Fred Hampton: "Peace To You...If You're Willing to Fight For It

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Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton at the Panthers' office. Photo by Sun Times. Front photo from Chicago Defenders Archive

It was 50 years ago that Chicago law enforcement executed Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers, firing up to 99 shots into his West Side apartment as he slept with his pregnant fiancee at about 4:30 a.m; also killed was fellow Panther Mark Clark. Police said they were issuing a warrant when they were fired on; investigators eventually found that only one shot came from inside the apartment, likely from Clark as he was dying, and no police were injured. Later evidence showed Hampton had been given a sedative by an FBI informant, and that even amidst all the firepower he never woke up. He was reportedly still breathing when two cops approached his body. One asked if he was still alive; the other shot him two more times and declared, "He's good and dead now." He was 21 when he died.
 
Hampton was killed for the crime of being a “charismatic, full of empathy” visionary who could galvanize broad swathes of people. In his single, militant year of leadership as Chairman Fred, 1968-1969, he began free hot breakfast programs for kids in school, opened medical clinics to start testing black families for sickle cell disease, set up transportation for families to visit loved ones in prison, formed the first Rainbow Coalition by organizing diverse races, groups and gangs to work together in the community, advocated against police brutality and mass incarceration, and tirelessly spoke out about the contradictions around him. He told audiences they could only end their exploitation by reclaiming their own power, declaring they must fight racism with solidarity, fight capitalism with Socialism, and “fight fire with water." “Peace to you," he said, "if you’re willing to fight for it.”
 
Hampton's eloquence led inexorably to his murder, though it took almost 14 years for advocates and attorneys to connect the grim dots. After a thirteen-year lawsuit, including an eighteen-month trial, Jeffrey Haas and Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office won an $1.85 million settlement against Chicago law enforcement for the Hampton and Clark families and several raid survivors. Their work also exposed the chilling connections between the murders and the FBI's secret COINTELPRO project, a government contingency plan whereby the government would take down any emerging charismatic black leaders “who could unify and electrify the masses.” Under that plan, according to FBI documents, director J. Edgar Hoover vowed to “destroy, discredit, disrupt the activities of the Black Panther Party by any means necessary and prevent the rise of a Black Messiah.” And they were successful: Hampton and Clark were the 27th and 28th black activists killed that year.
 
Today, with police violence against people of color still widespread - Chicago paid more than $113 million to settle lawsuits against police in 2018 - Hampton's murder is viewed by many activists as a bitter but potent refueling of the movement toward accountability. To honor this week's 50th anniversary, Jeffrey Haas has reissued his 2009 book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther,arguing the need to expose abuses by those in power "remains a fundamental struggle of our society." In a new preface, he cites the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald - shot 16 times in the back and side - and the indictment and conviction of the Chicago cop who killed him, thanks to a tenacious coalition of outraged citizens; the case also led to the firing of the police chief, defeat of the state's attorney and departure of the mayor. "Fred said, 'All power to the people,' because that's where it belongs," says Haas, citing Hampton's enduring legacy. "Fred and the Panthers didn’t say they were going to make the revolution, they said, “We’re going to educate the people (to) make the change.”
"You can kill a revolutionary, but you can't kill a revolution. The U.S. was founded on a revolution, and that revolution continues to this day. Groups like #BlackLivesMatter exist by the blood of Fred Hampton." - former friend and fellow-Panther Rep. Bobby Rush

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