By Adam Langer
Fred Hampton Jr. lopes into the visiting area of Stateville penitentiary with an air of swagger and ownership. Even in this maximum security facility where people have pressing issues on their minds–like how to greet the child they haven’t seen in ages or if they’ll ever get out of this hellhole–most eyes focus momentarily on him. The resemblance to his father, slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, is uncanny: the deep, burning eyes, the engaging grin, the resonant baritone.
A teenager in prison blues, silently holding hands with his girlfriend at a round table, looks up at Hampton and asks him if he’s going to attend a Muslim prayer meeting. Hampton claps him on the back and nods. A bookish inmate with owllike eyes tells Hampton he wants to do something about the conditions in Stateville. Hampton makes the black power fist and says, “Right on, brother. Right on. All power to the people. Right on.” A graying lifer in the canary yellow jumpsuit reserved for prisoners in solitary is sitting with his elderly mother, who hasn’t seen him in a decade. When Hampton comes in the man glances up and motions for him. He asks Hampton if he supported Roland Burris in the recent gubernatorial primary.
“What’s he ever done for us, brother?” Hampton spits out with a defiant chuckle. “What’s he ever done for us?”
Dressed in a denim jacket and jeans, Hampton says “Uhuru,” a Swahili word meaning freedom, and settles into a seat at a table beside his mother, Akua Njeri (nee Deborah Johnson), and his eight-year-old daughter. Hampton glances from side to side, surveying his dingy surroundings. With its sickening smell of fried food and sweet barbecue sauce, its dirty floor and grim vending machines, its din of buzzing fluorescent lights and overlapping conversations, the place has the air of a public school cafeteria–but with armed guards.
“They’re probably listening to every word we’re saying,” Hampton says and smiles ironically. “You know I’ve been a target since birth.”
Deborah Johnson was 19 years old and eight and a half months pregnant at the time of the December 4, 1969, raid on Black Panther headquarters on West Monroe. Police burst into the bedroom she shared with Fred Hampton, who was deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and her common-law husband. Njeri recalls someone shaking Hampton next to her, saying, “Chairman. Chairman. Wake up. Pigs are vamping.”
She says, “They just stormed the entranceway to the rear bedroom and they were shooting. It seemed like forever. I understand it only lasted ten minutes. They were shooting into the mattress. The plaster was flying off and the mattress was vibrating and then the person that had come in to wake Fred up kept saying, ‘Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We got a pregnant sister here.’ And they eventually stopped and I came out of the room. I had Fred’s robe on and some white long johns and I crossed over out of the bed and put Fred’s house shoes on and came out and walked between two lines of pigs and one of them grabbed my robe and said, ‘Aww, what do you know? We have a broad here.’ I was real pregnant and they grabbed me by the hair and slung me into the kitchen area and as I stood in there, I remember someone saying that Fred was barely alive or he might not make it and then they started shooting again and then it stopped. Someone said, ‘He’s good and dead now.’ I knew they had killed Fred at this point. I remember they took me to Wentworth and then to 11th and State, handcuffed behind my back with this open robe and all of this snow falling outside, and a pig put a revolver to my stomach. He said, ‘You better not try to escape.'”
Hampton and Panther Mark Clark were both killed in the raid. On December 29, not quite four weeks later, Fred Hampton Jr. was born.
He was born with the name Alfred Johnson. Akua Njeri had it legally changed to Fred Hampton Jr. when he was ten years old. Unlike his mother, who was a teenager during the greatest strides of the civil rights movement, Hampton grew up during a period of defeat. His father’s assassination was a final spasm of the 60s, which had already seen the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The Black Panther Party had been one of the most feared, despised, and romanticized phenomena of that decade. Founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, the Panthers challenged police, advocated armed struggle against the white establishment, and organized health-care and school-lunch programs. By the mid-70s the Panthers had all but disappeared, the victim of government harassment and their own political infighting.
