Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fred Hampton: Life and Death

Fred Hampton


Born August 30, 1948
Chicago, Illinois
Died December 4, 1969
Chicago, Illinois
Fred Hampton (August 30, 1948 – December 4, 1969) was a radical African American activist and deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was killed in his apartment by tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois State's Attorney's Office (SAO), in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Many activists consider his killing to have been extrajudicial punishment.


Youth

Hampton was born on August 30, 1948, in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in Maywood, a suburb to the west of the city. His parents had moved north from Louisiana, and both worked at the Argo Starch Company. As a youth, Hampton was gifted both in the classroom and on the athletic field, graduating from high school with honors in 1966.

Following his graduation, Hampton enrolled at Triton Junior College in nearby River Grove, Illinois, majoring in pre-law. He also became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), assuming leadership of the Youth Council of the organization's West Suburban Branch. In his capacity as an NAACP youth organizer, Hampton began to show signs of his natural leadership abilities; from a community of 27,000, he was able to muster a youth group 500-members strong. He worked to get more and better recreational facilities established in the neighborhoods, and to improve educational resources for Maywood's impoverished black community. Through his involvement with the NAACP, Hampton hoped to achieve social change through nonviolent activism and community organizing

Chicago

At about the same time that Hampton was successfully organizing young African Americans for the NAACP, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense started rising to national prominence. Hampton was quickly attracted to the Black Panthers' approach, which was based on a ten-point program of a mix of black self-determination and certain elements of Maoism. Hampton joined the Party and relocated to downtown Chicago, and in November of 1968 he joined the Party's nascent Illinois chapter — founded by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Bob Brown in late 1967.

Over the next year, Hampton and his associates made a number of significant achievements in Chicago. Perhaps his most important accomplishment was his brokering of a nonaggression pact between Chicago's most powerful street gangs. Emphasizing that racial and ethnic conflict between gangs would only keep its members entrenched in poverty, Hampton strove to forge a class-conscious, multi-racial (albeit tenuous) alliance between the BPP, Students for a Democratic Society, the Blackstone Rangers, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots. In May of 1969, Hampton called a press conference to announce that a truce had been declared among this "rainbow coalition," a phrase coined by Hampton and made popular over the years by Rev. Jesse Jackson, who eventually appropriated the name in forming his own unrelated coalition, Rainbow PUSH.

Hampton's organizing skills, substantial oratorical gifts, and personal charisma allowed him to rise quickly in the Black Panthers. Once he became leader of the Chicago chapter, he organized weekly rallies, worked closely with the BPP's local People's Clinic, taught political education classes every morning at 6am, and launched a project for community supervision of the police. Hampton was also instrumental in the BPP's Free Breakfast Program. When Brown left the Party with Stokely Carmichael in the FBI-fomented SNCC/Panther split, Hampton assumed chairmanship of the Illinois state BPP, automatically making him a national BPP deputy chairman. As the Panther leadership across the country began to be decimated by the impact of the FBI's COINTELPRO, Hampton's prominence in the national hierarchy increased rapidly and dramatically. Eventually, Hampton was in line to be appointed to the Party's Central Committee's Chief of Staff. He would have achieved this position had it not been for his untimely death on the morning of December 4, 1969.


The FBI

While Hampton impressed many of the people with whom he came into contact as an effective leader and talented communicator, those very qualities marked him as a major threat in the eyes of the FBI. It began keeping close tabs on his activities. Subsequent investigations have shown that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was determined to prevent the formation of a cohesive Black radical movement in the United States. Hoover saw the Panthers, and radical ethnic nationalist coalitions like that forged by Hampton in Chicago, as a frightening stepping stone toward the creation of just such a revolutionary body that could, in its strength, potentially overthrow the government of the United States.

The FBI opened a file on Hampton in 1967 that over the next two years expanded to twelve volumes and over four thousand pages. A wire tap was placed on Hampton's mother's phone in February of 1968. By May of that year, Hampton's name was placed on the "Agitator Index" and he would be designated a "key militant leader for Bureau reporting purposes."

In late 1968, the Racial Matters squad of the FBI's Chicago field office brought in an individual named William O'Neal, who had recently been arrested twice, for interstate car theft and impersonating a federal officer. In exchange for dropping the felony charges and a monthly stipend, O'Neal apparently agreed to infiltrate the BPP as a counterintelligence operative. He joined the Party and quickly rose in the organization, becoming Director of Chapter security and Hampton's bodyguard.

By means of anonymous letters, the FBI sowed distrust and eventually instigated a split between the Panthers and the Rangers, with O'Neal himself instigating an armed clash between the two on April 2, 1969. The Panthers became effectively isolated from their powerbase in the ghetto, so the FBI went to work to undermine its ties with other radical organizations. O'Neal was instructed to "create a rift" between the Party and SDS, whose Chicago headquarters was only blocks from that of the Panthers. The Bureau released a batch of racist cartoons in the Panthers' name, aimed at alienating white activists, and launched a disinformation program to forestall the realization of the "Rainbow Coalition." In repeated directives, J. Edgar Hoover demanded that the COINTELPRO personnel "destroy what the [BPP] stands for" and "eradicate its 'serve the people' programs".

