The Assassination of Fred Hampton, by Jeffrey Haas

The Assassination of Fred Hampton

Jeffrey Haas is a radical lawyer who spent decades starting in the late 1960s working for clients such as prisoners, protesters, activists, etc. of the Left. The Assassination of Fred Hampton recounts his work on behalf of the survivors of, and the families of those killed in, the police raid in 1969 that took the life of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Chicago.

In a way it’s refreshing to read material so far from the perspective of the mainstream media (and I would argue of equal or better quality than the mainstream media in terms of basic logic, sanity, reasonableness, truth, etc.)

In the world of the mass media, it is unanimous that William Ayers, for example, is a terrorist. (You are allowed to disagree about the degree of association there was between Barack Obama and William Ayers, but it is not to be questioned that Ayers is a terrorist and that the more association there was, the worse for Obama.) At the same time, people claiming George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, etc. are terrorists are excluded from the mass media discourse entirely, or brought up as examples to show how wildly irresponsible, hateful and insane people on the Left can be.

But if you imagine a parallel universe where you looked at all these figures’ entire lives—their words, their deeds, the consequences of their words and deeds on people’s lives, etc.—and assessed it all purely on the basis of logic, evidence, and objectivity, is that the conclusion you would reach? That Ayers is so unambiguously a terrorist that it would be unthinkable to contest describing him with that label, and that Bush, Reagan et al are so unambiguously not terrorists that it would be unthinkable to regard applying that label to them as anything other than the most irresponsible and incendiary rhetoric of a fanatic?

This book is written from the kind of perspective that wouldn’t compute with the mainstream media, the perspective that says that the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Vietcong, etc., etc. were not manifestations of pure evil, but people who were mostly on the right side, and some (not all) of whose words and actions were justified. In fact, people whose words and actions were justified on balance more than those of the people—most notably the American government, military, police, etc.—that they opposed. Not perfect, but more justified.

Do I agree with that perspective in its entirety, or with everything the author says from that perspective? No. But again, I think it’s as valid or more so a perspective than the narrow range of views allowed in the mainstream media about these matters.

My biggest problem with the author’s stance would be that I’m a believer in nonviolence. He’s quite honest in stating that he believes there are extreme cases where violence and war can be justified, that people like George Washington, Jews opposing Hitler with violence, and Ho Chi Minh were right to do what they did.

He is of the school of thought that the move of the Black Panthers and other groups in the late 1960s away from strict nonviolence was warranted by the fact that nonviolence had already been tried extensively by Martin Luther King and others and had failed. The Vietnam War had not been halted, and the gross racial injustice in America had not been rectified. The American military was still committing genocide overseas, and American cops were still unleashing mayhem against black people with impunity. It was appropriate to shoot back now that the other options had been exhausted.

I acknowledge there is some truth to that, but ultimately I disagree. I would argue for sticking with nonviolence and continuously improving its methodology. Historically, if anything you can make the case that the more the Left turned to violence, the easier it was to discredit everything they were fighting for in the eyes of the masses and more easily defeat them. The “no more Mr. Nice Guy” approach generated a backlash that immediately brought about the reelection of the odious Nixon by a landslide of historic proportions in 1972, and less than a decade down the line had shifted the country so far to the Right politically that someone long dismissed as an unelectable extremist like Reagan could be elected President twice. In some respects the country is still in a backlash against the perceived excesses of the 1960s, much to its detriment.

So I’ll take the approach of nonviolence in the fight for social justice, and let people dismiss it as naïve and soft if they choose.

Though I would say the author is as accurate and objective or more so than what I would expect from a more politically mainstream writer, that doesn’t mean he’s ideally accurate and objective. There is, in my opinion, some degree of hagiography in his depiction of the Black Panthers and of Fred Hampton specifically. I just think if you formed your opinions of these matters solely from what he says, you would be less far off from the truth than if you formed your opinions solely from the “official” views of such matters that have been propagated by the narrow range of voices allowed in the mainstream.

The Black Panthers were somewhere between a bunch of violent street gang thugs and a purely benevolent group of innocuous folks working to alleviate the suffering of victims of poverty and racial injustice. The author maybe is a little too inclined to depict them as being toward the latter end of that scale, but there were certainly elements of both ends. (It’s worth noting, too, that a certain amount of the rhetoric and behavior of the former—violent, thuggish—end of the scale turned out to be the work of undercover law enforcement provocateurs who worked from within the Panthers to push them in that direction precisely to make them unpalatable to public opinion and get people to endorse violent suppression of them.)

