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The Assassination of Fred Hampton

By Jeffrey Haas
(Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2010, 378 pages.)

I recall chills going through my body as I left my job at Harris Bank in Chicago on that cold snow-covered day in December of 1969, after getting the news of the death of Fred Hampton, but the chills were not from the weather itself, it was from the cold-blooded nature and reality of a brutal murder. To perhaps put this in perspective, I recall having a prestigious job as a coupon teller at one of the prominent banks in Chicago, Harris Bank, and taking the Illinois Central commuter train home every evening to the south suburb of Chicago Heights. It was a time when we were protesting the sales of South Africa’s Gold Krugerrands, due to its Aparthied policy. It was also a time when the Black Panther Party was under intense scrutiny by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. A couple of years earlier, 1967 to be exact, Fred’s attention, like so many other young blacks, was drawn to an event on the West Coast. In May 1967, thirty Oakland Panthers, twenty-four men and six women, went to the California legislature in Sacramento carrying rifles to dramatize their right of self-defense, as well as to protest pending legislation that would overturn the law allowing them to legally carry unconcealed weapons. I must admit, this event, left an indelible imprint in my mind and social-consciousness, as well! Even though Bobby Seale and many of the other Panthers ended up with six-month sentences for “conspiracy to disturb the peace,” and the legislation passed, the photos and TV images of armed Panthers in leather jackets and black berets at the capital steps was a shot heard “round the world,” according to the author. The media responded with horror at blacks with guns invading the legislature, also according to the author. Most whites felt threatened by the images they saw. Many young blacks had a different response and supported the action, me included. This is the backdrop to this fascinating book.

Attorney Jeffrey Haas, one of the founders of the People’s Law Office (PLO) in Chicago, has written a riveting and spell-binding book of a turbulent time of unrest and clandestine activity by our government and law enforcement agencies, “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.” Haas’ activism and involvement with the People’s law Office positioned him to tell the untold story of complicity on the part of many in the conspiracy and cover-up of a government-sanctioned murder. Haas has spent his entire career working for justice. In 1969 he and three other lawyers set up the People’s Law Office, whose clients included the Black Panthers, SDS, and other political activists. Haas went on to handle cases involving prisoner’s rights, police torture, the wrongfully accused, Puerto Rican nationalists, and protestors opposed to human rights violations in Central America.

I recall the many times in life, when I would drive by the actual Westside location on Monroe where Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed, attempting to understand and put in perspective, how something like this could happen in America. The author helps me and other readers in his gripping book understand, if not fully comprehend, how such an event could unfold right underneath our noses.

This book, with a cast of characters, many of which are also written about in my own published book on Chicago politics, “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago,” such as Mayor Daley and Rev. Jesse Jackson, pulls back the covers on a gritty city to reveal a callousness seldom seen or read about. The author points out in his book that Jackson praised Fred as a courageous and inspiring young leader who had been taken away from the people he served by Hanrahan’s murderous raid, despite the fact that Hampton had earlier accused Jackson and Operation Breadbasket of developing programs focused primarily on helping black business-men rather than poor and working-class people. Haas strips bare the veneer of this city that prides itself in being called “The City That Works,” and reveals an ugly hateful core. The author does a masterful job of telling a story of a city that seems to personify crime and corruption, making it the perfect breeding ground for such an event, where the assassination of a Fred Hampton could occur with impunity. Haas goes into graphic detail, buttressed by a photo of the blood-soaked mattress in which Hampton’s body was found, to describe this dastardly deed. This just adds to yet another chapter in the sordid history of Chicago, that has known the depths of cruelty and deprivation, from the race riots of 1917, to the tragic death and burial of 14-year old Emmett Till, along with the police brutality case of Jon Burge, accused of forcing confessions from blacks through electric shock and other forms of torture. The aforementioned Mayor Daley was actually the Cook County State’s Attorney during the time that Burge was involved in these acts. Chicago has known and seen it all, not to mention the Al Capone era!

