1969: Fred Hampton, “good and dead now”

Add comment December 4th, 2019 Headsman

Today is the 50th anniversary of the December 4, 1969 extrajudicial execution of American revolutionary Fred Hampton.

This charismatic — nearly every bio uses this word — 21-year-old star of the Illinois Black Panther Party had in his brief life shown himself a visionary exponent of radicalism; he would end as one of the signal martyrs to his movement’s violent suppression.

Well did he know it.

“If you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of 20 and you say, I don’t want to make a commitment only because of the simple reason that I’m too young to die, I want to live a little bit longer. What you did is, you’re dead already,” Hampton once mused. “You have to understand that people have to pay the price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle then damnit, you don’t deserve to win … And I think that struggle’s going to come. Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”

Emerging late in 1966 out of Oakland, Calif., the Black Panthers were a revolutionary and pointedly armed movement that fused black power demands with critique of the entire edifice — war, imperialism, capitalism and the rest of it. Although the organization was dissolved in 1982, the Panthers’ actions and legacy are still quite controversial and their mere specter remains a potent bogeyman for much of contemporary white America.

One thing is for sure: in their moment, they scared the shit out of the powers that be. Within months of its founding, the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned upon the Panthers its COINTELPRO program of domestic surveillance, suppression, and assassination. One particularly notorious FBI memo drew a bead on “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” with an avowed intention to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” — and to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them”.

Fred Hampton isn’t mentioned by name in this chilling missive from early 1968; he was just then beginning to emerge onto the FBI’s index of rabble-rousers. (Literally, the feds had a list called the “Rabble Rouser Index”.) He was fresh out of high school in 1966, and subsequently a wildly successful NAACP chapter leader, but gravitated to the new Illinois Panthers organ by 1968 where he quickly became its most outstanding organizer and spokesman, the prospective future face of a stirring cross-racial, class-conscious justice movement that Hampton perceived with a wisdom well beyond his years. Under his leadership the BPP spun out health care programs, legal aid programs, and free breakfast programs; he forged the original Rainbow Coalition* that brought rival street gangs and activist groups from different racial communities into a shared political ambition.

“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity,” Hampton said. “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Just as energetically did the FBI work — and succeed, in the end — to break up such alliances, using informers and agents provocateur and false flags to encourage schisms and discredit leaders. Chicago’s police department was a ready collaborator in these operations; its relationship was the Panthers was hostile and often violent. Just three weeks before Hampton’s murder, two Chicago cops and a 19-year-old Black Panther were killed in a shootout. (Hampton was in California at the time.)

We don’t have the full documentary paper trail with deliberations and countersigned orders, but the known facts (and the smug grins of the cops) admit no reasonable dispute this side of performative naivete that Hampton was assassinated by a state death squad — “executed”, if you like, to fit an admittedly expansive read of this here site‘s mandate.

A compromised Hampton bodyguard named William O’Neal gave his FBI handler — who also happened to be running the Chicago COINTELPRO operation targeting the Panthers — a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, which the FBI shared with the Chicago police for a raid putatively hunting illegal weaponry. On the night of December 3, O’Neal slipped Hampton a barbituate to dull his reactions for what was to come; surviving comrades would describe Hampton being roused amid the early-morning fusillade only with difficulty, responding barely and in “slow motion” even as Chicago police stormed front and rear entrances and poured nearly 100 rounds into the place. Another Hampton aide named Mark Clark, sitting watch, was blasted dead in the initial barrage, convulsively discharging his shotgun once into the ceiling as he fell. It was the only shot fired that night by any of the Black Panthers.

By the account of Hampton’s eight-months pregnant partner Deborah Johnson, corroborated by other Panthers in the apartment, Fred Hampton was injured by the volley, but alive — and cold-bloodedly finished off with a coup de grace.

First thing that I remember after Fred and I had went to sleep was being awakened by somebody shaking Fred while we were laying in the bed. Saying, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up, the pigs are vamping, the pigs are vamping!” And, um, this person who was in the room with me, kept shouting out “we have a pregnant sister in here, stop shooting”. Eventually the shooting stopped and they said we could come out. I remember crossing over Fred, and telling myself over and over, “be real careful, don’t stumble, they’ll try to shoot you, just be real calm, watch how you walk, keep your hands up, don’t reach for anything, don’t even try to close your robe”. I’m walking out of the bedroom, there are two lines of policemen that I have to walk through on my right and my left. I remember focusing on their badge numbers and their faces. Saying them over and over on my head, so I wouldn’t forget. Um, as I walked through these two lines of policemen, one of them grabbed my robe and opened it and said, “Well, what do you know, we have a broad here.” Another policeman grabbed me by the hair and pretty much just shoved me — I had more hair then — pretty much just shoved me into the kitchen area. It was very cold that night. I guess that it snowed. And, ah, the back door was open. Some people were on the floor in the kitchen area. I think it was Harold Bell was standing next to me in the kitchen area. They, ah, it was a police, ah, plainclothes policeman there, and I asked him for a pin, so I could pin my robe, because it was just open. And he said, “Ask the other guy.” And, ah, then somebody came back and handcuffed me, and Harold Bell behind the back. I heard a voice come from the area, I guess from the dining room area, which was, the kitchen was off from that area. And someone said, “He’s barely alive, he’ll barely make it.” The shooting, I heard some shooting start again. Not much. Just a little shooting, and, um, and someone said, “He’s good and dead now.” I’m standing at the, um, kitchen wall, and I’m trying to remember details of these policemen’s face, say it over and over in my head, and, and badge numbers, so, you gotta remember, gotta remember. And then when I felt like I was just going to really just pass out, I started saying the ten-point program over and over in my head. Um, at one point I turned around, the shooting had continued again, and I saw the police drag Verlina Brewer and throw her into the refrigerator. And it looked like blood was all over her. And she fell to the floor and they picked her up and threw her again. I saw Ronald Satchel bleeding. I kept trying to focus on the ten-point program platform, because I, again, I wanted to take myself out of that place. And I knew I just couldn’t break down there. Because I didn’t know if I would be killed, or what would happen.