The author recounts testimony given by Black Panther leader—later United States Congressman—Bobby Rush at a civil trial related to the murder of Hampton:

Rush explained that the Panthers organized poor people, primarily blacks, into a structure to correct problems such as housing and education. They had no military wing. He described the ordinary Panther day—rising at 5:30 AM to go to one of the six Breakfast for Children sites to prepare and serve breakfast to the kids and then clean up. Members would spend their days selling Panther papers, soliciting contributions, including food for the breakfast program, or working in the office. They would eat a communal dinner at Panther headquarters and often have political education classes afterward. For most members, it was a full-time job. The party provided money for food and rent from contributions and speaking honoraria. Friendly doctors provided free medical care.

Too rosy a picture? Probably. But this was certainly an important part of what the Panthers were, which you’d never know from the mainstream media, politicians, or general public for that matter, for whom the term “Black Panther” conjures up nothing more than the image of angry, marauding, gun-wielding blacks looking to kill Whitey.

But then think about the contrast with their adversaries. Even before the Hampton murder, law enforcement used violence against the Panthers, routinely in violation of the law.

Now you can say it’s understandable that they would, given the Panthers’ rhetoric about the justifiability, if not the desirability, of killing “pigs” and such, but if you’re going to excuse the cops’ behavior on those grounds, it would seem you’d have to excuse the violence of black people on the grounds of the much worse treatment—rhetorical and most definitely otherwise—they received, but presumably no one making that argument would want to go there.

One of the main visions the book leaves me with is the way the cops would go out of their way to destroy all the food intended for the breakfast program when they would descend upon a Panther office. Just the basic anger and hatred of that, the fact that you’d be infuriated enough by your enemies striving to feed their children that you’d disdainfully smash it all to bits to show them who’s boss.

And not just the cops. The whole system was rotten at all levels, as evidenced by the fact that no degree of police brutality in Chicago at the time ever resulted in punishment of the cops. The politicians, the legal system, all made sure of that.

As for Hampton himself, one of the most remarkable things about him was his youth. He was already something of a leader in the local black community in his teens. By his early 20s (the police murdered him at age 21), he was a figure of national importance. At that incredibly early an age he was already showing the intellect, leadership skills, oratorical skills, dedication, capacity for hard work, ability to inspire the people around him, ability to negotiate and unite even long term enemies, and political maturity that arguably even Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (or Barack Obama for that matter) didn’t develop until they’d had far more years of seasoning.

You read this book, and even allowing for a certain amount of sugarcoating and exaggeration on the part of the author, you can’t help but wonder how much more he could have grown, and how much more he could have achieved.

Which in its way is exactly why he had to be killed. As FBI documents make clear, uppity blacks were not to be tolerated. “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to 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.” Explicitly listed were such “hate-type organizations” as King’s nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Among the “long range goals” was to “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”

Malcolm X and King were conveniently murdered by others, but with Hampton law enforcement took matters into their own hands. (There are certainly allegations that that was the case with Malcolm X and King as well, but the evidence taken as a whole does not favor those hypotheses. With Hampton, there’s no doubt. They got caught red handed.)

The FBI blatantly made war on American civilians. That’s not wild radical rhetoric or some loony claim by conspiracy theorists. It’s simple fact. And it should make your blood boil.

Consider this memo that the Special Agent in Charge of the San Diego FBI sent to J. Edgar Hoover as an update on the program of disrupting any potential for unity and empowerment of blacks:

Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego. Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program.

Think about that. “Shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest” in the black community constitute marks of success for law enforcement. They are indications that all is going according to plan.

In Hampton’s case, before the cops carried out the hit on him, among the ways the FBI tried to get rid of him was to send an anonymous letter to the leader of one of Chicago’s biggest gangs, alerting him that Hampton had betrayed him, with the goal of inciting him to respond to this fictitious act lethally. That and other efforts failed, so the cops were sent in to do the job themselves.

On December 4, 1969 the Chicago cops descended en masse on the apartment where Hampton was staying. They’d been given a sketch of the apartment showing where Hampton slept by an informant from within the Panthers, who also likely drugged Hampton so he’d be unable to defend himself when the time came. The cops shot up the place, killing and injuring numerous of those inside. Evidence indicates one Panther got off one shot in the massacre, probably as he was falling to the floor after being shot himself. To make sure they got Hampton, the cops entered his bedroom after the initial shooting stopped, found him lying there vulnerable in his bed, shot him execution style in the head at close range twice, and laughed with satisfaction about it as they dragged the body out, later posing with it for photos with smiles reminiscent of those you see in the old photos of lynch mobs in the South.

Then they lied about it. All aspects of it, at all levels. The cops themselves, their superiors, prosecutors, FBI, everyone, knowingly, blatantly, unambiguously, provably lied about what had happened.

In the main legal case recounted in the book, they were actively abetted in their wrongdoing and lies by Judge J. Sam Perry, who made every possible ruling, however illegal and ridiculous, in pursuit of the goal that the truth not come out and justice not be served. It’s hard to believe anyone could be, but I think he was actually more dishonest and biased than the famous Judge Julius Hoffman in the Chicago 8 trial. Ultimately, the survivors achieved limited success in a civil case, but the damages were paid by the taxpayers. The people who committed the murder and the people who ordered the murder never had to pay criminally or civilly for what they’d done.

