Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD) assassination of Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP).
The story of his assassination is harrowing. In the predawn hours of December 4, 1969, a heavily armed Chicago police team — under the direction of the Cook County state’s attorney, and with a floor plan previously obtained from a paid FBI informant in hand — stormed Hampton’s apartment while he and other BPP members slept. Hampton’s West Side apartment served as a stronghold for the Illinois Chapter of the national Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The police had obtained a warrant ostensibly in search of illegal weapons, which they used as a pretext for killing Hampton and weakening the BPP. They fired more than 90 rounds. Hampton, along with fellow Panther member Mark Clark, was killed during the raid, while several other members were wounded. Hampton’s fiancée, Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri) — who was eight months pregnant at the time — miraculously survived. In the aftermath of the raid, the police orchestrated a massive cover-up, claiming they were victims of a shootout to justify the murders.
Flint Taylor, one of the founding members of the civil rights law firm the People’s Law Office, was one of the leading litigators who embarked on a 13-year battle in pursuit of justice and accountability for the CPD’s conspiratorial and lethal actions against the BPP.
In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Taylor talks about his powerful new book, The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago, in which he recounts his over half-century long career fighting on behalf of victims of police violence. He also discusses the past and the present of Chicago’s systemically racist culture of policing and how Mayor Lori Lightfoot is shaping its future.
Claudia Garcia-Rojas: What do you want people to know and remember about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party on the 50th anniversary of his assassination?
Flint Taylor: Fred Hampton was a dynamic and charismatic young leader. He was a political visionary who, with his BPP comrades, was spearheading the formation of the original Rainbow Coalition — the BPP together with the Young Lords Organization, the Students for a Democratic Society, Rising Up Angry, the Young Patriots, and Chicago’s street organizations or gangs. The BPP was revolutionary in its programs and its actions, and its 10-point program was a model for social change and resistance that still resonates today.
Why did you title your new book “The Torture Machine”?
The Torture Machine has two meanings, both related to the police torture scandal in Chicago. The first is pictured on the book’s cover — the electric shock box that police commander Jon Burge and his crew used to torture African American suspects into giving confessions. The second meaning is a reference to the political machine in Chicago — “the Daley machine” — from [former Chicago Mayor] Richard M. Daley on down through the political, police and prosecutorial ranks who facilitated, encouraged and covered up the two-decade-long reign of torture.
Your book opens with a detailed account of how the CPD conspired to assassinate Hampton and Clark and then maneuvered the media to frame several Panther members as having provoked a shootout. What ensued was a 13-year battle to expose the truth. What makes this case so historically significant?
It is significant for several reasons. It is important to understand the threat that Hampton and the BPP presented to government, both local and national, and to its police enforcers at a historical point in time where the very legitimacy of those governing forces was under a withering attack. It also teaches us how far those governing and policing forces will go to suppress a Black liberation movement and its leadership when it perceives and fears the power of that movement — employing brutally racist tactics that include political assassination. It also demonstrates the power of resistance movements that challenge the false official narrative, expose the truth and establish a people’s narrative that aids in making political change.
In your opening chapter, “Murder by Darkness,” you write that the assassination of Hampton and Clark “marked the start of a movement” in Chicago that shifted our political landscape. Why do you think this is?
More correctly, it wasn’t the start of a movement, but rather the refueling of one. People were outraged by the murders of Hampton and Clark, particularly in the Black community. Thousands of people walked through the apartment where the murders took place, on tours conducted by the Panthers, and could see the cold-blooded truth with their own eyes. Then the feds refused to indict the murderers, and that caused further outrage and organizing, which in turn led to the appointment of a special prosecutor. He indicted Cook County State’s Attorney (and Richard J. Daley protégé) Edward Hanrahan and the raiding cops not for murder, but rather for obstruction of justice. When a machine judge (there’s that word again!) acquitted Hanrahan on the eve of the 1972 election, the outrage fueled a movement that voted Hanrahan out of office, and is widely thought to be the genesis of the political movement that elected Harold Washington — Chicago’s first Black mayor — in 1983.
You detail how the CPD colluded with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, prominent judges, prosecutors and politicians to coordinate the assassinations and cover up the truth. And as was later revealed, Hampton’s murder was part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which mainly targeted and sought to neutralize Black political leaders and organizations. What does this collusion tell us about these institutions that we faithfully trust and rely on? What does it say about our “political power structure”? About how the police operate in Chicago? About whiteness and white supremacy?
This is a multi-layered series of questions and the answers are informed by several relevant historical truths. The evidence uncovered in the Hampton case shows that the FBI, at least during the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, operated as a political police force that employed illegal and unconstitutional tactics across the country with impunity; tactics that devolved into systemic racist violence bent on destroying Black liberation organizations and their leaders. This was with the political encouragement, rather than in contravention, of President Richard M. Nixon, his political henchmen and the Justice Department. Locally — both in the Hampton case and during the police torture scandal — the political machine worked hand in glove with its police, prosecutors and judges to not only perpetrate the racist assassinations and systemic torture, but also to reward the perpetrators and cover up their actions, all in pursuit of the holy grail of racist law and order.
One thing that comes across in your book is that there can be no justice without changing the dominant narrative fabricated by people in power. You end your book by saying that the People’s Law Office “had joined with many others over those three decades — courageous torture survivors, dedicated citizens and activists, families of torture victims, fellows attorneys, political allies and intrepid reporters — to use our roles as lawyers to help change the narrative.” Is changing the narrative justice praxis?
