THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON B+
USA (88 mi) 1971 d: Howard Alk
USA (88 mi) 1971 d: Howard Alk
I am…a revolutionary —Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Black Panther Party in Chicago
Working as one of the original founders of Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe, in fact it was Alk leaving which led to his replacement by the more comically acclaimed Alan Arkin (SCTV Guide: Feature: Days and Nights at the Second City), and also as one of the cinematographers in the Dylan film DON’T LOOK BACK (1967), director Howard Alk turns out to be the one largely responsible for shaping this film. According to remarks at the film’s screening from the producer Mark Gray, none of the participants were particularly political minded until one event changed their lives, the City of Chicago’s police assault on peaceful demonstrators across from the Conrad Hilton hotel at the 1968 Democratic Convention, footage of which was used in Alk’s earlier 1969 film AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2. Alk was apparently a child genius, someone who graduated from the prestigious University of Chicago at age 16 and became an active Trotskyite, and whose response after viewing the Democratic Convention footage was supposedly, “Where are the black people?” This led to his interest in establishing ties with the newly formed Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party in August of 1968, where he met Party Chairman Fred Hampton, another young charismatic individual who displayed an amazing fearlessness and bold presence before an audience, developing quite a following at the tender age of 20. Along with Bobby Rush, his Minister of Defense, they were the bulwark of the Chicago organization. Alk and fellow cameraman Mike Gray followed Hampton around for 9 months filming his speeches in cramped, dimly lit rooms, where the raw quality of the footage resembled other 60’s underground films, but in the process, they gained an unusually intimate portrait of the workings of the Black Panther Party, a short-lived armed radical organization that was one of the first organized black groups to stand up to the racism and police brutality that besieged their neighborhoods. Unfortunately the Panthers paid a high price, using as an excuse their supposed cache of weapons, making them an easy target of police raids. They were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI watch list as public enemy number one, calling them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," infiltrated by informants, oftentimes black police officers, and eventually the entire organization nationwide was hunted down and targeted for arrest and/or death “by any means necessary,” to borrow a phrase of the Panthers organization themselves. Bobby Hutton of the Oakland branch was killed, Eldridge Cleaver fled the country, Huey P. Newton was arrested for manslaughter, H. Rap Brown for murder, and one by one the leaders were taken out in a secret FBI spy operation against American citizens called COINTELPRO that was only uncovered years later under the Freedom of Information Act. By 1970, 34 known Panthers were dead as a result of police raids and shoot-outs, while the rising costs of legal fees eventually ended their existence.
The film was made during a time of few renowned documentaries, perhaps WOODSTOCK (1970) was the first seen by the baby boomer generation, but also Marcel Ophuls recent 1969 film THE SORROW AND THE PITY. The first half of this film is a profile of Hampton, including a mock trial where he puts himself in front of a fictitious trial of his peers for an alleged theft of some 70 Good Humor ice cream cones, a crime for which he was eventually sentenced to Menard penitentiary in Southern Illinois. After his release, Hampton is seen making incendiary remarks about the police, continually using the Panther rhetoric “pigs,” justifying his use of the term, claiming anyone who could sink as low as cops who brutalize public citizens and then brazenly lie and cover it up could only be considered less than human, yet he also established ties to the community by opening free medical clinics and breakfast programs for neighborhood kids. In one of the more interesting scenes, Hampton is seen feeling out a group of Black nationalists, seeing if they have common interests, but hesitates, as they fail to have mandatory educational programs for their members. Hampton freely informs them that he finds common ground with many whites or Latinos, claiming blacks are held back by the repressive nature of their own people as well, and refuses to exclusively use race as a basis for unification, instead advocating socialism over nationalism. But Hampton’s speeches are legendary, as his fury is infectious and he knew how to arouse an audience. Despite the raw, dark and dingy quality of the footage, these are rare moments of history.
On December 4, 1969, under the authorization of State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan, supposedly to serve a warrant for a weapons violation, a Chicago police raid at 4:30 am of 14 officers, 5 of whom were black, stormed Hampton’s private residence with guns blazing, killing both Hampton and another Panther member Mark Clark. What followed afterwards was a front page exclusive by the Chicago Tribune newspaper which printed verbatim the State’s Attorney’s version of events, which was exposed later as a carefully staged public relations fantasy of the actual events, claiming officers announced their presence and were met by an onslaught of bullets, and “by the grace of God” it was a miracle that no officers were killed. The television news broadcasts offered similar testimony. The filmmakers were at the crime scene the next day, which was never ever declared a crime scene by the police. They did what they did and left, never returning to gather evidence from the scene of the crime, so the filmmakers shot footage of the ransacked apartment which contradicted the police version of events and opened it up to the public to make their own conclusions. According to a forensics report, 99 bullets were found entering the apartment from the outside, while only 1 bullet was ever fired from inside — which was itself an accident, as the Panther guarding the door, Mark Clark, dropped his gun during the initial pre-dawn police assault where he was killed instantly, his gun firing when landing on the floor — hardly the barrage reported by the police to justify their actions. Based on contradictory allegations, this part of the film is never definitive and remains hard to understand due to the fact it took over a decade to uncover the truth of the events, long after the release of the film, as the police stuck to their version of events, sometimes word for word, and were not available for follow up interviews, while the Panther attorneys methodically went through the crime scene to counter law enforcement’s claims. The word murder in the title is not an exaggeration, and it remains one of the legendary police cover ups in Chicago history.
In the question and answer discussion afterwards, one of the Panther attorneys was present, who indicated initially all the officers were vindicated, but only after a period of ten years were they finally held responsible for violating Hampton’s civil rights. Over the course of time, this also led to the FBI revelations that they actually directed the State’s Attorney’s raid, based on diagrams provided by FBI informant William O’Neal, who was Hampton’s bodyguard, the man who actually provided the exact location of Fred Hampton’s bed, which was the target of the majority of the police bullets. An autopsy also revealed that there were barbiturates found in Hampton’s stomach, who was known to be ardently drug and alcohol free, suggesting he was drugged the night before by O’Neal, who served him kool-aid and hot dogs the night before, corroborating the testimony of Hampton’s girl friend in the apartment who claimed he did not respond and remained groggy throughout the raid, only lifting his head an inch or so off the bed before he was shot and killed. The title of the film was penned by Albert Grossman, an early agent to folk stars like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and an early contributor to the making of this film, who after seeing the advance version proclaimed this film to be about THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON, picking up on a verbal theme that is repeated several times by others in the film. The film is a time capsule for an era that exists no more, as the Black Panthers were eliminated, all killed or jailed or run underground in one of the more inflammatory and least documented periods of American history.
Of local Chicago interest, one of the first white officers through the door, perhaps the first to actually visually target Hampton, was later also one of the partners of Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who along with officers under him ran a torture unit out of the Area 2 police station, using a variety of torture techniques - - Russian roulette, electroshock, suffocation and beatings - - to extract “confessions” during the interrogations of 200 black men from the late 60’s through the 90’s, allegedly using intimidating remarks like, “We killed Fred Hampton. You’re next.” Burge most likely learned about electroshock while torturing Vietnamese prisoners before he was honorably discharged from the military in 1969, bringing this same method back to Chicago’s South Side. The Commander that replaced Burge at Area 2 headquarters was current Police Chief Phil Cline, who recently submitted his resignation after videotapes exposed Chicago police officers engaged in bar brawls that they themselves initiated and then sent the arriving police squads away in order to cover up their actions. So the line of Chicago police brutality from the days of Fred Hampton to the present is an uninterrupted straight line.