A Black Panther Party retrospective eerily recalls the present day | Art Review | Chicago Reader

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A Black Panther Party retrospective eerily recalls the present day

An exhibit at the Westside Center for Justice demonstrates how little things have changed when it comes to racism and the surveillance state.

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On March 4, 1968, then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover described in a memo his department's renewed focus on hindering the efforts of various black-led political organizations. Hoover wrote how he feared the rise of a black "messiah" who "could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement." Tellingly, the memo was sent exactly one month before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Hoover describes as "a very real contender for the position." But King wasn't the only leader the FBI had an interest in defeating. In 1969, Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton was killed at the age of 21 during an FBI-directed raid of his apartment. The story of the promising Hampton's brief life, and that of the BPP's Illinois chapter, is the subject of "Black Panther Party 50 Year Retrospective," now on view at the Westside Justice Center.

Hoover's memo comes from COINTELPRO, short for counterintelligence program, a covert, and illegal, FBI initiative that began in 1956 with the explicit purpose of protecting national security and maintaining existing social and political order. In later years, COINTELPRO focused on new groups and leaders that the FBI believed threatened national security. The Black Panther Party—along with other black-led groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—became a target in 1967. As the Westside Justice Center show demonstrates, you can't tell the story of the Panthers without telling the story of the FBI's efforts to take them down.

The retrospective, which is housed in the Movement & Justice Gallery at the rear of the center, begins with a wall statement that details the "conflicting values" the U.S. was founded on. On one hand, it notes, the Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal," although the founding fathers "were unwilling to abolish an economic system tied to a legacy of slavery." The history of the U.S. to the present day, the statement continues, "has been the struggle of reconciling these conflicting values." The Illinois BPP, which began in 1968, two years after the national party started in Oakland, California, was established to continue that struggle for peace and justice.

Numerous archival documents are on display, dating from the late 1960s through 1977, when a lengthy civil suit brought by the families of Hampton and Mark Clark, another Panther killed in the 1969 raid, came to a close. The show was organized by surviving members of the BPP and its sister group, the Intercommunal Survival Committee, and is displayed chronologically. A back wall highlights much of the party's community service work, including photos of a program that provided neighborhood children with free breakfast, and articles on the BPP's People's Medical Care Center. Former Panther John Preston told me that during that time the party was offering services to upward of 150 to 200 people per week.

Nearby, a headline from a 1973 edition of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, the BPP's nationally distributed paper, which at its height had a circulation of 250,000, reads: "Chicagoans Unite for Community Control of Police." Neighborhood control of policing was an important issue for the Illinois chapter, which hosted several citywide conferences on the subject. At the Survival Conference to End Police Brutality and Establish Community Control, held in 1972, the BPP offered attendees bags of food, shoes for children, and sickle cell anemia tests, all free of charge. These calls for ending police brutality and gaining community control of the police should sound familiar to anyone following local news—such demands are just a few of the similarities between the Illinois BPP and other groups, such as Black Lives Matter, that are struggling for political change today.

"So much of what we see that's going on is very reminiscent of what happened then," says Tanya D. Woods, the executive director of the Westside Justice Center. She notes the way the Panther newspaper helped surveil police encounters in communities, in the same way that people now use cell phones to record the police. "I think the parallels are abundant, actually," she remarks.

Another similarity appears in the latter half of the show, which deals with the 1969 raid and its aftermath. In the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, 14 Chicago police officers descended on Hampton's apartment at 2337 West Monroe. There were nine people inside, including Clark, Hampton, and Hampton's eight-months-pregnant fiance, Deborah Johnson. The police were assigned to Cook County state's attorney Edward V. Hanrahan; initial statements from Hanrahan named the Panthers as the aggressors.

"The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party," Hanrahan said in a media statement. "So does their refusal to cease firing at the police officers when urged to do so several times." He also claimed Fred Hampton himself fired at police.

After the raid, police failed to contain the crime scene. "So we took control of the property for about two weeks, where we were able to give tours to at least 20- or 30,000 people," Preston told me. Photos on display show neighborhood kids protecting the stoop, the blood-stained mattress where Hampton died, and crowds of people waiting to enter the apartment. "Long lines just to see what happened," he said.

Police had a warrant to search the property, based on an alleged tip that the Panthers were storing an illegal stockpile of weapons. Years of litigation eventually brought the truth: the FBI had orchestrated the raid as part of its COINTELPRO plan to disrupt Panther activities and the rise of a black "messiah." As the Nation reported during the civil trial in 1976, the FBI first approached CPD to conduct the raid, but were twice turned down; Hanrahan eventually agreed. FBI documents would later show the weapons story to be false. William O'Neal, an Illinois BPP member who was working as an FBI informant, provided information to the bureau, well ahead of the raid, that the party's weapons were legally obtained. (This information is among the documents displayed in the show.) O'Neal also provided the FBI with a thorough floor plan of the Monroe apartment, including the location of Hampton's bed.

In the course of the civil trial, many details about the FBI's involvement, as well as its later cover-up of details and withholding of evidence, came to light. Lawyers for the Panthers' families discovered that the FBI, along with the presiding judge, had suppressed more than 25,000 documents that showed the depth of the COINTELPRO operation. While the plaintiffs lost this case, on appeal the court found that the FBI had "obstructed justice"—according to a document produced by the December 4th Committee—and, in collusion with Hanrahan's office, had participated in a conspiracy to "eliminate the Black Panther Party and its members," in addition to concealing evidence and harassing survivors. In the end, the federal government, Cook County, and the City of Chicago agreed to settle the suit for $1.85 million.

"Black Panther Party 50 Year Retrospective" isn't just an in-depth history lesson. As much as it recounts the history of the Illinois Panthers, it also relates a story of present-day political activism. In its time COINTELPRO, which was eventually discovered by Congress to have engaged in illegal tactics, was at least partly responsible for the downfall of various organizations, not to mention the death of promising political leaders. Today we are hardly strangers to government surveillance. Foreign Policy magazine recently published an FBI internal report that warns about the threat of "black identity extremists" in an account eerily similar to Hoover's 1968 memo.

"The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence," the report reads. Although the FBI wrote to FP that the organization "cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual's race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights," the history on display at the Westside Justice Center tells a different story.  v

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