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.
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
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.
For example, on November 12, 1970, there was a shootout between police and Panthers in the southern Illinois town of Carbondale. In the middle of the night, police attacked a house being rented by Panthers, and as neighbors would testify at trial, police began to shoot into their house without any warning. In response, the Panthers inside the house shot back, and in the end, bullets had struck two Panthers and one police officer, but no one had been killed. One of the occupants of the Panther house, Milton Boyd, told Haas that "we were prepared to defend ourselves"We weren't going to be ambushed and killed like our brothers in Chicago."
The six Panther defendants were each charged with seven counts of attempted murder and became known as the "Carbondale Six." Haas and the PLO defended them by arguing first that it was impossible to identify who in the house was actually shooting, and second that since the police began shooting at them first, unannounced, in the middle of the night, the Panthers acted in legitimate self-defense by shooting back. In a stunning victory, an all-white jury found the defendants innocent of all charges.
Haas writes that during the Carbondale Six trial, he and two other PLO lawyers drove to Mount Vernon, Illinios to attend the memorial service for the legendary Panther and prison author George Jackson, who two days earlier, had been shot and killed by San Quentin Prison guards, on August 21, 1971. Haas reflects on how at the service, they spoke with Jackson's mother. Georgia, who "urged the three of us to continue fighting to keep black people, particularly Panthers, out of jail. I went back to the trial feeling blessed and inspired."
Haas writes that "Jackson's death resulted in work stoppages, memorial services, and teach-ins at prisons throughout the country. The men inside Attica Correctional Facility in New York declared a day of silence during which no one spoke. They also stepped up their demands for humane treatment and set a timetable for the administration to meet with them." These pleas were ignored, and on September 9, 1971, twelve hundred prisoners seized control over a quarter of Attica. Haas recounts that "the prisoners took thirty-nine guards hostage and demanded to meet with Commissioner Russell Oswald and that Warden Mancusi be fired"I watched the confrontation on television, moved by the bravery of the mostly Black and Latino prisoners and by the reasonableness of what they sought"While the prison administration said it would comply with some of the demands, they were adamant about no amnesty for the rebellious prisoners. The prisoners who led the takeover would be criminally prosecuted. A deadlocked loomed. Tensions grew."
On September 13, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the state police to go in with their guns firing, and ultimately twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages were shot dead, with many more wounded. When the National Lawyers Guild put out a call for lawyers to visit Attica, Hass and others at PLO responded. The first prisoner they interviewed was Frank "Big Black" Smith, who recounted the horrors of the police massacre and torture of prisoners for days following the massacre. Smith was a key figure in the prisoners' revolt and had been appointed to head of security for the yard, which included protecting the hostages. Smith explained that "the hostages got the same food and water as everyone else, and we didn't let anyone bother them. No one got near them without my permission. We even shared our blankets with them." When the state police attacked "the hostages were shot down like dogs, like the rest of us. The troopers had all the guns. It was a slaughter and they didn't care who they hit," said Smith.
The horror continued after the state police and prison authorities regained control. With tears in his eyes, Smith recounted how "the guards stripped us naked after the shooting. Then they made us crawl naked in the mud through a gauntlet where they beat us"They took me out of the line. They made me lie on a table naked on my back and put a football under my chin. They put their burning cigarettes out on me. Some dropped them from the catwalk above and were laughing. They told me if I moved and the football hit the ground I was dead. I tried not to move. I was sure they were going to kill me. They knew I was in charge of security and used me as an example to scare everyone else, because nobody else got this treatment."