Youths See Slain Black Panther as Role Model

Chip Mitchell, WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio), December 4, 2009

Today is the 40th anniversary of a Chicago police raid that killed young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and one of his comrades, Mark Clark. Hampton and his cadre promoted socialism, created their own social programs and forged alliances with like-minded Latinos and whites. They also took up arms in what they described as self-defense against police. Four decades later, some Black Panther tactics may seem antiquated. But a new generation of African American activists is embracing Hampton as a role model. We report from our West Side bureau.

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At the University of Chicago, Hampton’s widow Akua Njeri addresses a packed hall that includes students as young as ninth graders.

NJERI: A lot of you are familiar with the survival programs of the Black Panther Party–the breakfast program, the medical center, the free clothing, free shoe giveaway, free prison busing programs. And a bunch of people that didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of–young people–were organizing these survival programs and demanding that businesses that existed in the city had a responsibility to support and contribute to these programs.

But it’s not clear how far the word about Hampton is spreading among African American youths.

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FLOYD [Danton Floyd, West Side counselor]: They always want to know about their gang leaders, like Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort. But this is a leader that they need to know about, that was just as fearless, just as intelligent, and just as dangerous as these gang leaders that they look up to but was positive and was willing to do anything he had to do for his people at the same time.

Floyd says the youths pay attention when he tells them about Hampton, but he wonders what comes of it.

FLOYD: That fire is sparked, but there’s no consistency. There’s no way to follow up with it. It’s not taught in schools. Honestly, a lot of these sessions that I do, their parents need to be here as well, because their parents don’t know a lot of this information.

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Northwestern University historian Martha Biondi points to the city’s deindustrialization. That’s pushed unemployment among black youths to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many have turned to the informal economy, including drug sales. Biondi says politicians have responded not with large-scale jobs programs but police crackdowns.

BIONDI: And it seems like, well, therefore, we should have as militant or radical leaders as we did then, in 1969. But we’ve had years now of assaults on African American families, assaults on African American communities that have produced a great degree of disorganization, incarceration, permanent unemployment, and it’s very hard to find the political leadership, and build political movements, out of that.

Few know this better than Southwest Youth Collaborative organizer Charity Tolliver, 27.

TOLLIVER: Our youth are put in a position where they feel that the reason that they are poor is because they didn’t work hard enough–this idea that we’ve overcome: ‘The slaves, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, they handled all that stuff back then. And now you have no one to blame but yourselves.’

The Youth Collaborative uses Hampton’s memory to inspire people like Chris Bufford, a 22-year-old working on a campaign to improve conditions at Cook County’s juvenile detention center, where he’s done some time. Bufford tells how the campaign addressed a lack of access to underwear in the center. The youths delivered 200 pairs to County Board President Todd Stroger.

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Bufford says that’s what Fred Hampton was all about. He says another way his group emulates the slain Black Panther is by connecting African Americans to other races.

BUFORD: We all need to come together because we all face the same issues. We all face poverty. We’re all facing housing issues. We all faced with health-care issues. We might not necessarily be facing immigration like the Latinos are. But this isn’t necessarily our home either. They’re not trying to put us out, but they’re more so trying to lock us up.

Not everyone thinks Hampton is an appropriate role model. The Fraternal Order of Police helped scuttle a Chicago alderman’s 2006 proposal to rename a block of a West Side street after him. Officers of the union told newspapers that Hampton advocated killing cops and took advantage of the communities he claimed to be serving. {snip}

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