bureau’s super-secret and highly illegal "counter-intelligence" program, COINTELPRO.

The FBI began to actively monitor Fred’s activities in Maywood in late 1967. Early the next year, Hoover issued another COINTELPRO directive to FBI field offices. This directive more completely defined the “disruption” and “neutralization” plan, while again targeting Black organizations and leaders. FBI headquarters directed its local offices to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement.” As examples, Hoover named Malcolm X, who had been assassinated three years before, Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Elijah Muhammed.

FBI headquarters further instructed that special efforts should be made to prevent coalitions, unity and growth of Black organizations. They were to be discredited in the public eye, and local police, prosecutors and judges were to be utilized in the plan’s implementation. A month later, Dr. King was assassinated, and Blacks on the West Side of Chicago and across the country rebelled and rioted.

The civil rights movement had moved North and became urbanized and further radicalized in the second half of the 1960’s. Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland in 1966, and electrified the country by entering the California State Legislature carrying guns, and by organizing citizens patrols to follow the police in the community in an attempt to prevent brutality and harassment.

In the fall of 1967, Fred enrolled in Crane Junior College, later renamed Malcolm X College, which was a center of radical Black activity in Chicago. He continued his dynamic organizing there, and injected a new militancy which challenged the older student leaders. During 1968, Fred, Bobby Rush, Bob Brown and several others organized the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and they opened their offices at 2350 West Madison Street on the West Side of Chicago.

By this time, Fred had been expressly targeted by the Chicago FBI office under the command of the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Marlin Johnson. The Chicago office was already quite experienced in “disruption” tactics and techniques, having taken several sophisticated actions in the mid-60’s which were designed to exploit and exacerbate the political division between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed. Within days of the opening of the Panther office, Johnson’s Racial Matters Squad directed one of its operatives, William O’Neal, to join the Party. O’Neal soon maneuvered himself into a leadership position as Chief of Security, and served as Fred’s bodyguard during the early days of the Illinois Chapter.

Under the leadership of Fred and Minister of Defense Bobby Rush, the BPP grew into a strong organization in Chicago. They began to negotiate with Chicago street gangs, such as the Blackstone Rangers, Disciples, and Vice Lords, attempting to convince them to give up their violent “gangbanging,” and to focus instead on the true enemy—the government and the police. They built the original Rainbow Coalition which united the Panthers, the Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization, the Young Patriots, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and, for a time, certain Black Street gangs.

They opened a Breakfast for Children Program, first at the Better Boys Foundation, then later at several other locations in the city, and fed hundreds of hungry young children before they went to school. Fred was spreading the message throughout the city, constantly speaking at colleges and high schools and meeting with a wide range of leaders and organizations. He led by example, starting his day at six in the morning at the Breakfast Program, and would never ask someone to do something he would not do, from selling the Panther newspaper to defending the Panther office from police attack.

At the same time, the FBI, both nationally and locally, was increasing its efforts to, in its words, “neutralize the Panther Party and destroy what it stands for.” Not only had they targeted the leadership, including Fred, but they specifically set out to destroy the BPP newspaper and the Breakfast Program, and to “eradicate” other BPP “serve the people” programs. They sought to exploit ideological differences and resultant tensions between the Panthers, street gangs, and Black nationalist organizations.

On the west coast, the FBI claimed a large role in provoking the murder of four Panthers by the U.S. (United Slaves) Organization, while in Chicago they attempted to provoke the Blackstone Rangers to attack Fred and the Panthers by sending a forged letter to Ranger leader Jeff Fort which purported to warn him of a “hit” the Panthers had ordered against him. Continuing his work as a COINTELPRO operative, O’Neal blossomed as a provocateur. He constructed an “electric chair” supposedly to be used to elicit confessions from suspected informants, proposed rocket attacks on City Hall, and encouraged and sometimes dared other Panther members to commit criminal acts.