Incidentally, Hampton’s killing was also a key catalyst for the terroristic turn of the Weather Underground — whose decisive “war council” meeting occurred later that same month of December 1969, with Hampton’s blood heavy in the air (and his picture prominently displayed on the wall) as an emblem of the futility of pacific resistance within the belly of the beast. “It was the murder of Fred Hampton more than any other factor that compelled us to feel we had to take up armed sturggle,” said David Gilbert, who’s now serving a prison sentence for a deadly bank robbery. “We wanted to create some pressure, to overextend the police so they couldn’t concentrate all their forces on the Panthers. We wanted to create a political cost for what they were doing. And we also felt that to build a movement among whites that was a revolutionary movement, a radical movement … it had to respond when our government in our name was destroying the most promising, exciting, and charismatic leadership to come out of the Black movement in a long time.” (Source) It was a paradoxical inspiration, since Hampton himself had criticized the emerging Weathermen after their “Days of Rage” riot in Chicago as “anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic,” and even “Custeristic” — as in Indian Wars cavalryman George Armstrong Custer, famous for his defeat — “in that its leaders take the people into situations where they can be massacred. And they call that revolution.”

* The name and concept of the Rainbow Coalition were later revived by Jesse Jackson in his left-wing presidential challenges in 1984 and 1988, but there is not a continuous institutional thread from Hampton’s coalition to Jackson’s. Jackson did, however, deliver a eulogy at Hampton’s funeral on December 6, 1969.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Illinois,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1977: Larry Tacklyn and Erskine Burrows, for the murder of Richard Sharples

5 comments December 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977, Black Berets Larry Tacklyn and Erskine “Buck” Burrows were hanged in Bermuda for assassinating the islands’ police chief and governor.

“During the 1970s, a black power organization in Bermuda conspired to bring about social change ‘by any means necessary,’ including assassination. This is the first full account of the murders and the Black Beret Cadre, the revolutionary group whose activities resulted in mayhem throughout the island.”
Book’s advance publicity

A revolutionary black nationalist organization, the Black Beret cadre took its name from that Che Guevara photograph and its model from the Black Panthers.

The cadres’ agenda for early-1970s Bermuda

was ‘freedom by any means necessary’ which included assassination. Taking their cue from the Black Panthers, whose primary aim was to bait the ‘racist cops’, the Black Berets exhorted its members and all Bermudian youth to confront the ‘English racist police’ as frequently as possible and prepare for the coming conflict between blacks and whites …

Its purpose was to indoctrinate young black Bermudians in communist revolution and the ideology of Black Power.

Cadres Tacklyn and Burrows were one part liberators of their oppressed brothers, one part common criminals.

In 1972, they gunned down white police commissioner (a veteran of Britain’s colonies) George Duckett; in 1973, they ambushed governor (and former Tory M.P.) Richard Sharples and slew him, along with his aide-de-camp.

Neither perp was apprehended, which meant they went on to kill a couple of supermarket executives before someone I.D.’d Tacklyn. Burrows stayed on the lam long enough to rob a bank of $28,000.

The trials were a sensation — apt for the involvement of sensational Bermudian lawyer and politician Julian Hall — with Burrows convicted all around. He openly avowed the political murders.

Erskine Burrows

The motive for killing the Governor (his ADC was not our objective, he was shot only because he happened to be with the Governor at the time) was to seek to make the people, black people in particular, become aware of the evilness and wickedness of the colonialist system in the Island of Bermuda.

Secondly, the motive was to show that these colonialists were just ordinary people like ourselves who eat, sleep and die just like anybody else and that we need not stand in fear or awe of them.

Finally, the motive was to reveal to black people unto themselves.

This refers to the revealed reactions of many black people during the Governor’s funeral, when black people were seen to be standing with tears in their eyes, crying for a man who when he was alive didn’t care if they lived or died and here they were crying for a white Governor and yet when many of their own people pass away there is sometimes hardly a tear shed for them.

This shows clearly the evil effects that the colonialist propaganda has had over the long years they have ruled over this little Island.

Tacklyn managed to win acquittals over Duckett and Sharples but was condemned for killing the grocers. With “only” the two murder raps, Tacklyn’s appeals against execution might have stood a chance in other circumstances. But his affiliation with Burrows, who so openly avowed the other crimes and declined to mitigate them in court, “hung like an albatross around Tacklyn’s neck.”

That wasn’t the only thing that was hanging.

Massive riots rocked Bermuda after it became known that eleventh-hour clemency bids were rejected; “Fires erupted across Bermuda,” Reuters report, “causing millions of dollars in damage as a dusk-to-dawn curfew failed to halt the racial violence.” (Per Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 1977) British troops were deployed to help quell the riots.

Tacklyn and Burrows were the first people executed in Bermuda in 34 years, and remain the last executed there to this date.

Because all Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean subsequently abolished the death penalty (Bermuda in a contentious 1999 parliamentary dispute decided by a single tiebreaking vote), Tacklyn and Burrows also hold the distinction of being the last people put to death anywhere under British law. (As distinct from the last executed in Britain.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists

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