Blood Libel: New Journalism and the Second Assassination of Fred Hampton

 

On Thursday, December 4, 1969, at about 4:30 AM, three unmarked Chicago police cars and a panel truck left the 26th Street office of the Cook County state’s attorney and headed west. The lakefront air was bitterly cold, and the vehicles moved deliberately past the empty lots, gutted warehouses, and walk-ups that dotted the city’s west side like rows of rotting teeth. 

Ten minutes later they’d arrived at their destination: an old yellow brick two-flat at 2337 W. Monroe. Parking 50 yards up the street, 14 officers tumbled out, clad in leather jackets and fur hats. Their armaments included one .357-caliber pistol, 19 .38-caliber pistols, one carbine, five shotguns, and one Thompson submachine gun with 110 rounds of ammunition. 

They had no tear-gas canisters, no sound equipment, and no spotlights; none were necessary for this mission. 

They split up into three groups. Five officers ambled up the six stone stairs at the front of the two-flat and entered through the narrow outer hallway, while six moved through the passageway alongside the building and climbed the back stairs. The remaining three waited outside on the sidewalk.

Sergeant Daniel Groth pounded on the front door. "Who's there?" came a voice from inside the first-floor apartment. Groth demanded that the occupants open the door, and there were more voices and shuffling inside. Then a pause.

Officer James "Gloves" Davis kicked in the front door commando-style, and he, Groth, and the other three officers in his unit burst into the living room, lighting up the inky darkness with a flash of carbine, pistol and shotgun fire. Simultaneously, the six on the back porch sprang into action. Officer Edward Carmody kicked open the rear door and entered through the kitchen, firing three shots from his revolver. Two of his men followed on his heels, crouching to fire shotgun blasts. 

Then the submachine gun rang out; later, the officers would describe what followed as a macabre dance, their fusillade lit up the room like flickering neon, casting the writhing bodies in sharp relief as they fell to the floor, their staccato moans an elegy of grief and unimaginable suffering. Finally, after a few minutes, a pause, followed by two more shots in quick succession from a bedroom, and it was over. 

"The premises are under control," a patrolman who had just arrived on the scene reported over his squad-car radio. Within minutes ambulances and more patrol cars arrived, hustling two men and a pregnant woman out of the building in handcuffs. Four others were carted out on stretchers, wounded but alive, followed by two corpses: 22-year-old Mark Clark, shot once in the heart, and Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, who had been struck once in the chest, once in the shoulder, and twice in the forehead. 

He was 21.

As their bodies were loaded into ambulances for transport to the Cook County morgue, the news of their passing was relayed over the police two-way radio, and later, the downtown dispatcher reported hearing cheers from police cars scattered over the city. Said one officer: "That's when to get them; when they're in their beds!"

Six months later, New York Magazine published a startling story written by Tom Wolfe entitled Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s, illustrated with a cover photograph of three glamorous white women in evening gowns raising their gloved fists in a black power salute. Wolfe’s account of a lavish fundraiser for 21 jailed Black Panthers held at the composer Leonard Bernstein’s upper East Side townhouse was simply unlike anything ever seen before in American journalism. For starters, there was Wolfe’s novelistic treatment of the event, which made no pretense of objectivity and deployed an Oscar Wilde-like sensibility in its rendering of what unfurled like a finely-wrought fever dream. Its poetry notwithstanding, however, Radical Chic was a hissing broadside that took aim at the black power movement and the white limousine liberals who would support it.

The reproach represented a sharp departure for a news media that had mostly ignored the Black Panthers since its inception in 1966 or merely reported matter-of-factly on actions such as the 1967 gun-toting demonstration outside the California state assembly. Wolfe, however, abandoned the  standard “Who, What, When, How” journalistic framework  to mock the Panthers’ for everything from the manner in which they spoke to their alleged shakedown of Jewish merchants, Bernstein’s Jewishness (“stein not steen”) his preference for white servants rather than black or brown ones and generally lamenting the tendency of the rich to romanticize the more “primitive” elements of society, which he referred to with the French phrase for “nostalgia for mud,” or nostalgie de la boue.   

Yet, if Wolfe’s reportage trafficked in innuendo, glib stereotypes and tropes suggesting a libidinal motive to the pairing of black revolutionaries and white socialites, then Gail Sheehy’s two-part series that appeared in New York magazine five months later went full-on Birth of a Nation. Centered on the trial of 12 Black Panthers for murdering one of their own in New Haven, Connecticut, Sheehy’s article, entitled The Agony of Panthermania, was offered as an interrogation of the relationship between New Haven’s middle-class, or good blacks, against the “bad [email protected]#$%^” who joined the local Panthers chapter. What it was, in effect, was a dossier of black dysfunction, and, according to Michael E. Staub, an English professor at the City University of New York, “a compendium of every ugly cliche about blacks one could imagine. According to Sheehy, not only were urban blacks addicted to hustling, and often heroin ‘chipping a little . . . under the skin of [the] knee .  . . “they were overly sexual, had low IQs, and were overly concerned with cool headgear and fancy cars. Sheehy even mobilized the motif of the emasculated black man "desperate to claim his manhood" fixated entirely on "ego and sex." 

