This is the fourth of a seven part series on the history, legacy, and continuing relevance of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Founded in 1966 in the spirit of the politics of the late Malcolm X, and highly influenced by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, the Black Panther Party was a Black revolutionary organization. For a time they played the leading role in the Black Liberation struggle in the U.S. and inspired people across the country to take up revolutionary politics. This stood in sharp contrast to many prominent voices in the civil rights movement who pushed for making peace with white supremacist capitalist society. In the previous article we discussed their expansion beyond the Bay Area and their confusion over the lumpen-proletariat. In this article we will analyze the work of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, their ability to work with the lumpen in a revolutionary manner, and how they organized with white and Chicano groups. We also discuss how the FBI attacked the Chicago chapter of the BPP and assassinated Fred Hampton.
The Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party was one of the best organized and most militant branches of the Party. They had huge successes in organizing among the Black community, getting street gangs to give up criminal activity and work together for the revolution, and in particular developing revolutionary work that brought together people from many different nationalities. This work inspired people across Chicago and the whole country. It provided a clear example of how to win over lumpen-proletarian gangs to revolutionary politics and how to unite the Black Liberation struggle with the broader revolutionary movement throughout the country. These organizing efforts cut at the roots of the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country that divides people and tries to keep their struggles separate and isolated.
However, much like with the Panthers’ successes elsewhere, their work in Chicago also drew the attention of the U.S. government. The FBI was very concerned with the developments in Chicago, and in particular with the young leader of the chapter, Fred Hampton. They feared that Fred would become a “black messiah” who would inspire Black people all across the country to get involved in the revolutionary movement to overthrow the white supremacist capitalist power structure and establish a socialist government for the people.
So, as the Panthers’ work in Chicago continued to advance, the FBI worked with the Chicago police to sabotage and undermine their efforts. In particular, they focused on Fred Hampton, whose revolutionary leadership was key to the chapter’s success. In order to understand the work that the BPP did in Chicago, it’s helpful to understand a bit about Fred’s background.
Fred was from a working class family and grew up outside of Chicago. His mother Iberia worked in a factory for Corn Products—now Ingredion, a multi-billion dollar company with operations all over the world. She was heavily involved in the union at her factory, and eventually became a shop-steward and led a two month long strike involving over 700 workers. He spent a good deal of time at the union hall during this strike and helped with things like feeding the striking workers and their families. So from a young age Fred saw that if you want to make change you need to get organized and fight. This first hand experience showed him that when working people come together they can actually win victories over their oppressors. Even the powerful businessmen who owned Corn Products eventually had to cave to the demands of the workers. These experiences helped to build Fred’s clarity that it was pointless to just ask the racist capitalists who run this country to treat Black people better; instead, he would organize people to fight back for the revolutionary overthrow of these people.
Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. On the right side is a photo of his mutilated corpse.
Another formative experience was the murder of his childhood friend Emmett Till. Fred and Emmett grew up together, their parents were friends and Fred looked up to Emmett, who was a few years old than him. In 1955 when Emmett, who was fourteen years old at the time, was visiting his family in Mississippi he was brutally lynched because a 21 year old white woman claimed he whistled at and flirted with her. Years later she would admit that she had lied about what happened. However, at the time in the Jim Crow South, the word of one white woman was enough to spell death for Emmett Till. The woman’s husband and her half-brother abducted Emmett from his relative’s house, beat, mutilated, and tortured him, shot him in the head, and then dumped his body in a river. Emmett’s mother Mamie demanded that his body be returned to Chicago where she had an open-casket funeral to show the world the brutality of white supremacy in the U.S.
All of this had a tremendous impact on Fred Hampton and many other young Black folks in Chicago and around the country. It showed them just how racist the U.S. was and how little justification was needed for white supremacists to torture and lynch even children. The incident also showed how the government works hand-in-glove with white supremacist forces, as both of Till’s murderers where acquitted by an all-white jury. While Emmett Till’s death has often been credited with sparking a new wave of the Civil Rights movement, it is important to see how it also inspired a new generation of revolutionary Black Liberation fighters, who wanted more than just minor reforms. Things like the murder of Emmett Till showed many that the whole system in this country was (and is) rotten to the core, and needs to be fundamentally changed. While this idea was not yet fully clear to a young Fred Hampton, his friend’s murder played a big role in radicalizing him.
