Last week I watched the documentary "The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution" and it was beautiful to see their power and vision and to hear the stories told by elders, once young leaders in the Black Panther Party. One charismatic and eloquent young leader who wasn't present, however, was Fred Hampton. Killed by Chicago police at age 21 in 1969, his message was too dangerous for the government, the FBI, their COINTELPRO, the local police and the State Attorney to bear. It was and is a message of solidarity among oppressed people.
In a speech at Olivet Church in 1969, Hampton laid out his vision of solidarity, telling the people,
"We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I'm talking about the white masses, I'm talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We've got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don't fight racism with racism. We're gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don't fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism."
As part of his vision, he helped draw together a coalition of Black, Brown, and White people represented by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots. Antonio R. Lopez wrote about Hampton in his 2012 dissertation, "In the spirit of liberation: Race, governmentality, and the decolonial politics of the Original Rainbow Coalition of Chicago." I remember reading his description of Hampton speaking before crowds and thinking that Hampton was a brilliant orator and analyst. When I read Antonio's description of his murder by the FBI, I cried. It was the first time I cried reading a dissertation that I was directing. If you want to know more about this incredible act of solidarity among poor Black, Brown, and White communities, I encourage you to read this dissertation.
Photo of poster by Jacob Anikulapo
Photo of poster by Jacob Anikulapo
Fred Hampton's cold-blooded murder before dawn as he slept next to his wife, Deborah Johnson, was the result of a collaboration between the FBI's COINTELPRO and the Chicago police. Police shot over 99 shots while the Black Panthers shot one bullet, accidentally discharged as they killed the young man who answered the door. J. Edgar Hoover gave a $300 reward to the COINTELPRO informant who had provided the information and may have drugged Hampton so that he couldn't defend himself.
The media portrayed it as a "shoot out" between the Black Panthers and the police. The bloody incident was anything but a shoot out. The FBI provided local police a map of the apartment where a number of Black Panthers lived, even identifying the bed where Fred Hampton would be sleeping. Using machine guns they shot a barrage of bullets into the bedroom. Somehow, Deborah who was 8 1/2 months pregnant was not shot. She was treated abusively by the police and witnessed their satisfaction at having killed her husband.
In the week and a half that followed the assassination, the Black Panthers gave tours of the apartment in an effort to counter the police claims that it was a shootout. The Associated Press reported on the day of the murder, that Hampton was "killed today in a gun fight between police and members of the militant black group... It was the second shootout within three weeks between police and the Panthers." The murder was "nothing but a Northern lynching," as one of the many people who saw the crime scene said, as quoted in "‘Nothing but a Northern Lynching’: The Assassination of Fred Hampton" by G. Flint Taylor, then a law student working with the People's Law Office. Eventually, after 13 years of litigation, the families of Fred Hampton and the other slain Black Panther, Mark Clark, received an award of $1.8 million from the City, State, and federal governments.
COINTELPRO, the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program, which was created in 1956 to undermine the Communist Party USA ended officially in 1971 when its presence was made public. Every President from Roosevelt to Nixon authorized it to neutralize and destroy political targets in the Civil Rights Movement and a variety of other groups.
Why was Fred Hampton a target? What made him such a threat? He not only energized African Americans to organize their communities and take their power back, but he invited others to join. Solidarity among marginalized groups is what the powerful could not allow to grow.
The lesson for today is that fire doesn't fight fire. Water does. We can't fight racism with racism. We destroy it with solidarity.