Why the assassination of Fred Hampton matters today
Fred Hampton. Say his name.
On this anniversary of the slaying of the Black Panther leader in Chicago — when black people face the fight of their lives — it is important for us to understand why his life and death mean so much to us now.
The charismatic chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party accomplished a great deal before he was cut down at the age of 21. Hampton headed the Chicago chapter of the Panthers, where he formed a multiracial “rainbow coalition” of organizations, including Students for a Democratic Society, the Blackstone Rangers street gang, and a Puerto Rican organization known as the National Young Lords. He also started a community service program that included a free breakfast program for children and a free medical clinic, and held political education classes.
And under his leadership, the Chicago Black Panthers monitored the police and looked out for instances of police brutality. Most of all, Fred Hampton brokered a truce among Chicago’s major street gangs.
The Black Panthers, and Hampton, caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. Through his Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, Hoover sought to “prevent the rise of a black messiah” and “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.” Hoover targeted black figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and organizations such the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Christian Leadership Conference, and the Panthers.
And Hoover viewed the Black Panthers breakfast program for schoolkids as the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America — grits, not guns.
In the hallowed American tradition of going after youthful black power and excellence, and stopping them in their tracks, the FBI took out the Black Panthers. And they took out Fred Hampton.
We should be clear that this was a Chicago gangland execution, an assassination plot by the Hoover, the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. In the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, the police raided Hampton’s apartment. Hampton and Mark Clark, a Panther leader from Peoria, Illinois, died. Deborah Johnson, Fred Hampton’s fiancée ,who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, survived, and was charged with attempting to murder the police. A federal investigation found that only one shot came from Hampton’s house, while the cops fired 82 to 99 bullets. The murders ended the career of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan.
The cops could not contain the glee on their faces when they carried out Hampton’s body. Over 5,000 people attended Hampton’s funeral, and Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy eulogized him.
Meanwhile, William O’Neal, Hampton’s bodyguard, was an FBI informant who provided the police with the floor plan indicating an “X” for Hampton’s bed, and likely drugged Hampton the night of the raid. O’Neal later committed suicide.
No one went to prison, as all law enforcement agents were cleared of wrongdoing. The families of Hampton and Clark received a $1.85 million settlement in 1983.
Fast forward 46 years later to today, and black America finds itself in the throes of a police brutality epidemic, with black men, women and children killed on a regular basis by police violence. In Chicago — still dealing with the gang murder of 9-year old Tyshawn Lee and the fatal police shooting of Rekia Boyd and Ronald Johnson — the police execution of Laquan McDonald has galvanized black activism, with a holiday boycott campaign. Police superintendent Garry McCarthy was shown the door, and there are calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign.
Nationally, the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement is, like Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers, shining the spotlight on the injustice we face at the hands of the police and the criminal justice system. They killed Fred Hampton for the same reasons they killed Sandra Bland, and Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott, and Eric Garner, and countless others.
And just as there were forces who waged war against the Black Panthers, there are politicians today who are demonizing and monitoring peaceful black protest. Ted Cruz labeled #BlackLivesMatter as those who celebrate the murder of police officers, and Chris Christie accused them of lawlessness. Mayor Emanuel — who may already be damaged goods for an apparent cover-up in the Laquan McDonald case — blamed the black protest movement for making cops go “fetal,” resulting in an increase in crime.
As much as we would like to believe that things have changed so much since the lynching of Fred Hampton, a victim of police violence, have they really? Hampton struggled against the same problems black America faces today, and lost his life for it. His life mattered.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove