By Jeffrey Haas
December 2, 2009
The legacy of Fred Hampton, who was assassinated under COINTELPRO in
1969, should be our demand that U.S. officials be held accountable
when they break the law.
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.
Noam Chomsky has called the murder of Fred Hampton "the gravest
domestic crime of the Nixon Administration." It is hard to imagine a
more serious abuse by a government than the deliberate assassination
of a citizen for his political beliefs and activity. But though we
were finally able to reveal that Hampton's death had been an
assassination, it has never gotten the attention it deserves. The
government's cover-up and stonewalling basically worked.
Following Watergate and numerous revelations in the early 1970s about
intelligence agencies run amok, the Senate's Church Committee was
formed to investigate such intelligence abuses as assassination plots
and spying on U.S. citizens [see Christopher Hayes, "The Secret
Government"]. After documenting Cointelpro's secret and illegal
attacks on the left, the committee sought to guarantee FBI and CIA
accountability by requiring Congressional oversight, including
reporting of intelligence activities. The two strongest opponents of
this oversight in the Ford administration were the chief of staff,
Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld's deputy, Dick Cheney. Together with
Antonin Scalia, who was then head of the Justice Department's Office
of Legal Counsel, they persuaded Ford to veto legislation expanding
the Freedom of Information Act to cover intelligence documents.
Fortunately Congress overrode the veto.
Three decades later we are watching history repeat itself. In the
1960s the enemy was domestic dissent; today the enemy is
international terrorism. In both cases, however, the right used fear
to increase the powers of police and government agencies to operate
in secret and with impunity. Cheney and Rumsfeld used 9/11 to beat
back Church Committee restrictions on intelligence activities and
reporting requirements. They encouraged intelligence agencies to spy
on U.S. citizens and to ignore international and U.S. law forbidding
torture and kidnapping.
In 1978 the Justice Department argued that FBI operatives were immune
from liability for killing Hampton because they were carrying out
government policy. An incredulous Judge Swygert asked the U.S.
Attorney if he thought they would be immune if they had given the
police a gun and told them to murder Hampton. The government
retreated from the "good German" defense at that point. In our own
day, Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed a special prosecutor
to look into the acts of torture carried out by CIA officers amid
claims they are immune because they were carrying out government policy.
One lesson we should learn from the Hampton case is that although
it's important to put strong legal limitations on what police and
intelligence agencies are permitted to do, that is not enough to
prevent abuses. What's required is accountability, in the form of
criminal prosecution, not only for those who carry out criminal
policies but for those who formulate them. Thus far Holder's
investigation is limited to those who carried out the policy of
torture and may have exceeded its carefully hedged strictures. But
the investigation we really need will look at the policy itself,
which by all appearances was a criminal conspiracy by Cheney,
Rumsfeld and a group of administration lawyers to subvert the Constitution.
Fred Hampton's legacy should be our continued vigilance against
government crimes and secrecy and our demand that officials be held
responsible and criminally liable when they violate the law. This is
about deterrence and equal justice, not revenge.
Jeffrey Haas, a civil rights attorney, is the author of The
Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police
Murdered a Black Panther, published in November 2009.