Living Without Shame is a Political Act

What we lost when we lost Fred Hampton

Every year on December 4th I tell people about what was done to the 21-year old revolutionary, Fred Hampton, by the government of America and his city of Chicago in 1969. But this year I wanted to talk about what Fred Hampton gave us before he was assassinated, and maybe what he could have given us if he’d lived.

The facts of the case are extensively stated elsewhere, and you can find them with ease. The simple version is this: Chicago police working with FBI went into the apartment he was in, and shot him repeatedly. They shot him until he was good and dead. But I don’t want to focus only on that, because it doesn’t do justice to Fred Hampton or what he was part of.

Hampton was a charismatic leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. The Black Panthers are a tough subject to this day, and there will most likely be people even in the comments of this article claiming that they were evil and violent and that their demise was justified. There’s a lot of reasons the greater portion of America would have hated and feared the BPP, and still does. The Black Panthers were communists at a time when communism was practically synonymous with Satanism in America. They were black liberationists at a time when much of white America was still freshly wounded by the loss of Jim Crow segregation. They refused to lay down tools of violence, originally constituting themselves as a party of self-defense particularly in areas where police brutality was killing black folk, and they frightened police with a promise that they’d shoot back.

But contrary to much of the narrative about them constructed in the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation against the BBP, the group wasn’t focused on violence. There were a few people unhinged, because there are always a few people unhinged. But on the whole the people who joined the BPP were utopian and revolutionary, and they spent more time, money, and energy building the society they wanted than shooting at the one that opposed them. They were politically astute and moral actors, setting up children’s breakfast programs and health clinics in cities across America. None more exemplified the hopeful and bright part of the Black Panthers than the brilliant Hampton, barely a grown man at the time. Think about what you were like at 20, and then think about a man without any advanced education, organizing in Chicago, coordinating aid, and uplifting people with speeches that would immortalize him and inspire generations.

Pretty good, right? He scared the living shit out of white people.

Whether Hoover and the other old guards of the white establishment were conscious of it or not, I believe the reason they hated the BPP so much, and Fred Hampton in particular, was that they refused to be ashamed. It was in everything Fred Hampton and many other panthers did. They didn’t dress in suits. They wore what they wanted to, groomed like they found themselves attractive as god made them. They spoke the English they used to communicate with each other, not the Ivy League dialect that helped make black activism easier to swallow for white folk. Their language was rich and evocative and brimmed with their emotions; a language that treated black people’s emotions as if they mattered. They celebrated themselves. Fred Hampton in particular thought so much of himself that he believed he had the right to be magnanimous to white people. He famously called for white power for white people, just one more category among many others, and invited us to be part of his vision for a socialist utopia.

He had no shame, he needed no shame. After hundreds of years of oppression he was happy to call all men his equals and companions, and afford to others the dignity he claimed for himself.

I don’t think it’s easy for most people to understand how much this would make powerful white people hate him. It is no mere repudiation of racism and capitalism. For people like Hoover, that old white establishment, it was an invalidation of reality, the order of things upended. It was worthy of any violence, any evil, to end that damned presumption, to put all the people back in their places. It was worth it to break all the laws and kill the motherfucker before he spoke another word to us, so that’s what they did. They took him away from the BPP, the black community, and the world. They tried to bury his name with him. They tried to bury his ideas and make them never matter, but in that, they failed.

Working in queer activism through the 90s, I started to understand the political mechanics of shame. As the co-president of my college’s LGBTSU, when the issue of what letters to add or subtract came up, I cut the conversation short by renaming our organization Pride. I wasn’t the first or only young queer activist to do this, the queer movement had learned the power of rejecting shame from black and feminist activism. Nothing about what was between our legs or what we did with our bodies was for you to judge. We rejected that judgement, and whether to talk about our bodies, our loves, and our sexy times, or not, became simply a personal choice.

I didn’t know about Fred Hampton, or the Black Panther Party, when I did that, but having learned my history, I don’t believe I would have had the tools to do it without them. I never became a communist or a socialist,and I don’t believe everything the BBP and Hampton did about the world. But I became a utopian, and I respect the heart it takes to be utopian. To act on being utopian makes you a revolutionary, and thus Hampton and the BPP were fated to live and die revolutionaries without their revolution. They paid terribly to give their ideas to the world. And none more than the brilliant, beautiful 21-year-old Hampton, assassinated in his sleep next to his pregnant partner, never to see his child in this world.

Every year I cry about that. Every damn year.

He’s good and dead now. I’m so sad that the old scared and twisted white men of power never let us hear him, see what he would have made. But we aren’t dead, and Hampton reaches across time to us through his speeches, through his particular utopianism, and charges us to speak our truths, without shame. To elevate each other in our endless varieties, without shame. To unashamedly fight for utopias and not settle for small lives. To believe without shame, to love without shame.

