I want to talk about Fred Hampton. The year is 1969.
Fred Hampton is only 21, and one of the most charismatic men of the 20th century. He is the leader of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther organization, and in May he had finally allied the Black Panthers with the Young Lords, the Red Guard, the Brown Berets and the Students for a Democratic Society — whites, blacks, latinos and Chinese together into “The Rainbow Coalition”.
He had started young, in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a teenager. From a community of 27,000, he managed to pull together a youth group of 500, working to achieve meaningful change with nonviolent activism and community organization.
The year before, he’d managed to broker a non-aggression pact between Chicago’s major gangs, emphasizing that their common enemy was poverty, and the conflict would only keep them in their situations.
And the amazing thing was, it was working. It had been working.
As the leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, he organized weekly rallies, worked closely with the group’s local People’s Clinic, taught political education classes every morning at 6am, and launched a project for community supervision of the police.
But what would get him killed was the Free Breakfast Program.
The FBI had declared almost open war on him. Letters in his name had been intercepted by the other groups he’s brokered peace with, filled with backstabbing and racial slurs. They’re all FBI forgeries, under their COINTELPRO operations. Racist cartoons and comic strips were being spread around by COINTELPRO under the name of the Panthers, and Hampton is doing everything he can to keep the alliance together. His wife is nine months pregnant. He’s going to be a Dad soon, and he feels the weight of his world on his shoulders.
J Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, wants to crush that world and Hampton under it.
His party is being divided and conquered by the FBI’s “Racial Matters” force. Hoover gets an inside agent, William O’Neal, giving him a monthly stipend and dropping his felony charges in exchange for being their man. He rises through the ranks, becoming on of Hampton’s bodyguards. When Hoover asked what he had found:
“Ah… mostly we’re just feeding starving kids sir”
“I hired you to find me dirt. Do you understand your career is on the line if you can’t do that?”
“Yes sir. But that’s all we’re doing.”
Hoover, a man who routinely violated the fourth amendment, believed that Fred Hampton’s Black Pantherty would destroy democracy. They must be destroyed first. Hampton had good reason to fear him. In the years leading up to today, Hoover had done everything he could to drive Martin Luther King to suicide.
When the FBI managed to split the Black Panthers in Illinois, Fred Hampton became the state’s leader, making him a national representative for the Panthers. He’s big game now, with high stakes. He’s moved into a tiny apartment to be closer to the Black Panther headquarters, to deal with the crises.
He doesn’t know that, in repeated directives, Hoover has demanded that COINTELPRO “destroy what the [Black Panther Party] stands for” and “eradicate its ‘serve the people’ programs”, but he might suspect.
It was that damned Free Breakfast program.
Hampton was up at 6am this morning, to teach free classes again. He worked with his group until midnight, had a dinner with his friends, and fallen asleep mid-sentence talking to his mother on the phone around 1am.
He does not know that his mother’s phone was illegally wiretapped the year before.
Hampton is asleep on a dirty mattress, he can barely afford to be so close to group headquarters right now. But this is where he needs to be to keep Chicago together.
He’s sick. He can’t wake up. He was on the phone with his mother when he fell asleep, mid sentence. There’s a loud knocking at the door but he can’t wake up. O’Neal had cooked for them all and… something had been put in his drink. He can’t wake up.
It’s not a knock, it’s gunshots.
His friend Mark Clark had taken security duty. He’s sitting out in the front room with a shotgun in his lap. His shotgun fires, but only because Mark’s been shot through the heart. It’s a reflex, and the only shot the Black Panthers fire during this raid.
A 14 man team is prepared for the raid on his apartment, loaded for bear. After all, the Chicago Tribune had posted an editorial about the Panthers, “No Quarter for Wild Beasts”, just two weeks before. It was advice the police planned to take.
Fred Hampton is shot in his bed, sprayed with bullets as he lay next to his fiance, nine months pregnant with their child. His shoulder is bleeding. Even through the barbiturates, this wakes him up. This is not where he dies. He crawls to the corridor in his underwear. The officers surround him.
Another member, Harold Bell, reported that he heard the police:
“That’s Fred Hampton.”
“Is he dead?… Bring him out.”
“He’s barely alive.”
“He’ll make it.”
Fred Hampton’s shot twice, point blank in the head.
“He’s good and dead now.”
Over a Free Breakfast Program for poor kids, Fred Hampton was murdered.
Hampton’s body is dragged back to the doorway of the bedroom, and the officers go on to shoot the other Panthers who had eaten with Hampton that night. Hampton’s body is dragged into the doorway of the bedroom and left in a pool of blood. Verlina Brewer, Ronald “Doc” Satchel, Blair Anderson, and Brenda Harris are seriously wounded, then beaten and dragged into the street.
The only shot the Panthers have fired was by a dead man. Still, these four are arrested on charges of aggravated assault and the attempted murder of the officers. Their bail was set at what would be the equivalent of about $645,000 today, each.
The Chicago police fired over ninety shots during this raid. Two had been point blank into the face of a drugged, dying man. A good man.
The police in the press conference the next morning would say they had been attacked by the group, who had been “violent” and “extremely vicious”, that it was self defense. The officers are congratulated on their bravery, their remarkable restraint, and their professional discipline.
Justice, it was decided, had been done.
An inquiry into the assassination of Fred Hampton would find all officers involved acquitted by a grand jury, of any crimes. Attorneys for the Hampton and Clark families described the inquest as “a well-rehearsed theatrical performance designed to vindicate the police officers”. State Attorney Edward Hanrahan said the verdict was recognition “of the truthfulness of our police officers’ account of the events”.
The Chicago Sun-Times had already published their own photographs of the crime scene proving that the evidence had been tampered with, and the police’s own photos were doctored.
5,000 people attend Hampton’s funeral. His son was born less than four weeks after his death.
McNeal admitted to his part in the raid in 1990, just before he committed suicide.
It would take until 1982 until the city of Chicago admitted fault for this in any way, when they settled for $1.85 million dollars with the survivors of Hampton and Clark.
Fred Hampton would be 70 this year.
The FBI headquarters building still holds Hoover’s name in honour.