The Parable of the Panther and the Snitch: How the Assassination of Fred Hampton Still Holds Lessons for Today
Fred Hampton was assassinated in 1969, as he lay eerily sound asleep in his bed. Later that night, his wife Deborah Johnson would tell her lawyer that Hampton was alive, but unwakeable when police pulled her out of the room. This was after a shower of bullets ripped through the space, and through the flesh of several Black Panther members who were staying with Hampton and Johnson that night. Two cops went into the room where Hampton lay sleeping. Shots rang out. We all know the rest.
Another notable piece of information is that the security officer William O’Neal disappeared that night. Years later, O’Neal would open up to tell the story of how the police extorted him into informing on the Black Panthers and Hampton. He was the one who gave them a map of the apartment. The man was racked with guilt so overwhelming that in 1990, he would attempt to kill himself by running out onto the expressway near his uncle’s home. He would later repeat the act one fatal and last time.
The Villains in Their Story and Ours
The assassination was tragic and although O’Neal did hold some fault for drawing the map and informing, Hampton’s murder sits squarely in the hands of the Chicago Police Department. They and the FBI leaned on O’Neal until he had no other options but to inform. The man was only a teenager when the FBI approached him in 1966 and forced him into an agreement to infiltrate the Black Panthers in exchange for reduced charges. They caught him driving a stolen car, but his charges included kidnapping and other offenses that would equal to decades in prison. Young William was scared and left with no other choice.
FBI Agent Roy Mitchell is the man who leaned on a Black teenager until he broke O’Neal. The boy would grow into a man who was constantly haunted by his decisions but unable to get away from them. Prison was a death sentence, and O’Neal was youthful. He craved life. Unfortunately, his story would be retold with different names and charges throughout the years.
Today, we still see that prison system and how it treats Black men and boys like expendable bodies that can be used however the officer/agent sees fit. So many young men all over the country suffer the same fate. The same overbearing and abusive law enforcement official the entrapped O’Neal still walks the streets today. It’s the same villain.
The Panthers Were as Harmless as Antifa is Real
The Black Panther chapters sprung up all over the country in the 1960s and 1970s. What the FBI and law enforcement agencies all over the country deemed a threat, was actually a community protection group. They patrolled the high crime and high police activity areas. The point was to ensure that the people had witnesses to the crimes committed by police and an advocate if needed. Yes, the police were killing unarmed Black men even in the mid-1960s. A patrol of Black men openly carrying firearms was enough to set off alarms.
Panthers also organized breakfast programs for school kids, and they also distributed a survey. The survey and a talk with each resident gave them a real idea of what the neighborhood needed. These deeds were all to improve the community, but law enforcement says the Panthers used the programs as a front. That they were running guns and selling drugs when no one was looking. They also made up stories of rioting and vandalism after Hampton’s meetings. The idea was to give white families something to fear, so reason to want the government to eradicate the Panthers. Or, just a reason to look the other way as it all happened.
This was the same tactic used by Trump and his ilk to discredit the work of equality and inclusion. “Antifa” is the group name they all mention to allow dismissal of the protest’s message and works. By attacking the Panthers in this manner, law enforcement knew that they could destroy the group before they succeeded in collecting all the city’s people together. He even got the gangs and poor white people to join his cause. All of this undermined law enforcement’s “control” over the neighborhood as well. To regain control, they had to get rid of Hampton. O’Neal was the tool to do it.
White Supremacy in Policing
One of the biggest lessons that we learned with Hampton’s assassination and again today is that white supremacy is thriving in the police departments all over the country. the most current evidence of this is the Capitol insurrection. Law enforcement figures from all over the country are being identified and turned over to the FBI for their part in storming the Capitol to stop the electoral college certification of Joe Biden as the new President of the US. A surprising amount of police officers were amongst that crowd. Worse is the racist rhetoric that so many participated in, leading up to the insurrection.
The “Back the Blue” campaigns and all the “All Lives Matter” taunts at the BLM group gave us all the evidence needed that white supremacy was still alive a well and STILL living in law enforcement.
Bigger than Hampton or O’Neal
The one last lesson that you need to recognize is that the assassination of Fred Hampton is much bigger than the two men. Their story highlights the issues that our country still has with law enforcement — from the moment they entrapped teenaged O’Neal until they murdered Hampton.
The film Judas and the Black Messiah is thus, not just a film about these two men, but also a tale of just how dangerous and infamous law enforcement can be. The biggest lesson of all is to watch and identify just how intricate some of their behaviors are. To start the conversation that really needs to happen,