I don’t think that changing the narrative delivers justice per se, but rather, by striving to uncover and publicize the evidence of systemic wrongdoing, you aid activists and the movement to better understand history from the people’s perspective — for example, the roots and history of white supremacy and its relationship to both enslavement and racist police violence. It also helps those in struggle to better resist the lies and distortions that flow from those in power who propagate a false narrative, both current and past; to understand the mistakes of the past; and to be better equipped to fight the current battles.
In 2015, Obama’s Justice Department conducted a civil rights investigation into the CPD. This resulted in a report published in 2017 that found that the CPD engages in “both discriminatory conduct and the disproportionality of illegal and unconstitutional patterns of force on minority communities.” The City of Chicago and the DOJ signed an agreement to negotiate a consent decree — a court order that establishes an enforceable plan for sustainable reform — that Trump’s administration opposed. This prompted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a lawsuit to obtain reform of the CPD. The CPD has failed to implement a majority of the reforms stipulated in its consent decree. Given your 50 years investigating and exposing the CPD’s abuse of power and its systematically racist violence against people of color, what is your take on the consent decree and the stipulated reforms?
I have serious doubts about the utilization of consent decrees as a method of systemic police reform. That being said, if decrees can lessen repression in communities of color, as it has, for example, in New Orleans, they can’t be entirely discounted as a vehicle for changing police behavior in a positive way. Meaningful community involvement and control is vital, and in Chicago, it is too early to tell if the decree, as watered down as it is, will have any significant impact. The movement in Chicago has been very active and vocal in its demands since the murder of Laquan McDonald came to light several years ago, but city government, both old and new, has rejected movement demands for true community control of police, demands to reject the $95 million new cop training academy, and now, Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot has brought in former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Charlie Beck as the interim police superintendent, despite the LAPD’s horrendous record with regard to deadly officer-involved killings under his watch.
From the CPD’s assassination of Hampton to the Jon Burge tortures to the fight to free those wrongfully convicted to the campaign for reparations, every single story in your book is a searing record of the CPD’s long history of police violence. Do you think the CPD can be reformed? [Former Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel’s initial proposal for a new cop academy, which is now being supported by Lightfoot, was introduced as part of the city’s efforts to reform CPD. How will this new cop academy change the landscape of policing in Chicago?
The CPD certainly has a consistently notorious record of racist policing, going back many decades before my book begins in 1969. Simon Balto has documented that earlier history, starting in 1919, in his excellent new book Occupied Territory. Unfortunately, the new cop academy and additional increases to the police budget will in all likelihood help to further modernize the CPD’s methodology and implementation of 21st century policing — a chilling thought to be sure. The money could be better spent to reopen mental health clinics, invest in the Chicago public schools, or in a multitude of worthy social and economic programs.
In your book you write, “The truth is that [this history of torture] will never be ‘behind us,’ and Chicago’s collective conscience will not be cleansed, until and unless the City of Broad Shoulders, and the nation as a whole, reckon fully with the systemic racism of law enforcement, of the criminal courts, of mass incarceration and the death penalty, and of the political power structure.” How do we reckon with this and what has been accomplished?
Looking at the police torture scandal, there are still men in prison on the basis of confessions tortured from them. At the very least, they should be afforded new hearings and trials without the taint of tortured evidence. The city must make good on its promise to fund the public memorial honoring the torture survivors, and shut down its Homan Square “black site.” The accomplishments over the decades include the firing of Jon Burge, then decades later, his conviction and prison sentence; the clearing of Illinois’s death row and the subsequent repeal of Illinois’s death penalty; the establishment of a Torture [Inquiry and Relief] Commission to review cases of torture; the historic reparations package for the survivors of police torture, their families and their communities; and the changing of the torture narrative are among the key moments and victories in the three-decade intergenerational and interracial struggle against Chicago police torture.
As you mentioned, Mayor Lightfoot announced that former LA Police Chief Beck will serve as interim superintendent of the CPD. In an open letter to Chicagoans, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles issued a warning, saying, “under Chief Beck, the LAPD became the most murderous police department in the nation.” What will it mean for Chicago’s culture of policing that he has been appointed interim superintendent?
Unfortunately, when it comes to progressive change in the areas of policing, bond and sentencing reform, and criminal justice, Mayor Lightfoot the reformer seems to have reverted to Lightfoot the former federal prosecutor. She also has not stood up to the notoriously racist and reactionary Fraternal Order of Police when its leaders have attacked State’s Attorney Kim Foxx for her attempts to reform the prosecutor’s office and implement modest criminal justice reforms. Beck is no doubt an insulting step back; how the mayor handles the appointment of the permanent superintendent next year will be even more telling, and the signs, as reflected in the appointment of Beck, are not promising.
Fifty years after Hampton’s assassination, we seem to be in a similar place with the killing of Laquan McDonald by white cop Jason Van Dyke. What followed was a similar pattern of the City of Chicago and the CPD trying to portray the killer cop as a victim in order to cover up a heinous execution. From your perspective, has policing in Chicago changed? If so, how?
If not for the video, we most likely would have had another alleged murder of a young Black man, a false official narrative and a successful cover-up. Only because of some dogged reporters, a resourceful lawyer, a concerned politician, and — most importantly, after the video came to light — an outraged movement in the streets, led by the Movement for Black Lives, was the murder fully exposed and some political consequences imposed. However, the parallels to the past are obvious — a wanton police murder, a cover-up that went to the top, one Cook County judge who gave a light sentence to the police murderer, and another who acquitted three of the officers most directly culpable for the attempted cover-up. I am tempted to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” but I am encouraged by the bold young activists in the Movement for Black Lives, BYP 100, Assata’s Daughters and No Cop Academy, to name some of the most militant and creative organizations that are challenging police “business as usual” in Chicago and thereby carrying on the proud tradition of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. I end my book with “A luta continua” — the struggle must continue — and these organizations are leading the way in doing so.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.