Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In this case the injustices we speak of is the immutable ails of police brutality, corruption, and unbalanced justice system targeting people of color in the United States of America.
To that end, there has been a myriad senseless killings of unarmed African American males by police. These killings often go without the convictions of officers, or any acknowledgement by the United States justice system, which is currently sparking outrage and protest across the country. Ta-Nehisi Coates writer and educator echoes the sentiment of African American community when he states, “The violence isn’t new. It’s the cameras that are new.”
In the current technological era, increased access to video recording technology have made it difficult for the media and law enforcement agencies to silence, alter, and manipulate information. Technology and the use of social media have brought the modern day horrors of what it is like to be an African American male in today’s society to America’s living room. The public is now questioning information presented by news outlets and law enforcement agencies in the light of new technology. Nonetheless, as much as things change they often remain the same. In The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) it was the camera that made all of the difference when making the case of assassination by police in The Murder of Fred Hampton.
Who was Fred Hampton?
Fred Hampton was an American activist and revolutionary, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and deputy chairman of the national BPP. Hampton was murdered while sleeping in his apartment during a raid by a tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in December 1969. The following is exclusive commentary written in 2007 from director Mike Gray about the film:
Chairman Fred: In 1969, Mike Gray and The Film Group were in the midst of chronicling the activities of Fred Hampton and the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers for a documentary. When Hampton was brutally killed in bed in his apartment by a special unit of police tied to the State’s Attorney’s Office, Gray and his partners were called in immediately by Panther lawyers to film the crime scene. Just as they had been for American Revolution 2, Gray and his group were thrust in the middle of a historic event. Their footage of Hampton’s apartment became part of the evidence used to show that the official version of the Hampton raid by police and the State’s Attorney was not true. The Film Group’s work in American Revolution 2 and The Murder of Fred Hampton provides an excellent example of the value of a free press in a democracy.
In April of 1969 American Revolution 2 premiered in Chicago at the Playboy Theater to rave reviews. Then we turned our full attention to Fred Hampton and the Panthers. Through the viewfinder we watched “Chairman Fred” close-up for what turned out to be the last nine months of his life, then we watched him again and again in the screening room. It finally dawned on us that the source of his magnetism was a total absence of fear. He was unable to be intimidated. A Free Man. And thus, to the Nixon administration, a threat to national security. In fact, there is a line in the FBI COINTELPRO documents unearthed by the Watergate hearings that summed it up: “We must prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unite and electrify the militant black antinationalist movement.” At dawn on December 4, 1969, we heard Hampton had been killed in a police raid and somehow the police had left the scene unguarded. The Panther attorneys wanted us out there as fast as possible. The footage we shot that morning and the evidence the lawyers collected resulted in the indictment of several Chicago Police officers, the State’s Attorney for Northern Illinois, and two of his assistants. The cops claimed it was a desperate shootout, but the FBI crime lab finally admitted that some 99 shots had come from police weapons and there was no evidence of return fire.
In the Daley court system, of course, convictions were impossible but the public furor in the aftermath of the acquittal stunned City Hall and fatally fractured the powerful Daley Machine. The election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, was arguably a direct result of black outrage at the Hampton assassination. In 1972 The Murder of Fred Hampton premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. But another decade would pass before we knew the full story. Although all criminal charges against the police had been dismissed, Panther attorneys from the People’s Law Office relentlessly pursued the government in civil court for twelve grueling years. They endured harassment, financial hardship, and every conceivable legal obstacle the city, state, and federal authorities could put in their path. In 1983 the government lawyers finally caved and settled the wrongful death suit for $1.85 million. Among the stunning courtroom revelations: the Panther chief of security– Fred Hampton’s personal bodyguard–was an FBI plant named William O’Neal. The night of the raid he stopped by the Panther apartment for a final check and may have put something in Hampton’s drink. When the raiders crashed in at 4:30a.m., Hampton never lifted his head despite the machine gun and shotgun fire coming at him from all directions. The police team knew exactly where he would be because O’Neal had given them a map. Though this all happened a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Away, it is as relevant now as the morning paper. If you look at the headlines from 1968 and 1969, you find that you can snip them out and paste them on the refrigerator today and nobody will know the difference. The issues are the same–even some of the people are the same. A military quagmire abroad, the country split down the middle, the media swamped with jingoism, political paralysis in Washington, and over it all hovers the unspoken racism that dogs us still. In the decades since American Revolution 2 and The Murder of Fred Hampton, I have traveled an unusual trajectory as journalist and filmmaker, and it has been my privilege to meet some very famous and powerful people. I have yet to meet Fred Hampton’s equal. Watching him in action in these long-ago images inevitably raises the question of where he might be now if he had not been executed just after his 21st birthday. Sometimes I imagine him running for President of the United States. And, I hear a political discourse quite unlike anything we’re hearing today.
As cliché as it is “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”The Murder of Fred Hampton was released 45 years ago, yet American society is plagued with the same issues. In order to overcome this we must educate ourselves and each other, and find solace in knowing that the tide often changes. But how long must America wait for changes in such a “progressive” democracy? To purchase The Murder of Fred Hampton click here!
Author: Ashlee Jordan is a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is studying Communication and Political Science. She currently is a UIC Radio\News contributor. This summer she is the Editorial Assistant Intern at Facets.