The local Chicago police did not stand idly by. It helped the FBI by launching an all-out assault on the Black Panthers and their allies, characterizing the group as just a criminal gang. The CPD instigated an unprovoked armed confrontation with party members on July 16, which left one member mortally wounded and six others arrested on serious charges. On July 31, the CPD raided and ransacked the Monroe Street office, smashing typewriters, destroying food and medical supplies for the Panther health clinic and breakfast program, setting several small fires, and beating and arresting a number of Panthers for obstruction. A similar raid took place on October 31.

On May 26, 1969, Hampton was successfully prosecuted in a dubious case related to a theft in 1967 of $72 worth of ice cream in Maywood. He was sentenced to two to five years, but he managed to obtain an appeal bond and was released in August.

In early October, Hampton and his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, pregnant with their first child (Fred Hampton, Jr.), rented a four-and-a-half room apartment on 2337 West Monroe Street to be closer to BPP headquarters. O'Neal reported to his superiors that much of the Panthers' "provocative" stockpile of arms was being stored there. In early November, Hampton travelled to California on a speaking engagement to the UCLA Law Students Association. While there, he met with the remaining BPP national hierarchy, who appointed him to the Party's Central Committee. Shortly thereafter he was to assume the position of Chief of Staff and major spokesman. This, combined with the Chicago BPP chapter having become one of the strongest in the country, with one of the most successful Serve the People programs, motivated the FBI to look for a more permanent way of neutralizing Hampton.



The raid

In mid-November 1969, O'Neal provided the FBI with detailed information of Hampton's apartment, including the location of furniture and the bed in which Hampton and his girlfriend slept. An augmented, fourteen-man team of the SAO -- Special Prosecutions Unit -- was organized for a pre-dawn raid armed with an illegal weapons warrant. On the evening of December 3, Hampton taught a political education course at a local church, which was attended by most members. Afterwards, as was typical, several Panthers retired to the Monroe Street apartment to spend the night, including Hampton and Deborah Johnson, Blair Anderson, Doc Satchell, Harold Bell, Verlina Brewer, Louis Truelock, Brenda Harris, and Mark Clark. Upon arrival, they were met by O'Neal, who had prepared a late dinner which was consumed by the group around midnight. O'Neal left at this point, and, at about 1:30 a.m., Hampton fell asleep in mid-sentence talking to his mother on the telephone. (The Kool Aid was subsequently thought to have been laced with the powerful barbiturate, secobarbitol.)

At 4:00 a.m., the heavily armed police team arrived at the site, dividing into two teams, eight for the front of the building and six for the rear. At 4:45, they stormed in the apartment. Mark Clark, asleep in a front room with a shotgun in his lap, was killed instantly, despite firing off a single round — the only shot the Panthers fired. The automatic gunfire converged at the head of the bedroom where Hampton slept. Two officers found him wounded in the shoulder, and Harold Bell reported hearing the following exchange:

"That's Fred Hampton."
"Is he dead?... Bring him out."
"He's barely alive; he'll make it."
Two shots were heard, which it was later discovered were fired point blank in Hampton's head. According to Deborah Johnson, one officer then said:

"He's good and dead now."

Hampton's body was dragged into the doorway of the bedroom and left in a pool of blood. The raiders then directed their gunfire towards the remaining Panthers, who were hiding in another bedroom. They were wounded, then beaten and dragged into the street, where they were arrested on charges of aggravated assault and the attempted murder of their assailants. They were held on US$100,000 bail apiece.


Aftermath

At a press conference the next day, the police announced the arrest team had been attacked by the "violent" and "extremely vicious" Panthers and had defended themselves accordingly. In a second press conference on December 8, the assault team was praised for their "remarkable restraint," "bravery," and "professional discipline" in not killing all the Panthers present. Photographic evidence was presented of bullet holes made by shots fired by the Panthers, but this was soon challenged by reporters. An internal investigation was undertaken; the assault team was exonerated of any wrongdoing. But investigators themselves later admitted it was a "whitewash". A day or two after the raid, the Chicago Police returned to the scene, and in a widely televised event, tore down the inside walls of the Black Panther home. Some believe this was done to destroy the ballistic evidence that could have incriminated the police. It took years of incessant public pressure to expose the truth; eventually it was proven that all but one of the ninety-nine shots were fired by the police.

Hampton's funeral was attended by 5,000 people, and he was eulogized by such black leaders as Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King's successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his eulogy, Jackson noted that "when Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere."

Although the officers involved in the raid were cleared by a grand jury of any crimes, a subsequent investigation definitively declared the officers were guilty of murdering the Black Panthers without justification or provocation. The families of Hampton and Clark filed a $47.7 million civil suit against the city, state, and federal governments. More than a decade later, the suit was finally settled, and the two families each received an undisclosed sum. In 1990, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution declaring "Fred Hampton Day" in honor of the slain leader.

The Chicago City Council unanimously approved a resolution introduced by former Alderwoman Marlene C. Carter commemorating Dec. 4, 2004, as "Fred Hampton Day in Chicago." The resolution read in part: "Fred Hampton, who was only 21 years old, made his mark in Chicago history not so much by his death as by the heroic efforts of his life and by his goals of empowering the most oppressed sector of Chicago's Black community, bringing people into political life through participation in their own freedom fighting organization."

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