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The Assassination of Fred Hampton by the FBI and Chicago Police, Forty Years Later

Civil rights lawyer Jeffrey Haas, a founder, in 1969, of Chicago’s People’s Law Office, has written one of the top books of the year: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009). The story could not be more worth telling. Police response to the 1960s upsurge of the black community was immediate and brutal, especially after the growth of a mass student and youth movement opposed to the Vietnam War. The FBI, as the leading U.S. secret police force, engaged in a nationwide campaign of provocation, infiltration, and assassination, code named the Counterintelligence Program, or “COINTELPRO.” The resulting murders, on December 4, 1969, of charismatic, twenty-one-year-old Chicago Black Panther state chairman Fred Hampton and twenty-two-year-old Black Panther Mark Clark were a pivotal event in the suppression of militant black resistance and the emergence of today’s U.S. police/prison state. The gradual collapse of the Nixon presidency and public outcry against White House-ordered burglaries opened a window permitting the exposure of secret police crimes, including the Hampton assassination. Jeffrey Haas and his partners at the People’s Law Office made good use of this opportunity through determined and creative litigation, and uncovered the story recounted in his book. But the window was slammed shut in succeeding years, and was finally removed entirely — to be replaced by the blank prison wall of the USA Patriot Act. Hampton’s story is no longer primarily a U.S. concern, but one that affects everyone in the world. It is the story of the path to Abu Ghraib. We interviewed Jeffrey Haas in late September 2009.

The Editors

Monthly Review: Prior to your book, what were the leading accounts of the December 4, 1969, assassination of Fred Hampton by the FBI and the Chicago police? What has your book added to or corrected in these accounts?

Jeffrey Haas: There are five prior accounts worth mentioning. First, the Federal Grand Jury Report (May 1970) explained the physical evidence quite accurately because it relied on an FBI firearms examiner who showed real integrity. He proved the Panthers fired, at most, one shot at the police — compared to the police, who raided Hampton’s apartment and shot at the Panthers ninety-nine times. There was no shootout as the police described. However, Jerris Leonard, the federal prosecutor leading the investigation, who was also head of Nixon’s civil rights division, withheld from the federal grand jury the FBI and COINTELPRO role in setting up the raid. Not surprisingly, the federal grand jury indicted no one for civil rights violations. Leonard, in his Grand Jury Report, claimed that Panther rhetoric was more responsible for the Hampton and Clark deaths than the police shooting.

Two books are also important. Search and Destroy (1973), a comprehensive analysis of the raid itself, looking at all the physical evidence and testimony, was put together by the NAACP and written by Roy Wilkins and Ramsey Clark. The report concluded that Hampton was murdered in his bed while unconscious, and that he was most likely drugged at the time of the raid. An American Verdict by Michael Arlen (1973) is an impressionist view of the trial of Cook County, Illinois state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan and the police raiders assigned to him. It covers their role in obstructing justice and lying, in their testimony and official reports, about what happened in the raid. The book captures the Chicago politics of the era, with the Chicago trial judge sympathetic to Hanrahan and the police, and eventually acquitting them. The book describes the fear mongering tactics of Hanrahan’s attorneys and their racist epithets for the Panthers.

Two film accounts are significant. The Murder of Fred Hampton is a documentary begun while Hampton was alive. The producer went to the scene of the raid after Hampton’s death and filmed the blood-soaked mattress and the bullet-ridden walls, as the Panthers’ lawyers inspected them four hours after the raid. The film contains dramatic footage of Hanrahan and the police being confronted with the physical evidence and having no answer for the fact that it contradicted their version of the raid. Eyes on the Prize, Segment 5 (1988) is a half-hour TV documentary, and was the only public account done after the exposure of the FBI’s role. It includes an interview with the FBI informant. It is an abbreviated but compelling version of some of the facts showing the FBI’s involvement.

My book adds history and context to events of December 4, 1969. It sets the scene locally and nationally — Chicago in the late sixties, including the rise of the Black Panther Party. It contains the most complete account of the emergence of Fred Hampton as a political figure, his being targeted by the FBI and local police, and the details of the FBI-local police collusion that led to the deadly raid and Hampton’s assassination.

