I was in high school at the time. I was already “political”, as we used to say, that is, a young activist. I was stunned when i heard the news.
Anyone close to the Black Panther Party knew of the growing legend of Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. He was a remarkable leader. He inspired not only Panthers, but countless other activists. And he had a sense of the sort of strategy that needed to be put into place to build a winning mass movement: it was the first “rainbow coalition.” Hampton was the key player in building an alliance of radical forces who had emerged from different social movements and different races/nationalities.
Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were murdered on December 4, 1969. The Chicago Panthers had been infiltrated by government agents. Hampton and Clark were drugged so that they were in no position to escape the attack on their headquarters by the Chicago Police.
The murder of Hampton and Clark was part of a larger decapitation process underway aimed at the leaders of various radical and progressive social movements. The principal instrument for this decapitation was the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), constructed by the FBI originally to destroy the Communist Party, but later used more broadly against many left-leaning forces. As the outstanding documentary COINTELPRO 101 details, COINTELPRO was used not only against African Americans, but was part of a process of infiltrating the Movement and its organizations; encouraging splits; spreading rumors; and creating so-called “Black propaganda” as a means of discrediting the Left. Many great leaders of the emerging New Left and progressive movements were jailed, killed, driven insane or forced into exile.
Hampton’s charisma, leadership style and coalition-building approach were all much too much of a threat to the powers at be. He had to be removed from the scene. The forces of evil were quite aware that by removing credible leaders, such as Hampton, there would be an enlarging void in the Panthers and other such groups leading, ultimately, to some form of implosion.
Hampton had a certainty that the oppressed would ultimately win. It was a certainty that is critical for all those who hold true to the need for fundamental social transformation. But it is a certainty that must be matched, to borrow from Gramsci, with a soberness as to the challenges that face us as we march down this dangerous path.
In the midst of the upsurges over the last several years, whether the Madison uprising; Occupy; the Chicago Teacher’s strike; or the current protests against police brutality and lynching, it is especially important to remember the stance of those, like Fred Hampton, who not only remained firm, but recognized that a movement cannot win in the absence of organization; and it cannot win in the absence of the correct sort of political alignment of the population. Real politics, in other words, is not about flying the perfect flag, or giving the most radical speech, but instead concerns the process of giving a critical mass of people a sense of hope driven by a vision and strategy that suggests that not only must we win, but that we actually can win.
Let us bring forward many, many more Fred Hamptons.