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The Neutralization of Fred Hampton

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At about 4:30 AM on the bitter cold morning of Thursday, December 4, 1969, three unmarked police cars and a panel truck pulled away from the 26th Street office of the Cook County state's attorney and moved like a small funeral procession through the deserted streets of Chicago's west side. The brief journey of no more than ten minutes brought them to an old yellow-brick two-flat at 2337 W. Monroe. The vehicles parked 50 yards up the street, and 14 officers, clad in civilian leather jackets and fur hats, emerged from the cars.

All were fully armed. Among them they carried one .357-caliber pistol, 19 .38-caliber pistols, one carbine, five shotguns, and one Thompson submachine gun--with 110 rounds of ammunition. They had no tear-gas canisters, no sound equipment, and no spotlights.

The policemen carefully eyed the cars parked along the street and the other drab buildings on the block, several of which had gaping windows and gutted interiors. There were no signs of activity.

By prearrangement, the party split into three groups. Five officers walked up the six stone stairs at the front of the two-flat and entered the small outer hallway. Six moved through the passageway alongside the structure and climbed the back stairs. The remaining three waited outside on the sidewalk.

Sergeant Daniel Groth, the man in charge, rapped on the front door. "Who's there?" came a voice from inside the first-floor apartment. Groth demanded that the occupants open the door, and there were more voices and shuffling inside. Then a pause.

Officer James "Gloves" Davis, his carbine set in military fashion, kicked in the flimsy front door, and he, Groth, and their three companions charged into the pitch-black living room of the apartment. A volley of carbine, pistol, and shotgun blasts erupted in the tiny room, the flashes from the firearms momentarily illuminating charging, dodging, and falling figures.

At the same time the six on the back porch sprang into action. Officer Edward Carmody kicked open the rear door, entered the kitchen, and fired three shots with his revolver. His companions followed, two of them firing shotgun blasts as they crouched in the darkness. Human voices--cursing, shouting, moaning--filled the place. But the shooting continued front and back, the rat-a-tat of a submachine gun and the roar of shotguns drowning out the voices. Then a pause. A few more sporadic shots from one of the rooms. And it was all over.

Outside in his squad car, a policeman from the local district who had just arrived on the scene reported, "The premises are under control." Within minutes ambulances and more police cars arrived. Soon the apartment was alive with lights and crowded with policemen, evidence technicians, and medics. Two men and a pregnant woman, each in handcuffs, were hustled out the front door, put in a squadrol, and taken to the Wood Street police station, eight blocks away. They were Harold Bell, 23, Louis Trulock, 39, and Deborah Johnson, 19. Four other occupants of the apartment who had sustained serious wounds were carried out on stretchers: Blair Anderson, 22, shot twice; Ronald Satchel, 20, shot four times; Verlina Brewer, 17, shot twice; and Brenda Harris, 18, also shot twice. Then came two bodies, which were placed in a squadrol for transportation to the Cook County morgue. They were Mark Clark, 22, shot once in the heart, and Fred Hampton, 21, who had been hit once in the chest, once in the shoulder, and twice in the forehead. As this news was relayed over the police two-way radio, the downtown dispatcher reported hearing cheers from police cars scattered over the city. A faceless policeman said into his radio, "That's when to get them--when they're in their beds!"

Of the 14 police officers who had participated in the raid, only two were hurt. Officer John Cizsnewski had been grazed in the leg by a shotgun pellet, and Officer Carmody had cut his hand on a piece of glass. Both received treatment at the nearby University of Illinois Hospital and were quickly released.

The apartment was a shambles. Literally every drawer had been pulled out and the contents scattered on the floor. Clothing, cans of food, magazines, and newspapers lay amid the broken glass, pieces of plaster, and pools of blood. No weapons remained in the place. Some bullet casings and spent shotgun shells had also been retrieved by the police. Yet strangely--and in total contradiction of normal police procedure--the premises were not sealed off. The apartment stood open, almost inviting public inspection.

By the time daylight began to return, the lights had been extinguished, the police entourage had departed, and quiet was restored. Then, from the old buildings in the neighborhood, people gradually came out. Wrapped in overcoats, scarves, and hats, they stood in little groups on the corners and talked, gesturing toward the first-floor apartment.

Depending on how you look at it, the raid on the west-side apartment of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was either the most ignominious act of injustice since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or the greatest spur to minority self-determination since the Emancipation Proclamation. Ironically, this weekend, 20 years after the fact, it will probably be commemorated under both headings in a series of events at Malcolm X College and other sites around the city.

"It's a damn pity so few people remember or care," says David Hilliard, who was a member of the central committee of the National Black Panther Party in 1969. "Fred Hampton and the whole organization have been pretty much written out of history. A lot of young folks today have never even heard of Fred. When we talk about Huey Newton, they think we mean Huey Lewis and the News. And believe me, the silence is all by design."