This book is the only account of the thirteen-year legal struggle led by the People’s Law Office against the FBI and their Justice Department lawyers to uncover and make public evidence showing the FBI’s leading role in setting up the raid. This evidence included the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, indicating where he slept, drawn by the FBI informant and delivered by his FBI control to the police raiders the day before the raid. Another FBI document indicated that a bonus was paid to the informant after the raid, because of its “success,” as the FBI termed it. My book describes confronting well-funded government lawyers, intent on hiding the truth during an eighteen-month trial, in front of a hostile judge similarly bent on defeating our claims and exonerating Hampton’s killers. The book documents the enormous efforts of the FBI, local U.S. attorneys, and the Justice Department to prevent the truth behind COINTELPRO coming to light. After it was exposed that the murder of Fred Hampton fit the FBI’s goals of preventing the rise of a “Black Messiah, who could unify and electrify the masses,” the FBI continued to deny that COINTELPRO was responsible for Hampton’s death, even though their own internal files showed it was. Even after documents proved that the raid was a COINTELPRO action, the government denied responsibility for Hampton’s death.

MR: If, by some chance, Fred Hampton had survived, say, because he slept in a different room on December 4, what is your best guess as to what his life would have been like?

JH: First of all, the raid was not the first FBI effort to have Fred Hampton killed. A year earlier, the head of the FBI in Chicago sent an anonymous letter to Jeff Fort, the leader of the Blackstone Rangers gang, falsely claiming Hampton had a “hit” out on him and urged Fort to retaliate. Thus, if Hampton had not been home, it’s likely the FBI would have made other efforts to murder him.

But, assuming he survived, it’s difficult to say what he would have done. Even more than Dr. King and Malcolm, because he was much younger, Fred Hampton was a work in progress. In my book, I follow his development from head of the suburban NAACP chapter, to marching with Dr. King, to his engagement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Black Power, to becoming, at age twenty, the charismatic chairman of the Chicago Black Panthers. All in less than three years.

His oratory skills could have carried him in many directions. He was interested in law, and William Kunstler was one of his idols. He was adept at organizing youth, and could have started and headed an organization in Chicago that steered teenagers away from drugs and gangs. He could have become a national spokesperson for blacks and led campaigns against police brutality and to improve housing, education, health care. While the Chicago Panthers were more closely allied with the West Coast Panthers and not the Cleaver faction, there was enough autonomy in Chicago that Fred did not have to spend much time advocating the position of either faction. After his death, many folks left the Chicago Panthers and a year later the Panthers were no longer a political force in Chicago. It’s speculative to say how long Fred would have remained a Panther, given the declining influence of the national organization, but his meteoric rise to prominence and exceptional speaking and leadership abilities would have likely resulted in his becoming a dynamic and independent local, and probably national, figure.

MR: The Chicago black community has produced political leaders within the system who are qualitatively more successful and — given what is possible — effective than any other black community in the United States; how would you account for that?

JH: Chicago has a large black community, which has operated both inside and outside the power structure of the Democratic machine. In fact, it was the reaction to Hampton’s death that created the independent coalition of blacks and liberal whites that resulted in the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor. Some argue that Barack Obama is a direct descendant and beneficiary of that legacy, and certainly his campaign would never have obtained traction in Chicago had not the black community obtained substantial power within the Democratic Party.

MR: Sectarians often criticize the Black Panthers as “militarist” and the Weather Underground as “adventurist.” To what extent would you agree? If your experience permits you to say, how does the younger generation of the politically aware, those born after the 1960s and ’70s, see the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground?

JH: The more I studied the sixties, the more I came to believe that the Panthers and Weather Underground were both the natural — and perhaps necessary — development of the movements of the era. The Panthers sought to remedy the ineffectiveness of Dr. King’s religious and nonviolent movement to change the conditions of blacks outside the South, and to channel the youthful rage of the many urban riots, into a progressive and cohesive force for political and revolutionary change. Similarly, the Weathermen evolved after years of increasingly militant protest, which nevertheless failed to stop the Vietnam war or stop the attacks on the black movement. To say that the emergence of these groups was inevitable does not mean that their strategies and tactics should not be reexamined today. However, to criticize what they did, based on the contradictions of today, rather than on what they knew and faced in the sixties, is shallow and prevents an understanding of their critical roles in the history of the movement.

