Sunday, November 29, 2009

Assassinated By The State

Assassinated By The State

The federally sanctioned murder of a Black Panther.

By Salim Muwakkil

In These Times

November 25, 2009


It's clear that Hoover's designation of the Panthers as

`the greatest threat to the internal security of the

country' provided law enforcement with a virtual license to kill.


Jeffrey Haas tells a story that many of us have long

waited to read. His book, The Assassination of Fred

Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a

Black Panther (Lawrence Hill Books, November), is a

much-needed corrective to a badly distorted mainstream

narrative of a key event in the history of the left and

African-American politics of the late '60s. Haas reveals

just how deeply the Nixon Justice Department was

involved in the Chicago police raid on December 4, 1969,

that killed Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and

Mark Clark. Hampton headed the Panthers' Chicago branch

and Clark the Peoria, Ill., branch.


It is now clear that Hampton and Clark were victims of a

plot hatched by the FBI and executed by the Cook County

State's Attorney and Chicago police officers.

Nonetheless, conventional wisdom portrays the Panthers

as the villains. In 2006, Chicago's City Council, under

pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police, voted down

a routine city ordinance to name the block on which

Hampton's murder took place in his honor.


The accumulation of facts presented in Haas' book

portrays Chicago police as all too willing to violate

the constitutional rights of Panther members and

supporters. He reveals the cynical treachery of State

Attorney Edward Hanrahan, whose office planned the raid

under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover's

Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Haas also

provides a damning portrayal of one obstinate judge's

continued attempts to thwart the legal process.


But Haas also offers captivating details that add color

and context to those turbulent times. He evokes the

infectious spirit of change and activism that infused so

many idealistic young Americans during the hallowed

'60s. His accounts of growing up Jewish and middle-class

in Atlanta, Ga., help locate the source of his

unconventional political leanings. Haas' grandfather,

for example, was an attorney for Leo Frank, a Jewish

factory owner who was lynched in Georgia after being

wrongly accused of murdering a teenage girl. His father

was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in the

South. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of that

movement, wrote the eulogy for his father's funeral.


Haas' forebears held radical positions for Southern

whites, and it seems Haas was simply following ancestral

footsteps when he aligned himself with the emergent

black radical movement of the 1960s. Although many

thought it unusual for an attorney with University of

Chicago credentials to eschew wealth and status to

associate with black radicals, it was a natural move for Haas.


His accounts of the life at the U of C law school, where

he met a "persuasive" Bernardine Dohrn, who would become

the leader of the Weathermen faction of Students for a

Democratic Society, evoke a period infused with

political passions. At that time, Dohrn chaired a group

that sent law students to the South for summer jobs with

civil rights lawyers. Haas was sent to his home, Atlanta.


"I had to go to Chicago to take my first steps to

confront segregation where I grew up," he writes. Though

easily parodied, the earnest idealism of those days

provoked real change. Haas' volume reminds us how

important naïve and optimistic students were to toppling

barriers of segregation in the South.


Back in Chicago, after passing the bar and while

defending suspects arrested during the violence that

erupted following the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin

Luther King, Jr., Haas met a like-minded attorney named

Dennis Cunningham. They formed a friendship and

partnership, and in 1969 they joined with two other

lawyers to open the People's Law Office, which has since

gained an international reputation for conscientiously

defending victims of overzealous law enforcement.


Haas also provides some historical context for the rise

of the Black Panther Party, a group started in 1966 by

college students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale to

address issues of police brutality in their hometown of

Oakland, Calif. Seale and Newton decided to form an

organization of armed volunteers to confront abusive

police officers directly. At the time, it was still

legal to brandish unconcealed weapons in California.


The idea that African-Americans could physically resist

police mistreatment was very attractive to urban black

youth of that era. I was one of them. And, like me, many

had grown weary of watching nonviolent protesters for

civil rights endure humiliating beatings at the hands of police.


The Black Panther Party's disciplined audacity offered

black youth an alternative that resonated with the

militant tenor of the times. Although the group embraced

a quasi-Marxist ideology and provocatively challenged

police authority, it spread like wildfire-mostly in the

urban north. Their urgent sense of commitment to social

justice permanently altered the street-gang culture of urban America.


The first Panther office opened in Chicago in November

1968. Fred Hampton, a charismatic 20-year-old who

formerly led the Maywood, Ill., NAACP youth chapter, was

given the leadership role by Bobby Rush, now an Illinois

congressman, but then the Defense Minister of the

Illinois Black Panthers. Haas gives us one of the few

accounts of Hampton's life outside of his connection to

the Panthers. Hampton grew up in Chicago's southern

suburbs, the third child of Louisiana immigrants Francis

and Iberia Hampton.


The true strength of this book is Haas' meticulous

reconstruction of the particulars that led to the

partial victory (the plaintiffs received a $1.85 million

settlement, although the government admitted no

wrongdoing) and legal vindication of the People's Law

Office. He details how the FBI, the Cook County State's

Attorney's office and the Chicago police conspired to

assassinate Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. He clearly

reveals, for example, how COINTELPRO, which sought to

"neutralize" black leaders, provided motivation for the

Hampton murder. The book's exhaustive account of this

incident is one of the few investigations to explore the

Hampton assassination. This is odd because many strands

of U.S. history converge at this point. The FBI's

COINTELPRO program, uncovered in 1973 by the Senate

Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Idaho

Senator Frank Church, sought to "prevent the rise of a

messiah who could unify and electrify the militant Black

Nationalist movement." That FBI directive helps us

understand just how deeply the federal government feared

the Black Panthers and someone like Fred Hampton. A

popular leader with great potential, Hampton embodied

the electrifying appeal of the Black Panther Party among

a certain segment of black youth.


In retrospect, it's clear that Hoover's designation of

the Panthers as "the greatest threat to the internal

security of the country" provided law enforcement with a

virtual license to kill. What's more, the reckless

bravado of the Panthers often provided police a

convenient pretext.


Haas' important book clarifies how the racial paranoia

of an out-of-touch federal government produced a

deceitful policy that trashed constitutional rights even

as it ignored legitimate grievances.


This book should alter the conventional wisdom that the

Panthers were a dangerous threat that the police had to

eliminate at all costs. Haas reveals that the cost was much too high.



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