Views » March 31, 2006
The Battle for Fred Hampton Way
White Chicagoans with little knowledge of historical context are siding with those who seemingly got away with cold-blooded murder
In early February, Chicago Ald. Madeline Haithcock proposed to name one city block in honor of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader who died on the block in an infamous 1969 police raid. She was acting on a request from Fred Hampton Jr., who was born just three weeks after his mother survived the pre-dawn assault on the Panther apartment.
Haithcock’s ordinance to name a block of Monroe Street “Chairman Fred Hampton Way” unanimously breezed through a City Council committee. After all, there are nearly 1,300 honorary street signs in the city already; a tradition since 1984, they are an easy way for aldermen to win the favor of constituents.
But a furor erupted when the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) heard of the proposal. “It’s a dark day when we honor someone who advocated killing policemen and who took great advantage of the communities he claimed to have been serving,” said FOP President Mark Donahue. The police union organized relatives of cops killed in the line of duty to lobby aldermen against the ordinance and several white aldermen expressed misgivings about the honorary designation.
Meanwhile, a coalition of black Chicagoans, including the city’s three black Democratic congressmen–Reps. Bobby Rush, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis–came together to urge that Haithcock’s ordinance be passed. The newly formed coalition contains a wide spectrum of supporters and genuinely represents community sentiment.
Chicago’s City Council will deliver a final vote in late March, after In These Times went to press. But the issue reveals, once again, how differing historical narratives can alter current perceptions of reality.
Chairman of the Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter, Hampton was one of the group’s most charismatic leaders. He organized several programs designed to demonstrate that people had power if they acted with a unified purpose.
“We organized breakfast programs, medical clinics, food depositories and other things to show the community that we could change our condition if we seized the initiative,” says Akua Njeri, who shared Hampton’s bed the night of the deadly raid. “It was uncanny, because he was so young to have such a powerful vision. People who came in contact with Fred were always impressed by his tremendous energy and sense of purpose.”
Njeri joined the Panthers in her teens, attracted by the group’s political commitment. She said it contrasted starkly with predatory street gangs and offered a positive alternative for Chicago’s black youth.
In 1968, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover announced the Panthers were “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and developed a counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) to “neutralize” the group. Various police agencies, spurred by the FBI’s threat assessment, began conducting raids on Panther offices across the country.
On Dec. 4, 1969, the Chicago police did their part, ambushing Panther members as they slept and claiming it was a shootout. Hampton and Mark Clark, a Panther from Peoria, were killed in the assault and several others were injured. Later investigations revealed that all but one of the more than 100 bullets fired in that pre-dawn attack were from police guns.
Despite the fact that no one has ever been punished for the assassinations of Hampton and Clark, police are acting as if they are the aggrieved party. What’s more, white Chicagoans with little knowledge of historical context are supporting the side of those who seemingly got away with cold-blooded murder.
“The question is: whose side are you on?” said Conrad Worrill, Chairman of the National Black United Front at a news conference introducing the coalition. “Are you on the side of law enforcement agencies who want to cover up what happened or the great work of the Black Panther Party?”
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, two college students in Oakland Calif., created the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966, primarily to counter the racist brutality of the city’s cops. Provoked by similar police abuse, youth in cities across the country were erupting into violent protest.
The Panthers sought to channel that rage into an organized challenge of police abuse and into delivering direct community service to those most in need. The group grew too rapidly to screen members, some of whom had ulterior motives. Some of the Panthers’ tactics were needlessly provocative and provided police a perfect pretext for attack.
Njeri contends the Panthers were victims of a military defeat by counterinsurgency agents and that those efforts continue even now. She cites her son as an example. Fred Hampton Jr. was imprisoned for eight years on questionable charges and both insist they remain targets of police harassment.
As the street sign debate reveals, the echoes of that turbulent era still reverberate in a city still divided by race and class.arguments make a lot of sense.
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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.