I am about to go on a book tour, which includes talking to young people, including many in black communities. I will feel more qualified to answer how the younger generation views the Panthers and Weather Underground in a few months.

MR: In New York City since the time of Giuliani, the Corporation Counsel has almost routinely paid out big sums in civil rights cases against police misbehavior, yet the behavior at issue continues unabated. It’s almost as if police accept a civil judgment or settlement cost for lawless repression as they would accept the cost for tear gas or clubs. What potential, then, remains for the use of civil litigation to change police behavior? Do you see the Fred Hampton litigation as having significantly contributed to changes in the behavior of Chicago police or of the FBI?

JH: One of the most frustrating things for me as a civil rights lawyer in Chicago was to see that, after I sued a cop and obtained a judgment or settlement (which the city paid), the police officer continued to commit acts of brutality. Often, I would have a new client with the same complaint against the same cop. We called these cops “repeaters” and, although they were probably less than 10 percent of the force, they committed a much higher percentage of acts of excessive force and brutality. While most cops were not repeaters, the partners of the “repeaters” always covered for them, and not once did a cop ever testify to seeing another cop commit brutality. This “code of silence” allows the brutality to continue.

So, no, we never broke the code of silence. I do think, however, that exposing the repeaters, and the damage repeaters caused to the reputation of the police, as well as how much they cost the city, sometimes led to their reassignment to less sensitive areas, occasional but infrequent discipline, and — in one case of a cop with over eighty complaints of brutality — even being fired. I also noticed that, starting perhaps thirty years ago with the increase in the number of black mayors and community outrage and protest at police killings and the judgments obtained in civil cases, police who shot and killed civilians were moved to desk and other assignments, where they would not interact with the community. It was simply not good business, financially or politically to have killer cops repeat their deadly acts. However, they were almost never disciplined and never prosecuted for their killings. I see civil litigation as providing some compensation for the victims of police brutality, exposing and sometimes changing the most outrageous police practices, and providing limited accountability for police abuse.

I think the Hampton litigation, with the concurrent outrage of Chicago’s black community at the information we uncovered, prevented Edward Hanrahan, a strong advocate of law and order, from being reelected state’s attorney. It also exposed the weakness of the police internal investigation division and led to changes that made it slightly more independent from the police they were investigating.

COINTELPRO, as a formal program, ended before we joined FBI agents as defendants, and Hoover died before we learned of the FBI’s role. It’s hard to evaluate the effect of the litigation. We exposed so much about how the FBI targeted the black movement, how it got local police to do their dirty work, and how the federal grand jury was used as a tool to cover up the conspiracy behind the assassination. State’s attorney Hanrahan was never reelected to anything, and the coalition of blacks and liberals who spoke out against the murder of Hampton in his bed broke away from the control of the Democratic Machine, eventually succeeded in getting Harold Washington elected as Chicago’s first Black mayor. He ran on a platform of curbing police brutality and made some progress in reining in the police.

As for the FBI, the head of the Chicago office who oversaw the COINTELPRO operations, and who personally authorized the threatening letter to Jeff Fort, was later appointed chairman of the Chicago Police Board. That said, I think the evidence of the FBI’s initiation of and collusion in the assassination were a great embarrassment to the FBI. The Seventh Circuit found that the FBI and their Justice Department lawyers’ withholding of evidence in the long trial could be considered evidence of guilt in a later trial. The fact that the FBI contributed to the settlement, rather than incur another trial, is also an indication that they felt they would be damaged by the continuous exposure. Of course, no FBI person was ever charged criminally for the raid and murder, and neither were Hanrahan and the raiders ever convicted for what they did. We must remember that the people don’t control the prosecutorial mechanisms, so civil suits are often the only legal alternative available, which allows for exposure and some accountability for government wrongs.

