Why Fred Hampton Got Shot

Fred Hampton by UIC Library Digital Collections is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Fred Hampton” by UIC Library Digital Collections is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eric Folmer, Editor

Fred Hampton, Black Panther Party of Illinois Chairman, got shot in the head by a Chicago police officer during a raid on his apartment more than 50 years ago. It’s old news, but its consequences still have an effect on people all over the country to this day, whether they realize it or not.

The raid was initially instigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As a part of their Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, the FBI was intent on fracturing the Black Panthers in any way that they could. This included planting an informant within the group, William O’Neal, who drugged Hampton into unconsciousness and gave the FBI a map of Hampton’s apartment room in preparation for the raid.

The police and a plethora of media outlets claimed that the Panthers had shot first, citing an array of bullet holes across from where they would have shot from as evidence. However, these “bullet holes” were later determined to be nails embedded in the wall, completely unrelated to the shooting: the only shot fired by the Panthers came from Mark Clark, who was guarding the door when the officers busted in and shot him in the heart, causing him to reflexively fire his shotgun into the wall.

A special state-selected jury ruled the killings of Clark and Hampton as justifiable homicides, meaning no sentences for the perpetrators. While this case has been closed for a long time now, the U.S. has still seen its fair share of justifiable homicides. 

While many of these modern killings have been a result of bad police work or poor judgement, the Chicago PD didn’t make any mistakes in Hampton’s apartment. Hampton’s fiancée, Deborah Johnson, testified both in court and to the press that two officers, after seeing that he was unconscious and wounded and remarking that he was still alive, decided to finish him off by shooting him twice in the head. The question that remains from that is why the FBI and the Chicago PD wanted Hampton dead to begin with.

COINTELPRO operators had had their eyes on Chairman Hampton for some time before they took him out. O’Neal, who was the captain of security for the Chicago BPP, was made into an informant largely because of how close he was to Hampton. 

If there’s one thing that made Fred Hampton more than a leader of the Blank Panther Party, which was already enough to make him an enemy of the state, it was the First Rainbow Coalition. The Coalition was a joint effort between the Chicago BPP and a number of other factions in the city that shared similar goals to the Party. 

It was called the Rainbow Coalition because most of the groups were each built around a specific ethnic strata. For example, the first members were the Young Lords, who were a latino Puerto Rican gang from the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and the Young Patriots Organization, mostly composed of white migrants from the American South from the Uptown district. 

While the Black Panthers were hesitant to work alongside a group that openly wore the Confederate battle flag, as the Young Patriots did, all three of the organizations had a surprising amount of things in common. In a collection of interviews with Independent Lens for a documentary called “The First Rainbow Coalition,” Young Lords and YPO members alike agreed with the Black Panther Party’s 10 points for their own groups, which were the goals that the BPP strived for, including the power to determine the destiny of their communities, the end of police brutality, and the right to a jury comprised of peers in their communities when on criminal trial.

Members of the Rainbow Coalition, which grew to include the American Indian Movement, the Brown Berets and the Red Guard, used supplies provided by the Black Panthers to carry out programs similar to those of the party, such as the “Free Breakfast for School Children Program.” 

Also shortened to “the free breakfast program,” this operation was an effort to provide free before-school meals to impoverished children, originally only for black children under the Black Panthers but expanded out to include any impoverished child over time. Despite the beneficial nature of this program, Domestic Intelligence Chief of the FBI and leader of COINTELPRO operations from 1961-1971 William C. Sullivan believed that the program was made with nefarious goals in mind.

“The BPP is not engaged with the ‘Breakfast for Children Program’ for humanitarian reasons,” said Sullivan. “Including their efforts to create an image of civility, assume community control of the Negroes, and to fill adolescent children with their insidious poison.”

The FBI undertook several COINTELPRO operations to disrupt this program, both raiding and shutting down kitchens that offered it and spreading characterizations of it in the media as a source of “violent… anti-white propaganda,” as Chief Sullivan put it.

The majority of FBI efforts to undermine the Coalition were not as direct as storming their kitchens and smashing their food. According to research conducted by political activist Ward Churchill as a part of a piece titled “To Disrupt, Discredit, and Destroy,” the FBI used misinformation to erode public support for the Black Panthers. This included a series of FBI-made articles that were sent to their contacts in the press that ranged from scathing opinion pieces criticizing the Party to news articles about fabricated scandals that the Party had allegedly taken part in. As the Rainbow Coalition grew in prominence, its member groups were given a similar treatment.

The FBI also took issue with the BPP’s armament of themselves and black communities. In their case file on the Party, it is claimed that the Black Panthers “advocated the use of violence.”