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5 replies
  1. k says:

    To continue this theme not only was this event an extrajudicial execution by a Chicago police/ FBI death squad but the head of that death squad used it and other misbehavior to gain the Gov. Mansion in Springfield.

    So the point is, to me, if the “establishment” has no shame why should anyone else?

    They illegaly murdered people yet it is the lack of “proper” queen’s english that is disqulifying. They condemn people to death and, in some cases, mental and physical ailments with pollution but it is a loud speaker at a stockholders meeting that is reprehensible. BP poisions the planet and killed 11 men on the Deep water horizon but it is labeling it as a criminal enterprise that is outragous. Morally absent and ethically defiecient with schools that teach one how to shame others for pointing out their foul behavior.

    The list goes on and on. Object lesson is that the wealthy and powerful learned long ago, and teach their children, that as long as one makes a profit no matter the cost to others there is no shame. It is only losing money that is shameful.

  2. Teddy says:

    Chicago public schools provide free breakfasts for children.

    Chicago public schools don’t teach anything about Fred Hampton.

    Co-opt, then erase.

  3. maybe ryan says:

    What do you deem the causes of the skyrocketing murder rate in Chicago in the period 1966 to 1969?:

    There seems to have been an inflection point in July of 1966.  Starting with 7/66, you have 12 months in which the murder rate each month is higher than the same month one year earlier.  The murder rate in 66 is “only” 25% higher than in 65, but the murder rate for the final 6 months of 66 is 47% higher.  This new rate of violence is then sustained for 37 years, under black mayors and white.

    What caused this?  The fire hydrant riot?  How, precisely?

    While I instinctively dislike the conservative answer to this question, I’ve never felt liberals had an answer at all.  My friends and co-workers mostly have no idea that the quandary exists.  At best they finesse it.

    How is that the adoption of vigorous policing in 2003 happened to coincide with a dramatic decline in the murder rate in Chicago? While the end of vigorous policing in the wake of the Laquon McDonald video just happened to coincide with a new explosion?   I’m going to take that a step further, because it’s imprecise to say the inflection point was “2003.”  The murder rate began its freefall very precisely in May of 2003 in one district – Harrison District first adopted the new tactics.  By the end of the summer, when the experiment was ended and the tactics were taken citywide, the murder rate immediately fell to a new, sustained, much lower rate, citywide.  Reversion to the mean simply doesn’t look like this.  The effects of lead don’t look like this.  The standard fluctuations of weather and gang warfare don’t look like this.  These are very long statistical plateaus.  Then exact punctuation points that correspond exactly with a change in police tactics.  After which the statistics plateau again at a completely new equilibrium.

    I know a man who was with Fred Hampton in the summer of 69; I would suggest was psychologically broken in the wake of Hampton’s killing; and then remade himself, in part by working for Barack Obama long, long before any of you had ever heard of him.  I’m not naïve about police.  I’m not anti Fred Hampton.

    But iatrogenic disease seems a very, very poor diagnosis of the ebbing and flowing of the murder epidemic in Chicago over the last 50 years.  Someone needs to come up with an explanation that actually matches the numbers.  The only explanation that thus far actually matches is that vigorous policing seems to have a significant effect in preventing murder.

    Is there no way to police aggressively in which the human costs aren’t lower than seeing an additional 2-400 people murdered each year, most of them young black men?

    Or what is the alternative solution?

    The New York experience with ending aggressive policing is very different.  They did not see a rise in the murder rate.

    I would submit that that is true in large part because they policed aggressively for so long that they had virtually eliminated the ‘cynical murder’ – the type of murder where person A in an organization suggests that person B kill person C, for money or status.  They established the monopoly on the use of force, and now they are able to back off.  There was an article that more or less made this point in the NY Times a couple years ago, a piece in which New York experts opined about what one would do to end domestic violence-related homicides, because they were the one small category that had failed to come down.  I laughed ruefully – if only we were seeing so few other homicides in Chicago that we could start to think proactively about the sliver of homicides that were crimes of passion.

    Chicago never succeeded at establishing a monopoly on the use of force.  Is that because the police had so much less legitimacy here, following the Meares theory of legitimacy as a (the?) prime driver of police effectiveness?  Perhaps.  But who would have thought the NYPD had so much legitimacy in the mid-90’s.  Was it simply the personality of Bill Bratton, a rare man who had the trust of his rank and file AND the black community?  Did he somehow embody legitimacy?

    Where did Chicago go wrong?

  4. k says:

    Blackstone Rangers v. Disciples turf wars.
    Another issue that Hampton was trying to address.
    Rather then be pawns of the powers to be by fighting each other beggering everyone. He was looking to combine and grow to becoming political forces much of how the irish and italian gangs matured to become political powers.

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