Uncovering the Truth About a Raid on the Black Panthers
How a Team of Lawyers Exposed Lies About Police Violence
The call came in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969. “Come to the crib” was the command. “The police have murdered Chairman Fred.” I was a second-year law student at Northwestern Law School, working with a group of young lawyers, law students, and legal workers in a highly unusual law firm, founded just months before.
Our firm, located in a converted sausage shop on Chicago’s north side, was grounded in principles of collectivity, and, inspired by our Black Panther Party clients, we named it the People’s Law Office. As young radicals, we devoted ourselves to aggressively fighting, in the courtrooms of Cook County, Illinois, against racial injustice and the war in Vietnam. Our clients also included a revolutionary Puerto Rican organization, the Young Lords; a radical organization of white youth called Rising Up Angry; the Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society; and, most notably, the charismatic young chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton.
After I stopped at the law school to pull fellow student Jack Welsh out of class, we drove to the small west side Panther apartment known to us as “the chairman’s crib.” The car radio was blaring that the Panthers and the police had engaged in a shootout that would have done Al Capone proud. Fred and Peoria chapter chairman Mark Clark were dead, several of the seven survivors were wounded and hospitalized, and the others were in jail. All the surviving Panthers had been charged with attempted murder.
Jack and I entered the bloody, bullet-riddled apartment. The raiding officers had left it unsealed, inexplicably, after the pre-dawn attack. The plasterboard walls looked like Swiss cheese, ripped by scores of bullets from police weapons that, as we soon learned, included a machine gun, a semiautomatic rifle, and several shotguns. A large pool of blood stained the floor at the doorway where Fred’s body had been dragged after he was shot in the head, and there were fresh bloodstains on all the beds in the apartment. Shock and grief soon met with the dawning realization that the police claims of a shootout were bold-faced lies. We were looking at a murder scene.
I had met Chairman Fred a few months before, when I escorted him to Northwestern Law School to speak to the student body. As we traveled from the Panther offices on Chicago’s west side to the school, Fred was obsessing on the “pigs” who were out to get him, and in my relative naiveté I thought perhaps he was being a little paranoid. But he was, in fact, prophetic. At Northwestern’s Lincoln Hall, in my first attempt at public speaking, I stumbled as I introduced him to the eager student crowd. Only 21 years old, Fred captivated the audience with his dynamic and analytical oratory, a mesmerizing intersection of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and a present-day hip-hop poet.
Although Fred and I were contemporaries, our backgrounds were a study in contrasts. I grew up in a small, all-white town in central Massachusetts, while Fred grew up in Maywood, a racially divided suburb of Chicago. My ancestors came voluntarily to this country, some on the Mayflower and others later, from Italy; Fred’s came in chains and were enslaved in Louisiana. My father was a teacher, my mother a part-time librarian; Fred’s mother and father were factory workers. While I was a jock and honor student in high school, Fred was an NAACP youth leader and organizer, spearheading demonstrations against segregated facilities in his high school and hometown.
As I was trying to find myself in an alienating Ivy League college, Fred and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Bobby Rush were organizing the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. The previous summer, while Fred served a prison sentence in a maximum-security prison in downstate Illinois for allegedly stealing 71 dollars’ worth of ice cream and distributing it to neighborhood kids, I was meeting Fred’s family and other Panther family members as a fledging intern with the brand-new People’s Law Office. And on December 4, 1969, I stood in his blood.
Starting that day, my comrades at the People’s Law Office (PLO) and I embarked on a 13-year legal battle—a crusade, no doubt—to uncover and expose the truth about that murderous raid. In the process we established a narrative that documented the violent lengths that the US government, working with local police, would go to with the aim of crushing radical and revolutionary Black organizations and their leaders in the United States. This journey would galvanize our commitment to fighting for radical change and against racism and violence by law enforcement.
We spent almost two weeks taking evidence in the apartment, carefully cataloging and photographing each item, and then transporting much of it, cloak-and-dagger style, to the attic of a northside church for safekeeping. As we tracked nearly one hundred bullet holes made by police weapons, Panther members narrated guided tours of the tiny apartment for thousands of stunned Chicagoans. Each morning, the bloody mattress on which the sleeping Fred Hampton was slain was taken from its secure hiding place and displayed to those who had come to view the crime scene. Bobby Rush publicly laid the blame on the FBI and its director J. Edgar Hoover, whom Rush mocked as “J. Who Edgar.” At a press conference shortly after the raid, Renault Robinson, leader of the Afro American Patrolmen’s League along with Howard Saffold, called the raid “murder.” In a moment that I will never forget, an older Black woman, touring the apartment, shook her head and said, “Ain’t nothin’ but a northern lynching.”
The apartment stood as a physical testament to the truth about what had happened in the early morning of December 4, 1969, but from the outset the local establishment media, with the exception of one Sun Times reporter, wholeheartedly bought state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan’s version of events. Without challenge, the front pages of all four daily papers trumpeted the law enforcement narrative that the police raiders had been met with a barrage of gunfire from the Panthers, provoking a shootout that lasted 20 minutes.
The skeptical Sun Times reporter, Brian Boyer, had visited the apartment and wrote a story that questioned Hanrahan’s version. His editors buried the story in the back pages, prompting Boyer to quit. In response, Sun Times editor in chief Jim Hoge was motivated to visit the crime scene, coming straight from the opera to the apartment, dressed to the nines, his wife clad in an expensive fur. We showed them, by floodlight, the evidence that had convinced Boyer.