The local police and prosecutors also sought to destroy the BPP with a vengeance. Panthers were constantly harassed and arrested, often for the “offense” of selling the Panther paper. Fred had been arrested in Maywood for allegedly liberating an ice cream vender’s inventory of ice cream and distributing it to neighborhood children. The politically aggressive State’s Attorney, Edward V. Hanrahan, who had recently been elected on a racist “war on gangs” platform, put Fred on trial for robbery, and he was convicted. After promising Fred probation, the trial judge, under extreme public pressure from Hanrahan, reneged, and instead gave Fred a 2 to 5 year sentence in the penitentiary. He denied Fred appeal bond because Fred stated in open court that he was a revolutionary, so in May 1969 he was sent to the state prison in far downstate Menard.

On July 16th, the police shot Panther member Larry Roberson, and he died later in Cook County Hospital. On July 31st, the police attacked the Panther office on West Madison Street, and a shoot-out ensued. In the aftermath, the police arrested several Panthers and ransacked the office, destroying BPP newspapers and Food for the Breakfast Program.

The Illinois Supreme Court granted Fred appeal bond in August, and he returned to Chicago to a joyous welcome at People’s Church on South Ashland Avenue. In an inspiring and memorable speech, he told of how he heard the “beat of the people,” and was “high off the people” while he was locked up in Menard. Upon his release, Fred immediately resumed his speaking and organizing at a breakneck pace during the fall.

The conspiracy trial of eight alleged leaders of protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention also started in the fall before Judge Julius J. Hoffman, and Fred led demonstrations at the Federal Building to protest the binding and gagging of BPP National Chairman Bobby Seale, one of the eight on trial. On October 3rd, the police again attacked the Panther offices, made six arrests, and ransacked the office. Fred and the Panthers continued to actively organize against police brutality and for community control of the police during this period, and called upon the community to arm and defend itself against police violence. The urgency of this message was underscored when the police killed the Soto brothers in the Henry Homer Homes on the West Side. First they killed Michael, then they killed John only days later while he was home on leave from Vietnam to attend his brother’s funeral. Fred was particularly outspoken concerning police brutality, and he publicly condemned Hanrahan for his overtly racist and politically motivated prosecutorial policies. During the fall, Fred was also working closely with Ronald “Doc” Satchel and others in organizing a free people’s health clinic.

Under the watchful eye of the FBI, Fred traveled to the West Coast and consulted with BPP Chief David Hilliard about the possibility of assuming a national leadership position. On November 13, 1969, a former BPP member, Spurgeon “Jake” Winters, and two Chicago police officers were killed in a shoot-out on the South Side. Fred and the Panthers eulogized Winters as a fallen comrade, further enraging the police. Realizing that this was a perfect time to implement a deadly COINTELPRO action, FBI “Racial Matters” agent Roy Mitchell met with William O’Neal and instructed him to get a detailed floorplan of the apartment located at 2337 West Monroe Street where Fred and other Panther leaders stayed.

On November 19, 1969, O’Neal reported back with the requested floorplan, which showed the complete layout of the apartment, including the exact location of Fred’s bed. At that time, O’Neal also reported that the guns in the apartment were legally purchased. With the approval of his superiors, Mitchell then turned to the local police to do its COINTELPRO dirty work. He contacted the police Gang Intelligence Unit and Hanrahan’s assistant Richard Jalovec, chief of a Special Prosecutions Unit which included a semi-secret group of police offers and prosecutors assigned to Hanrahan’s “War on Gangs, and told them about the floorplan and the guns.

The Gang Intelligence Unit planned a raid for late November, but canceled it at the last minute at the request of FBI SAC Johnson, who called the Commander of the Intelligence Unit, apparently to tell him that Fred was in Canada on a speaking engagement. Hanrahan, Jalovec and his men then planned a raid, with the FBI s active assistance, to be executed after Fred returned. Mitchell had supplied Hanrahan’s men with O’Neal’s floorplan, a list of the persons who would be at the apartment, and the times when they would be there. The raiders then changed the time of the raid from 8 PM on December 3rd, when Fred and the Panthers would have been away from the apartment at political education class, to 4:30 AM, to assure that Fred and the Panthers would be present and asleep in their beds.