How many people even realize today that all this happened? To a large extent it’s been written out of newspapers and history books, but psychologically I think there’s something even stronger at work. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, they don’t know about it because they already know by hypothesis that such a thing simply can’t happen. Maybe they were told, maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were alive at the time when it was in the news, maybe they weren’t. But it doesn’t matter. There is nowhere in their brain for the information to settle. They know that American law enforcement are the good guys, that they don’t murder people in cold blood for political reasons, and that they don’t lie about matters like this, and that’s an end to it.

The murder of Fred Hampton, especially in conjunction with the whole program of illegally and violently making war on American citizens of the Left, should be seen as substantially more significant than, say, 9/11. This was Pinochet or Saddam type terrorism against one’s own people. Speaking favorably of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and the others at all levels that engaged in these acts, lied about them, and covered them up, should be regarded as on a par or worse with cheering for the collapse of the Twin Towers and praising Osama Bin Laden.

There are evidential reasons to doubt a lot of the more extreme conspiracy theories that require the U.S. government to play a particularly villainous role—that certain factions inside and outside the government killed President Kennedy, that 9/11 was some kind of “inside job,” that crack cocaine was intentionally introduced into black communities to weaken them with increased drug addiction and crime and strife, etc.—but one of the main reasons people always cite to disbelieve such conspiracy theories absolutely does not hold water. That is the claim that such allegations are impossible because the American government and people in responsible positions in American society would never do things that cruel, evil, dishonest, etc.

The fact is, they do. Whether they did a specific one alleged by a specific conspiracy theorist, they absolutely do cruel, evil, and dishonest things that bad or worse.

As chilling as that is to realize, as hard as that is to accept, that those fine, upstanding, respected Americans in their nice neat business suits and military uniforms and such on TV are capable of behaving—and have behaved—like Pinochet and Saddam and their thugs, it’s maybe not the most chilling thing to contemplate in this book.

And that is, again, that their being that way is disbelieved or worse yet applauded by the majority of Americans.

The author and his legal team worked with pollsters in trying to anticipate what they might get from jurors in the Hampton case. In the Chicago area, an overwhelming majority of respondents said that they would accept the testimony of a police officer over a Black Panther. When asked what if they were in fact convinced that the police acted illegally, a third said that they would still rule in favor of the police in the case. Over half of the respondents when asked directly agreed that the police were justified in using “any means necessary” against groups like the Black Panthers.

That’s the bottom line. In the eyes of many Americans, as long as conservatives are in power and they’re combating hated groups like blacks, they have carte blanche to murder, lie, whatever. They’re the good guys after all; we can’t tie their hands with things like laws or basic ethical principles.

Not that there aren’t still differences with regimes like those of Pinochet and Saddam. For one, there’s the difference in scale. Dictatorships have vastly more incidents like the Hampton murder to their discredit. There’s also the difference that the press and the court system, as feeble as they are in this context, still represent some slight check on how much the powers-that-be can get away with in the United States. When they murder a Fred Hampton, they can’t count on always getting a Judge Perry to hear the case. Not every news outlet is going to cover (or ignore) such a blatant act of governmental terrorism as, say, Fox News would. It’s not completely hopeless.

The author writes well of all these events and their political implications. He chooses to write from an autobiographical standpoint, including information about whom he was dating during the trials and such, and that sometimes doesn’t work as well for me.

Would it have been better with none of that stuff and purely as a third person account of Hampton’s life, his execution by the cops, and the aftermath? I don’t know that I’d go that far. I’m OK with the author making it also partly about himself and his role in these events. But the parts of the book that had the most impact on me tended to be the less autobiographical parts.

One of the things Hampton is most often quoted saying is that you can kill a leader but you can’t kill a movement. One can argue—and the author makes this point—that events have proven him precisely wrong. The Black Panthers collapsed almost completely as a result of their illegal suppression, including the murder of Hampton himself.

It’s not clear that terror and violence are ever effective as necessary evil means to good ends, but pretty clearly they can be very effective means to evil ends.

You can make the case that a few violent deaths of leaders like Malcolm X, King, and Hampton, had a profound and negative impact on black people or the Left in general’s capacity to unite and bring about a more just society.

Now, if you want to amend the claim and say that a movement should not rely so heavily on one or a small number of charismatic, oratorically skillful leaders, then that’s almost certainly true. But it’s not the case that killing off leaders is always a futile way of defeating movements. If Gandhi, Mao, or Hitler had been killed in their 20s, if Allende, Malcolm X or King had not been killed, history almost certainly would have unfolded differently.

I wish we could have seen what the world would have been with Fred Hampton able to fully develop and exercise his talents.


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