Growing up on the south side during the 70s, Hampton was steeped in the language and ideology of the beleaguered black-power movement. Other kids might have been watching Benji; the first movie he remembers was the 1970 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton. His first memory of his father is of seeing a “Big Fred” poster at a rally for Huey Newton and being so scared that he jumped into his mother’s arms. When he was 12 a civil-rights suit stemming from the 1969 police raid finally ended in a $1.85 million settlement. The money was shared by the Hampton and Clark families, several other plaintiffs, and their attorneys.
“Even when he was a little guy, he was interested in the movement,” Njeri recalls as she sits in a metal folding chair in the south-side offices of the Chicago chapter of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement (NPDUM), an interracial organization dedicated to self-determination for African-Americans. Njeri serves as national president. “A lot of times people in grammar school would say that the Black Panthers were a bunch of gangbangers and thugs who wanted to kill white people, and he would go out and find books and stuff that I hadn’t even seen to prove them wrong. He would bring them home and we would sit down and read them, and I would always talk to him about his father really to combat all this other stuff, all the negative information that was used to slander the Black Panthers. He was always seeking information.”
NPDUM is affiliated with the African People’s Socialist Party, a radical organization chaired by Omali Yeshitela. Among the points in the socialist party’s platform are the assertions that black people should be exempt from U.S. government taxes, because, according to the party, “black people have no real or meaningful authority within the U.S. government and…U.S. taxation of African people is therefore taxation without representation.” The platform also calls for the “immediate and unconditional release of all black people who are presently locked down in U.S. prisons,” the immediate withdrawal of police from black communities, the payment of reparations to Africans, and “the right to build an African People’s Liberation Army.”
Njeri is a large woman with a fondness for long flowing African gowns that make her presence all the more imposing. She commands attention just by walking into a room. But despite her radical past and her continued allegiance to antiestablishment causes, she displays a certain quiet amiability. Stern yet approachable, she brings to mind a caring yet exacting grade school teacher. When asked how much influence she’s had on her son’s politics, she laughs off the question. Though she has been active in politics from the age of 12, marching with Martin Luther King Jr., protesting slumlords while a high school student, joining the Panthers at 17, she says Hampton learned very little from her and that maybe it comes “from the blood line.”
But Fred Hampton Jr. says his mother exerted a profound influence.
“My mother always told me about Fred Hampton. Several forces did. But I wasn’t always able to sum up what he did in its correct context,” Hampton says. “I knew he was a courageous brother fighting for liberation of our people and colonized people in general. I respected and loved my father, but I wasn’t able to grasp in its entire context, the work that Fred Hampton did, why he was targeted and who targeted him. But all through my life, my mother always taught me what my father did, the courageous stands he took.”
Hampton and Njeri tell many of the same stories about Fred Sr. and often use the same catch phrases. Both say “contradictions” frequently, usually to mean disparities inherent in the American political system. They don’t refer to prisons or jails, but to “camps.”
Fred Jr. was educated in Chicago public and Catholic schools, graduating from Tilden High and studying journalism intermittently at Olive-Harvey College. In the late 80s he worked part-time as an auto mechanic and served as an NPDUM organizer, speaking at rallies and hawking copies of the African Socialist Party’s newspaper, the Burning Spear. On the south side he helped to organize protests against a wine cooler marketed specifically to the black community.
Hampton and his mother maintain that he has been the subject of continued counterinsurgency acts reminiscent of the FBI’s attempts to undermine the Black Panthers in the 60s. They say there was an assassination attempt when an unidentified individual in a van chased him down the street and tried to gun him down. He was once acquitted of charges of armed robbery and murder, and Hampton and Njeri say he was framed.They maintain that they heard a member of the prosecution team shout after the not-guilty verdict, “Fred Hampton, we’ll get you yet!”
“I am clear that I have been targeted,” Hampton asserts. “I am a victim of continued counterinsurgency. A lot of people think counterinsurgency was solved in 1972. I was targeted since I was born. Still, in the eyes of the state, being the son of Fred Hampton is a crime.”