As a teenager Fred got involved in organizing in the civil rights movement. He founded a youth chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the suburbs west of Chicago, where he was able to recruit over two hundred people in a year, and launch a series of political campaigns for an integrated public pool and recreational center for the youth. While this was ultimately a form of liberal organizing that did not get to the roots of the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country, Fred learned how to mobilize people to fight against white supremacy and segregation.
As he developed politically he began to see more of the issues with the NAACP and their approach to organizing. For example, while Fred was in high school the NAACP ran a big campaign in the area to get better pay for police officers, on the grounds that this would reduce police brutality by ensuring that more “professional” police were hired.
Around this same time period, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago to organize peaceful protests against urban segregation in the northern ghettos with his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). These protests were organized in response to the series of uprising in Black ghettos during the 1960s. MLK and his followers hoped to show people that peaceful protests and not radical political struggle were the best way to make change. Fred and the NAACP worked to support these efforts.
MLK was attacked by white supremacist counter-protesters during his marches in Chicago.
Instead of showing the poor Black residents of the ghetto that integration into white supremacist society was the answer, the experiences in Chicago in 1966 would radicalize MLK, Fred, and many more. When they marched against segregation they were met with an angry mob of white supremacists dressed as Nazis who carried big Swastika flags, hurled rocks at the march, and attacked them in various other ways. The SCLC’s non-violent approach left the marchers completely unequipped to deal with violent attacks from white supremacists. During this march Fred, then 16 years old, told MLK that he couldn’t keep marching for non-violence in the face of these violent attacks. After MLK called off a subsequent march through Cicero, which was considered the most racist neighborhood in Chicago at the time, many grew disillusioned with his unwillingness to confront white supremacists and his overall middle-class approach that opposed even self-defense in the face of violent attacks from racists and Neo-Nazis.
The time in Chicago was actually very transformative for MLK himself. During his time in Chicago he said that the slums in the U.S. were a form of “internal colonialism,” and noted that “Swastikas blossomed in Chicago’s parks like misbegotten weeds.” He also noted that, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.” This was really a turning point for MLK that led him to see the close link between white supremacy and the systematic economic and political disenfranchisement of Black people.
Fred, like many other young Black people in Chicago at the time, was particularly disillusioned with the Civil Rights Movement after MLK’s failed campaign in Chicago. They had seen first-hand how the tactics of reformism and the belief in non-violence in all situations left the movement unable to defend itself against attacks from white supremacists and the police.
Fred turned to the writings of Malcolm X and Mao Zedong, among others. He read Malcolm’s works on the importance of organized self-defense for Black people, and he read Mao’s writings about how the Chinese people were able to defeat both the Japanese fascist invasion of their country and the U.S.-backed nationalist party. These and other revolutionary works inspired Fred and got him thinking about the need for a revolutionary movement in the U.S., particularly among Black people.
Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush in the Chicago BPP office in 1969. The posters behind them show the influence of Malcolm and Mao.
Then in May, 1967 the Black Panther Party staged their protest at the California State House. Fred and other Black youth around the country were inspired. In the suburbs of Chicago Fred and others adopted more militant organizing tactics. When Fred was set to testify before the Maywood Village Board about the need for an integrated public swimming pool, he and others organized a bunch of Black youth to come to the meeting and testify. The Village Board refused to let most of them in, and when the people began a peaceful protest outside the building the police–perhaps scared of the sight of hundreds of Black youth protesting—attacked the young people with tear gas and arrested many. Although Fred was inside the meeting he was later arrested for “mob action.” This arrest placed him on the FBI’s “Key Agitator Index” and led to whole bunch of police harassment for then-17 year old Fred Hampton. This protest led to an effective break with the NAACP. While they did not explicitly oppose the protest they also refused to condemn the police brutality and absurd arrests of Fred and others.
