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The Assassination of Fred Hampton -- a Book Review

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The joint-civil suit was assigned to a right-wing judge named Joseph Sam Parry, who threw out their entire complaint on February 3, 1972. They appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court and on August 4, 1973, the Court overturned Parry, and sent it back for a new trial. Unfortunately, they were unable to get a new judge, and throughout the subsequent 18-month trial, Parry was extremely biased and blocked all kinds of testimony and evidence from being entered into the record. The jury was deadlocked, but instead of declaring a mistrial, Parry himself ruled to dismiss the case entirely. Haas and PLO's subsequent appeal of Parry's ruling to the Seventh Circuit was successful, and the case was sent back down to the district court for a new trial. Fortunately, this time they got a new judge, who urged the defendants to make a settlement before starting a new trial. Finally, on February 28, 1983, the settlement was made, and Hampton et al. received $1.85 million from the city, county, and federal governments.

COINTELPRO and Fred Hampton

The FBI's top-secret and illegal counterintelligence program dubbed "COINTELPRO" became public after a 1971 break-in to the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania by unknown antiwar activists. These activists discovered these explosive documents that revealed an FBI war on the civil rights and later Black liberation movements, and quickly made them public. Among these liberated files was a March 3, 1968 COINTELPRO memo discussing the urgent need to prevent "the beginning of a true black revolution." Among several of the program's goals was to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement". This "Black Nationalist-Hate Groups" memo refers to Martin Luther King (long a target of the FBI) as a potential "messiah" of the supposedly hateful and "violent" Black liberation movement.

This same document stated: "Through counterintelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them." Another stated goal was "to prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth. Specific tactics to prevent these groups from converting young people must be developed." One specific tactical approach was expressed in an April 3, 1968 communique arguing that "The Negro youth and moderates must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries."

In terms of scale, the FBI's war of repression against the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was greatest against the Panthers. In addressing why the Panthers were targeted so intensely by COINTELPRO, Noam Chomsky wrote in 1973: "A top secret Special Report for the president in June 1970 gives some insight into the motivations for the actions undertaken by the government to destroy the Black Panther Party. The report describes the party as 'the most active and dangerous black extremist group in the United States.' Its 'hard core members' were estimated at 800, but 'a recent poll indicates that approximately 25 percent of the black population has a great respect for the BPP, including 43 percent of blacks under 21 years of age.' On the basis of such estimates of the potential of the party, the repressive apparatus of the state proceeded against it to ensure that it did not succeed in organizing as a substantial social or political force."

When these liberated COINTELPRO files became public, Haas, PLO, and his Panther clients immediately suspected that the Dec. 4 police raid had been part of this program, and that the FBI had viewed Hampton as a potential "messiah," who needed to be "neutralized." As part of their civil rights lawsuit, they filed numerous motions requesting all FBI files relating to the Illinois Panthers and COINTELPRO. After repeated attempts by the defendants and Judge Parry to cover up the FBI role, eventually a few explosive documents were made available.

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One document showed a drawing made by the FBI's paid informant, William O'Neal, which provided the floor plan of Hampton's apartment. The FBI had supplied this diagram to prosecutor Edward Hanrahan before he led the raid several days later. Following the raid, the FBI paid O'Neal a special bonus to thank him for providing the diagram.

Another document surfaced showing that the FBI had made a deal with deputy attorney general Jerris Leonard, who led the 1970 federal grand jury investigation. In an effort to conceal the FBI's role and the still-secret COINTELPRO, they decided that the criminal charges would be dropped against the seven Panther survivors, and in exchange the federal grand jury would rule in favor of Hanrahan and the police raiders.

A third explosive document showed a fake letter sent to Jeff Fort, the leader of the Blackstone Rangers, which accused the Panthers of planning a "hit" on Fort. The FBI hoped that the fake letter would incite Fort and the Rangers to "take retaliatory action" against Hampton and the Panthers.

As this new documentation emerged, the FBI was added to the list of defendants for the civil rights lawsuit, and making the FBI pay 1/3 of the $1.85 million was a key part of the settlement.

Defending the Carbondale Six and the Attica Brothers

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Haas was fresh out of law school when he first met Fred Hampton and was asked to work as a lawyer for the many Panther defendants that were victims of repression. Haas and several other young radical lawyers collectively opened the People's Law Office (PLO) in Chicago and began defending Panthers, as well as Puerto Rican political prisoners, antiwar protesters, prisoner activists, and other revolutionary groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots. Alongside Haas' account of working specifically on the Hampton case, he also reflects on many of the other struggles from that era that he became involved with, illustrating how Hampton's assassination did not happen in a vacuum.

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Hans Bennett is a multi-media journalist mostly focusing on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. An archive of his work is available at and he is also co-founder of "Journalists for Mumia," (more...)

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The Assassination of Fred Hampton -- a Book Review