How the FBI Conspired to Destroy the Black Panther Party

The assassination of BPP leader Fred Hampton in 1969 was just the beginning.

G. Flint Taylor

Included in the FBI's file on the Black Panther Party was a floor plan of Hampton's apartment specifically identifying the bed where he slept. (People's Law Office)

On Dec. 4, 1969, a select unit of 14 Chica­go police offi­cers, under the direc­tion of Cook Coun­ty State’s Attor­ney Edward Han­ra­han, exe­cut­ed a predawn raid on a West Side apart­ment that left Illi­nois Black Pan­ther Par­ty (BPP) lead­ers Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark dead, sev­er­al oth­er young Pan­thers wound­ed and sev­en raid sur­vivors arrest­ed on bogus attempt­ed mur­der charges. Though Han­ra­han and his men claimed there had been a shootout that morn­ing, phys­i­cal evi­dence even­tu­al­ly proved that in real­i­ty, the Pan­thers had only fired a sin­gle shot in response to approx­i­mate­ly 90 from the police.

The FBI had, in fact, played a central role in the assassinations, and Hanrahan’s initial lies were only the top layer of what proved to be a massive cover-up.

In the wake of the raid, Illi­nois BPP Min­is­ter of Defense Bob­by Rush stood on the steps of the bul­let-rid­dled BPP apart­ment and declared that J. Edgar Hoover and the Fed­er­al Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion were respon­si­ble for the raid. At the time, Rush had no hard proof to back up his claims. Over the course of the next eight years, how­ev­er, activists and lawyers, myself includ­ed, would even­tu­al­ly dis­cov­er the truth: The FBI had, in fact, played a cen­tral role in the assas­si­na­tions, and Hanrahan’s ini­tial lies were only the top lay­er of what proved to be a mas­sive cover-up.

The first evi­dence to sup­port Rush’s alle­ga­tion sur­faced in March 1971, when a group of anony­mous activists who called them­selves the Cit­i­zens’ Com­mis­sion to Inves­ti­gate the FBI” broke into a small FBI office in Media, Pa. to expro­pri­ate more than 1,000 doc­u­ments. In doing so, the Com­mis­sion exposed the FBI’s COIN­TEL­PRO” pro­gram, a secret coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence pro­gram cre­at­ed to, as the L.A. Times put it in 2006, inves­ti­gate and dis­rupt dis­si­dent polit­i­cal groups in the Unit­ed States.“ Accord­ing to the Commission’s pur­loined doc­u­ments, Hoover had direct­ed all of the Bureau’s offices to expose, dis­rupt, mis­di­rect, dis­cred­it and oth­er­wise neu­tral­ize” African-Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions and lead­ers, includ­ing the South­ern Chris­t­ian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee, the Nation of Islam, Mar­tin Luther King, Stoke­ly Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.

Two years lat­er, it was pub­licly revealed in an unre­lat­ed case that Chica­go Black Pan­ther Par­ty Chief of Secu­ri­ty William O’Neal was a paid infor­mant for the FBI. At the time, I was a young lawyer work­ing with my col­leagues at the People’s Law Office on a civ­il rights law­suit we had filed on behalf of the Hamp­ton and Clark fam­i­lies and the sur­vivors of the Decem­ber 4th raid. We quick­ly sub­poe­naed the Chica­go FBI’s Black Pan­ther Par­ty files. In response, the FBI pro­duced a small num­ber of doc­u­ments that includ­ed a detailed floor plan of the BPP apart­ment specif­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fy­ing the bed where Hamp­ton slept, which O’Neal had sup­plied to Han­ra­han before the raid by way of his FBI con­trol agent.

For the fol­low­ing two years, we focused on unearthing fur­ther details about the FBI’s involve­ment in the con­spir­a­cy and sought the Chica­go office’s COIN­TEL­PRO file in order to estab­lish a direct link between the FBI’s pro­gram and the raid. When the gov­ern­ment would not pro­duce the file — and Dis­trict Court Judge Joseph Sam Per­ry refused to com­pel them to do so — we turned to the Sen­ate Select Com­mit­tee to Study Gov­ern­men­tal Oper­a­tions for help.

A staff mem­ber of the Com­mit­tee, which was cre­at­ed in the wake of the Water­gate scan­dal to inves­ti­gate ram­pant abus­es by all Unit­ed States intel­li­gence agen­cies, includ­ing the FBI, informed us in late 1975 that there were sev­er­al doc­u­ments in the Chica­go office defin­i­tive­ly estab­lish­ing the link we sought. Armed with this infor­ma­tion, we were able to per­suade Judge Per­ry, who had pre­vi­ous­ly declared those doc­u­ments irrel­e­vant after pri­vate­ly review­ing them, into order­ing the FBI to pro­duce the file. And just as the Select Com­mit­tee had promised, the doc­u­ments revealed the FBI’s efforts to foment vio­lence against Fred Hamp­ton and the Chica­go Pan­thers. One doc­u­ment, dat­ed Dec. 3, 1969, specif­i­cal­ly clas­si­fied the antic­i­pat­ed raid on the West Side apart­ment as part of the COIN­TEL­PRO program.

