It’s been 50 years since Chicago police officers shot and killed Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton as he lay in bed at his West Side home, but his legacy still looms large in Chicago.
Reset sat down with attorney Jeff Haas, who represented Hampton and other Black Panthers at the People’s Law Office, to discuss Hampton’s life and the lasting impacts of his work.
On Hampton’s rise to power in the Black Panther Party
Jeff Haas: Fred was a dynamic young leader. He … was a tremendous speaker. He memorized the speeches of Dr. King and Malcolm X, and he went to his church and listened and he put together sort of the energy of a rapper with the vision and the cadence of a preacher. … He really could move people, whether it was law students, whether it was Hispanics, Puerto Ricans, Appalachians, and, of course, particularly people in the black community, whether it was welfare members or gang members — Fred was very effective in organizing them and reaching them and mobilizing them.
I think that energy of Fred was why he was picked to be the chairman of the Black Panther Party … and why he was targeted both by the local police and ultimately we learned, of course, by the FBI.
On how Hampton helped build alliances in Chicago, including the Rainbow Coalition
Haas: It was the Panthers, it was the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican group that was started as a gang and ended up organizing against the urbanization and the kicking of Puerto Ricans out of the Lincoln Park area, and the Young Patriots, who are more or less immigrants who had come from West Virginia and Kentucky, from coal-mining families, poor Appalachians, who had migrated to Chicago. And they suffered many of the same things … they suffered police brutality and really bad housing, as well as bad schools. And so they came together around these issues that affected all of their communities, and that was another way that Fred was a threat. And he also attempted to bring the gangs together in Chicago. … He said we should be doing things for our community, not against our community, and it had some resonance.
On the FBI’s connection to his death
Haas: We filed a civil suit … [and] in the course of this suit, … we show that actually this was not just a local ambitious prosecutor leading the police, this was part of the FBI COINTELPRO program, a clandestine FBI program that targeted the entire black movement, … but particularly the Panthers. J. Edgar Hoover gave directions to every FBI office that had a Panther to destroy, disrupt and neutralize the Panthers by any means necessary, prevent the rise of a young messiah who could unify and electrify the masses. We think that’s who Fred Hampton was to the FBI, and we think they targeted him. Not only do you have those mandates, what we uncovered was a floor plan … complete with not only the layout of … the apartment, but the bed where Fred Hampton would be sleeping. And sure enough, when we followed the trajectory of the shots, they went toward that bed. And as his fiancee … reported, after they pulled her out of the room, they went back in and one police officer said, “Is he dead yet?” And she heard two shots and then she heard, “He’s dead. He’s good and dead now.” … So it really was an assassination. They went there with a mission. The mission started with the FBI.
On Hampton’s legacy in Chicago
Haas: The campaign and the amount of organizing that went into exposing and then getting the killer of Laquan McDonald prosecuted is one of the areas that we see it today. Here was a police killing, of course, we ended up with a video of it, but the community didn’t stop. Black Lives Matter didn’t stop. Black Youth 100 didn’t stop, Assata’s Daughters. … All kinds of groups in Chicago came together and they went not just to City Hall, they went to court, and the first Chicago policeman actually indicted for murder. … I think the follow-through on what happened with the Burge torture cases that … not only do we get some money for the actual victims, but reparations for the families, a recognition by the city of Chicago that they allowed and condoned police torture of blacks. So I see that that spirit continuing in that campaign against police brutality. We see it in efforts to end mass incarceration, to provide bail for people who have just been charged. So in a number of areas, I think the legacy is very clear.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.