The release of Judas and the Black Messiah has once again put the spotlight on the Chicago police and the FBI’s culpability in the murder of Fred Hampton, a rising leader in the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the pivotal year of 1969. In our previous Jacobin article, we documented the bureau’s efforts specifically aimed at Hampton and stressed the need for more information to better understand the circumstances surrounding his murder.
Since then, we have obtained 433 pages of the FBI’s official “COINTELPRO” files on the Chicago Black Panther Party (BPP). Along with this, the FBI, pursuant to a Freedom of Information request by Aaron Leonard, released another 490 pages on their employee, and handler of FBI informant and Black Panther William O’Neal, Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell.
With this new information, two things come more clearly into focus. First, the FBI counterintelligence operations against the Chicago BPP were particularly focused on sabotaging the group’s ability to join and work with other organizations. Second, bureau informant William O’Neal, who had garnered a leading position in the Chicago chapter, was a far more vital resource — beyond complicity in the murder of Fred Hampton — than has been understood.
These discoveries, while adding to the historical record, also give a clearer picture of the thinking behind the FBI’s measures in their efforts to destroy the Left. A fuller understanding of this thinking and methodology matters for a new left aiming to avoid the bureau’s efforts at disruption in the twenty-first century.
Students for a Democratic Society
In 1969, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest radical student organization of the sixties, broke apart, a result both of the group’s own internal divisions and efforts by the FBI to head off the group from evolving beyond its “big tent” inclusiveness into a more disciplined, radical organization. Given that, it is not surprising the bureau would also expend serious effort to sabotage relations between SDS, whose national office was then in Chicago, and the Chicago Black Panther Party.
To that end, there were two COINTELPROs – official disruptive operations that were proposed, approved, and executed in the FBI hierarchy — leveled at SDS documented in the files. The first scheme aimed to disrespect the BPP in relation to SDS. As the head of the Chicago FBI wrote to the FBI director, “Through BPP informants and other Black Nationalist informants plant the idea that SDS is exploiting the BPP by trying to use them as ‘cannon fodder’ for a white revolution.”
The idea was to use the racial and class differences of the two groups against each other. This comes through in the ”COINTELPRO-NEW LEFT” memo of May 1, 1969: “The concept of white students studying in universities while Black Panthers are going to jail or being killed in the ghetto would be encouraged.” The FBI was optimistic about the success of this undertaking, writing, “It is felt that BPP will be receptive to charges of white exploitation, and may react strongly to it, thus weakening or dissolving the alliance with SDS.”
Hedging their bets, the bureau wrote that if that plan did not work, they could also undermine SDS by amplifying the student radicals’ already considerable defensiveness in regard to the Panthers.
If the BPP accepts the above, but does not break with SDS they can be encouraged to “exploit” SDS by making further demands on them to “prove their loyalty.” Increased demand for funds and free printing of BPP literature could place pressure on the strained finances of SDS.
Under present circumstances, SDS is giving complete, almost slavish support to the BPP, which would jeopardize the standing of any SDS informant who criticized BPP. If there is any wavering of the SDS support of BPP, informants would be used to aggravate any developing split.
The FBI was wading into a complex situation in 1969, where SDS was riven by acrimonious debate between one faction who supported the BPP unilaterally, and another embodied in the Progressive Labor Party’s “Worker-Student Alliance” faction, which sided against the BPP, putting forward the slogan that “all nationalism is reactionary.”
In that context, what is striking about this scheme is how closely it corresponded to one event that played out. Jeremy Varon in his book Bringing the War Home documenting the rise and fall of the Weather Underground, a splinter of SDS that ended up undertaking political violence, Varon recounts an incident where the BPP needed logistical support from SDS in the aftermath of the killing of Panther associate Jake Winters:
In [Weatherman Russell] Neufeld’s recollection, the Panthers had wanted Weatherman to print their memorial poster for him; but Weatherman, lacking money for the materials, was unable to provide that help. So the Panthers, led by Hampton, stormed the Weatherman office and beat members with two-by-fours, while muttering lines from Stalin. The Weathermen were stunned by the Panthers’ eruption, attributing it to the immense pressure the Panthers were under. Neufeld was clubbed by Hampton and bears the scar on his head to this day.
While we cannot say with certainty that the FBI’s scheming had an impact on the Panthers’ actions, it is notable how it tracks with the bureau’s aims outlined in their COINTELPRO proposal. In this they were seizing on actual existing divisions between both groups.
The Weathermen in particular were consumed with the idea of their middle-class “white skin privilege” and were loath to alienate the Panthers. For their part the Panthers had FBI “sources” whispering to them that SDS was disrespecting them.
Nation of Islam
Chicago was also the headquarters of the Nation of Islam (NOI), whose leader Elijah Muhammad was named in the bureau’s March 1968 COINTELPRO memo, which outlined a program to undermine and destroy Black nationalist organizations. In that memo, Muhammad is singled out as a potential “messiah” who could “electrify the militant black nationalist movement.” His mention in the FBI memos in regard to the Chicago BPP, however, has more to do with another stated aim of the “Black Hate” COINTELPRO: “Prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups.”
