December 17, 2014, by Guest blog

Race and Rights: Ferguson Part 4

Post by Hannah Jeffery

Below is the fourth of a multi-part series responding to events in Ferguson – the protests and civil disorder that began the day after the fatal shooting of an African American man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, and continued after the decision on November 24, 2014 by a grand jury not to indict the police officer. Nottingham’s Race and Rights cluster and postgraduate reading group, based in the Department of American and Canadian Studies, examine Ferguson through the lens of their research. In this fourth posting in the series, Hannah Jeffery looks at Ferguson against a backdrop of Black Power and the murder of African American men.

On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party, was murdered at 4:30am as he lay in a drugged slumber next to his heavily pregnant girlfriend. Hampton was shot twice in the head at point blank range by the Chicago Police Department who were acting on higher orders from the FBI and their counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO). Fast-forward 45 years and watch the conveyer belt of death certificates from young African American males steadily move past as more and more individuals are written into the annals of police brutality. Michael Brown is not the most recent victim of police brutality, but his is certainly the most protested current case, and through the riots that ensued shortly after his death, and those that followed immediately after the Darren Wilson verdict, racial tensions have been high in America.

My research focuses on the memorialisation and legacy of Fred Hampton, including the responses to violence and police brutality since his murder. Although Hampton was killed at the age of 21, part of his legacy lives on through his revolutionary son, Fred Hampton Jr. On December 29th, 1969, Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri) gave birth to a living legacy: Hampton Jr. has become a passionate spokesperson for the African American community, as well as Chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee (POCC) and the Black Panther Party Cubs (BPPC). Opening many interviews with the statement “you’re about to hear straight from the cub of the Panthers,” Hampton Jr. has spoken out in relation to Ferguson, memorialising the St Louis suburb through personally renaming it ‘Mike Brown Town.’ He acts as a guide, inviting the world to witness the lack of racial progress in America since his father’s death. By standing in ‘Mike Brown Town’ and raising a Black Power salute with his father’s face on his t-shirt, Hampton Jr. becomes the bridge between the past and present, acting as a visual signifier to evidence how the Hampton Sr. case of police brutality connects to that of Michael Brown. In an interview, Hampton Jr. theorises that part of the catalyst for the racial tension and rioting in Ferguson is the historical undercurrent of Missouri. He believes that people remember the Dred Scott case and that historical and current events, all the way back to the 1850s culminated in the current unrest.

Every year, Hampton Jr. holds tributes to his father on his birthday and the anniversary of his death. These ‘Streetz Parties’ function as “a celebration of the life of Chairman Fred Hampton Sr. and his revolutionary works.” This year, Hampton Jr. used the memorial as a platform to voice his allegiance with Ferguson. Wearing a t-shirt featuring his father’s face and standing with a microphone next to the mural of Fred Hampton Sr. in the west side of Chicago, the Black Panther Cub stresses the importance of grassroots movements. By suggesting Rev. Al Sharpton has been “deployed in different places where resistance is happening” to control the rioting in Ferguson, Hampton used Sharpton to exemplify the top-down governmental control at work in Ferguson. He paralleled Sharpton to the ‘Novocaine Negro’ referenced in Malcolm X’s ‘Message to the Grassroots,’ where these figures function “To keep you from fighting back… these old religious Uncle Toms teach you and me, just like Novocaine, suffer peacefully. Don’t stop suffering — just suffer peacefully.” Hampton Jr. sought a connection to his father through strongly advocating a grassroots protest movement, explaining that the community should speak for itself as opposed to individuals being ‘deployed’ to speak on its behalf.

Throughout this speech, Hampton Jr. also unpacked the link between race and class. When allying the Brown case with that of Trayvon Martin, he uses the figure of Rachel Jeantel to illustrate how people are trying to ‘dodge’ the issue of class in racially charged high profile cases. Jeantel was the last person Martin spoke to before he died. The nationally televised trial catapulted her into the media’s spotlight but for all the wrong reasons. Jeantel attacked on the witness stand for not being able to read cursive script, deemed a liar and lacking validity due to her “idiosyncratic black girl idiom.” Undeniably Trayvon Martin was a victim but as Chloe Riley observed in the Huffington Post, “Rachel Jeantel is a victim as well.” Not only has America allowed the Trayvon Martin murder to go unpunished, adds Riley, “it’s the same America that allows for a woman to get through high school without being able to read cursive script.” This is also what angers Hampton Jr.: America “won’t attack the system!” he told his audience. “That’s the bourgeoisie characteristic!” Peppering his rhetoric with Black Panther terminology, he noted that the blaming of Jeantel, for not being able to read cursive script, is frustratingly misplaced. For Hampton Jr., cases like those of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin unveil the underlying injustice of a system that allows students to graduate from high school only partially literate, as well as highlighting the problem of police brutality in America—the same problem that spurred the founding of the Black Panther Party in 1966 and led to his own father’s death.

Hannah Jeffery is an MRes student in the American and Canadian Studies department, where she is writing a dissertation on the legacy and memorialisation of the Black Panther Fred Hampton. She is a member of the Race and Rights research cluster and PG reading group.

Photo: Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. (centre, in army trousers) at a Justice for Mike Brown rally, by RFT 360.

Posted in American and Canadian Studies