The fourteen-man raiding party was armed with a submachine gun, semiautomatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns. They chose not to bring teargas, floodlights or loudspeakers. The occupants of the apartment included Fred, his fiancĂ© Deborah Johnson, Minister of Health Doc Satchel, Rockford Defense Captain Harold Bell, Peoria Defense Captain Mark Clark, Brenda Harris, Verlina Brewer, Blair Anderson, and Louis Trueluck. Bobby Rush had left only hours earlier, as had William O’Neal, who had served a late dinner of Kool Aid and hot dogs to the occupants, including Fred.

The raiders were led by Sgt. Daniel Groth, a shadowy figure with suspected connections to the CIA, and included James “Gloves” Davis, a Black officer who was so nicknamed because he supposedly put on gloves before he beat people up, and Edward Carmody, who had been a childhood friend of one of the officers killed in the Jake Winters shoot-out. They burst in the front and back doors of the tiny apartment on Monroe Street, and Davis killed Mark Clark, who was just inside the front door, with a shot through the heart. They then charged into the front room, shooting Brenda Harris, who was laying on a bed next to the wall, and “stitched” that wall with machine gun and semiautomatic fire. These bullets tore through the wall and into the middle bedroom, where three Panthers were huddling on the floor, and many of them continued through another wall into the bedroom where Fred and his fiancĂ©, Deborah Johnson, who was 8-1/2 months pregnant, were asleep. The trajectories of many of these bullets were towards the head of Fred’s bed, as marked on O’Neal’s floorplan.

In the back bedroom, the mattress was vibrating from the gun fire as Louis Trueluck and Harold Bell were unsuccessfully trying to wake Fred. The raiders, led by Carmody, burst through the back door, firing at the bedrooms. They then took Bell, Trueluck and Deborah Johnson out of the back bedroom into the kitchen, leaving Fred alive but unconscious on the bed. In the front, the officer with the machine gun had moved to the doorway of the middle bedroom and fired several machine gun blasts at the defenseless occupants. Doc Satchel was hit five times, while Verlina Brewer and Blair Anderson were also shot.

In the kitchen, Deborah and Harold Bell heard two shots ring out from Fred’s bedroom, and a raider said, “He’s good and dead now.” The physical evidence and Carmody’s later statements establish a strong case that Carmody twice shot Fred with a .45 caliber pistol at close range in the head while he lay unconscious in his bed. The physical evidence also strongly suggests that O’Neal had put secobarbitol in Fred’s Kool Aid so that he could not wake up.

Fred’s body was dragged from the bloodstained bed to the hallway floor, to be displayed as the raiders trophy, while the seven survivors were physically abused, subjected to threats and racial epithets, and then jailed on charges of attempted murder. The raiders then rushed from the apartment to the State’s Attorney’s office where they appeared with Hanrahan at a press conference at which Hanrahan described a fierce gun battle, initiated by the “vicious” and “criminal” Black Panthers, and during which his raiders acted “reasonably” and with “restraint.”

The survivors, and the evidence left by the raiders, told a much different story. Harold Bell, a Vietnam combat veteran, described the military precision and swiftness of the raiders’ attack, while the apartment’s walls revealed a pattern of over 90 bullet holes—all headed into the rooms where the Panthers were sleeping. That morning, Bobby Rush stood at the door of the apartment and prophetically declared that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the federal government were behind the raid. Later that day, Rush received word that the raiders had boasted that he “was next.” Before dawn the next morning the police raided his apartment, but Rush had gone into hiding in order to avoid the same fate as Fred.

People from the community began to go through the apartment on tours led by Panther members. After touring the apartment, the president of the Afro-American Patrolman’s League, Howard Saffold, declared that the killing was a “political assassination.” An elderly Black woman summed up the sentiment of the thousands of people who toured the apartment during the next ten days by saying “it was nothing but a northern lynching.”