In Jan­u­ary of 1976, our team embarked on what would turn out to be one of the longest civ­il tri­als in fed­er­al court his­to­ry. Two months in, O’Neal’s FBI con­trol agent, Roy Mitchell, blun­dered on the wit­ness stand and inad­ver­tent­ly indi­cat­ed that the FBI had not actu­al­ly pro­duced all of the Chica­go Black Pan­ther files Judge Per­ry, like­ly not know­ing what was about to hap­pen, ordered that they do so. The next day, a shak­en Jus­tice Depart­ment super­vi­sor wheeled into court shop­ping carts, on which were stacked almost 200 vol­umes of FBI files on the BPP.

The gov­ern­ment spent the next two weeks pro­duc­ing sev­er­al vol­umes of doc­u­ments each day. The files con­tained direc­tives to destroy the Pan­ther’s Break­fast for Chil­dren Pro­gram and dis­rupt the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the BPP news­pa­per, exten­sive wire­tap over­hears and evi­dence that the charis­mat­ic Hamp­ton had been specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed for inten­sive sur­veil­lance and disruption.

The last vol­ume pro­duced by the gov­ern­ment was O’Neal’s con­trol file. In it was yet anoth­er smok­ing gun: a memo from the Chica­go office to FBI Head­quar­ters request­ing a $300 bonus to reward O’Neal for his infor­ma­tion, which the memo assert­ed was of tremen­dous val­ue.” A return memo from Head­quar­ters approved this request.

Despite the over­whelm­ing evi­dence to the con­trary, Judge Per­ry exon­er­at­ed the FBI defen­dants and their lawyers of any wrong­do­ing in sup­press­ing the doc­u­ments and lat­er dis­missed the FBI defen­dants from the case. But in April 1979, the Sev­enth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals over­turned the tri­al judge, find­ing that the FBI and its gov­ern­ment lawyers had obstruct­ed jus­tice by sup­press­ing the BPP files. The Court of Appeals also con­clud­ed that there was sub­stan­tial evi­dence to sup­port the con­clu­sion that the FBI defen­dants, in plan­ning and exe­cut­ing the raid, had par­tic­i­pat­ed in a con­spir­a­cy designed to sub­vert and elim­i­nate the Black Pan­ther Par­ty and its mem­bers,” there­by sup­press­ing a vital rad­i­cal-Black polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion.” The Court fur­ther found there to be con­vinc­ing evi­dence that these defen­dants also par­tic­i­pat­ed in a sep­a­rate post-raid con­spir­a­cy to con­ceal the true char­ac­ter of [their] pre-raid and raid activ­i­ties,” to harass the sur­vivors of the raid” and to frus­trate any [legal] redress the sur­vivors might seek.”

The next year, this land­mark deci­sion with­stood a chal­lenge in the U.S. Supreme Court. It stands today as judi­cial recog­ni­tion of out­ra­geous fed­er­al and local crim­i­nal­i­ty and cover-up.

How­ev­er, it is impor­tant not to rel­e­gate the Hamp­ton assas­si­na­tion and sub­se­quent con­spir­a­cy to the annals of his­to­ry. We would do well, after all, to remem­ber Direc­tor Hoover’s line from a 1964 COIN­TEL­PRO mem­o­ran­dum in which he claimed cred­it for dis­rupt­ing” and neu­tral­iz­ing” the Com­mu­nist Party:

Over the years, our approach to inves­tiga­tive prob­lems in the intel­li­gence field has giv­en rise to a num­ber of new pro­grams, some of which have been most rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and it can be pre­sumed that with a con­tin­ued aggres­sive approach to these prob­lems, new and pro­duc­tive ideas will be forthcoming.

In light of the cur­rent rev­e­la­tions con­cern­ing the sys­temic ille­gal activ­i­ties of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency and the FBI in the name of fight­ing ter­ror­ism, such new and pro­duc­tive ideas” seem clos­er at hand than ever.

Flint Tay­lor is a found­ing part­ner of the People’s Law Office in Chica­go. He is one of the lawyers for the fam­i­lies of slain Black Pan­ther lead­ers Fred Hamp­ton and Mark Clark, has rep­re­sent­ed many sur­vivors of Chica­go police tor­ture over the past 30 years and is coun­sel in sev­er­al ille­gal search and wrong­ful death cas­es brought against the Mil­wau­kee Police Department.
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