On December 4th it will be 44 years since a select unit of 14 Chicago Police officers, on special assignment to Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, executed a pre-dawn raid on a west side apartment that left Illinois Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead, several other young Panthers wounded, and the seven raid survivors arrested on bogus attempted murder charges. The physical evidence soon exposed the claims of a “shootout” that were made by Hanrahan and his men to be blatant lies, and that the murderous reality was that the police fired nearly 100 shots while the Panthers fired but one.
But those lies were only the first layer of a massive cover-up that was dismantled and exposed over the next eight years — a cover-up designed to suppress the central role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its COINTELPRO program in the assassination.
In the wake of the raid, the Minister of Defense for the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, stood on the steps of the bullet riddled BPP apartment and declared that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were responsible for the raid, but at that time there was no hard proof and it was dismissed by the media as mere rhetoric.
The first documentation that supported Rush’s insightful allegation surfaced in March of 1971 when the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a small FBI office in Media Pennsylvania and expropriated over 1000 FBI documents. These documents exposed the FBI’s super-secret and profoundly illegal COINTELPRO program and its focus in the 1960s on the black liberation movement and its leaders. Citing the assassinated Malcolm X as an example, Hoover 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, Stokley Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown.
In Chicago, the first major breakthrough came in 1973 when U.S. Attorney James Thompson revealed that Chicago Black Panther Party Chief of Security William O’Neal was a paid informant for the FBI. At that time I was a young lawyer working with my colleagues at the People’s Law Office on a civil rights lawsuit that 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 and a grand total of 33 documents were produced. However, an honest Assistant U.S. Attorney included in those documents anFBI memorandum that incorporated a detailed floor plan of the interior of the BPP apartment which specifically identified the bed on which Hampton slept. The face of the memo also revealed that the floor plan, together with other important information designed to be utilized in a police raid, was based on information communicated by O’Neal to his FBI control agent who later supplied it to State’s Attorney Hanrahan before the raid.
We then focused on unearthing more details about the FBI’s involvement in the conspiracy, identified the FBI conspirators, joined them as defendants in the lawsuit and sought the Chicago office’s COINTELPRO file in order to establish a direct link between the FBI’s illegal program and the raid. When the Government refused to produce the file and the Judge refused to compel them to do so, we turned to Senator Frank Church’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations. The Committee, which was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, was investigating rampant abuses by all U.S. Intelligence Agencies, including the FBI. In late 1975 a Church Committee staffer informed us that there were several Chicago documents which definitively established the link. Armed with the content of the still secret documents, we were able to embarrass the Judge, who had privately reviewed the documents and previously declared them irrelevant, into ordering the FBI to produce the file. Among the documents provided were several that revealed the FBI’s efforts to foment violence against Fred Hampton and the Chicago Panthers, and one dated December 3, 1969 that claimed the impending raid as part of the COINTELPRO program.
In January of 1976 we embarked on what would turn out to be the longest civil trial in federal court history. Two months into the trial, O’Neal’s FBI control agent blundered on the witness stand and inadvertently established that the FBI had not produced all of the Chicago Black Panther files, and the Judge, 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 200 volumes of FBI BPP files that had been suppressed by the Chicago office since we had first requested them three years before. The Judge commenced a hearing on the FBI’s misconduct and the Government produced several sanitized volumes of documents each day for a month. The produced files contained directives to destroy the Panther’s Breakfast for Children Program and disrupt the distribution of the BPP newspaper, evidence that the charismatic Hampton was a targeted BPP leader, and massive wiretap overhears, including conversations between BPP members and their attorneys.
At the very end of its month long document production, the Government produced O’Neal’s control file. In it was yet another smoking gun — memos to and from FBI headquarters and the Chicago office that requested and approved payment of a $300 bonus to reward O’Neal for the floor plan. According to the memos, O’Neal’s information was of “tremendous value” and, in the words of O’Neal’s COINTELPRO supervisor, made the raid a “success.”
That same month, on April 23, 1976, the Church Committee released its Final Staff Report on the FBI and CIA’s rampant domestic illegalities which included a chapter entitled “The FBI’s Covert Action Plan to Destroy the Black Panther Party.” The chapter concluded by highlighting the Hampton raid as a COINTELPRO operation and quoting from the bonus documents that we had obtained only weeks before.
The Judge, an ardent supporter of the FBI, exonerated the FBI and its Justice Department lawyers of any wrongdoing in suppressing the documents and later dismissed O’Neal and the other FBI defendants from the case. In April of 1979 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a landmark decision, overturned the trial judge, finding that the FBI defendants and their government lawyers “obstructed justice” by suppressing the BPP files. Most significantly, the Court of Appeals also concluded that there was “serious evidence” to support the conclusion that the FBI, Hanrahan, and his men, 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 substantial evidence that these defendants also participated in a post-raid conspiracy to “cover up evidence” regarding the raid, 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.” This decision withstood a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court, and stands today as judicial recognition of outrageous Federal and local conspiratorial criminality and cover-up.
However, it is important not to relegate the Hampton assassination and COINTELPRO to the annals of history. 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, it is well to remember a quote from a 1964 COINTELPRO memorandum sent to the New York, Chicago and Washington FBI Offices by Director Hoover 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 programs, new and productive ideas will be forthcoming. These ideas will not be increased in number or improved upon from the standpoint of accomplishments merely through the institution of a program such as COINTELPRO which is given another name and in fact, only encompasses everything that has been done in the past or will be done in the future.
Disclosure:Taylor is one of the lawyers for the families of slain Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and together with his law partner Jeffrey Haas was trial counsel in the marathon 1976 civil trial. For more information on the Hampton/Clark case, the history of Black Panther Party, and the FBI’s Program to destroy it, visitpeopleslawoffice.com