December 4 marks the fortieth anniversary of the raid on a Black Panther apartment in which Chicago police shot and killed Fred Hampton in his bed. Hampton was the charismatic young chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, and under his leadership the party’s membership and influence had increased dramatically. The party had instituted a popular and expanding Breakfast for Children Program and a police accountability project. At the age of 21, Hampton was able to reach and influence gang members and welfare mothers as well as college and law students. Under his tutelage, the Panthers formed a coalition with Puerto Rican and white activists.
The response of the Chicago police and the ambitious Cook County state’s attorney, Edward Hanrahan, the likely political heir to then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, was to harass and arrest the Panthers as often as possible. The police even opened fire on Panther headquarters.
Six hours after the predawn raid on Hampton’s apartment, conducted by fourteen Chicago policemen armed with shotguns, handguns, a rifle and a .45-caliber submachine gun, Hanrahan went on TV to give the police version. He claimed the Panthers, and Hampton in particular, had opened fire on the police, who he said were innocently serving a search warrant for weapons, and that the Panthers continued firing despite several police attempts at a cease-fire.
I was the first person to interview the survivors in the police lockup, where Hampton’s crying and pregnant fiancée told me that after she was pulled from the room, police came in and fired two shots into Hampton and said, “He’s good and dead now.” The autopsy showed he had been shot twice in the head at point-blank range. My colleagues went to the raid scene, examined the bullet holes and found that the trajectory of all the bullets except one was from the direction of the police toward the Panthers. Later, an FBI firearms expert testified that more than eighty shots were fired by the police at the Panthers, with only one coming from a Panther. That one shot was fired in a vertical direction by a falling Mark Clark after he had been fatally wounded.
Two years after the murder, antiwar activists raided the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and found and distributed documents that demonstrated that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was conducting a secret war on the left–the Counterintelligence Program, or Cointelpro. Its most aggressive and lethal tactics were used against the black movement, and the Panthers in particular. Cointelpro mandated FBI agents in cities with Panther chapters to “cripple,” “disrupt” and “destroy” the Panthers and their breakfast program and to prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could unify and electrify the black masses.
In 1969 I was a young, newly radicalized lawyer, one of the founders of a collective called the People’s Law Office, which represented the Panthers. After successfully defending the survivors of the raid against bogus criminal charges, we filed a civil rights suit against the police and the prosecutor, and later the FBI. My book The Assassination of Fred Hampton chronicles our long legal and political struggle to uncover the truth about the FBI’s role in the killing. After thirteen years of litigation, we proved that the raid was a Cointelpro operation. FBI agents in Chicago gave Hanrahan and the Chicago police a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, which included the location of the bed where Hampton would be sleeping. They urged Hanrahan to conduct the raid and later took credit for it in internal documents. The FBI informant who provided the floor plan was given a bonus because his information was deemed to be of “tremendous value” to what one agent referred to as the “success” of the raid.