50 years after Black Panther leaders were killed in a hail of gunfire, issue of police brutality still debated
By WILLIAM LEE | Chicago Tribune | Published: December 7, 2019
CHICAGO (Tribune News Service) — For a generation of Chicagoans, their opinion of what happened in 1969 when Chicago police raided the West Side apartment of Black Panther Party members depended greatly on what neighborhood they called home.
For the public at large, it was as police officials described: a dramatic gunfight launched against police by violent black nationalists that left two dead and four wounded.
But for others, particularly socially conscious African Americans, the Dec. 4 raid on the two-flat at 2337 W. Monroe St. was a cold-blooded execution of Black Panthers leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, ordered by federal authorities eager to snuff out burgeoning black leadership.
Officially, the Cook County state's attorney's 4:30 a.m. raid by 14 Chicago police officers began as the execution of a search warrant to turn up weapons and explosives that the feared black power group was supposedly hoarding inside.
But it didn't take long for the police's version of events – that Black Panther members opened fire first on officers knocking on the door – to be challenged.
Survivors described a far more frightening scene: Officers armed with shotguns and rifles opening fire on sleeping Black Panther members inside, among them Hampton's pregnant fiancee. A special federal grand jury determined that police sprayed 82 to 99 gunshots through doors, walls and windows while just one shot appeared to have been fired by someone inside.
Clark was killed in early gunfire, but survivors Harold Bell and Hampton's fiancee, Akua Njeri, then known as Debra Johnson, testified at the 1972 criminal trial against the state's attorney and officers in the raid that Hampton was pulled alive from his bed and shot dead after the group had surrendered. Later, an FBI whistleblower said the agency coaxed local law enforcement across the country, including Chicago police, into deadly clashes with heavily armed Black Panthers.
In 1983, a federal judge approved a settlement that awarded $1.85 million to survivors of the raid and families of the two men who were killed, to be paid by the federal government, the city of Chicago and Cook County.
Historian Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, said the Black Panthers' fast rise during 1960s was due to their leadership's ability to speak to young black disenfranchisement.
"What the Black Panthers did was take that generation of young people who were disturbed by what was happening in the black community and developed a political answer," said Carson, who has written extensively on the Black Panthers, King and Malcolm X.
"The Black Panther Party had dynamic leadership that drew people to it, and Fred Hampton was a wonderful example of that. He would have made a wonderful leader."
Carson and G. Flint Taylor, a longtime Chicago attorney who has worked on cases involving the use of excessive force by police, said modern movements like Black Lives Matter that address police brutality have taken up the mantle of the Black Panthers. Taylor also represented the Hampton and Clark families in the 13-year civil lawsuit.
If the 1969 deaths were meant to stall black leadership in Chicago, Taylor said the outrage by activists across racial lines over Hampton and Clark's deaths helped lay the political groundwork that "led in a straight line to the voting out of (State's Attorney Edward) Hanrahan in 1972 ... and of course, that political movement became the underpinnings of the movement" to elect Harold Washington as the city's first black leader and later Barack Obama, as the nation's first black president.
Decades later, the West Side killings could still divide the city and cause tempers to flare. In 2006, a West Side alderman proposed naming a section of Monroe Street as Chairman Fred Hampton Way. The proposal, which initially flew under the public radar, soon raised the ire of the local police union and the relatives of fallen police officers. They claimed police were merely pushing back against violent militants who encouraged armed resistance.
"It's a dark day when we honor someone who would advocate killing policemen and who took great advantage of the communities he claimed to have been serving," the Fraternal Order of Police president said at the time. Weeks before the 1969 raid, a gunbattle had left two Chicago officers and one Black Panther member dead.
The attempt to rename the street failed, aggravating past scars and showing that the "echoes of that turbulent era still reverberate in a city still divided by race and class," writer and commentator Salim Muwakkil wrote in 2006.
The raid also led to one of the biggest embarrassments in Chicago Tribune history, as "exclusive details" and photos ran in the newspaper that purportedly showed bullet holes fired by Black Panther members but were later determined to be just nail heads. Afterward, the Tribune dispatched pioneering black reporter Joseph Boyce to interview friends, family and loved ones of Hampton and Clark.
But the event had deeper implications for the city beyond ending the rising political career of Hanrahan.
