BOOK REVIEW: The Assassination of Fred Hampton
BY SUNDIATA ACOLI
The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, by Jeffrey Haas. Copyright 2010. Published by Lawrence Hill Books, Imprint of Chicago Review Press, Inc., 814 N. Franklin St., Chicago IL 60610. 376 pgs., $26.95
This book is about the murder of a messiah: Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party (BPP). Not only could he electrify the Black [Liberation] Movement and unify them, he brought other nationalities into union with this Black Movement and created a revolutionary Rainbow Coalition. He had done this at the local level, Chicago, and was about to go national when cut down by the FBI at age 21.
The book is COINTELPRO – the FBI’s COunter INTELligence PROgram to prevent the rise of a Black Messiah – made plain. It lays bare how Chicago’s police murder of Chairman Fred was planned and initiated by FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. It also exposes COINTELPRO’s hidden hand behind much of the mayhem in the Black community with a ‘69 COINTELPRO report stating that “Shootings, beatings and a high degree of unrest continues to prevail in the ghetto area of southeast San Diego…it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this [COINTELPRO] program.”
The story is told by Jeffrey Haas, a founding member of the People’s Law Office (PLO) which preferred to represent Movement people, the poor and oppressed rather than make lots of money. Their main clients at the time were Black Panthers, Young Lords (Puerto Ricans,) and Young Patriots (Southern White youths in Chicago) who together formed the original Rainbow Coalition, the precursor to Jesse Jackson’s. Other clients were the predominantly White Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Weather Underground Organization (WUO), Mexicans, and Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War (PP/POWs) of all nationalities.
Haas’ story is a Panther story set in 1969 Chicago: the era of Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Its plot centers around the Dec. 4th raid that murdered Fred Hampton and the Panther’s reaction to that death. (Full disclosure: i know Jeffrey Haas personally and over a decade after Fred’s assassination i and other PP/POWs were expertly represented by PLO attorneys Michael Deutsch, Jan Susler and Dennis Cunningham, in a class action suit against prison officials at United States Penitentiary, Marion IL.)
The early morn raid on Fred’s apartment also left Mark Clark dead, several other Panthers wounded and his fiancee Deborah Johnson, now Akua Njeri, who was 8 months pregnant with Fred Jr., miraculously unscathed though she had shielded Fred’s body with hers as bullets shook the mattress they lay on. The surviving Panthers were arrested, the dead were removed and the police abandoned the crime scene so rapidly they left the front door open; they also left word that [Bobby] “Rush is next.”
Fred’s funeral further personified the type of unity he engendered in the Movement. His Honor Guard was David Barksdale of the Black Disciples, Jeff Fort of the Black P. Stone Nation, Cha-Cha Jimenez of the Young Lords, Obed Lopez of the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO), and a representative of the Latin Kings. Jesse Jackson gave the main eulogy and united with Panther Bobby Rush, the NAACP, Afro-American Patrolmen League, Lawyers Committe for Civil Rights, legendary singer Chaka Khan, Oscar Brown Jr., and Dick Gregory to provide solid long term support to those seeking justice for Fred Hampton and the other victims of the raid.
The bereft parents of Fred and Mark, and the surviving Panthers asked The PLO for help and – despite their paucity of money and experience, plus the prospect of facing the combined might of the federal government’s FBI, State Attorney’s Hanrahan’s office and the City of Chicago’s Police Department – they voted to take the case…and the battle was joined!
Haas’ story is also a lawyer’s story (and partly a love story) as he makes the courtroom come alive with his blow by blow account of the arduous political trial he and Flint Taylor waged to trace Fred’s murder back to the highest levels of the Justice Department, and its attempt to cover its trail. He also makes the ‘60s come alive as he interweaves Hampton’s case with his own coming of age and the political events occurring at the time in the streets, in the halls of power and on the Viet Nam battlefield.
Haas is exceptionally good at breaking down complex legal issues and civil court procedures so they’re easily followed by the reader and as a result his book is a gold mine of info for aspiring lawyers, jailhouse lawyers and anyone who likes courtroom drama with a running explanation of the forces at play and inside glimpses at the inner workings of all sides involved. But over time the combined weight of a biased judge, lying gay-bashing state attorneys, racist killer cops and the deep pockets of the government ground down Haas and Taylor to the point where they found themselves submitting 100-page handwritten sleep-deprived motions fueled only by coffee, cigarettes and outrage! And in the end, the Plaintiffs: the bereaved parents, surviving Panthers and PLO lawyers reverberated between losing everything and winning everything. Guided by Janis Joplin’s song “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose” the result was among the most startling civil rights decisions ever rendered.
In short, “The Assassination of Fred Hampton” is a phenomenal book, an intriguing page turner that has the suspense of Whodunit wrapped in the political passions of the ‘60s. It’s a brutally honest book that shows the good, the bad and even the embarrassing of all sides, its author included.
One comes away from this book much wiser about Fred Hampton, his death, COINTELPRO, the Panthers, their supporters and the Just-us system – and with a much clearer understanding of that much maligned yet mysteriously missing era is u.s. history, the late ‘60s going forward.
Sundiata Acoli (C. SQUIRE)
P.O. Box 1000
Otisville, NY 10963