The assassinations of Hampton and Clark 50 years ago were the nadir of an FBI counterintelligence program that was the precursor for the Pentagon’s offensive 36 years later known as the “surge” in which Iraqi “insurgents” were targeted for assassination to quell a popular uprising. With his eloquent appeals for a rainbow coalition of whites, blacks, and Latinos to confront the American ruling class, Hampton’s state killing, in particular, triggered what Staub described as a “moral panic” in the white Republic that continues to reverberate to this day. Frantic to discourage whites from joining a radical black polity whose message of interracial solidarity and class-consciousness represented an existential threat to white privilege, Wolfe, Sheehy and their acolytes simply reinvented the rules of journalistic engagement to rewrite history and accommodate the oligarchs’ preference for race war rather than class war.  

That is not to suggest that journalism in the U.S was ever great, or even good for that matter. Dating back to at least the 1898 massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina, the purpose of both the news and entertainment media has primarily been to foment racial terror, isolate progressive ideas and keep political and economic power firmly entrenched in the hands in the hands of a white settler elite.  But while Wolfe’s New Journalism was very much like the old in that regard, it upped the ante in amplifying the voice of an aggrieved white settler elite, eschewing reportorial interrogation for an author’s narration, and substituting impressions for facts. Hence, the mainstream media today posits as an article of its faith that Russia and China are the aggressors in their dealings with the West, the U.S. economy is booming, and a dysfunctional health care system that profits when patients are sick, and not when they are well, is hardly newsworthy.

The FBI and Chicago Police Department conspired to murder Hampton because he and his comrades were stitching together an unlikely amalgam of black, Puerto Rican, and white street gangs, factory workers,  college students, professionals and the unemployed. So profound was Hampton’s influence that white activists with the Students for a Democratic Society would splinter off to form the more radical Weather Underground; in fact, Weather Underground founders  Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers told me four years ago that they keep in touch with Hampton’s mother and regularly visit his Louisiana gravesite.

“Chairman Fred called us to a lifetime of service to humanity,” said Bruce Dixon, the late managing editor of Black Agenda Report,  who was an 18-year-old Panther recruit in 1969. “If we weren’t doing something revolutionary, Fred told us many times, we shouldn’t even bother to remember him.”

Dohrn’s, Ayers’, and Dixon’s memories of Hampton stand in start contrast with Wolfe and Sheehy's depiction of the Black Panthers, generally, as “folk devils” which inspired the late Ben Bradlee to create the pioneering Style section at the Washington Post and laid the foundation for a half-century of journalism committed to deepening fissures in the grassroots alliance of organized labor, African Americans, and white Leftists – many of them Jewish – that coalesced at the height of the Great Depression and was becoming increasingly assertive in the late 1960s, demanding everything from higher wages to free college tuition to the end of the Vietnam war. 

“It is clear to me, “ David Rockefeller wrote in 1971 to his fellow Chase Manhattan board members, “that the entire structure of our society is being challenged.” 

That same year, a courtly, Virginia lawyer named Lewis Powell submitted a “Confidential Memorandum” to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce articulating a plan for marginalizing liberals on college campuses and in the media.  

New Journalism also presaged the deepening of class fissures in the black community which produced the nation’s first black president whose neoliberal policies have continued the dispossession of the American worker. By pitting “good” moderate Negroes against the angry, radical activists in New Haven, Sheehy’s Panthermania essay especially contributed to the rise of a black middle class that parrots the white supremacy and laissez-faire capitalism that the Panthers so adamantly opposed. Consider that in 1977, just nine years after Martin Luther King was assassinated while protesting with striking black garbage workers in Memphis, Atlanta’s first black Mayor Maynard Jackson fired striking sanitation workers, most of them black. 

And with all due respect to Adam Clayton Powell, the case can be made that New Journalism, and not Harvard, “has ruined more Negroes than cheap whiskey.” What connects most of the black recipients of journalism’s top prize, the Pulitzer, is a willingness to mow down other blacks, like Wolfe and Sheehy and the Chicago police who burst into Hampton’s apartment. Consider Leon Dash’s eight-part Washington Post series on an illiterate, drug-addled, HIV-infected, larcenous sex-worker named Rosa Lee Cunningham, which won a Pulitzer for Explanatory Journalism in 1995. Dash, who is black, “explained” how Rosa Lee represented an isolated urban underclass. She was, in fact, quite the opposite: a white-supremacist’s chimera, a sociological aberration, and an outlier in her impoverished, mostly-black community who was no more representative of a black underclass than the serial murderer Ted Bundy represented the white, suburban middle-class.

Twelve years later, Cynthia Tucker, the black editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution won the Pulitzer for a series of columns published in 2006 in which she took dead aim at black political figures in Georgia. First, she took former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who is also African-American, to task for anti-Semitic remarks made by the lawmaker’s father, playing the race card to further her personal agenda, and assaulting a Capitol Hill police officer.

Hampton, rather famously, predicted this degradation of the radical black imagination when he said: “If the people ain’t educated, one day we’ll have Negro imperialists.” And in a sense, he also anticipated the advent of New Journalism when he spoke of elitist institutions which leave you “with answers that don’t answer, explanations that don’t explain and conclusions that don’t conclude.”

But for all his brilliance, there appears to be one thing he got terribly, tragically wrong and that is when he said this:

“You can kill a revolutionary but you can’t kill revolution.”