Founding and Growth of the Chicago Chapter
Around this time period the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) set up an office in Chicago. Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown had organized with SNCC during the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in which they exposed how the Democratic Party worked hand-in-glove with the KKK to suppress Black voters. Much like Fred and countless other young Black people around the country, SNCC was moving in a more radical direction. They too were increasingly disillusioned with the Civil Rights Movement and with electoral politics. Inspired by the Panthers, SNCC and others had begun to talk about revolution and the need to overthrow the white supremacist capitalist power structure. People across the country were becoming increasingly aware that the political system and the government were a part of this power structure and therefore unable to fundamentally change it.
Fred got to know the folks in SNCC who had recently joined the Panthers themselves, and after some conversations with the BPP headquarters in Oakland, a Chicago chapter of the Party was formed with Fred as its Chairman. In just six months they had gained so many members that they had to temporarily stop accepting new members in order to focus on consolidating the existing membership and getting more organized internally.
While the chapter had various issues—which are analyzed later in this article—their rapid growth and the mass support they received show how impressive their work was and how the masses of people in Chicago were ready to support revolutionary politics at the time. In particular, the Panthers were able to organize to meet the important and pressing needs of the people, including the Breakfast for Children Program, the Free Medical Clinic, and addressing the issues of gang violence and the drug trade in the slums. The Panthers also waged a big struggle against middle-class cultural nationalist groups who had a reductive analysis of the issues in U.S. society. These sorts of groups tended to reduce everything to a question of identity and skin-color instead of seeing the complex relationship between white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism.
A big part of the Panthers' Free Breakfast Program was the political education that kids received. They learned about the real history of the U.S.
A big part of the Chicago Panthers’ success was that political education was a constant part of all their work, and this meant political education for Party members and for the people. Fred constantly emphasized that without education the people will be unequipped to wage revolution and even more unable to continue the revolution after overthrowing the white supremacist capitalist power structure. He looked to examples like Kenya’s anti-colonial struggle, where the independence movement was co-opted by a section of people who collaborated with the British and ultimately installed Jomo Kenyatta as a dictator and puppet of foreign powers. Fred emphasized that “with no education you will have neocolonialism instead of colonialism, like you’ve got in Africa now and like you’ve got in Haiti.” He emphasized that these situations didn’t have to turn out this way, and that “if the people had been educated they would of said ‘We don’t hate the motherfuckin white people, we hate the oppressor, whether he be white, black, brown, or yellow.’”
In particular, Fred and others in the Chicago branch looked to Chinese Revolution as an example. They were very inspired by the efforts of Mao and others during the Cultural Revolution to struggle against those in China who wanted to restore capitalism and become the new oppressors. Even though the Panthers knew they were a long way from revolution, they clearly saw that one of the major lessons of the Chinese Revolution was the importance of political education every step of the way.
They knew how inept and racist the U.S. educational system was, and how it taught kids history from the perspective of the slave-owning “Founding Fathers,” the settlers who carried out the genocide of the Native Americans, and the big businessmen who helped make the U.S. into a global empire. They took to heart Malcolm X’s point that the corporate media “controls the minds of the masses” and that “if you are not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Because of these lessons, they worked hard to educate the people through the Panther newspaper as well as a variety of political programs.
Through the Breakfast for Children program the Chicago Panthers were able to meet a major social need in the Black community and provide crucial political education to young kids in the community. Many working class Black parents did not have the time or the money to consistently provide breakfast to their children. What’s more, the education system was so openly racist in the U.S. at the time that white supremacist myths and stories were part of curriculum.
While the popular conception today is that overt racism was largely confined to the Jim Crow South, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It was such an institutionalized part of American society that it was built into the school curriculum—this is still true, but today things are less overt. Huey P. Newton described his experiences in a public middle school in Oakland:
The story of Little Black Sambo was standard classroom reading materials in public schools across the U.S.
“At the time, I did not understand the size or seriousness of the school system’s assault on Black people. I knew only that I constantly felt uncomfortable and ashamed of being Black. This feeling followed me everywhere, without letup. It was a result of the implicit understanding in the system that whites were “smart” and Blacks were “stupid.” Anything presented as “good” was always white, even the stories teachers gave us to read in the early grades. Little Black Sambo, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs told us what we were.