It started with a “Knock on the Door,” as the author so eloquently describes in this poignant book of urban upheaval and tragedy, “The Assassination of Fred Hampton.” At 4:00AM on December 4, 1969, 14 Chicago police officers assigned to Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, armed with shotguns, handguns and a .45-caliber machine gun, raided Fred Hampton’s apartment at 2337 W. Monroe, within walking distance of the home of the NBA Chicago Bulls Basketball team. When they left, 21-year-old Hampton lay dead in his bed, fellow Panther Mark Clark was also dead and four others had multiple gunshot wounds. No police officer was injured. Within hours, Hanrahan publically proclaimed Hampton’s death an act of self-defense by police in a routine search and seizure. It would take more than a decade to prove in court that Hampton’s death was the result of an orchestrated web of lies, cover-ups and FBI involvement that went all the way to the top.

Perhaps the most chilling and poignant passage in the entire book, is a description told by one of the survivors of the raid, Deborah Johnson, who was several months pregnant with Fred Hampton’s child. Johnson states in Haas’ book: “I wasn’t shot like a lot of the others. The pigs pushed me around, but I think the baby is OK. ‘Fred never really woke up. We were sleeping. I woke up hearing shots from the front and back. I shook Fred but he didn’t open his eyes. I got on top of him to try to protect him from the bullets.’” I can’t begin to imagine what a horrific scene that must have been! She said the shooting stopped only after someone in the bedroom with her yelled, “We got a pregnant sister in here.” She further says that “Fred never really woke up, He was lying there when the policemen pulled me out of the bedroom.” Then she described two policemen going into their bedroom, hearing one of them fire two shots, followed by, “He’s good and dead now!” She knew they had killed Fred because the police were bragging to each other, “Fred Hampton, the Panther chairman, is dead!” If it is true that “a picture is worth a thousand words,”one need only look at the blood-soaked mattress that Fred Hampton’s body was removed from, to fully comprehend what occurred at 2337 W. Monroe in Chicago, at 4:00AM in the morning on December 4, 1969.

The author states in further regard to his interview of Deborah Johnson, soon after the death of Fred Hampton; “In the next thirty-five years, I interviewed more than a hundred people in police lock-ups. None imprinted on my memory as strongly as Deborah Johnson, pregnant, in her nightgown, sobbing, and telling me that the police had just murdered her boyfriend in their bed.” I, too, just like so many others that lived in Chicago during this turbulent period, will forever have imprinted in our memory, this day of infamy!

All of this could not have happened the way that it did, if not for a government-sanctioned program, “COINTELPRO,” as indicated by Haas. Haas describes COINTELPRO as the FBI acronym for a series of covert action programs directed against dissident groups. With regard to large sectors of the black movement COINTELPRO’s stated objectives were to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters.” A key figure in this program and the demise of Fred Hampton, was government informer William O’Neal. The author points out in his book: “Years later, in the 1980s, our office exposed that Jon Burge had tortured black suspects to get confessions from them, but it took over fifteen years before Mayor Richard M. Daley, who at the time was the prosecutor who used the tainted confessions to get convictions, was confronted. In 1973 we were finally getting a national investigation of COINTELPRO, after many of its victims were dead or in prison and its existence had been public knowledge for two years.”

Many have weighed in on this artistic masterpiece of urban history. Noted author and historian, Studs Terkel, states: “This book of the assassination of a sleeping Fred Hampton by Chicago police working for a mad state’s attorney is more important NOW than it was THEN. It is a revelation of how the powerful of our city use power to keep truth distant … This is a remarkable work.” Noam Chomsky, author and political activist, states: “A riveting account of the assassination, the plot behind it, the attempted cover-up, the denouement and the lessons that we should draw from this shocking tale of government.”

I have been driving by that address in Chicago at 2337 W. Monroe, where Fred Hampton was found murdered in his bed, for more than 35 years, and I always seem to pause and reflect for a moment, on what could have been. Fred Hampton had so much to give, so much that we as a society could have learned from. It is ironic that one of his co-leaders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, is a fourth-term U.S. Congressman. This is a must read, a book that I highly recommend.

 

                       Jeffrey Haas                                       Fred Hampton with Jesse Jackson                     The Blood Soaked Mattress