Home > Uncategorized > COINTELPRO, the Chicago Police and the Murder of Fred Hampton – posted 12/8/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/26/2019

COINTELPRO, the Chicago Police and the Murder of Fred Hampton – posted 12/8/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/26/2019

We all get exposed to so many injustices in life. There are so many that maybe only a small number can truly stick with us.

I suppose how we feel injustice is a very personal thing. Still, some injustices hit harder.

For me, the murder of Fred Hampton was one of those events that hit me harder. Hampton died at age 21. According to all his friends, the guy was fearless. He knew his life was in danger but he always remained committed to the goal of liberation for all poor and oppressed people.

This last December 4 was the 50th anniversary of that horrifying day Hampton died. It took a long time for the true story to emerge but the outlines are now much clearer about what happened.

For those who do not know about or remember, Fred Hampton was a young, charismatic activist in the Black community in Chicago. As a young man, he was an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He organized for better recreational facilities and improved educational resources in his impoverished community. He made a mark as a community organizer.

Hampton was an honors student and a fine athlete. Baseball was a passion and he dreamed of playing center field for the New York Yankees. He also dreamed of becoming a lawyer. He had much exposure to police brutality in the Black community because it was a part of the everyday fabric of life.

Chicago, not unlike many other American cities, has had a long history of racism in its police department. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department conducted a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department. A Justice Department report concluded that the Chicago police engaged in “both discriminatory conduct and the disproportionality of illegal and unconstitutional patterns of force on minority communities”.

Most famously, a police commander, Jon Burge, and his crew of officers used an electric shock box to torture African American suspects into giving confessions. Other stories of violence committed under Burge include beatings, electric shock to the genitals and games of Russian roulette. Most of this misconduct occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s. For decades, this torture was covered up by machine politicians and judges. It is estimated Burge tortured more than 200 criminal suspects in order to force confessions.

Numerous civil suits related to police brutality have cost the City of Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars. I think any fair assessment of Fred Hampton requires an appreciation of the context in which he lived. Racism was probably worse during Hampton’s lifetime than in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

As a young man, Fred Hampton became attracted to the Black Panther Party which was in its early days. The Panthers were standing up against the police brutality he saw daily. Hampton joined the Panthers in November 1968. Because of his personal charisma and his organizing skill, he quickly became leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.

Hampton was a political visionary. He wanted to organize a rainbow coalition that included people of all races who shared his political goals. This was years before Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalition. Jackson did later take the concept from Hampton whom he knew. Hampton brokered a peace agreement among Chicago’s warring gangs.

He helped set up the Panthers Free Breakfast program that particularly served children. The Party also set up the People’s Medical Care Center in North Lawndale, Illinois that provided free health care to the community. The Panthers screened thousands for sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease prevalent among Black people.

Hampton was not a racist. He believed in organizing poor people of whatever background across the racial divide. He became a highly visible and popular public figure in Chicago, often speaking to large meetings about police brutality.

Hampton did not escape notice of either the Chicago police or the FBI which was then run by J. Edgar Hoover. According to FBI memos, Hoover worried about the rise of a “messiah” who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement.

Hoover wrote that the purpose of COINTELPRO was to neutralize and cripple groups like the Panthers. The FBI started bugging Hampton and his mother and tapping their phones. They also recruited an informant to make his way into the Panthers.

The informant, William O’Neal, had a criminal record. In exchange for having his felony charges dropped and a monthly cash payment, O’Neal agreed to infiltrate the Panthers and report back. Behind the scenes, O’Neal worked to sow distrust and to instigate splits among the Panthers and Chicago gangs.

O’Neal drew a detailed map of the layout of Hampton’s apartment which he handed over to the FBI. The FBI shared the sketch of the apartment with the Chicago police. At the behest of the FBI, the Chicago police set up a raid on Hampton’s apartment.

On December 4, 1969, Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan organized the raid with a team of 14 operatives. Hanrahan ordered execution of the search warrant at 4:45am. The search was supposedly for illegal weapons.

O’Neal had slipped the barbiturate sleep agent, secobarbital, into Hampton’s drink late that night. When the police came to the apartment, Hampton never got up.

Although the Chicago police called the events that transpired a “shootout”, they were a shoot-in. It was later determined that the police had fired almost 100 shots into the apartment. The Panthers fired one shot out (and the circumstances of that shot are contested).

The Chicago police murdered a drugged and unconscious Hampton in his bed. It was found that shots were fired point blank at Hampton’s head. Another Panther, Mark Clark, was also shot and killed in the raid.

Strangely, after the shooting, the Chicago police did not secure and seal off Hampton’s apartment. The Panthers opened the apartment for viewing and thousands of people from the community viewed the aftermath where they could see the large number of bullet holes and the bloodstained mattress.

Years of litigation followed these events. No one was ever convicted for the murders of Hampton and Clark. A special prosecutor did indict Hanrahan – not for murder but for obstruction of justice. A judge appointed by the Chicago political machine acquitted Hanrahan of these charges. Eventually in 1982, the City of Chicago agreed to settle a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families for $1.85 million.

The various legal proceedings showed that the raid that killed Hampton was part of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program also known as COINTELPRO. Hoover saw almost all strong Black leaders as advocates of hate. His disgusting campaign against Martin Luther King is probably the best example but it certainly was not the only one. Hoover was a vicious racist.

This is an instance where very high government officials abused their power and were implicated in what can only be described as an assassination. Hampton’s case never received the type of publicity of Dr. King, Malcolm X, or the Kennedy brothers.

However, Hampton did leave a legacy. While the Panthers in Chicago never recovered from his loss, Hampton’s death galvanized the broader Black community. I think there is a straight line from the Hampton/Clark murders to the election of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and now Lori Lightfoot.

The Hampton/Clark murders provoked a split of African Americans away from the old Richard J. Daley machine and toward independent political organizing. The old Daley machine ruled Chicago politics from 1955 until Daley’s death in 1976. Hanrahan had actually been groomed by Daley to be his prospective successor but his role in the Hampton/Clark murders nixed any chance of that.

Hampton’s story helped to expose the history of racist policing and white supremacy endemic in large American cities like Chicago. When Laquan McDonald was shot by the Chicago police in 2014, the background example of Hampton placed the event in perspective.

A feature length movie on the murder of Fred Hampton is currently in the works with Daniel Kaluuya, the star of Get Out playing Hampton, and Lakeith Stanfield playing William O’Neal. The film, tentatively titled Jesus Was My Homeboy, with screenplay by Shaka King and Will Berson, is slated to come out in August.

Although he paid with his life, Fred Hampton changed the narrative about racist policing and racist police brutality forever.

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