“I remember my reaction to Little Black Sambo. Sambo was, first of all, a coward. When confronted by the tigers, he gave up the presents from his father without a struggle—first the umbrella, then the beautiful crimson, felt-lined shoes, everything, until he had nothing left. And afterward, Sambo wanted only to eat pancakes. He was totally unlike the courageous white knight who rescued Sleeping Beauty. The knight was our symbol of purity, while Sambo stood for humiliation and gluttony. Time after time, we heard the story of Little Black Sambo. We did not want to laugh, but finally we did, to hide our shame, accepting Sambo as a symbol of what Blackness was all about.
“As I suffered through Sambo and the Black Tar Baby story in Brer Rabbit in the early grades, a great weight began to settle on me. It was the weight of ignorance and inferiority imposed by the system. I found myself wanting to identify with the white heroes in the primers and in the movies I saw, and in time I cringed at the mention of Black. This created a gulf of hostility between the teachers and me, a lot of it repressed, but still there, like the strange mixture of hate and admiration we Blacks felt toward whites generally. We simply did not feel capable of learning what the white kids could learn.”
Huey’s experiences in the public school system were typical at the time. All over the country the white supremacist capitalist power structure used—and still uses—the public school system to spread the ideology of white supremacy. At the time it was more explicit than it is today, but the racism and white supremacy persists. This helps to clarify that the Breakfast for Children program was about far more than just giving kids a nutritious meal, or providing people with a service they lacked. This political program was a key part of the struggle against white supremacy, and an important effort to combat the white supremacist school system and educate young people about the need for revolutionary change in this country. They learned about the racist nature of the system in this country and how capitalism kept people in the chains of wage-slavery. They learned about U.S. imperialism and about the history of slave revolts and struggles against white supremacy.
This program helped to win over the parents of these students as well. They knew the Panthers got up early in the morning to cook breakfast for their kids, and they saw that their kids were actually learning in ways that they never did in school. Because of this, mass support for the Panthers grew everywhere they were able to setup successful Breakfast for Children programs. The FBI and U.S. government began to take notice and worked to do everything they could to discredit these programs. In a 1969 memo, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote that the program “represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities…to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for.”
Despite the FBI’s best efforts to discredit the Panthers, a nationwide protest movement grew opposing the frameups of Party members.
The FBI tried to “Red-bait” the Panthers by using anti-communist myths to discredit their work. However, the BPP was so successful in joining with the people and organizing to meet their needs that in many cities these government efforts to undermine their work were unsuccessful. Fred described how this played out:
“The pigs say, ‘Well the Breakfast for Children Program is a socialistic program, it’s a communistic program.’ And the women say, ‘I don’t know if I like communism. I don’t know if I like socialism. But I know that the Breakfast for Children program feeds my kids.’ A lot of people think the Breakfast for Children program is charity. But what does it do? It takes the people a stage to another stage [of political development]. Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change. Honey, if you just keep on changing, before you know it—in fact, you don’t have to know what it is—they’re endorsing it, they’re participating in it, and supporting socialism.”
This really sums up how the people related to the program at an early stage. Most weren’t too familiar with larger ideological questions like the nature of socialism and how the transition to communism—a classless society free from oppression and exploitation—is possible. However, they saw firsthand how the Breakfast for Children program had a positive impact in the community. From there it was just a matter of clarifying to them what the Panthers were about in a broader sense.
Fred and others worked to clarify that the program wasn’t a charity. They weren’t just feeding people who needed food. It was part of a larger effort to get the people educated and organized so they could lead a revolution. Where charity only addresses the symptoms of an unjust society, revolutionary organizing gets at the root causes. The Panthers knew that as long as the white supremacist capitalist power structure continued to exist there would still be hungry kids and people lacking many basic necessities. No amount of charity can change that, but a revolutionary movement can. The Panthers knew that the political and economic system in this country is based on the wealthy getting richer and the poor getting poorer. And so to address issues like kids not getting breakfast, they didn’t just provide food, they did so in a way that built up the revolutionary movement and provided revolutionary education to the youth.