Specifically, in a June 1969 memo, the FBI suggested placing a cartoon in the NOI’s newspaper “Muhammad Speaks.” The aim was to “appeal to the vanity of ELIJAH MUHAMMAD, in the sense that the BPP would be depicted as yet another black group which has either sold out to or is dominated by whites.” While the cartoons are not included in the released file, a memo detailing the scheme, suggests an image of “a white radical mounted on a black panther.”
In preparing this proposal, the bureau gave permission to the Chicago office “to delicately explore with CG 6896-R, [an informant code where CG means Chicago, 6896 is their unique number and R means Racial Informant] associated with the Nation of Islam (NOI) publication ‘Muhammad Speaks’ the possibility of attempting to have these cartoons, or a cartoon, utilized by this publication to obtain a widespread dissemination.”
The FBI abandoned the scheme, not out of distaste for the idea, but in order to keep their informant’s identity secret. As they wrote in July 1969:
Chicago definitely feels that this source, who occupies a very delicate and sensitive position with the NOI [though not a member], should not in any way be pressured or persuaded to take or initiate any action which in any way would compromise him…
This is a particularly intriguing entry, suggesting the FBI had contact with someone with high-level access to the Nation of Islam, a highly insular group, which the predominately white FBI had minimal ability to approach without immediately being identified. Who that person was, however, must for now remain a mystery.
By July 1970, the bureau assessed that given the existing acrimony between the BPP and NOI — one group inclining to revolutionary socialism, the other firmly advocating black separatism — the best course of action would be to do nothing. As they wrote, “the BPP and the NOI are already at odds” and “this trend should be allowed to continue unmolested….” Not only was doing nothing easier, in the bureau’s view, “if it ever became public knowledge that the Bureau was a participant in creating a dispute between black groups” it could prove “most embarrassing.”
It has long been known that the FBI circulated a coloring book, purported to be published by the Black Panthers, with the aim of making the group appear bloodthirsty and violent, thereby alienating broader public support. Mostly flying under the radar, however, was a plan by the FBI to use the Panthers’ own material against them. The bureau anonymously mailed the BPP’s holiday greeting cards to “newspaper editors, public officials, responsible businessmen, and clergy.” The aim was to make the recipients “aware of the vicious nature of the BPP.”
It is unclear what effect this had, if any. But the notion of using a group’s own materials against it — by sending it to forces who would perceive it as hostile — was a consistent method of the FBI in the period of the long sixties.
A May 1970 proposal put a twist on this method, suggesting to insert a page in the Black Panther newspaper as if it were a legitimate part of that issue, that “could contain material which would be critical of local BPP policy and personnel, including threats to expell [sic] local members and call for realignment of the local chapter.” To carry this out, they made a “preliminary inquiry” at Chicago’s O’Hare airport — suggesting they had a cooperative source there — and determined “it is possible to access to shipments of the Panther paper under secure conditions.”
The outcome of this project is unknown. Pulling it off would have been a major logistical feat, to say nothing of being vulnerable to exposure via a simple call to the Oakland office. Still, the objective of splitting apart the group through use of its own press — intercepted at the airport — is striking in its boldness.
The above proposals and actions were part of official COINTELPRO operations, meaning they had specific criteria to meet and procedures to follow before they could be implemented by the FBI. In carrying such plans out, however, one element in the bureau’s work involved something more basic, the use of informants who gained a position of trust in the groups they were targeting. These informants could not only supply intelligence but advance the FBI’s objectives by operating internally within the target group. In the case of the Chicago BPP, no informer was more key to these efforts than William O’Neal.
Today, O’Neal is best known for being the “Judas” character played by LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah. O’Neal, however, was not fictional, but rather the person who supplied a floor plan for the police raid that would result in the murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Notably, however, O’Neal, who was recruited by FBI Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell, joined the Chicago Panthers before Hampton’s rise to the position of branch chairman and continued in the organization a year after Hampton’s and Clark’s murders. So it is worth examining his activity as a member of the Illinois BPP more broadly.
As the Chicago BPP sought to expand in February 1969, the FBI reported that the chapter had been approached by a faction of the West Side Chicago gang, the Vice Lords, headed by Edward “Pepilo” Perry. Perry “offered to join the BPP, giving up their former identities as Vicelords [sic].” The bureau, however, was keen to prevent the growth of the BPP, particularly its merging with other groups. In order to sabotage this possibility they instructed their informant to raise suspicions about the Vice Lords:
The BPP is well aware that the Chicago Police Department Gang Intelligence Unit, headed by Captain WILLIAM BUCKNEY, has many sources in such gangs, possibly even young black police officers. The source (CG 7251-R PROB) [O’Neal] has been instructed to play upon this fear of youth gangs, in that in recruiting gang members the BPP may well be recruiting police spies. On this particular occasion the source was in personal conversation with HAMPTON, during the course of the meeting with Perry, and reminded him of this danger.