Maybe so. At least in the eyes of the state, arson is considered a crime. And that’s the charge that stuck to Fred Hampton Jr. Though Hampton claims he was home all day on May 9, 1992, the story goes that on that day he tossed Molotov cocktails into Lee’s Men’s Fashions and MJM Jewelry, two Korean businesses near 63rd and Halsted, to protest the Rodney King verdict ten days earlier. Two witnesses placed Fred Jr. at the scene of the crime. Photographs were produced at trial showing Hampton’s hands with blisters on them. He maintained they were “abrasions” he got from working on a car. No one was injured in the fires and there was little damage to the stores. Nevertheless, the charge was aggravated arson, a Class X felony that calls for a sentence of 6 to 30 years. Circuit court judge Michael Toomin split the difference, giving Hampton 18 years, calling the crime “an act of terrorism” and “the act of a coward.”
“It’s a bogus charge,” Akua Njeri says ruefully. “Nothing ignited and there was no physical damage to personal property. I’m going by what the state acknowledged. They brought in these bottles with a flammatory device and some black-eyed peas. Now I don’t know what that means, if it’s a racial slur or what, you know, and they say that Fred was casually walking down 63rd and Halsted on a Saturday afternoon, casually throwing them in the stores the day before Mother’s Day. The stores were open 10 to 15 minutes after this so-called incident happened. Where was the fire? Who was injured? Nobody. And even if he did it, 18 years? 18 years? We maintain Fred didn’t do it. The attack started before he even came into the world and they were determined to lock him up on something. This one just happened to stick.”
But for a name with so much firepower, there hasn’t exactly been a torrent of support for the cause of Fred Hampton Jr. in the black or even the progressive white community. One left-winger who marched with Njeri in the 60s and 70s told me, “I think it’s a real tragedy, what happened to him. But you know what? Sounds to me like the kid did it.”
Walking into the offices of the Fred Hampton Uhuru House in the 5400 block of South Halsted, the storefront Chicago headquarters of NPDUM, the first thought that might go through your head is, “So this is all that’s left of the movement?” Here, in a makeshift community center and thrift shop, NPDUM holds weekly evening meetings usually attended by five to seven people. Banners say, “Stop the U.S. War Against the African Community” and “Defend the Democratic Rights of the Black Community.” One wall offers a drawing of a black man with a gun to his head. Orange, green, and yellow chairs from Northeastern Illinois University stand in rows on the forest green floor, but most are empty.
Even Akua Njeri is paying only slight attention to the meeting. She walks back and forth, talking on a cell phone. “It’s Akua,” she says with a smile into the phone. “You know, Fred’s mama. How’ve you been?”
This meeting is presided over by a soft-spoken and slightly distracted young man in dreadlocks standing at a podium, and it consists largely of readings from a five-month-old issue of the Burning Spear. The few others in attendance–most of them young whites who have the ragged look of many an idealistic leftie on a college campus–take turns reading an article about a community uprising in Saint Petersburg, Florida. When they’re done the man at the podium asks, “Any discussion?” But nobody has anything to say.
About five bucks is collected by selling raffle tickets. One copy of the Burning Spear is sold. A few people sign up to distribute flyers and gather signatures at a University of Chicago function. Njeri tells the small group that they should send mail to her son, so the prison won’t break his will. “You don’t have to write anything long,” she says. “Just ‘Uhuru, Fred’ is fine.”
One of the most vocal people here is Rhya Fogerty. Born in Saint Louis, Fogerty got involved with NPDUM and the African Socialist Party as a disillusioned white teenager in New York. She heard about a meeting through a friend and attended a mock tribunal in which the U.S. government was tried for crimes against African people. The verdict came down that the U.S. owed $3.1 trillion to Africans and people of African descent.
“I was pretty blown away,” says Fogerty, who’s now in her 30s. “I had a lot of thinking to do. My initial knee-jerk reaction was that I didn’t owe black people anything. I was sympathetic, but I didn’t feel responsible. But after thinking about it for four months, I started to realize the glaring brutal conditions of African people in this country. It started clicking and I dove right in.”