Another way that the Chicago Panthers won the confidence and support of the people was through addressing the issue of gang violence in the city. The gangs in the city were particularly oppressive, selling drugs throughout the communities, and fighting frequent turf wars that endangered the people. Also, many parents were concerned that given the unemployment and poverty in the Black community—which are the result of a white supremacist capitalist system that systematically discriminates—that their kids would be drawn into the gangs by false promises of wealth.
There were other is sues in the gangs too. They gangs each had their own turf, and saw the Panthers’ efforts to organize as a threat. They did not want revolutionary organizing on their territory. So, in order avoid confrontation with these gangs the Panthers had to figure out how to handle this situation. The gangs also worked closely with the police, who allowed them to poison the Black community with drugs in exchange for a share of the profits.
In this sort of situation it wasn’t possible to work with all the gangs and gang members. But, in many cases the Panthers were able to work out a treaty at a minimum. These treaties allowed the Panthers to run their programs and sell their newspapers in neighborhoods that gangs considered their “turf” without risk of violent confrontation. In other cases, they had even greater successes. For example, Fred Hampton met with David Barksdale, the head of the Black Disciples street gang. He was able to convince Barksdale to look at the larger issues facing the Black community and to understand them as part of the white supremacist capitalist power structure in the U.S. This initial conversation not only opened the door to the Panthers organizing on Black Disciple turf, it also got the gang to begin to change their approach. They got involved in the Panthers efforts to organize against police brutality.
The Rainbow Coalition of Revolutionary Solidarity inspired people around the country to organize to unite political sturggles that united people of different nationalities.
He had similar discussions with the Young Lords—a Puerto Rican street gang—and got them to organize themselves into a revolutionary political party, the Young Lords Party. He made similar efforts with gangs from other nationalities, and he was even able to win over a white street gang that called itself the Young Patriots and had previously flown the Confederate Flag.
Many of these gangs stopped their gang activity altogether, and even those that didn’t got involved in what became known as the Rainbow Coalition of Revolutionary Solidarity, a bunch of groups from different ethnic backgrounds that came together to organize against police brutality and to broker truces between gangs to get them involved in organizing for the people instead of dealing drugs and ripping people off. These were important steps in transforming the gangs from anti-people forces that made their living by ripping people off and selling their dangerous and addictive drugs, to pro-people forces involved in the revolution. This process involved a lot of struggle, including the struggle against backwards and predatory ideas that many gang members held.
While the Panthers did not complete this process of transforming all the gangs, they showed a clear way in which revolutionary working class leadership can win over members of the lumpen-proletariat to revolutionary politics. This work in Chicago was particularly inspiring not only because it showed how the get the lumpen involved in the revolutionary movement, but also because it united people from a variety of different ethnic and national backgrounds.
In a very diverse country like the United States with a larger number of working class people from different nationalities, it is essential to find and develop ways for the people of different ethnicities to join together in the revolution. Only by the joint effort of people of all the nationalities in this country will we be capable of overthrowing the white supremacist capitalist class that runs this country. And only after overthrowing them by a revolution will it be possible to establish socialism and begin to systematically destroy the basis for all inequality and oppression.
This doesn’t mean that important steps to overcome social issues and make the people’s lives easier can’t be taken before the revolution—the Panthers’ programs show the importance of these efforts—but it’s only after overthrowing the oppressors that it’s possible to really get to the root of most issues. This is because the oppressors have such a vested interest in perpetuating and expanding oppression and their power over the people. It’s only when we smash their power and put the power into the hands of people that real systematic change can begin.
COINTELPRO and the Lumpen Line in Chicago
The immense successes of the BPP in Chicago did not go unnoticed by state authorities. Fred himself had been on an FBI watch-list since he was 17 years old, simply for organizing peaceful protests with the NAACP. However, beyond simple surveillance of activists—which is itself an outrage and it shows the true character of the government that they would have the FBI monitor even teenagers who were organizing peaceful protests against institutionalized racism—the FBI was involved in all sorts of efforts to disrupt the Panthers on a national level, and in Chicago in particular.