On the doorstep of a new decade, Hampton and Clark's deaths effectively ended the city's 1960s counterculture movement and fulfilled FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's goal of disrupting the local Black Panthers. Clark and Hampton were the 27th and 28th Panthers slain that year, while, in coming years, dozens of other leaders and members, including Bobby Seale, Geronimo Pratt and Angela Davis were imprisoned or were on the run from the law. Remaining leadership called members to Oakland to refocus their efforts. By 1982, the Black Panther Party, which was beset by infighting and criminal activities within its ranks, had been dissolved and ceased operation.
The wrongful death lawsuit, aided by more openness from the FBI following Hoover's death and changing public attitudes toward authority spurred by Watergate, helped lift the lid on the FBI's long-running dirty tricks campaign against the group and the individuals it considered dissident.
The agency's infamous COINTELPRO, or counterintelligence program, tracked, spied on and used subterfuge against targets from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Ku Klux Klan. In 1976, the FBI first admitted its role in the Chicago raid in a New York Times article that described the program as "Mr. Hoover's once\u2010secret effort to watch, harass and discredit thousands of Americans whose politics he opposed."
Perhaps more shocking, a Senate report further acknowledged that Hoover's FBI, in trying to prevent violence from black power groups "itself engaged in lawless tactics and responded to deep-seated social problems by fomenting violence and unrest."
In one such attempt to raise rancor between the Black Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers street gang, the FBI formulated a plan to send a note to Blackstone leader Jeff Fort, purportedly by an anonymous black gang member, claiming the Panthers had put a "hit" on him, a 1976 report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities revealed.
"Some of those activities were clearly wrong and quite indefensible," a successor to Hoover said. "We most certainly must never allow them to be repeated."
Started by black Oakland college students Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense attracted great interest and membership in cities across the country.
Dressed in black berets and leather jackets and easily recognizable with their raised fist and chant of "power to the people," teenagers and young adults, male and female, were drawn by messages of black empowerment and armed resistance against police violence. The group also instituted breakfast programs for children and medical clinics for the poor.
But where black youth saw inspiration, Hoover saw "the greatest threat to internal security of the country" and promised to neutralize the group by year's end.
The Illinois Black Panther Party found fertile ground on Chicago's West Side, which grappled with issues of white flight, gang strife, limited job opportunities and conflict between residents and police.
Enter Hampton, a 21-year-old Maywood man, whose charisma and popular support among young activists led them to call him "chairman" as a sign of respect. Born in southwest suburban Summit and an honors graduate at Proviso East High School, Hampton led a successful campaign to have a non-segregated pool for youngsters built in his hometown. But it was his electric presence and magnetic personality that raised the membership of the NAACP's suburban youth chapter from seven to 700.
Historians say police brutality and early tangles with the establishment drew him away from the NAACP and toward the Illinois Black Panther Party, which opened an office on West Madison Street in November 1968. Hampton gained further recognition by negotiating a truce between his group and Blackstone Rangers and Black Disciples street gangs that May. Hampton was seen as a successor to leadership as bosses were killed or put in prison. He was joined by Clark, 22, described as a shy, lanky would-be actor who led the Peoria chapter.
By July 1969, the Black Panthers had become the primary focus of the FBI's COINTELPRO tactics, as Hoover sought to prevent the "rise of a messiah that would unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement" and gain public respectability, according to the Senate report. Leading up to the raid, the FBI and police also arrested Hampton and other Black Panther members in a deliberate effort to publicly discredit the group, the report added.
During court proceedings, it was later revealed that William O'Neal, a car thief, had been turned into a paid informant by the FBI. As the Black Panthers' security guard, O'Neal provided his FBI handlers with details of the group's inner workings and floor plans of Hampton's apartment prior to the raid. FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen became the agency's first whistleblower in 1977, claiming first to government lawyers and later in a 1995 book that the FBI set up Chicago police to kill the Panthers, warning the officers they'd be met with guns blazing.
Taylor, the families' civil attorney, rejected any suggestions that Chicago police were anything except "willing partners," in the slayings. "They weren't duped into this raid," Taylor said. "It wasn't just a shooting ... it was a political assassination that came from Washington and the COINTEL program and J. Edgar Hoover."
Hanrahan, an assistant and 12 officers present at the raid were indicted, but later acquitted. Hanrahan was forced out and never regained public office. Young Black Panthers member Bobby Rush became an alderman and eventually a U.S. congressman.
In 1990, O'Neal, who'd returned to Chicago in the mid-1980s after a stint in federal witness protection, was struck by a car when he ran across the Eisenhower Expressway in Maywood in an apparent suicide.
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