O’Neal’s work appeared to have been successful, with the FBI later writing, “It is believed this caution to HAMPTON played a considerable role in the reluctance of the BPP to accept PERRY, as might normally have been expected.” In other words, William O’Neal, the FBI informant, who would play a critical role in the killing of the very man he was advising, is telling Hampton he needs to be wary of informants.
O’Neal was not just sabotaging unity — he was also helping get Panthers arrested. As early as April 1969, the bureau was reporting on how instrumental he was in the arrest of multiple Panthers:
[A] number of arrests locally for BPP members have been effected, primarily through information provided by Chicago BPP source, CG 7251-R (PROB) [O’Neal]. The information has been made available to the Bureau previously, under the BPP caption; however, in brief relates to the arrest on March 28, 1969, of five BPP members, returning to Chicago from an appearance the previous evening in Racine, Wisconsin, a description of the automobile being used for this travel, together with the indication several of these BPP members would be armed was given [to] the Chicago Police Department (PD).
At the same time he was undermining the group, O’Neal was moving up its ranks. By July 1969, he was no longer head of security for Chicago, having ascended to chief of staff for the statewide organization. O’Neal had been offered the position of “Chief of Security” but turned it down “saying the Party is full of informants and he wants no part of this job” — a savvy move given how high the level of suspicion and paranoia was about informants at the time — a paranoia O’Neal himself was working to create.
O’Neal’s handler, Roy Mitchell, continued to receive internal praise in the aftermath of the killing of Fred Hampton, though it is less clear what he was being praised for. This praise comes through, in a memo to Chicago SAC Marlin W. Johnson, from J. Edgar Hoover, dated March 18, 1970, where certain unnamed agents in the Chicago office are commended. As Hoover writes, “Through you [Johnson], I want to commend those agents in the Chicago Office who participated so competently in a matter of substantial interest to the Bureau in the security field.”
A number of things stand out about this memo, published here for the first time. First is the obliqueness of its content, written in a way that the uninformed reader has no idea what the “matter of substantial interest” is. Second is the fact that Roy Mitchell’s name is handwritten at the top, rather than being typed into the memo itself. And finally there is a stamp at the bottom of the missive, “REMOVED FROM FIELD PERSONNEL FILE 67 – NOT RECORDED.” All of which suggests that, unlike an earlier commendation to Mitchell immediately after the Hampton killing, the director is being very careful to minimize the paper trail to Mitchell, who was garnering unwanted attention for his role in the Hampton killing.
The actual nature of the “matter of substantial interest” referenced in this memo must for now remain a mystery. Perhaps once material like William O’Neal’s informant file is made public, things will become clearer.
The obliqueness in that memo is less present in another commendation directed to Mitchell’s files — though again, Mitchell’s name is handwritten at the top and a “REMOVED FROM FIELD PERSONNEL FILE stamp appears at the bottom — for agents in Chicago who worked on apprehending Angela Davis: “I want to commend, through you, those agents of the Chicago Office who performed so effectively relative to the investigation of Top Ten Fugitive Angela Yvonne Davis, the subject of an Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution case.”
While there are no specifics, what comes through is that the bureau’s work in Chicago — including Mitchell, whose informant work provided information that would be ultimately be used by the Chicago police to murder Fred Hampton and Mark Clark — had become incredibly effective, to the point that FBI leadership commended that work for aiding the FBI’s national objectives.
Don’t Get Fooled Again
What comes through in this new material is how successful the FBI was in seizing on the Chicago chapter’s weaknesses — not only the heightened vulnerability that came with the dynamic of police attacks and armed self-defense, but also with rumor and innuendo.
While the contending, and often confused, politics within the organization were ultimately decisive in all this — the BPP itself would split in March 1971 between two equally bad positions, Huey P. Newton’s reformist “survival pending revolution” philosophy and Eldridge Cleaver’s inclination toward political violence — the measures by law enforcement played no small role in these developments.
That the bureau had placed an informant in a position of rising power, where he could keep the FBI apprised of who was in leadership, the status of membership, who might have had weapons or be otherwise legally vulnerable, to say nothing of a sense of the internal disputes, both political and personal, appear as no small reason for their successes.
The murder of Fred Hampton and the destructive efforts against the Black Panthers in Chicago by the FBI cannot be undone. But they can be understood — and in ways far better than was possible fifty-one years ago. Armed with such knowledge, a new cohort of leftist activists — knowing the perils of incendiary rumors, damaging sectarianism, and the efforts of those who would encourage individuals and organizations, whether informants or simply misguided radicals, to perilously step over legal limits — can be made less vulnerable to efforts that were far too successful in the past.