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The murder of Fred Hampton
by Marie J. Kuda

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Forty years ago Chicago was a very different place. The Viet Nam war was still ongoing, though for a moment there had been a degree of optimism in the air. But the hope that perhaps the world, our world, could become better—that a peaceful revolution might still be possible—was about to be shattered, again. We had lived through the assassinations of Medgar Evers, the Kennedys, Malcolm X and Dr. King. We had seen Chicago neighborhoods burn in the following "Days of Rage." We were witness with the world to the brutality of the 1968 "police riots" at the Democratic Convention. The ensuing "conspiracy" trial of the Chicago Eight in Judge Hoffman's court went from comic opera to disgust when bound-and-gagged Black Panther Bobby Seale was separated from the other defendants. The shooting death of Black Panther Fred Hampton in December 1969 barely made a ripple; the Nation's consciousness wouldn't recoil until guns were turned against white Kent State students four months later.

But Chicago gays were feeling upbeat; our image was on the upswing— since Stonewall in mid-Summer 1969 local and national media coverage exploded. On Dec. 2, 1969, Mattachine Midwest ( MM, Chicago's early gay-rights organization ) held a successful benefit—350 tickets had been sold for a performance of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band at the Studebaker Theatre. Proceeds were to be used for a legal defense fund. MM had been meeting with police honchos for over a year on issues of bar raids, entrapment, police brutality, and harassment of gays. Membership was expanding; we were hopeful.

Murderous raid and the gay response

On Dec. 4, 1969, a dozen Chicago police officers serving as minions of state's attorney Edward Hanrahan, in a pre-dawn raid with a search warrant for illegal weapons, killed the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman, 21-year-old Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark, 22. Three 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old woman were wounded. The officers said they were fired upon and returned fire—about 100 rounds. Hampton was shot twice in the head at point-blank range while asleep in bed next to Deborah Johnson, who was pregnant with his child. In the next few days the mainstream press— Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times—published conflicting reports of the raid. In the Chicago Daily News, columnist Mike Royko joined those questioning the official account, suggesting a cover-up on the part of the raiders ( but he still called the Panther's pro-violence, gun hoarding, racists ) while photographer Joe Moreno caught laughing Chicago police carrying the body of Hampton from the scene. The Panthers and their attorneys opened the shooting site to the public and the press.

Good Quaker that he was, Jim Bradford, Mattachine Midwest president, went around to the house on West Monroe Street to see the bullet holes and evidence for himself. Hampton had worked with the Friends Service Committee and aside from his rhetoric, they said he abhorred violence. Bradford unequivocally condemned the shootings as murder. A regular MM membership meeting was scheduled for Dec. 9; after Bradford's report the members voted their approval of his request to send a letter of support to the Panthers via Bobby Rush. Bradford's letter expressed "our horror at the brutal killings of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and our disgust at the manifest contempt for due process and justice on the part of the State's Attorney." He also sent a letter of condemnation to State's Attorney Hanrahan expressing Mattachine's "utter contempt for your vigilante raid on the Panther's apartment, and your depraved plea for all 'good' citizens to rally to your support."

Three days later Bradford appended copies of both letters to a press release sent to all local media outlets. After identifying Mattachine as a "civil liberties, educational and social service organization dedicated to improving the status of homosexuals" he went on to cite similarities between the treatment of Blacks and homosexuals as minority groups. Bradford then bore witness that his visit to "the bullet-riddled ... blood-stained apartment ... supports the Panther's statement ... countless bullet holes and no evidence of return fire show what dirt was really done." He called for the arrest and prosecution of Hanrahan and his officers: "When law enforcement agencies act in such total disregard for civil rights and human life, no minority group is safe ... Those who pervert their public trust deserve to be dealt with swiftly and to the fullest extent of the law."

Most of the 140 post-Stonewall dues-paying members of Mattachine were fairly conservative and closeted. At the next membership meeting ( Jan. 8, 1970 at my apartment on Carmen ) a "phenomenal" turnout included "many members who had not attended recently" but had renewed their interest because of the Boys in the Band benefit; others came wanting to discuss the Panther letters. There was dissension within the group—several expressed discomfort with Bradford's actions. Bradford became disgusted, circumspect, hinting at FBI surveillance of himself and MM. In a matter of months he would resign citing stress and is still viewed as having had conspiracy paranoia by some former MM officers. Information coming to light in recent years about the FBI, COINTELPRO and the Chicago Red Squad surveillance of and active attempts to subvert dissident groups ( including gays, but especially Blacks ) confirmed the old leftie adage "just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me."

FBI and Chicago police conspiracy proven

A recent book by Panther attorney Jeffrey Haas exhaustively details the trials that resulted from the Dec. 4, 1969, Hampton raid. The criminal assault case against the survivors of the raid fizzled. Haas and others who would found the Peoples Law Office ( including G. Flint Taylor ) took on what would became a thirteen-year battle of federal cases and appeals, claiming violation of their civil rights, on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families and some of the survivors. Other survivors were represented by Jim Montgomery, described by Haas as "a smart, savvy African American lawyer ... rapidly becoming one of the top criminal lawyers in Chicago."

In The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther ( Lawrence Hill Books, 2010, 376 pages, $26.95 ) , Haas painstakingly records how peeling each layer of the judicial onion over the years of trial and discovery revealed more and more of the alleged criminal action and cover-ups by federal, state, and local officials. Later evidence would show that contrary to the police version of the raid only one Panther weapon fired—the gun held by Mark Clark who was seated at the front door on security. It has been suggested that his weapon may have discharged as he fell fatally wounded.