In conclusion, we showed Chicago and the world that the Cook County state’s attorney, the Chicago Police, and FBI participated in assassinating Fred Hampton, and covering up their actions. As Iberia, Fred’s mother, said, we also showed “They got away with murder.” 

MR: How would you assess the relative “success” of COINTELPRO in doing what it set out to do; the “success” of the assassination of Fred Hampton?

JH: Under the secret COINTELPRO, J. Edgar Hoover’s explicit mandate to all FBI offices was to prevent the rise of a “Black Messiah” who could “unify and electrify Black Nationalist Hate Groups.” Hoover considered most leaders of the black movement — including Dr. King and Elijah Muhammad — as threats and all primarily black groups as “Black Nationalist Hate Groups.” Thus, the SNCC, Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Muslims were all targets. But Hoover declared the Panthers “the greatest threat to national security.” He ordered all FBI offices with Panther chapters to open a COINTELPRO section whose mandate was to “disrupt, destroy and neutralize” the Black Panther Party and “what it stands for.” In another memo, Hoover mandated local FBI offices to “cripple” the Black Panther Party, including its Breakfast for Children Program.

Fred Hampton, the young militant and charismatic leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, fit Hoover’s description of the Messiah. He could speak to welfare mothers, street gang members, and law students, and was a model leader, doing the work as well as planning the strategy and giving orders. He brought together disparate groups, and formed a coalition with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the white Appalachian Young Patriots. With Fred as Chairman, the Chicago Panthers’ membership increased so rapidly that, for a while, they had to stop taking new members.

As Fred’s reputation and prominence increased, so did the FBI’s tracking of him. As early as 1967, Hoover sent memos to the President, the directors of the CIA and State Departments, and the Department of the Army warning them of Fred Hampton. When Fred led a march to the Maywood City Council demanding a community swimming pool and recreation center, Hoover was sending memos to all branches of government, warning them of Fred Hampton. Hampton was placed on a national “Agitator’s Index.” Seeing him as a threat, the FBI and Hoover set out to eliminate him.

A year later the FBI induced the local police under the direction of state’s attorney Hanrahan to execute a raid on Fred’s apartment and provided them with a floor plan showing where Hampton would be sleeping. It was the location where the police bullets converged and where Hampton was killed. Publicly, the FBI took no position on the raid, while internally, they considered it a success and gave the informant who provided the floor plan a bonus.

So yes, if the goals of COINTELPRO were to eliminate a potential Black Messiah and to cripple the Black Panther Party, the murder of Hampton achieved their goals. The FBI’s other objectives, to hide their role in Fred’s assassination and to maintain the secrecy of the COINTELPRO, succeeded for four years. Only after the informant was forced to surface in another case did we have the evidence of a direct, federal connection. So, yes, I would have to say COINTELPRO achieved its primary goals to neutralize the Panthers, but the FBI role was ultimately exposed. There was a backlash as represented by the Church Committee, which mandated Congressional oversight of clandestine intelligence activity. I might add that Donald Rumsfeld, President Ford’s chief of staff, and Rumsfeld’s aide, Dick Cheney, were the chief opponents of restricting this activity. They convinced President Ford to veto legislation that mandated expansion of the Freedom of Information Act to include intelligence documents. Congress overruled the veto.

MR: From your vantage point, how would you describe what has changed (and what has not) in the relationship between the police and this country’s black communities since the days of Fred Hampton’s murder?

JH: Police, then and now, are in the black community to maintain the status quo. In the sixties, there was more militant resistance to police brutality, and confrontations between police and activists seeking a change were more prevalent. Today that resistance is preempted by the mass incarceration of blacks. Police arrests and criminal courts provide the mechanism for imprisoning large numbers of black youth because of enhanced drug penalties and greater enforcement of drug laws in the black community. Prison guard unions, controlled by whites, help keep the coffers of the prison industrial complex full and the prisons overflowing, despite the desperate financial status of the states that fund them. Numerous studies show that incarceration is seven times as expensive as providing drug counseling and rehabilitation, but these cost-saving methods are ignored because they don’t result in the desired mass incarceration. In the past the cops’ faces were almost always white, and killer cops were allowed to continue to brutalize the community. As I said earlier, there have been small changes in police disciplinary procedures that have allowed a few police in the most egregious cases to be disciplined. However, I think many police still believe they can act with impunity in the black community.