From that point forward the Sun Times and its evening sibling, the Chicago Daily News, adopted a more questioning stance, while the Chicago Tribune continued to back Hanrahan—who had ordered the raid—and his men. Hanrahan reacted to the conflicting media coverage by giving an exclusive to the Tribune, in which the police raiders reiterated their lies that the raid had been a gun battle initiated by the Panthers. The Trib’s exclusive was accompanied by photos of the apartment’s back door, with encircled marks, which Hanrahan claimed were bullet holes made by Panther weapons. We went to the back door, found those marks, and discovered that they were nail heads. We also secured another crucial piece of evidence: the door panel from the front entry door to the apartment. Hanrahan and the police had claimed that only one shot had penetrated the door, and that it had come from within, from a Panther gun. We saw that there were in fact two holes, one of which went into the apartment rather than out. PLO lawyer Francis “Skip” Andrew, who, with the invaluable assistance of PLO intern and law student Ray McClain, was coordinating our evidence gathering, and ballistics expert Herb McDonnell directed that the intact door be photographed, then carefully removed the panel.
McDonnell plotted the trajectories of the two shots and then took the panel to his lab in Corning, New York, where he ran tests and concluded that the first bullet was fired into the door by the police. A few weeks later, over Christmas break, Seva Dubuar, who, like me, was a Northwestern law student working at the PLO, picked up the panel from McDonnell in Corning, and she and I drove the panel—wrapped to look like a Christmas present—back to Chicago.
The Panther defense team included Jeff Haas, Skip Andrew, our PLO mentor Dennis Cunningham, and an all-star lineup of Chicago defense lawyers. With the evidence of the door panel, we were able to establish that a key component of the State’s ballistics evidence was fabricated, and, as a result, Hanrahan dropped the attempted murder charges against the seven surviving Panthers in April 1970. Our vehicle then became a civil rights damages suit, brought on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families and the surviving Panthers. We sued the fourteen raiding officers, State’s Attorney Hanrahan, and his first assistant, Richard Jalovec, for a racially and politically motivated conspiracy to plan and execute the murderous raid, and added another set of police officers and prosecutors in an interrelated conspiracy to cover up the murders and to maliciously prosecute the survivors. Under the tutelage of several leading National Lawyers Guild attorneys—Arthur Kinoy, Bill Goodman, and Bill Bender—I drafted the original civil rights complaint for damages in longhand, and we filed the finished version in federal district court in June 1970.
Around this time, a federal grand jury, specially empaneled by the US Justice Department to investigate the bloody raid, returned its findings. The grand jury was controlled by the head of president Richard Nixon’s Civil Rights Division, a Wisconsin lawyer named Jerris Leonard, who had said, the previous summer, that the Panthers were “nothing but hoodlums, and we’ve got to get them.” Despite acknowledging that the police had fired more than ninety bullets to a single bullet fired by the Panthers, the grand jury—which included only one Black member out of twenty-three—issued a lengthy report constructed by Leonard, his associates, and the FBI that found there was not sufficient probable cause to charge anyone for the crimes. The surviving Panthers had decided not to testify before the grand jury, and the report claimed that the jury’s decision not to indict was therefore the Panthers’ fault.
These life-changing events motivated me to withdraw from law school. US troops had just invaded Cambodia, and, amid all the governmental inhumanity, as I later told a New York Times reporter, I needed to find out whether I could “be a lawyer and a human being at the same time.”
I was now working full-time at the PLO. In November 1970 Michael Deutsch, who had recently joined the office, Jeff Haas, and I were called down to Carbondale, Illinois, some 350 miles south of Chicago, to represent six Panthers who had been arrested for engaging in a shootout with the local police. There I met student activist Patricia Handlin, who would go on to start a branch of the PLO south in Carbondale and would also later become my wife.
Jeff and Michael tried the Carbondale case in the summer of 1971, with my assistance (wearing an ill-fitting red wig to hide my shoulder-length hair). As Carbondale was a university town, we were treated to a very sympathetic, multiracial jury that embraced the Panthers’ claims of self-defense, and, after a month-long trial, quickly acquitted the Panthers on trial of all charges. We celebrated with the jury at a post-verdict party and learned that a young, white Vietnam veteran had demonstrated to his fellow jurors how the Panthers had defended themselves against the police attack.
That September we became involved in an epic law enforcement murder case arising from the bloody assault at Attica Correctional Facility that killed 34 prisoners and nine guards. The prisoners had risen up and taken over the facility on September 9, 1971, in their demands for more humane treatment, and in the days that followed were attempting to negotiate with New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and prison officials. On September 13, Rockefeller ordered the National Guard and New York State Police to attack. In the aftermath, the surviving prisoners were forced to crawl in the mud through a gauntlet of guards, who physically and verbally abused them. Some of the leaders of the uprising, including Frank “Big Black” Smith, were singled out for individual torture and abuse. Sixty of the rebelling prisoners were charged with felonies, including murder of the nine guards—who were, in fact, killed by law enforcement bullets.
Almost all of us from the PLO, at one time or another, traveled to Attica to meet with many of the surviving Attica brothers, who were being held in solitary confinement. Now back for my final year of law school and resolved to become a “people’s lawyer,” I met with Big Black, Mariano “Dalu” Gonzalez, Roger “Champ” Champen, and several other leaders who had been tortured and charged with crimes. The strength and humanity of these men inspired us and fueled our dedication and resolve. Mara Siegel, a Buffalo college student who later moved to Chicago and became part of our office, joined the efforts. As the Attica cases progressed, Dennis and Michael moved to Buffalo to work on their defense, a commitment that would last for more than 30 years.
Adapted from The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago by Flint Taylor. Copyright © 2019 by Flint Taylor and published by Haymarket Books. All rights reserved.