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Jeffrey Haas, 'The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther'

Lawrence Hill Books, 2010; ISBN 978-1-556-527-65-4, 376pp, £22.50

In 1969, Fred Hampton was a charismatic African-American community organiser leading the Black Panther Party in Chicago, and was on the verge of taking on a leadership role within the national Black Panther organisation. In Chicago, in just one year, Hampton had successfully organised a “free breakfast for children” programme and a free Panther health clinic. He had brokered peace between the largest gangs in the city, and moved some way towards converting them from criminality to radical community-oriented politics.

Hampton had formed the first “rainbow coalition” with poor white and Latin@ groups (the term was later hijacked by Jesse Jackson, without attribution). Hampton had also roundly criticised the Weather Underground for their street rampage (“Days of Rage”) in Chicago.

Hampton was later described by Noam Chomsky as “one of the most talented and promising leaders of the Panthers”: “Hampton was proving an effective leader, particularly worrisome to the political police because of his express distaste for violence and inflammatory rhetoric and his emphasis on constructive political action.”

On 4 December 1969, Fred Hampton was shot dead in cold blood by the Chicago police. Hampton was lying unconscious in his bed when he was shot at point blank range. Blood tests indicated later that he had been drugged. An FBI informant (the Chicago Panthers’ head of security), who had provided the police with a plan of the flat, visited Hampton the evening before the raid. Another Panther, Mark Clark, was also killed.

Chomsky comments: “This event can fairly be described as a Gestapo-style political assassination.” He notes that this killing “completely overshadows the entire Watergate episode in significance by a substantial margin”.

The Assassination of Fred Hampton views these events from the point of view of Jeffrey Haas, a middle-class Jewish lawyer working for the Panthers, whose radical legal co-operative was key to the gradual uncovering of the truth about the killings.

The civil action initiated by the families of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and survivors of the raid, led to shocking revelations, and, 13 years later, to a $1.85m victory.

This important and readable book combines a personal account of Haas’s life as a radical lawyer with the slowly-revealed story of Fred Hampton’s death.