The FBI watched the Panthers closely from the very formation of the Chicago chapter. In fact, they were so concerned about the growth and spread of the Black Panther Party that by late 1967 when the Chicago chapter formed, the FBI actually had an informant join as one of the first members. This was William O’Neal, who would later drug Fred Hampton on the night of his assassination by the Chicago police department and the FBI. O’Neal was a teenager at the time who had been involved a series of crimes. He had stolen cars, broken into people’s home to steal their valuables, and more. Eventually he got caught, and the FBI offered him a deal. If he would collaborate with them and become an informant, they would make sure he was never charged for any of the crimes he had already committed, and they would even pay him $100 a week, which was a good salary at that time—the equivalent of about $722 a week today. Shortly after joining the FBI’s payroll they asked O’Neal to go and join the BPP. He would become the fifth member of the Chicago chapter.
William O’Neal wanted to be a cop when he was growing up so that people would “respect” him.
O’Neal’s story is important because it shows that while the Chicago Panthers had a lot of success in winning the lumpen-proletariat over to revolutionary politics, they were also negatively impacted by the Party’s overall lumpen line. While it would have been hard to tell what O’Neal was about when he first came to the office to join the Party, over time it should have become clear that he had no real interest in revolutionary politics. His bravado and tendency to brag about ongoing robberies and other crimes should also have been major red flags. In an interview, O’Neil admitted that he had grown up admiring the police and wanting to become a cop himself so that he could gain “respect.”1 When this wasn’t possible, he turned to crime, but after becoming an informant for the FBI he said that he felt “pretty proud” and that he was “doing something good for the finest police organization in America.”
These piggish views that O’Neal held came out in various ways. Jeffrey Haas who was a radical lawyer for the Panthers, a founding member of the People’s Law Office, and one of the key lawyers who exposed how the FBI had assassinated Fred Hampton, described O’Neal’s attitude in his book The Assassination of Fred Hampton:
“‘I got the techniques down,’ O’Neal used to say, bragging about how he got away with burglaries and stickups. His fascination with criminal activity seemed inconsistent with him being an informant. Then I realized maybe not; it made his cover that much better[…]O’Neal didn’t talk politics. He proposed actions, frequently armed ones[…]I reconsidered O’Neal’s behavior in light of the new disclosure [that he was an informant for the FBI]. It fit uncomfortably well. He always had money; he was constantly offering to chauffeur Fred and Rush and later Deborah in his big car; he never attended political education classes and pushed actions over thought and in politics he advocated the most militaristic line; he often carried a gun; he was constantly suggesting other Panthers engage in criminal activity.”
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a notorious racist who did everything in his power to destroy the Panthers and the Black Liberation Struggle.
Haas’ description makes it clear that there were many warning signs that O’Neal was at the very least a sketchy character. It makes sense that a radical lawyer might not see these things for what they were. However, revolutionaries need to be clear that the behavior Haas describes is counter-revolutionary and anti-people. It is precisely this sort of behavior which is typical of snitches and agent provocateurs. When O’Neal first joined the Panthers he used his knowledge of electronics and firearms to secure himself a position as head of security for the local chapter. He would then use this leadership position to insulate himself from criticism.
All of this shows how the lumpen line even impacted the Chicago chapter. Because the party maintained that the lumpen-proletariat is the most revolutionary class, activities like robberies and stickups were not viewed critically enough. People can get involved in politics from many different backgrounds—even those who have a history of armed robberies if they are willing to change their ways. However, if people get involved in revolutionary politics continue to engage in stickups and other similar activities, this should be a major red flag. Especially in O’Neil’s case where he carried these out for personal profit and tried to encourage others to join him, the BPP should have seen these as major warning signs.
Additionally, O’Neal’s tendency to avoid all political education classes, and to constantly advocate armed actions and a militaristic line over revolutionary politics, shows that he shirked the duties of serving the people and learning from revolutionary history. Instead he tried to frame politics as primarily about bravado and armed conflict with the authorities. There is a need for a revolutionary party to defend itself from violent attacks from the state and its thugs, so being armed is not a bad thing in and of itself. There also is a real need to overthrow the ruling class and their white supremacist power structure. The racist capitalist pigs who run this country won’t go down without a fight, so there is no problem with developing a military strategy to successfully overthrow them in a revolution. However, this is not what O’Neal was doing.