Hilliard, now 47, and other graybeard party veterans from Oakland, California, hope to attend the commemoration, since they view it as perhaps a first step in reigniting some of the militant energy that lit up their youth--and was so quickly extinguished.

Hilliard is particularly distressed that Fred Hampton has been forgotten by so many. As a 20-year-old, middle-class kid from Maywood, Hampton was recruited for the infant Illinois Black Panther Party by Bobby Rush, two years his senior. Sitting in his office at City Hall, Rush, now 43 and alderman of the Second Ward, shakes his head sadly as he remembers the kid "who had such courage and charisma, it's hard to believe he was so young. And he was such a public speaker. There was a kind of quiet competition between him and Jesse Jackson back in 1969. Fred even tried to train me in public speaking." Rush has never been known for his oratorical skills.

Hampton was no mere rabble-rouser, Rush insists. He had a feel for history, a great sense of humor, and an absolutely contagious laugh. "I guess the laugh is what I remember most about him."

Hampton was on the streets of Chicago organizing for the party as the Illinois deputy chairman for only about six months in 1968 and 1969. No one proclaimed the Panthers' Maoism-tinged demands for employment, housing, and education opportunities with greater fervor than the young man from Maywood. During that brief span, he put the organization on the map. Membership rose to more than 500, and the innovative free medical clinic and breakfast programs were organized.

He was noticed in early 1969 by the party's national chieftains, who flew him to Oakland to speak at UCLA--the only time in his life he ever left the Chicago area. "Under Fred, Chicago was the most active and exemplary chapter in the country," says Hilliard. "The young man was magnetic. He was born for leadership."

In those days the national Panther organization was hungry for new blood. Huey Newton was in jail; Eldridge Cleaver had fled to Algeria; Bobby Seale, accused of disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was bound and gagged in U.S. District Court Judge Julius Hoffman's Chicago courtroom; and Hilliard, a longshoreman by profession, was soon to be hit with a federal indictment for verbally threatening President Nixon. No one doubts that Fred Hampton stood only a step away from central-committee membership. And Rush and Hilliard agree there were no limits to how far he might go.

But Hampton had also been noticed by federal law enforcement officials who feared black militants in general and the Panthers in particular as proponents of mindless anarchy. In 1967 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had instructed his agents 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." The recommended methods of this counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) were infiltration (planting a spy or an agent provocateur in the organization), psychological warfare (producing false media stories, bogus letters, and phony leaflets), harassment through the legal system (arrests and convictions), and extralegal force or violence (break-ins, beatings, frame-ups). All four recommended procedures were implemented against the Illinois Panther organization.

After the raid in which Hampton and Mark Clark were killed, many Chicago Panther members left the party. Rush and others hung on for a while, providing a measure of human services and rhetoric, but the old enthusiasm wasn't there.

COINTELPRO dirty tricks took a similar toll in other cities. Young blacks quickly demonstrated that they were not willing to put themselves on the line for Panther ideals when the price was their lives. And so the Panther movement died and was buried.

Many young blacks, notes Rush, joined the "me too" generation. Some opted for education, career opportunities, and middle-class life; more yielded to the quick fix or fast profits of the narcotics trade. "I saw a real shift in the 1970s," says Rush. "Our young people used to have these Afros and wear dashikis and talk about black pride. About the time the movie Superfly came out, it seems like they all got into these long coats and high-heeled shoes. They adopted the style and garments of the drug culture. In fact, drugs have sapped the energy of a whole generation of young folks, killed the youth movement of the nation."

All this, of course, cannot be blamed on the premature death of one young man. But the killing of Hampton seems to mark the end of an era in which youthful black belligerence mixed with a quixotic hope for a more just world order flourished. That combination has not been seen since. In 1989 the most militant black voice heard in Chicago belongs to political activist and newspaper columnist Lu Palmer, who is 67 years old.

So what's to celebrate on the anniversary of that bloody December 4? There are at least two positive by-products. In the judgment of G. Flint Taylor--an attorney with the People's Law Office, which was associated with the case from the day of the raid itself--the Hampton case provided the smoking gun that had been missing in so many other instances of federal disruption and discrediting activity. "Here at last," he says, "we see the highest law enforcement agency in the country involved in the most heinous acts of brutality and assassination. It would be hard to find a more crass example."

To be sure, COINTELPRO remained hot on the heels of people such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the 1960s. But no one has been able to establish that their murders were engineered or inspired by federal operatives. In the case of Hampton, what was at first portrayed as a court-authorized search for illegal weapons was gradually shown during the succeeding eight years to have been a carefully orchestrated COINTELPRO-directed plot to remove Hampton from the scene. The evidence emerged slowly and painfully, delayed by the defense's stalling tactics and outright lies, and by an almost deaf, terminally crotchety federal judge, Joseph Sam Perry, who could not believe that government operatives would ever stoop to illegality.