Mass incarceration is the government’s current favored method for dealing with potential black insurrection and dissent. Increased criminal penalties, particularly for drug offenses, have resulted in more than 25 percent of blacks being imprisoned, on parole, or on probation during their youth. As a result, there is substantially less militant black protest. Fred Hampton and the Panthers were an alternative to gangs and drugs. With the murder of Fred Hampton, Chicago’s West Side has been rampant with gang and drug activity, leading to frequent arrests and long prison sentences.

MR: It seems to us that the People’s Law Office has been the most significant and best of the radical law offices to have emerged from the sixties; how would you summarize that experience for young lawyers today who seek to do people’s law and to support those who confront the police state?

JH: We began in the sixties when there were a number of law collectives defending the movement and fighting for people’s rights. I think my book is a tribute to the trials and tribulations, and ultimately the satisfaction of doing people’s law. I have the benefit of looking back on forty years of working with partners who value their work, their relationships with clients, and the benefit their work provides our clients and society. We started as the legal arm of the movement, representing the Panthers, SDS, anti-Vietnam War protesters, and fighters for Puerto Rican independence. We continued to represent prisoners charged in the Attica and Pontiac prison rebellions, and later we became the lawyers for ACT UP, Iranian students protesting the Shah, and for demonstrators protesting the brutal, U.S.-supported death squads in Central America. As fewer movements were in the streets, we focused on litigation that exposed government wrongdoing. This included civil litigation that uncovered unlawful police procedures, inhuman prison conditions, and, most recently, the torturing of black suspects by a Chicago police commander. The Hampton civil litigation, which makes up a substantial part of the book, is the story of a David-and-Goliath struggle against city, county, and federal attorneys — its ups and downs, and ultimately, the satisfaction of not only enduring, but prevailing.

MR: Today, compared with 1969-70, the percentage of the U.S. population imprisoned and the size of the various U.S. uniformed and secret police forces have increased enormously. Technological tools for surveillance have improved, and judicial enforcement of the protections of the Fourth Amendment has largely disappeared. Assuming a yet more outrageous police state emerges — say, unabashed Fox fascism comes to power — what possibilities exist for successful resistance in the United States? What, if anything, can be learned from the experiences of the late sixties and early seventies?

JH: I think the role of people’s lawyers is to expose and delegitimize repressive government policies and practices. If successful, this can lead to the defeat of public figures identified with police violence, such as state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan and the firing of Jon Burge, the police torturer in Chicago. The disclosures of government misconduct obtained by progressive lawyers can lead to the elimination (on paper, at least) of programs such as COINTELPRO, and lead to investigative committees responding to the public will. In Chicago, the exposure, through PLO’s lawsuits, of Jon Burge as a police torturer has led, not only to his being fired, but to the reversal of the convictions of the many people he put on death row using false confessions. Our lawsuits also played a large role in Governor Ryan’s commuting all death sentences in Illinois, the recovery of compensation for many of Burge’s victims, and now finally to his indictment.

We had a pretty good look at what the imperial presidency looks like with Bush and Cheney calling the shots. And, of course, the best way to fight against the type of atmosphere you describe is to prevent its formation. The movement must find the right strategies and tactics to fight off repression by exposing it for what it is, and making people realize how the government uses fear to take away their rights. We should demand a new Church Committee to expose and make illegal the abuses — the spying and infiltration of political groups — permitted by the Patriot Act. The agents and their superiors who devised and carried out the deadly acts of COINTELPRO were never prosecuted. We must prosecute Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their Constitution-averse lawyers for creating and directing the torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. They must be held accountable for their criminal actions. This is the way to establish a moral perimeter outlawing these practices and deterring people from using them in the future.

2009, Volume 61, Issue 07 (December)
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