‘Not only charismatic but visionary:’ Civil Rights lawyer talks about Black Panther’s legacy
Dec. 4, 2019, marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Fred Hampton by the Chicago Police.
In 1969, the mainstream American news media unanimously reported that Hampton died in a “shootout” when a 14-man team of the CPD Special Prosecutions Unit raided the Black Panther Party chairman’s apartment in search of illegal weapons. What was not reported was that Hampton was shot twice in the head at point-blank range as he slept under the influence of a sedative he was given earlier that evening by an FBI informant.
One of the people responsible for changing the official narrative is Flint Taylor, co-founder of the People’s Law Office of Chicago. Taylor is part of the legal team suing the City of Greensboro, eight GPD officers, Guilford County and two paramedics for the fatal hogtying of Marcus Deon Smith during the 2018 North Carolina Folk Festival.
In 1969, Taylor was a second-year Northwestern University law student working with attorneys and legal aids representing activist groups such as the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and Rising Up Angry. Four months before Hampton’s assassination, Taylor and his associates formed the People’s Law Office on Chicago’s North Side.
After the deadly raid, in which Black Panther Party member Mark Clark was also killed, Taylor and several others from the People’s Law Office were called to the bullet-riddled and blood-stained apartment by survivors. The death scene had not been sealed, and for the next 10 days, lawyers and legal aids collected evidence that contradicted police claims.
This they turned over to a ballistics expert, who determined that all but one of the bullets came from police guns. That one round was discharged by Clark in a reflexive death convulsion after being shot in the heart as the raiding team stormed into the apartment. A federal grand jury determined that the police fired between 82 and 99 shots, many into the bedrooms where most of the occupants lay sleeping.
In 1970, the People’s Law Office filed a Federal Civil Rights lawsuit against police and prosecutorial officials on behalf of Hampton’s and Clark’s families and the survivors of the raid. Subsequent decades of litigation yielded documentation of FBI involvement in Hampton’s death. In 1976, The Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations concluded that the raid was part of COINTELPRO, a nationwide FBI program designed to “destroy” the Black Panther movement.
But no indictments were ever returned against anyone involved with the planning or execution of the raid. William O’Neal, the FBI informant who provided the floor plan of the apartment and drugged Hampton, admitted his complicity before his 1990 suicide. In 1982, the City of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government agreed to each pay $616,333 to nine plaintiffs, including the mothers of Hampton and Clark. The $1.85 million settlement was, at the time, the largest awarded in a Civil Rights case.
Two years after litigating that historic settlement, Taylor was co-lead trial counsel in the 1985 Winston-Salem federal district court case that found two Klansmen, three Nazis, two Greensboro police officers, and a police informant liable for the wrongful death of one person and the injuring of two others during the 1979 Greensboro Massacre. He also took part in the decades-long campaign to bring criminal charges against Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, convicted in 2010 for lying about torturing suspects. In 2015, this led to a historic $5.5 million-reparations package to those tortured while in police custody during Burge’s command.
All three of these cases are described in Taylor’s The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago, published in March of this year by Haymarket Books (available at Scuppernong, Barnes & Noble, and Bookmarks). Last Friday, Taylor talked on the phone with YES! Weekly about Hampton’s life, death and legacy. Taylor said that, when he met Hampton, they were both 21 years old, but described the one who would never grow any older as wiser and more mature.
“The contrast in his experience and his power as a leader, and my young and rather immature approach to life in general, and as a law student in particular, is striking as I now look back on it. He was not only charismatic but visionary.”
Taylor talked about Hampton’s work to forge the Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural political organization he co-founded with William “Preacherman” Fesperman of the Young Patriots Organization and José “Cha Cha” Jiménez of the Young Lords. They were the first to use the “Rainbow Coalition” name and concept
“They called themselves that long before the term became popular in the Jesse Jackson campaigns of the 1980s. Fred’s Rainbow Coalition brought together the Puerto Rican Young Lords with such primarily white organizations as the Young Patriots, who were radical young Appalachian emigres, Rising Up Angry, and Students for a Democratic Society.”
Taylor said that perhaps the most difficult challenge Hampton faced was convincing street gangs such as the Blackstone Rangers to give up drug dealing and fighting and join the coalition.
“That was very visionary and was partially successful. Of course, we’ll never know how successful it would have been if Fred had continued to spearhead it.”
Hampton, Taylor said, “was not as well-known as many of the other black leaders targeted in the 1960s, but he was certainly one whom the FBI had on its radar and successfully manipulated the police to assassinate.”