But piece by piece the evidence did emerge: the FBI's employment of an infiltrator who bought the guns that provided the pretext for the raid and then supplied police with a floor plan of the apartment, even indicating the precise spot of Fred Hampton's bed; the secret, preraid collusion between FBI agents and Cook County state's attorney Edward Hanrahan; the postraid cover-up featuring gross manipulation of the Chicago media; the perjured testimony of countless lawmen at several investigations; and the willful withholding by the government of critical documents. An 18-month civil trial, the longest in federal court history, concluded in 1977 when Perry, in a fit of pique, threw the case against the federal and local lawmen out of court while the jury was still deliberating.

But it was too late. In 1979 a federal appellate panel found plenty of evidence of two distinct conspiracies designed to violate the rights of Hampton and his associates. The court overruled Perry and sent the case back for a new trial. Stunned and embarrassed, the government then offered an out-of-court compromise: $1.85 million in damages to be paid to the survivors of the raid and to the families of Hampton and Clark in exchange for their agreement to forgo a second trial. The deal was accepted and the money subsequently paid. That settlement is as close as the federal government has ever come to acknowledging that its officials and agents conspired to murder American citizens.

As a result, the public is less trusting of law enforcement agencies, more resistant to media or government manipulation, more conscious of its own rights when confronted by authority. In his newly published book, The War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists, author Brian Glick covers the full history of government dirty tricks from the early assaults on the U.S. Communist Party in the 1950s to very recent attacks on the Sanctuary Movement and the Community in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES). Glick calls the Hampton killing "especially pivotal" in arousing public indignation, because the intent of the principal actors was so transparent.

Perhaps the most significant fruit of the Hampton affair was the awakening of that long-slumbering giant, Chicago's black electorate. For decades, minority voters who were dissatisfied with traditional Democratic Party politics had expressed their displeasure by staying home on election day. Not so in 1972. Edward Hanrahan, who was perceived as the principal architect of the Hampton raid, ran for reelection as Cook County state's attorney, and blacks trekked to the polling places in unprecedented numbers to remove him from office. The Democratic machine has not been the same since. Also in 1972, U.S. Representative Ralph Metcalfe, a preeminent, loyal black Democrat, read the signs of the times, reproached Mayor Richard J. Daley to his face over the issue of police brutality, and split from the party organization. During the next ten years the momentum grew, and it peaked in 1983 with the election of Chicago's first black mayor--an event that seemed unimaginable in 1969.

"Fred Hampton's murder was absolutely critical in Harold Washington's victory," says Bobby Rush. "The raid marked the moment when blacks started breaking off their shackles. The Democratic Party will never get our vote automatically again." Rush isn't much distressed that Washington's successor is not only a white male but the son of the much-resented senior Daley. "We're still the most important voting block in the city and state," he says, noting that more blacks cast straight ballots for Tim Evans's party than for the straight Democratic ticket in the mayoral election earlier this year. The movement, he says, is not dead.

"We're planning on putting out a commemorative issue of the old Panther paper," says David Hilliard. "With Huey Newton's death [he was shot down in Oakland last August] and Fred's 20th anniversary, it seems like maybe it's time to revive some of the old spirit. You know, an organization that would address people's real needs, like housing and health and police protection."

Rush agrees. "There's a vacuum out there. Somebody needs to get at the things that haunt us: alcoholism, drug use, joblessness, despair. We all need direction."

The legacy of Fred Hampton is a two-edged sword. Some responded to his death with apathy and retreat, others with a fierce determination to change the system one way or another. This weekend apathy will be lamented, determination extolled, and a certain mythical quality will continue to swirl around the slain youth whose potential was never realized.

The events sponsored by the Committee to Commemorate the Spirit of Fred Hampton include:

December 1: The Murder of Fred Hampton, a film and discussion, shown at 10 AM and 3 PM, Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren. "What We Want--What We Believe," a political analysis of the Panthers' ten-point program and platform, 1 PM, Malcolm X College. All Power to the People, a videotape with Deborah Johnson, G. Flint Taylor, and others intimately involved in the raid and its aftermath, 2 PM, Malcolm X College.

December 2: All Power to the People (see above), 1:30 PM, Malcolm X College. A celebration of music, dance, theater, and poetry readings in tribute to Fred Hampton, 2:30 PM, Malcolm X College.

December 3: A rally at the Church of the Epiphany, 201 S. Ashland, 6 PM. A candlelight procession to the apartment where Hampton was killed will follow the rally.

December 4: An autograph party for Brian Glick's book, 7 PM, Guild Books, 2456 N. Lincoln (525-3667). The Assassination of Fred Hampton, a play, 8 PM, at the Organic Theater, 3319 N. Clark.

December 9: The Murder of Fred Hampton and a panel discussion, 12:15 PM, Public Library Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington (346-3278).

Malcolm X College will also feature a photo exhibit by Paul Secura on Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party; it opens December 1 and runs for the next four weeks. For further information on events call the United Church of Rogers Park, 761-2500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chicago Sun-Times.

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