Fogerty has followed the movement from coast to coast, waitressing, clerking, and cleaning houses while organizing for NPDUM in New York, Oakland, and now Chicago, where she chairs the African People’s Solidarity Committee (an NPDUM group composed largely of whites), sits on the board of the NPDUM executive committee, and works with the “Free Fred” campaign.
“Fred Hampton Jr. represents the generation today of African young people who are completely under assault,” says Fogerty. “His dad was 21 years old when he was brutally murdered. They expected to murder his father and there’d never be another one–it’d be over. They terrorized the African community, and after they had wiped out the black movement they went and brought heroin into the African community to control and colonize the people. They locked people down in the 60s and they’re still locked down, but Fred Jr. represents a continuum of the struggle from the 60s to the 90s. He represents this whole generation. Even if he wasn’t a brilliant organizer, we would say free him. And to do it, it will take a powerful movement led by the African working class throughout the country. We’re gonna have to make it so uncomfortable for the government to keep him locked up that they find it more in their interests to let him out. We’re gonna expose the crimes against the African community, the crimes against Fred Hampton and Fred Hampton Jr. It’s sort of like killing the vampire–we have to open the shades.”
Fogerty, like everyone else here, is 100 percent certain that Hampton was framed.
“Oh, absolutely,” she says. “They had been trying to frame him numerous times. They said because he supports the Burning Spear newspaper and supports the Uhuru movement that he had a motive to firebomb a Korean merchant’s store. They had no real evidence, they had no credible witnesses, there wasn’t a fire, the store was not closed for more than ten minutes. They held up the Burning Spear and said he was guilty.”
At the close of the meeting, Fogerty takes me aside and assures me that “this wasn’t really a good night. We usually have a few more people here.”
The court for Fred Hampton Jr.’s trial in the spring of 1993 wanted jurors who would not be biased one way or the other by knowledge of Fred Sr. There was little to worry about. Jury candidates identified him as somebody involved with “the Chicago Seven and the El Rukns,” as a member of the Blackstone Rangers, as someone involved in “gang-related murder,” and as an elderly black longshoreman. Someone said he played for the Chicago Bears.
One potential juror said that he knew little about the elder Hampton except that he was “probably prejudiced against whites, stuff like that,” because “I just figure if he’s an activist he doesn’t like another race.” Another said she would have been likely to rule in favor of Fred Jr. because she was frightened by the protesters outside the courtroom supporting him.
“I heard the one lady say that the blacks will overcome and that scared the daylights out of me,” she shuddered. “My husband told me, ‘Don’t look back and keep walking.'”
Without a sympathetic jury, the Hampton case seemed doomed from the start. Beyond the state’s two witnesses, whose testimony placed Fred Jr. at the scene, he was damned by his and his mother’s own unconvincing testimony.
Defense attorney Morton Zaslavsky hinted throughout the trial of a conspiracy to “get” Hampton. But despite intriguing mentions of a white supremacist organization and intimations that an officer involved in the arrest was present at the police raid that killed Fred Hampton Sr., no evidence was presented to support these claims. Hampton testified that while he was being questioned at the police station, a young white officer remarked upon the contents of the Molotov cocktail, “There are black-eyed peas in the bottle so you know a nigger did it. So your name is Hampton so you get it!” But as with some of his other claims, Hampton was the only one to say he heard such a statement.
Hampton, dressed in a black dashiki, gave occasionally jumbled and perplexing responses. Take, for example, his response to Zaslavsky’s questions regarding previous contact with one of the state’s witnesses.
“You know anybody by the name of Warren Gilbert?” Hampton was asked.
“How did you ever get to meet him?”
“With the brief altercation around late April when I was Fred Hampton seeing Malcolm X,” Hampton responded.
“I can’t understand you,” said Zaslavsky.