Taylor said that the survivors of the raid, as well as the rest of the Black Panther Party membership, immediately believed that the shooting was orchestrated by the FBI and the Nixon administration.
“In 1969, there wasn’t yet much evidence, but over the next few years, through our lawsuit and the Washington investigations that came out of Watergate, and such other incidents as the 1971 break-in at the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania, the plan came to light. It was documented by the FBI under the acronym of COINTELPRO or “counterintelligence program.”
Notable COINTELPRO targets included Muhammed Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, Jane Fonda, Ernest Hemmingway, Abby Hoffman, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, John Lewis, Russel Means, Huey Newton, and Malcolm X. According to Brian Glick’s War at Home: Covert Action Against U.S. Activists and What We Can Do About It, COINTELPRO methods ranged from psychological warfare and legal harassment to conspiring with local police departments to commit extra-legal violence, up to and including assassinations.
Edward Dawson, the GPD and FBI informant who led the caravan of Klansmen and Nazis gunmen who committed the Greensboro Massacre, was employed by the COINTEL program.
“As COINTELPRO moved from targeting the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party to targeting the black liberation struggle of the 1960s, the illegal and unconstitutional tactics became more and more violent,” Taylor said. “As the Panthers came on the scene, the violence turned to disruptions that aimed at getting the Panthers and various black street gangs to fight each other, and ultimately to set up the successful assassination of Fred Hampton.”
I asked Taylor if he thought the 21st-century FBI was as malign as its 20st-century history would suggest, pointing out that recent events have seemed to make some progressives sympathetic to the FBI, if only by having a mutual enemy in Donald Trump.
“I think it’s more complicated than that, although the FBI appears opposed to the outrageous and unconstitutional things that Trump has been doing. But you have to look, for example, at the history of Robert Mueller himself, who was in the FBI when there was a very serious attack on civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. You can see vestiges of COINTELPRO in the approach that the FBI takes to what they called ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ as well as how they and other governmental and quasi-government organizations and entities feed information to local sheriffs in order to disrupt the Dakota Access Pipeline protest and to classify the indigenous movement as domestic terrorists.”
So, what is Fred Hampton’s legacy? Did it succeed to any degree?
“You have to see Fred’s accomplishments in the context of not only himself but the young wave of black leadership in that short period of time before he was assassinated. Look at the Ten-Point Program of the Black Panthers and what they encouraged and actually did to resist the police, from calling out the out the police as the oppressor in their community to taking on cases of police violence. That was a very strong piece of what was going on in Chicago and across the country. And now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, you see a reflection of that.”
“The first became a model for governmental children’s breakfast programs. Ronald ‘Doc’ Satchel, one of the Panthers, seriously wounded in the raid on Fred Hampton’s apartment, is known as Doc because he was one of the leaders in the creation of the Black Panther medical program. That led to other programs from allied organizations, such as Rising Up Angry starting one that focused on women’s health.”
Taylor also called the Panthers leaders in education in impoverished communities, and founders of alternative journalism.
“The Black Panther paper was a model for so many other radical and left papers, and I dare say all the way to your paper in some regards.”
Taylor said that, while it’s impossible to predict what Hampton would have gone on to do, that all the programs he and his fellow Panthers started in Chicago are part of his legacy.
“We see that Bobby Rush, who was the Black Panther Party Minister of Defense, went on to be, and still is, a very influential congressman in Washington. Who knows where Fred would have ended up? But we do know what a remarkable young leader he was in his short life, and how important it is to tell the true narrative of what happened to him and his assassination.”
I asked him to recap that narrative.
“It started with the lie constructed by the police and the prosecutor who masterminded the raid, that it was a shootout, that the Panthers opened fire and that justified killing them. We documented that it was an assassination, a state-sanctioned killing orchestrated by the COINTELPRO program. It was not only approved in Washington but claimed in FBI documents as a counterintelligence program success.”
It’s still unknown which CPD officer shot Hampton in the head, and no member of the raiding party suffered any legal consequences. But the revelations did scuttle the political ambitions of Illinois state attorney Edward Hanrahan, who planned the raid and had been groomed as a successor to Chicago Mayor Richard J. Dailey.
That, Taylor said, was not the only positive outcome of the tragedy.
“When the local courts acquitted Hanhrahan on the eve of the 1972 election, the black community en masse crossed over and voted him out of office, and that was a powerful political statement by the community. That political statement became the movement that supported the election of the first black progressive and first black mayor in Chicago’s history, Harold Washington, 10 or 11 years later. Many historians agree that one can draw a straight line from the assassination to the coverup to the 1972 election all the way to 1983 when Harold Washington was elected.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.