LHS Senior Tuli Freeman disagrees with this claim. He explained the distinction between using weapons as a provocative force and a preventative force while discussing the Party’s “Policing the Police” program.

“Their whole objective was just to protect the people of their community,” said Freeman. “Because they were over-policed, drugs were being funneled in, there was violence against the people by the police,” said Freeman. “Whereas normally, they’d get away with harming, like, a black citizen just because they felt like it, when the Panthers were around, obviously they were less likely to do that. They never started anything, but they made sure that nothing happened on their watch.”

Tuli went on to allude to an incident in which the Panthers brought guns with them to California’s State Capitol Building in protest of a bill that was being considered by the state’s Congress that would criminalize the public carrying of loaded firearms. The bill, called the “Mulford Act,” was largely a response to the Panthers’ armed “cop-watching” patrols in Oakland. Despite this protest, the Mulford Act was enacted by the Governor of California of that time, Ronald Reagan.

Beyond their social programs and self-armament, the final reason that the FBI and the United States government vehemently opposed the Panthers, as well as the listed reason for them falling under the purview of COINTELPRO, was black nationalism. The FBI referred to the Black Panther Party as both a “Black Hate Group” and a “Black Nationalist Hate Group” in their case file, and Chief Sullivan claimed that the Party spewed “anti-white propaganda.”

While many Black Panther Party members and leaders identified themselves and the organization as black nationalist, and many of the goals listed in the Party’s “Ten-Point Program” fall in line with the ideals of black nationalism, the distinction between black nationalism and white nationalism is important. Tuli Freeman said that, despite having similar names, the two ideologies are extremely divergent from each other.

“White nationalism promotes the idea that specifically Western European descendents are superior,” said Freeman. “That they’re smarter, more capable, and are almost like supposed to be the ones in charge, and that often comes in the form of discrimination and a lot of hatred towards other races, and kind of looking down on them. Black nationalism more promotes the idea that we are in fact equal to everybody else.”

Due to the inconsistencies with the FBI’s stated reasons to oppose the Black Panthers and Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, it is still unclear as to why the FBI saw Hampton as enough of a threat to deserve an assassination. However, a reason can be discovered upon re-examining what the Rainbow Coalition existed to do. 

The Rainbow Coalition, at its core, was a mutual aid organization. It was used by people in a community to help serve their community, all for free and with solidarity between each group within it. That is certainly not threatening to American citizenry: in truth, it serves to benefit them. What is often forgotten is that the FBI and COINTELPRO aren’t there to protect the American citizenry: they exist to protect the American state. 

The Rainbow Coalition certainly posed a threat to the American state. It did so in the same way that it benefitted the American people: it provided often-preferred alternatives to the systems that the U.S. already had in place, particularly for the oppressed. 

For example, the Young Lords ended up on Fred Hampton’s radar when they protested the city council’s refusal to include members of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community in their meetings. The American system for creating change, which is to get represented by leaders within the republic, didn’t work for them. Instead of writing to their Congressmen, the Rainbow Coalition organized and picketed to make change happen, which was preferable to people who got nothing but stock replies and false promises in their mailboxes in return for their pleas. 

The Coalition’s community policing was easily far better than what the Chicago PD offered. For anyone but the white and well-off, the best thing that the Chicago police could offer was a harsh beating on the regular and maybe even a bullet in the head. Having people from their own communities watching over them is a more attractive idea than that.

Social programs ran by the Rainbow Coalition were also preferable to what the U.S. had for the impoverished. If a poor person asks Uncle Sam how to make their lives better, all they’re told to do is keep working, and that eventually it’ll get better if they just try. If that never happens, then mutual aid from peers within their community sounds better than waiting in a bread line, and certainly better than trying to squeeze a raise out of an alienated and uncaring boss at their workplace. 

What comes out of all these alternatives is a happier populace, but also a dead American state. When people take political action collectively, the republic goes away. When they stop needing the police, the punching arm of the executive branch is gone. When they rely on each other rather than a company or the government, the whole basis of the American economy falls apart. 

When the FBI had Fred Hampton assassinated, they set a precedent. That precedent was that they’d rather kill someone for improving their community for its inhabitants than let the old American way of life die. That hasn’t changed: COINTELPRO still exists to this day, and they are far from done with their job. With the advent of the internet, it’s easier to spread knowledge than ever, but also misinformation. It’s easier to organize around a common goal, but also to track down, defame, or arrest those organizers.

If there’s anything to be learned from the story of Fred Hampton, it’s that whenever someone tries to make radical change, for better or for worse, someone is going to be there to do anything they can to keep things the same. 


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