Outrage at the murders intensified both locally and nationally as more and more people viewed the apartment and saw how transparent Hanrahan’s and his raiders’ lies were. Thousands of people attended Fred’s funeral, with many of the overflow crowd standing outside for hours in frigid temperatures, listening to the eulogies over loudspeakers. In a desperate attempt to win back public opinion, Hanrahan presented a “reenactment” on WBBM-TV and gave a front page “exclusive” to the Chicago Tribune, with accompanying pictures described as showing bullet holes made by Panther shots. This effort backfired, however, when the alleged bullet holes were exposed in the Chicago Sun-Times as nail heads.

The outcry was so intense that Attorney Genera! John Mitchell and the Justice Department were compelled to begin an “investigation.” The man Mitchell placed in charge of this investigation, Jerris Leonard, was also the head of a supersecret interagency spy network, and had been publicly quoted as saying that the government must “get” the Panthers because they were “hoodlums.” Leonard’s real task was to keep secret the FBI’s central role in the raid, while at the same time conducting an inquiry which would serve to quiet public outrage.

Internally, the FBI congratulated itself for its central role in making the raid a “success.” On December 3rd, the Chicago office had notified Bureau Headquarters that the Chicago police were planning the raid, which the FBI boldly claimed as a COINTELPRO accomplishment. Within hours of the raid O’Neal’s control agent, Roy Mitchell, met with Hanrahan and the raiders, was briefed on the raid, and discussed post-raid strategy with them. Days later, the local office wrote Hoover and extolled O’Neal and his floorplan as “invaluable” to the “successful” execution of the raid. In this same letter, the FBI requested a $300 bonus for O’Neal for this work. This request was approved by Headquarters, who in turn applauded the results of Chicago’s counterintelligence efforts. While he awaited his reward, O’Neal served as a pallbearer at Fred’s funeral.

Meanwhile, a Chicago Police firearms examiner issued a report asserting that two shotgun shells recovered in the apartment came from a Panther shotgun, and this “evidence” became the basis of Hanrahan’s charges of attempted murder against the seven raid survivors. An FBI firearms examiner later established without doubt that those shells in fact came from a raider’s, rather than a Panther’s, shotgun. The police department’s Internal Affairs Division (IAD) also initiated an “investigation” of the raiders’ conduct, and two days later officially exonerated them. The investigation was such a sham that the head of the IAD later admitted that it was a complete “whitewash”.

The Justice Department investigation had developed ballistics evidence that definitively established that the raiders fired over 90 bullets at the Panthers, while the Panthers fired one shot at most. They had also developed evidence that Hanrahan, the raiders, and the police department had lied, manufactured evidence, and done a cover up investigation. However, since an indictment of Hanrahan and his men would have threatened to expose the secret FBI role in the the raid, a deal was struck. The Justice Department issued no indictments, but rather issued a report which was critical of both the Panthers and the police. In exchange, Hanrahan dropped the indictments against the Panther survivors and remained silent about the FBI involvement in the raid.

The public outcry in response to this brazen act of cover up was again swift and strong, and it ultimately forced the Chief Judge of the Criminal Courts of Cook County to appoint a special prosecutor to present evidence to a Cook County Grand Jury. This grand jury had as members several “plants” who answered directly to the Democratic machine, and a spy from Mayor Daley’s Office of Investigation wiretapped the supposedly secret Grand Jury proceedings and reported back to Hanrahan. This investigation ignored the federal involvement in the raid and refused to return murder indictments, but did bring obstruction of justice indictments against Hanrahan, his raiders, and several other police and assistant states attorneys.