Instead of doing the needed political work to educate and organize the people so they could eventually be ready for an armed insurrection to overthrow the ruling class, O’Neal was advocating for premature violent confrontations with the police. These abortive efforts would have led to a massive crackdown on the Panthers beyond the likes of even what was seen during the height of COINTELPRO. At its peak the Chicago chapter of the Party reached 500 members and sold over ten thousand copies of the Panthers’ newspaper a week. However, even this significant strength was nowhere near what was needed to overthrow the power-structure in Chicago, let alone across the whole country.
An FBI memo detailing their surveillance of the Panthers' discussion with the Blackstone Rangers as well as other acivities around the country.
In this situation, to advocate anything other than self-defense in the face of attacks from the police and other white supremacist groups amounted to a “left”-adventurist deviation that would have led to massive setbacks for the Panthers. Informants and snitches are typically instructed to push for these types of actions in order to expose revolutionary organizations to violent attacks by the state, which can then be justified as “anti-terrorist” measures necessary because of the “threat” posed by the group. O’Neal was a particularly destructive snitch, but he was not the only one in Chicago. There were between ten and fifteen FBI agents working to disrupt the Chicago Chapter of the Party, and each had a least one snitch reporting to them.
William O’Neal is particularly important not only because he was the one who gave the FBI the floor plans to Fred Hampton’s apartment that allowed them to assassinate him, and literally drugged Fred on the night he was killed, but also because he was typical of informants in the Party. His bravado, militaristic posture, his lumpen attitude, and his unwillingness to engage with political education were similar to many other snitches in the Party. This is important because it shows how the Panthers’ lumpen line left them open to infiltration in Chicago, as well as around the rest of the country.
As the Panthers grew rapidly in Chicago, the FBI became increasingly concerned about their successes. After they convinced a number of street gangs to give up drug dealing and turf wars and instead join in a revolutionary political struggle against police brutality, the FBI went into high gear. They started sending fake letters—known as brown mail—to the Panthers and the last big street gang that was not yet involved in the Rainbow Coalition, the Blackstone Rangers. These fake letters included death threats and misinformation aimed at sparking violent conflict between the Panthers and the Blackstone Rangers.
Through a lot of principled work, the Panthers were able to head-off a conflict, but when they did eventually meet with the Rangers, they were unable to convince them to let the Panthers organize on their turf. Instead, the Rangers’ leader, Jeff Fort tried to convince Fred and the Panthers to sell drugs. He promised Fred that he would soon be rich. The Panthers’ refused outright. The Panthers’ policy was that no members should use drugs. Alcohol, though not prohibited outright, was forbidden at the Panthers’ office.
Chicago Police laugh and smile as they carry Fred Hampton’s corpse from the apartment after they assassinated him.
Though the FBI was able to sabotage the Panthers’ efforts to work with and transform the Blackstone Rangers, the Bureau was unable to stop the Party’s rapid growth. The campaigns to Free Huey and to Free Bobby Seale had catapulted the Panthers to national prominence, and the Chicago chapter organized some massive protests around these campaigns. Fred Hampton had just been elected to the Central Committee of the Party, and was going to serve as the national spokesperson for the Party. The FBI was afraid that he would become a national leader of the Black Liberation Struggle. They were particularly concerned not only about Fred’s ability to galvanize the Black population, but also to work with the white population, and develop strong alliances between the Panthers and other non-Black groups. The FBI saw this as a major threat to the white supremacist capitalist power structure, because it could lead to a unified working-class revolutionary movement across many nationalities in the U.S. This sort of movement could eventually grow into something capable of overthrowing the capitalist pigs who run this country and establishing socialism.
In a memo to FBI agents, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, instructed them on how to combat the rise of Black radical groups like the Panthers—which they termed “Black Nationalist Hate Groups.” This memo warned agents that if they did not “discredit” and “neutralize” key individuals and groups, there could be a “true black revolution” in the U.S. Hoover’s memo reveals that he was particularly concerned about the ability of Black revolutionary groups to unite with white people, and feared that this was a key step towards advancing revolutionary politics. He clearly saw that the Panthers were able to do this, and Hoover and others in the FBI were doubtless very afraid of what they saw transpiring in Chicago, in particular in the Rainbow Coalition for Revolutionary Action.
