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How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther

by Jeffrey Haas

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-55652-765-4
Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books/Chicago Review

An earnest attorney looks back at a notorious 1960s slaying.

Haas, a founder of the People’s Law Office (PLO) in 1969, renders this disturbing eyewitness account in straightforward prose. It’s a memoir of his experiences as well as the story of an incident still recalled in Chicago as a deplorable example of police brutality. Growing up Jewish in middle-class Atlanta, the author’s early awareness of Jim Crow propelled him toward engagement in progressive politics. As a young lawyer in Chicago, he became fascinated with the youthful Fred Hampton, who combined a passion for the black militant cause with eloquence and cool-headedness. Haas volunteered the PLO’s services to the Panthers shortly before the fateful events of Dec. 4, 1969. The entire city became mired in tension as word spread that officers working for State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan had riddled Hampton’s apartment with bullets, killing two and wounding several Panthers. Hanrahan and the Chicago police were quickly put on the defensive, as the African-American community seethed over an evident cover-up: “It was clear to anyone viewing the ravaged apartment that Fred was shot to death on his bed.” The raid accomplished the goals of Hanrahan and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, as the Panthers rapidly declined in membership and influence. “No one could replace Fred’s charisma, energy, or organizing ability,” Haas writes. However, the murder destroyed the credibility of Chicago law enforcement and the Chicago Tribune, and ruptured the relationship between the black community and the Daley political machine. When charges against the Panthers were hastily dropped and a federal grand jury petered out, the PLO lawyers pursued a civil-rights suit, never dreaming that it would take 15 years to settle. Along the way, they unearthed proof that the FBI’s COINTEL program had encouraged violence against the Panthers. Although the dramatic tension dissipates in the book’s second half, which covers the suit in minute detail, Haas mostly avoids leftist melodrama and offers a diligent defense of the legal rights of political radicals.

A still-chilling tale of law-enforcement misconduct.