Documents since revealed under the Freedom of Information Act show that as far back as 1967 the FBI instructed its COINTELPRO ( Counter Intelligence Program ) to "neutralize ... black nationalist hate groups" describing the Black Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." Haas cites the subversive techniques used in attempts to pit Black organizations against each other. The thrust of FBI activities by 1969 was to prevent the uniting of perceived Black nationalist groups ( Panthers, SNCC, SLC, Nation of Islam and others ) behind a single strong leader.

The Panther programs

Hampton was becoming such a leader. He had moved from NAACP community organizing in Maywood, to local and national Panther party status. Under Hampton ( who disavowed alcohol and drugs ) the Chicago Panther's had initiated a free, hot "Breakfast for Children Program" at several sites, were getting petitions for community control of police signed, had embarked on political education classes, had a healthcare program and undertook a variety of propaganda efforts. The national party had adopted a Ten Point Program calling for self-determination; employment, housing, education, and health care rights; an "immediate end to police brutality and murder ... of all oppressed people inside the United States;" an end to wars of aggression; and the "people's community control of modern technology." They quoted and paraphrased the Declaration of Independence to justify their call for a revolution of the status quo.

After the deaths of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, local Panthers adopted a strong self-defense posture making it clear to the mainstream they would defend themselves and their communities. The FBI installed an informant, William O'Neal, who became Hampton's chief of security. It was he who urged undertakings with guns. It was he who said that there was a cache of arms at the Monroe Street residence and gave the FBI a detailed floor plan. Discovery later showed that the FBI provided that information to the State's Attorney ( who called Black "gangs ... animals unfit for society" ) who passed it on to Chicago police who then obtained a search warrant for illegal weapons ) .

It would be 1973 before the defense attorneys confirmed the perjured information for the warrant, making it invalid and, in turn, making the search illegal and Hampton's and Clark's deaths murder. Almost a decade later the parties to the civil-rights suit would reach a monetary settlement—with no overt admission of guilt by any of the defendants.

Fallout and future

Some historians see the fallout from the Hampton raid as the point at which Chicago Blacks declared political independence from the local Democratic machine, laying the groundwork for Harold Washington to become the first African-American mayor of Chicago. As a state senator Washington had repeatedly called for an independent investigation into Hampton's death. Likewise, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who was a West Side alderman at the time, praised Hampton and denounced his murder.

Former U.S. Sen. Carol Mosley Braun, later Ambassador and candidate for Chicago Mayor, was a friend of Hampton and helped with the breakfast program at one point. She said in an interview for the PBS WTTW documentary "From DuSable to Obama" that when she was a student at the University of Illinois, Hampton would come by "we'd have lunch save the world and all that; that's actually when I met Bobby Rush. ... We were all kids together and we were going to save the world." Former Panther Bobby Rush, who had testified in federal court to Hampton's extraordinary leadership qualities, completed law school and became a four-term U.S. congressman from Illinois.

Only six African Americans have served in the United States Senate since the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Three ( Braun, Barack Obama and Roland Burris ) were from Chicago; one went on to become elected our 44th president.

These accomplishments were made against the grain. One can only wonder at the difference it would have made to the city if Hampton had lived. What those thousands of students ( and their successors ) in the hot breakfast programs might have accomplished; what differences would have been made not only in the schools, but in the streets, what their legacy might have been. Instead, the manner of Hampton's death fractured the Panther Party, left people feeling hopeless or crying out for justice, and gave street cred to those who chose more criminal methods of survival.

Legal legacy and cost

And the police methods continued on. The tenacious G. Flint Taylor, the Peoples Law Office, and other lawyers have pursued over 100 cases of confessions extracted by reported police brutality and torture, many laid at the feet of former Commander Jon Burge. The enormity of the allegations contributed to the moratorium on executions and commutation of death sentences by Illinois' under the former Governor and the recent passage of legislation abolishing the death penalty. Millions of dollars in wasted taxpayer funds have been used for payouts in settlements and fees. Burge has been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice—lying about the torture of victims in police custody. But, despite his felony convictions the Police Pension Board ruled that Burge can keep his monthly police pension of $3,000 Illinois taxpayer dollars—a decision Taylor said is outrageous. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan concurred and filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court on Feb. 7 to deny Burge benefits.

In the year following the Hampton-Clark murders, Mattachine Midwest lost many of its activists to other groups that were organizing around specific goals challenging the legislative and legal status quo. MM became more a social-service organization and ran its course over the following decade. Pride week events turned from protest marches with rallies in Daley Plaza within shouting distance of City Hall, to celebratory parades bedecked with politicians, liquor distributors and others courting the gay vote or dollar. While the identity of the gay-liberation movement became seemingly more inclusive ( separately labeling the lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities ) , we were to be pursuing only our own piece of the pie. The governmental delays and misinformation during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and '90s showed LGBTs were on the expendable list. HIV linked us with more diverse parties seeking preventative information, research and improved treatment. Hampton had linked us to the wider liberation movements.

At a time when our government is decreeing ever more restrictions on our rights and freedoms, we cannot afford to isolate our issues. We must acknowledge our strength and effectiveness as citizens lies in our ability to make common cause with others who seek freedom and justice. When voices are being raised against our government's actions—like pre-emptive war on Iraq that has already killed ( calling it collateral damage ) as many innocent civilians as we lost in 9/11, like the toileting of unaccounted for millions of taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, like the restrictions on our constitutional rights posed by the "temporary" Patriot Act which has run out, but extension proposals are before the Congress—it's good to remind ourselves of what the government will do to squelch protest. As Flint Taylor was quoted saying in an 1982 New York Times article after the Hampton case was settled: "It will live on as a reminder of how far the government can and will go to suppress those whose philosophies is does not like."

Copyright 2011 by Marie J. Kuda

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