Thoughts From the Outside: Fred Hampton and the Idea of freedom

May 8, 2021

From the May-June 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Faruq

I happen to be in a city that doesn’t sleep. I see many different story lines. However, in my mind, the only stories worth telling are about liberation struggles.

The concept of liberation struggles is lost on many people. This is a blatant reality, no matter the skin color. There are many discussions explaining the social conditions that foster the present reality. But the only discussion worth having is rigorous development of a transformative methodology that clearly moves us past the present social reality, i.e., capitalist oppression.


A serious discussion of the idea of freedom has a critical aspect, it reveals within itself its opposite, the betrayal of human solidarity. A recent movie, Judas and the Black Messiah, tells the story of the state execution of Fred Hampton.

Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, Bill O’Neal betrayed Fred Hampton for $300. The state terrorists were so interested in finding a Judas within Fred Hampton’s circle because Hampton was a powerful new young voice for human solidarity between various groups in Chicago, gangs and others: Black, Hispanic, poor whites and youth. He was an inspiration for a new kind of humanity, calling for a rainbow coalition, a phrase Jesse Jackson echoed years later.

Betrayal, what in prison is called “snitching,” is an aspect of capitalism. Capitalism creates a myth of an isolated individual. Snitches, Judases, are people who are convinced they are acting in their own best interest at the cost of breaking their social ties. Prisons create snitches not only because they want information to use against others, but because it is a proven method of breaking people. Denmark Vesey, betrayed before an 1822 slave uprising, warned against trusting a slave who accepts gifts from a master.

These “gifts” represent attaching value to things, not one’s bond with other human beings. They reflect the fetishism of commodities. Putting value into possessions, especially at the cost of your human relations, is cruel and deadly. Prisons found that snitches become a lot more violent, animalistic, don’t care who they hurt, just to survive for the moment. Prisons had to create special yards for them, which, even according to their own data, were most violent, where new gangs were created as the snitches attempted to create some semblance of self-respect.

The Pelican Bay hunger strikers overcame the idea the system perpetuated. It re-established human solidarity across gang, i.e., racial lines. As opposed to the snitches the system used to keep people in perpetual solitary confinement, the idea of solidarity caught on with tens of thousands of California’s prisoners and many more outside prisons. The Agreement to End Hostilities was in a way a continuation of Fred Hampton’s vision, and before that of George Jackson’s “settle your quarrels,” a step towards a new society for all. As the Agreement states: “We can no longer allow the California Dept. of Corrections to use us against each other for their benefit!! …collectively we are an empowered mighty force…”


Out here, the social connections are much looser than they were for that powerful moment during the hunger strikes. Even family connections are torn apart over money, mostly by the lack of it. How do we help human beings rethink their relations?

Fred Hampton said, “I am a revolutionary. You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the idea.” What he implied was that the idea should not depend just on me. When the idea appears, it does not depend on an individual, it is felt by many people. But it can get lost, forgotten, when its moment passes.

That is why we need to go into what is this idea in and for itself? It is not just a moment of new human relations. Reflection on it brings us back to what Marx meant when he projected that what it means to be human is to be free in our everyday activities and to see others as equally self-determining. This might seem like a utopian idea, given the persistence of racism. But we must keep in mind that racism is a social construct that we must work through. It threatens the realization of our humanity. We have to revisit how the Black struggle has always deepened the Idea of Freedom in this country, made it real, up to today’s Black Lives Matter.

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