“With a brief altercation around late April,” said Hampton. “I was in the process of seeing Malcolm X and Fred Hampton, ex-buddies. There was a gang altercation to be between Gilbert, two other guys, and I disrupted–”
“What happened?” Zaslavsky asked him.
“That is what was going on. He told me get up the street with this shit and he doesn’t care about black people or anything if it doesn’t have anything to do with money.”
“And did you in fact get up and leave?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did he say anything to you when you left?”
“He would get up with my ass later.”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“He would get up with my ass later.”
“You are quoting now?” Zaslavsky asked.
Worse were Hampton’s vague and sometimes contradictory responses when asked about his political beliefs, which the prosecution said motivated the crime. The prosecution referred to an issue of the Burning Spear and cited two articles, one by Hampton, decrying the fact that only blacks and not Koreans were arrested following the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, the other criticizing Korean merchants for functioning as “parasitic neo-colonialists” in the black community.
Hampton was asked by prosecutor Peter Fischer if he agreed with the assessment of Koreans as “parasitic neo-colonialists” in the black community.
“Not all Koreans, no,” Hampton replied.
“No. But some Koreans?” asked Fischer.
“That is the view that you held back in May of 1992 as well, is it not?”
“I am not sure.”
“Can you think right now and remember whether or not you tried to hold that view?”
“I am not sure.”
“Do you also agree with the statement on the paper [regarding Hampton’s alleged crime] that he didn’t do it but should have?”
“I didn’t make the statement.”
“Do you agree with it?”
“I would not like to disclose my personal opinion.”
“Do you agree with the statement about this crime–‘He didn’t do it but should have’?”
“No, I don’t.”
“OK. So in other words what you are saying is that the firebombing of those Korean stores is in your view a crime, correct?”
“No, it was not. I have no feelings on it.”
“Is it a crime or is it a political protest?” Fischer asked. “What do you consider it?”
“Excuse me,” said Hampton. “I can’t say what it is.”
“Well, you have firebombs thrown into a store that is occupied by people,” said Fischer. “You are aware of that?”
“As his testimony, yes.”
“Do you consider that a crime or an act of political protest?”
“Throwing a firebomb into a store?”
“I would consider it a crime.”
“Did you consider that a crime back in May of 1992?”
“Throwing of the firebomb into a store, yes.”
“And if that store is owned by Koreans, who you view, many Koreans as parasitic neo-colonialists, do you still consider that a crime or would you consider that a political protest?”
“Well, if that store is owned as these were by Korean merchants, would you consider that a crime or a political protest against parasites?”
“I would say depending on the relationship with the Korean merchants,” Hampton replied.
As for the blisters or “abrasions” on Hampton’s hands, he might not have understood the difference between the two words. “What part of the car were you touching when you got these blisters or abrasions?” Fischer asked.
“Heat throttle,” said Hampton. “Like a homemade heat throttle that you main-wire to the engine from inside the car.”
“You decided to grab that with your bare hands?”
“I had no choice but to grab with my bare hands.”
Fischer approached Hampton and showed him the photograph of his hands. “So this thing that looks like a bubble here you are saying is an abrasion?”
“Yes, it is.”
Akua Njeri corroborated her son’s story that he was home all day, while she cooked fried chicken and mashed potatoes and cleaned the house. But then prosecutor Mary Lacy asked what she did May 11 on finding out that her son had been arrested.
“As soon as he was arrested you went to the police and told them, didn’t you, ‘He couldn’t have done this. He was home with me all day’?”
“No,” said Njeri.
“You didn’t go to the police on that day?” Lacy asked.
Lacy asked, “Did you do that on the next day?”
Lacy said, “You went to the police at some point, correct, and said, ‘Fred couldn’t have done this. He was with me all day’?”
“You never did?”
“I have nothing further,” said Lacy.
Addressing the jury at the close of the trial, Lacy argued, “The thought that the police would wait 20-something years to frame his son for something he didn’t do is pretty ridiculous….I hate to burst your bubble, Fred, but you are not that important!”