The same FBI memo warns of the “rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify” the Black Liberation Struggle. Fred Hampton’s rise to the Central Committee of the Black Panther Party and to national prominence had the FBI worried that he could become such a figure, especially given that both Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were facing murder charges, and Eldridge Celaver had fled the country. Hoover instructed his FBI agents to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence.” This directive effectively gave the FBI agents a license to “preemptively” kill any Panthers they wanted to, on the grounds that these Panthers might go on to commit violence. Fred was targeted for this sort of summary execution by the FBI in collaboration with the Chicago Police Department.
On the night of December 3rd, 1969 Fred went back to a Panther pad—an apartment that a number Panthers lived in together—after teaching a community political education class at a local church. William O’Neal was there and he had prepared dinner for everyone. Knowing that Fred was going to be there, he slipped a powerful sleeping pill—Secobarbital, known as the “Red Pill”—into Fred’s drink. That night Fred fell asleep mid-sentence while on the phone with his mother. He lay in bed next to his pregnant fiancee when, at 4 O’clock in the morning, eight heavily armed police officers broke in the front door right as six other cops simultaneously broke down the back door of the apartment. During the raid the police fired between ninety and ninety-nine shots into the apartment. There were other Panthers in the apartment and three people, including Fred Hampton, were killed.
Like Emmett Till before him, Fred had an open casket funeral and thousands of people lined up to pay their respects and mourn the loss of a young revolutionary.
Although the police described the incident as a “shootout” an independent investigation found that only one shot was fired by the Panthers, and that was when Mark Clark, a Panther, was killed and his shotgun fired into the ceiling as he dropped dead to the floor.
The raid was so successful for the police in part because they had the floor plans to the apartment from O’Neal and because he drugged Fred Hampton. However, the Panthers also hadsome internal issues and blind spots that left them vulnerable to this sort of raid.
As was already mentioned, it should have been more clear to the Panthers that O’Neal and people like him were potential liabilities at best, and possibly even snitches. O’Neal’s role as head of security for the chapter left them vulnerable in many respects.
Despite pthe information the police had, they did not kill Fred in the initial shooting spree. As he lay in bed in a pool of his own blood, two police officers walked over to him. They heard his ragged breathing. One said, “He’s barely alive, he’ll make it.” The other raised his gun point-blank to Fred’s head and shot him two times. The pig then said “He’s good and dead now!” These same pigs would later be photographed smiling as they carried Fred’s corpse from the scene of the murder. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1990, William O’Neal would finally admit the role he played in drugging Fred Hampton and setting up the assassination. In talking about the Panthers he still used the term “we.” That same night he would run onto the freeway and throw himself in front of a passing car, committing suicide at forty years old.
The Chicago Panthers and Fred Hampton in particular are real inspirations for the people. The amount that they accomplished in such a short period of time shows what is possible when people come together in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the white supremacist capitalist power structure in this country. They were able to start a whole series of important programs that got the people involved in important political struggles, educated them about history and revolution, and addressed major issues in the community. The Panthers worked tirelessly and made great personal sacrifices to serve the people. All of this won them the confidence and support of the people.
The Chicago Panthers also made major strides in an area that other chapters struggled with: united front organizing efforts with non-Black groups. These efforts still have a lot of relevance today. However, despite all of these successes, the Panthers in Chicago made a series of mistakes, including not being clear on the nature of the lumpen-proletariat, and not understanding the need for a secret organization of professional revolutionaries who are skilled at evading arrest and detection by the police and FBI. The Panthers in Chicago and around the country were not able to fully identify and rectify these mistakes, and so they began to add up. Eventually these led to serious setbacks in Chicago including the death of Fred Hampton and other key leaders like Mark Clark. In the next issue of Red Star, we will discuss how the arrests and assassinations of key Panthers hurt the organization and exacerbated existing tensions that eventually led to a split in the Party.