The Chief Judge refused to file these indictments, and the Special Prosecutor was compelled to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court to get the indictments filed. The Chief Judge then assigned the case to a machine judge, Philip Romiti, whereupon Hanrahan waived his right to a jury trial. Just before the 1972 elections, Judge Romiti, without so much as requiring Hanrahan and his men to present a defense, directed a verdict in their favor. A week later, the Black community returned a much different verdict—splitting their ballots en masse to vote Hanrahan out of office as State’s Attorney of Cook County. In May 1973, the Commission of Inquiry Into the Black Panthers and Police, chaired by Roy Wilkins and Ramsey Clark, issued a 272-page report, which characterized the raid as a “search and destroy” mission and said there was “probable cause to believe that Hampton was murdered” while he lay “prostrate” on the bed. The report also concluded that it was “more probable than not” that Fred was drugged; that the investigations of the raid by “various local law enforcement agencies were singularly inadequate,” and
“designed not to determine the facts but solely to establish the innocence of the police;” that there was “probable cause” to believe that the raid violated the Criminal Federal Civil Rights Statutes and the Constitution; and that the Federal Grand Jury “failed in its duty to proceed against violations of civil liberties.”

Around the same time, it was also first publicly revealed that BPP leader William O’Neal was an FBI operative, and that the FBI had a program called COINTELPRO, which was designed to “neutralize and disrupt” Black leaders and their organizations.

The families of Fred and Mark Clark and the survivors of the raid had previously filed a civil rights suit for damages, and upon learning this information, their lawyers sought to discover O’Neal’s and COINTELPRO’s role in the raid.

They obtained the FBI floorplan document when it was produced by an Assistant US Attorney who did not want to be implicated in the cover up, then questioned O’Neal at a secret location. This honest US Attorney was quickly removed, and his successor, together with the Justice Department, the FBI and US District Court Judge Joseph Sam Perry, collaborated to suppress the evidence which further established that the FBI and COINTELPRO were deeply implicated in staging the raid.

The civil rights trial began in January 1976 and lasted for 18 months. During its early stages, the Senate Select Committee investigating FBI counterintelligence “abuses” released documents which established that Fred and the Chicago Panthers had been targets of COINTELPRO. The release of these documents, together with an admission made by FBI defendant Roy Mitchell on the witness stand, revealed that the FBI, with Judge Perry’s active assistance, had hidden 25,000 pages of documents which they were required to produce at trial. Among these documents was the FBI request for O’Neal’s $300 bonus, as well as FBI admissions that they had set up the raid; that the raid was part of COINTELPRO; and that O’Neal’s floorplan was “invaluable” to the “success” of the raid. Nonetheless, Judge Perry, a 79-year-old racist from Alabama, refused to stop the trial or punish the FBI and Justice Department for their suppression of evidence.

Just after these revelations, the Senate Committee issued its findings, concluding that, under COINTELPRO, the FBI had a “Covert Action Program to Destroy the Black Panther Party”, and that the raid was an integral part of this program. Nevertheless, when the trial concluded, and the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, Judge Perry, like Judge Romiti before him, directed a verdict for all the Defendants.

The case was appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which overruled Judge Perry, ordered a new trial, and found that the FBI and their government lawyers “obstructed justice” by suppressing documents. Most significantly, the Appeals Court also concluded that there was “serious evidence” to support the conclusion that the FBI, Hanrahan, and his men, in planning and executing the raid, had participated in a “conspiracy designed to subvert and eliminate the Black Panther Party and its members,” thereby suppressing a “vital radical Black political organization,” as well as in a post-raid conspiracy to “cover up evidence” regarding the raid, “to conceal the true character of their pre-raid and raid activities,” to “harass the survivors of the raid,” and to “frustrate any legal redress the survivors might seek.” The US Supreme Court refused to overturn this decision, and in February of l983, the federal government, Cook County and the City of Chicago, in a clear admission of guilt, finally agreed to settle the lawsuit for 1.85 million dollars. Two months later Harold Washington was elected as Mayor and Bobby Rush as 2nd Ward Alderman.

Now another Daley is Mayor, and his police continue their uninterrupted practice of violence and brutality. In Oakland, former Panther members are publishing a commemorative issue of the Panther newspaper, and hope to launch a mass organization based on the principles of the Black Panther Party.


Written by Flint Taylor and Dennis Cunningham. Flint and Dennis were lawyers for the families and survivors in the Hampton civil rights lawsuit, and Flint is a member of the December 4th Committee.

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