Hampton responded to that at his sentencing hearing. “I feel any amount of time taking me away from my community would be criminal,” he said. “Not only due to the fact that I did not commit these crimes, also due to the evidence has shown I am not only a credit to my people and my community, but to humanity.”
Hampton says he can’t go into the details of his case because his appeal’s pending. But one gets the impression that it might be difficult to get a straight answer out of him under any circumstance. Despite its conviction and passion, his speech tends toward circumlocution. Ask him if he’s teaching his daughter to be part of the movement, the way his mother taught him, and he says, “Let me answer that with the youth in general.” The old phrase “Ask him what time it is and he’ll tell you how to fix a watch” does not always apply here. Getting even that close to the question you asked can be cause for celebration.
Ask him about the firebombing.
“Here’s what I’ll say,” Hampton tells me. “You look at the Fred case and your first response is, ‘Man, they killed his father and they’re still attacking this brother here.’ That’s logic. That’s the logical response right there. But cats try to figure out. They ask me, ‘Fred, was you around there [63rd and Halsted]?’ or did this happen or did that happen. It can’t just be you were framed and kidnapped, that can’t be it. You’re taught to jive yourself. Look at the facts. The facts are right there, but we try to dismiss the fact that there’s a counterinsurgency going on in this country and there’s a myriad of reasons for that. Some justifiable, some not justifiable. Fear. But fear, you have to deal with it scientifically. Don’t deal with it as a coward. Address it and sum it up. Look at the numbers, man. Look how they’re kidnapping and locking up people.”
Evidently the prison does not see Hampton as any particular risk to strangers. He is not handcuffed, and once the prison guard shuts the door on us no one so much as looks in for the next two hours. He is a known figure among the prison establishment, however. Ask the director of media relations if you can have an interview with Fred Hampton Jr. and the first thing out of his mouth is, “You know that’s not his real name?”
Hampton is bobbing his head up and down as he looks at the walls of the dingy visiting room he’s been put in. “Brutal conditions, man. Brutal conditions. Keep my head up. Keep my head up. All right, all right,” he says. “They got us held in condemned cells, man. Sometimes there’s no heat in the cells. There are plumbing problems. Sometimes it’s on. Sometimes it’s not. This place is infamous for the cockroach problem. When you come in, other prisoners will tell you to put cotton swabs in your ears when you go to bed at night, so they don’t get inside your ears.”
Hampton has been bounced from prison to prison, and he and his mother maintain that he has consistently been placed in situations that could be dangerous. He served time in Big Muddy River and Shawnee. He was also in Galesburg, where, he says, many of his books and letters were confiscated. “This is the same penitentiary where white nationalists were able to receive subscriptions to Guns & Ammo,” says Hampton. “It wasn’t a question of security–it was a question of the whims of the personnel.”
He spent time in Centralia–“Klantralia” to Njeri. “There are people there who are open members of the Aryan Nations, and the Klan has open meetings,” she says. “‘Nigger’ is commonplace and the guards act with no regard for any rules or regulations.”
Njeri and Hampton maintain that what got him moved out of Centralia to the maximum security prison in Joliet was his use of “Uhuru” when greeting other inmates.
Says Njeri, “Fred was called into a meeting with one of the Negro guards down there who said, ‘We’re not having none of that black shit down here. Anybody that comes down here with that Uhuru shit, it’s my job to ship them out.'”
He’s been in Stateville since January. Here, says Hampton, his difficulties have continued. He even asserts that while he was in solitary confinement someone might have been trying to poison his food. He recalls being the only prisoner on his floor who was served breakfast, an uncharacteristically generous portion of pancakes and syrup. Hampton says he refused the meal.
