The Progressive - December 3, 2019

Early in the morning of December 4, 1969, fourteen police officers executed a search warrant on a Chicago flat rented by the Black Panther Party. They were supposedly looking for illegal weapons. Instead, they shot and killed two people, and left four others wounded.

Fred Hampton, chair of the Black Panther Party of Illinois, died of two gunshots to the head. His murder, along with that of fellow Panther Mark Clark, sent waves of shock and outrage through their community. Hampton was a well-liked and charismatic leader at the age of only twenty-one. His death came in the last month of a decade that saw the murders of other prominent civil rights leaders including Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.  

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Q: Fred Hampton was not a well-known national leader. Why was he assassinated?

Jeffrey Haas: In the course of our thirteen-year lawsuit, including an eighteen-month trial, to expose what happened to Fred and the other Panthers that night, we learned that the government had a plan in place to deal with any black leaders emerging “who could unify and electrify the masses,” in the words of the FBI documents. 

Fred was doing that. He had brought together a coalition of Puerto Ricans, Appalachians, and left people in Chicago to demand new things, including an end to police brutality and mass incarceration, community control of police, free breakfast programs, health clinics, and so forth.

In 1968 and 1969, he’d met with the Blackstone Rangers and the Black Gangster Disciples, two armed street gangs that had control of big areas of Chicago. Fred said to them, “Why are you preying on your own people? Why can’t we form a coalition?” And they did. In addition, Fred had already been in the prisons in Illinois and he was organizing the prisoners. 

Fred’s assassination had a huge impact on the south and west sides of Chicago. Without young leaders like Fred to bring young black people together, including militant people but who also had a base in the community and felt like the Panthers had served the community, they were overrun by the crack epidemic, the drug epidemic and the control of gangs that followed. 

Q: In 1982, you won a $1.85 million settlement for the Hampton and Clark families and the raid survivors. In 2018, Chicago paid out more than $113 million on police misconduct lawsuits, and more than a half a billion dollars over the past eight years. What is the significance of monetary damages?

Haas: As a deterrent, it’s really questionable as to how much money a city can afford to lose before they change police practices and training. That’s really an open question, I think. 

Nevertheless, it’s important that victims of civil rights abuses have a forum, and that they collect compensatory damages for what they suffered. In the civil system, the victims are the plaintiffs and we can try to really expose, confront and change police practices, and get the information that hopefully will help the public decide that there needs to be regulation of the police.

But money damages are not enough. Our lawsuit was a long crusade, with many appeals, and it was ultimately successful. But no one ever did a day of time, even though we proved the conspiracy—no indictments, after all that. Fred’s mother Iberia told me, “They got away with murder,” and I couldn’t deny that. 

Q: In your new Preface, you reference the 2014 police murder of twenty-year-old Laquan McDonald and the indictment and conviction of the officer who killed him. Why do you think it took forty-five years for a Chicago police officer to be convicted in one of these killings?

Haas: When Laquan’s body was prepared for his funeral, the mortician alerted people that he’d been shot sixteen times in the back and the side, indicating he may have been fleeing the police, not attacking the police. Investigative reporters began to get suspicious and it emerged there was a police video that had been hidden for two years. The video showing the murder by officer Jason Van Dyke was going to come out. 

A real coalition came together and they demanded that Van Dyke be charged with murder, which had never happened before. So the prosecutor quickly indicted him because it came to light that she and then mayor Rahm Emanuel knew about this video, had seen it, but had kept it hidden. 

Due to the pressure of the people who went to the police station, the courts and city hall over three years, the police chief was fired, the state’s attorney was defeated in a subsequent election and the mayor didn’t run again because it was clear that it would be the main campaign issue—why did he sit on this tape for so long? 

The jury came back with a guilty verdict for second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot. So, in a way, it was a political victory for the community, because the movement was so tenacious. And the fact that an officer can be charged and sentenced to substantial time will certainly have an impact on the officers willing to pull the trigger, so we see some things changing. 

That Fred Hampton’s murder was exposed as an assassination and that the police covered it up also made it easier in the general public’s awareness that cops do this and they do cover for each other and the politicians cover for the police.

Q: Why, of all of the cases you have been involved in, did you decide to write a book on the assassination of Fred Hampton?

Haas: I feel it’s important for people to know who Fred Hampton is beyond the fact of his murder. He was an amazing charismatic young man, with a tremendous energy and vibrancy who said many unforgettable things that are inspiring to this day. For instance Fred said: “Peace to you . . . if you’re willing to fight for it.” ...
Read full conversation at The Progressive