On December 4, 1969, 47 years ago today, a select unit of Chicago police officers executed a predawn raid that left Illinois Black Panther Party (BPP) leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead and several other young Panthers wounded. The seven survivors of the raid were arrested on fraudulent attempted murder charges. The officers who committed the execution were specially assigned to Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. The claims of a “shootout” that were made by Hanrahan and his men were soon exposed as bald-faced lies: the physical evidence definitively established that the raiders fired nearly 100 shots at the sleeping Panthers, while only one shot could be linked to a Panther weapon.
However, as was painstakingly proved over the next eight years, the false official claim of a violent confrontation was only one layer of a massive conspiracy that was also designed to cover up the central role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its COINTELPRO program in the murderous raid.
Just after the raid that killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the Minister of Defense for the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, declared that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were responsible for the raid. However, at that time there was no hard proof. The first documentation that supported Rush’s claim came in 1971 when activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and liberated a trove of FBI documents. These documents outlined the FBI’s super-secret and highly illegal COINTELPRO program and its focus in the 1960s on the Black liberation movement and its leaders. Using Malcolm X as an example, Hoover directed all of the Bureau’s offices to “disrupt, misdirect, and otherwise neutralize” African American organizations and leaders including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Nation of Islam, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.
In Chicago, a major breakthrough came in 1973 when it was revealed that Chicago BPP Chief of Security William O’Neal was a paid informant for the FBI. Lawyers at the People’s Law Office (full disclosure: I was one of those lawyers) had filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families and the raid survivors shortly after the raid, and they subpoenaed the Chicago FBI’s files on O’Neal. While the FBI only produced a tiny fraction of the relevant files, an honest Assistant US Attorney produced an FBI memorandum that included a detailed floor plan of the interior of Fred Hampton’s apartment that specifically identified the bed on which Hampton slept. The memo, on its face, showed that the floor plan, together with other important information designed to be utilized in a police raid, was based on information communicated by O’Neal to his FBI control agent, and that the agent supplied this information to State’s Attorney Hanrahan’s office before the raid.
The lawyers then focused on discovering more details about the FBI’s involvement in the conspiracy. We sought the Chicago office’s COINTELPRO file in order to establish a direct link between the FBI’s illegal program and the raid on December 4. At the same time, Idaho Senator Frank Church’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations (Church Committee), which was created in the wake of the Watergate scandal, was investigating rampant abuses by all US intelligence agencies, including the FBI. In late 1975 a Church Committee attorney informed the People’s Law Office lawyers that the Committee had obtained several Chicago documents that definitively established the link. Armed with the content of the still secret documents, the lawyers were able to convince the judge, who had previously refused to compel the FBI to produce the Chicago COINELPRO file, to order the FBI to do so. In the file that was subsequently produced were several documents that revealed the FBI’s efforts to foment gang violence against Hampton and the Chicago Panthers, and one dated December 3, 1969, that claimed the impending raid as part of the COINTEPRO program.
In January 1976 the trial of the Fred Hampton civil case began in Federal Court. Two months into what would turn out to be the longest trial in federal court history, O’Neal’s FBI control agent inadvertently revealed that the FBI had not produced all of its files on Hampton, O’Neal, the raid survivors and the Chicago BPP. The judge reluctantly ordered that they do so, and the next day a government lawyer wheeled in on shopping carts nearly 200 volumes of FBI files that had been suppressed since they were first requested three years before. The government produced several redacted volumes of these files each day over the next month. The files contained directives to destroy the Panther’s Breakfast for Children Program and disrupt the distribution of the BPP newspaper; reports showing that the dynamic and charismatic 21-year-old Fred Hampton was a targeted BPP leader; materials demonstrating that O’Neal was an agent provocateur; and massive wiretap “overhears” (logs that included conversations between BPP members and their attorneys).
Among the government’s documentation was O’Neal’s control file. In it was yet another smoking gun: memos to and from FBI headquarters and the Chicago office requesting and approving payment of a $300 bonus — 30 pieces of silver — to reward O’Neal for his role in the raid. According to the memos, O’Neal’s information was of “tremendous value” and, in the words of O’Neal’s COINTELRO supervisor, made the raid a “success.”
That same month, on April 23, 1976, the Church Committee released its final staff report, which devoted an entire chapter to the “FBI’s Covert Action Plan to Destroy the Black Panther Party.” The chapter concluded by highlighting the Hampton raid as a COINTELPRO operation and quoting from the recently uncovered “bonus” documents.
The judge, an unabashed supporter of the FBI, exonerated the FBI and its DOJ lawyers of any wrongdoing in suppressing the documents. A year later, he dismissed O’Neal and the other FBI defendants from the case. On April 23, 1979, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a landmark 2-1 decision, overturned the trial judge, finding that the FBI and their government lawyers “obstructed justice” by suppressing documents. The Court of Appeals also concluded that there was “serious evidence” to support the conclusion that the FBI, Hanrahan and his police unit had participated in a “conspiracy designed to subvert and eliminate the Black Panther Party and its members” in planning and executing the raid, thereby suppressing a “vital radical Black political organization.” The Court of Appeals further found that the evidence additionally supported the conclusion that these same defendants also participated in a post-raid conspiracy to “cover up evidence” regarding the raid, “to conceal the true character of their pre-raid and raid activities,” to “harass the survivors of the raid” and to “frustrate any legal redress the survivors might seek.” This decision survived a challenge in the US Supreme Court, and stands to this day as a unique judicial recognition of outrageous federal and local conspiratorial criminality and cover-up.
As we enter the uncharted waters of a volatile Trump presidency, with an unrepentant Ku Klux Klan sympathizer slated to head up the Justice Department, it is important not to relegate the Hampton assassination and COINTELPRO to the annals of history. Particularly in an era of officially sanctioned drone assassinations, government provocateurs running wild, and a presidential election in which the “winner” appears to have benefited from international and FBI COINTELPRO-like actions, while the “loser” used similar tactics against her opponent in the primaries, it is well to remember a quote from a 1964 COINTELPRO directive:
Over the years, our approach to investigative problems in the intelligence field has given rise to a number of new programs, some of which have been most revolutionary, and it can be presumed that with a continued aggressive approach to these programs, new and productive ideas will be forthcoming. These ideas will not be increased in number or improved upon from the standpoint of accomplishments merely through the institution of a program such as COINTELPRO which is given another name and in fact, only encompasses everything that has been done in the past or will be done in the future.
For Black Lives Matter, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, undocumented workers, Muslims, environmental activists, and a multitude of other people and organizations, the future, as contemplated in the 1964 COINTELRO memo and implemented in its most violent and racist form on December 4, 1969, may well be upon us again. The only answer now, as it was then, is to organize, educate and resist. And, as Fred Hampton would say, “All Power to the People.”
FBI files related to the 1969 murder of Fred Hampton, newly obtained by Jacobin, shed light on two key aspects of the bureau’s anti–Black Panthers operation: one, FBI informant William O’Neal was more vital — beyond helping murder Hampton — than previously understood. Two, sabotaging the Panthers’ ability to work with other organizations was an explicit FBI goal.