“Several staff members have stated specifically that I’ve been targeted,” he says. “In Muddy River, they have a yard area where I was being trailed by a van with a movie camera. Another man said, ‘I’ve been assigned to watch you specifically today.’ I said ‘Is that right?’ I’ve been given trumped-up inmate disciplinary reports. Not to negate the fact that all the prisoners in general have had their constitutional rights violated, but I know just for me being the offspring of Fred Hampton and for my political stances, I am being specifically targeted. There’s no question. Due to who I am. People don’t forget about who I am and who my father is. Even though Fred Hampton’s been buried for 25 years, his tombstone is shot up every year in Louisiana.”
(The sheriff’s office in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, says Hampton’s grave and some other graves in a church cemetery have been periodically vandalized, though not in more than a year.)
“For all practical purposes, Stateville’s on lockdown,” Hampton Jr. tells me. “They say it’s not, in theory. But for all practical purposes, it is. Your breakfast is brought to you in your cell. I have another individual in my cell, a young brother who’s been given 60 years, and there’s no movement for either of us. Once a week they have a gym we can go to and sometimes they let us go out in the yard. A lot of the prisoners negate going out there due to the fact that the psychological effects are so severe. It’s set up like a dog kennel area, and when you come outside you’ll be harassed and physically and verbally abused. Every day there’s a new arbitrary rule being implemented. You might come out of the cell and one of the legs of your pants is lifted up and they’ll say, ‘This is gang representation.’ You don’t know if you’re gonna get your clothes taken away from you. Sometimes you don’t even get to go out, because the guards will strategically miss your door. He’ll walk past and he’ll say you weren’t in front of the door waiting on him, so he didn’t know you wanted to go outside.
“Even with the food situation, prisoners are hesitant to leave their cells,” Hampton says. “When I first came out of segregation and came into the population, I saw the psychological effect when the police came inside the dining area. Whether the prisoners were done eating or not, they’d be getting up, running, gouging their food down. It’s common for prisoners to have ulcers and stomach problems. Police would come in and bang against the walls with their keys, bang on the table and make statements like, ‘It’s illegal for you to chew. Get out of here right now.’ And if you don’t leave right then, you get harassed. One time we were eating and they called for lieutenants and a superior to say we weren’t eating quick enough. When we left they said they were gonna shake our cells down, harassing us for not gouging our food down quickly enough. They do it to demoralize you. Just to make you think, ‘I should have gouged my food down quicker.’ A lot of people are hesitant about even going down to eat because it’s so demoralizing. Constantly mind games are being played.”
Hampton reads, answers his mail, writes the occasional article for the Burning Spear, and tries to organize the inmates to protest prison conditions and police brutality. The idea is not only to support the causes he believes in but also to keep his mind off his predicament.
“No man leaves this place unaffected,” Hampton says. “I’ve been faced with a lot of brutal contradictions head-on. There are brutal attacks going on, violations that you can’t imagine. The outside community gets the image put out on Donahue and Geraldo that prisoners are leading the life of luxury, but that’s not the reality. Every time you leave those cells, you never know if you’re gonna be murdered or what. It’s not uncommon for guns to go off. Every little thing, a policeman fires his gun. My position is prison is not to reform or to rehabilitate. The state is becoming more and more blatant about stating it. There are no rehabilitative programs here. They have a waiting list for the schools. You have youngsters coming here and they have to be on a waiting list for a school and these kids are boxed up in these cages all day. They’re in a cage with somebody all day. There’s no facade or front that this is to rehabilitate you. They are being point-blank. They have genocide on their minds.
“This environment breeds rapists and theft and a thirst for narcotics,” says Hampton. “It breeds the desire for a quick fix. Anything to escape the brutal contradictions that are going down.”
Once he gets out of prison, Hampton says, he will take on a leadership position in the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. The campaign to free him is not about him personally, he says. He is just a symbol around which to galvanize support for a variety of issues.
“A lot of people say ‘Free Fred? What about me?’ But we have designed this case to be the political case of this era, similar to the Huey P. Newton case of that era. This is a case that not only demands the release of Fred Jr. It exposes the counterinsurgency on our leadership and our people in general. It demands the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier and others, all political prisoners and prisoners of war, the freedom of the masses, their mothers, their babies, their fathers, their sisters, and so on. It’s a symbol to be utilized similar to the situation with Rodney King. I remember Rodney King told a lot of people to go back to their homes when they came to support him. And the brothers made a statement saying, ‘Wait a minute. Don’t flatter yourself. You’re just a tool being used. It wasn’t about you in particular, because we face this every day, police beating down in the community every day.’ That was a symbol being used. I’m clear on that.
“This Fred campaign is a symbol, demanding the freedom of all prisoners of war and to expose this prison question. They’re locking up everybody–football players, rappers, whoever, they lock you down. It’s a dialectical relationship. Similar to the slave trade in Europe, one comes at the expense of another, similar to a pimp and a whore. You can’t talk about one without the other. One comes at the expense of another. There’s a whole economy based on these prisons. They’re big business. Communities fight for these prisons. It’s an economy, man, and it has to be exposed. Some people talk about black capitalism, saying ‘Let’s get the prison in Cook County.’ That’s like some Jews fighting over who’s gonna get the gas chamber in their community. You get money, but at what cost? At the expense of your babies? At the expense of the people? There’s mass locking up of people. At what cost? That is what I’ll be trying to address.”
And if he has to serve 18 years? Hampton quivers at the thought, but allows, “We don’t deal with absolutes. There are goods and bads in all situations. I can’t say being inside a concentration camp is a good thing, but I’m gonna learn from the situation. I’m gonna observe and analyze. I try to drain the positive out of every situation, whatever it may be. I’m not gonna let nothing be idle time. I’m gonna observe as much as I can. But don’t get me wrong. This is hell, man.”
Akua Njeri has been waiting at Stateville, for the past three hours. Sometimes she has to wait all day for a guard to tell her son he has a visitor. She is seated beside a gaunt, elderly woman leaning on a cane waiting for her number to be called so she can visit her son. There are about 75 people in the room, all of them women. Most are watching a soap opera on the TV. When Njeri’s number is called, she says she’ll wait for the woman next to her to be called too, so she can help her walk back to the visiting area.
“People always say, ‘I don’t see why you don’t leave Chicago. They’re gonna kill your son. You need to get out of town. You need to leave, because they’re gonna do something to your son,'” says Njeri. “But there’s no place you can escape. There’s no place that’s safe. There’s no safe haven for African people in this country, in this world, because the attack comes down on us wherever we are. There’s no place Fred and I could have gone where we could live happily ever after, because we’re clear that this attack that I became aware of in the 60s didn’t end. It continually escalates in this period. The only answer we can provide is to stand up and fight back. There’s no haven. There’s no island or place that you can go to where freedom and happiness exists for Africans and colonized people in this world and it will never happen until U.S. imperialism is defeated and we have some freedom which I don’t know nothing about. I’ve never experienced it. But I know for a fact that we’re not supposed to live like this. I know for a fact that my people aren’t born criminals. We’re not supposed to be the ones who are in the greatest numbers in jails throughout this country. We don’t wake up and decide we’re going to use drugs or what drugs are going to come into our community. We don’t wake up and decide our children are going to be miseducated. The only way it’s going to stop is by me fighting back and the only way I can fight back is to organize everybody I know. I don’t care if they don’t hear me today. I don’t care if they don’t hear me tomorrow, if they don’t hear me next year. People are really being given a situation where they can’t do anything else but fight.”
When the number of the woman beside her is called, Akua Njeri stands. The stooped woman holds one hand on her cane and the other in Njeri’s hand. They walk slowly past the glass-walled room where guards keep watch over visitors. Then they disappear into the side room where they’ll be frisked before they get an hour to meet with their sons.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fred Hampton Jr. photo by Adam Langer; coffin photo by Nathan Mandell; uncredited photo of child; Akua Njeri photo by Nathan Mandell; Fred Hampton Sr. photo copyright the Chicago Sun-Times; banner photo by Nathan Mandell; “You can kill a revolutionary / But you can’t kill revolution” banner photo by Nathan Mandell;.