By Michael G. Glab
— Forty-three —
The ride east on North Avenue is enough to dislodge anyone’s internal organs on a normal day, what with the patches of buckled pavement here and the potholes there. Today is even worse as Barry Paulsen’s 1962 Ford Falcon judders along with Anthony in the passenger seat. The car has a manual stick and Barry may be a fine attorney but he’s a lousy shifter. Barry’s been trying to sell the car to Anthony for a few weeks now. Since neither knows the first thing about cars, Barry’s grinding of the gears does not dampen Anthony’s interest in the vehicle.
The two have hardly spoken a word to each other since Barry called to tell Anthony the Chairman is dead. Barry has known Fred Hampton for a couple of years now. Anthony, of course, met him just this past summer. But both had a kind of love for the young man who just this moment is being sliced open like a Christmas goose on Cook County coroner Andrew J. Toman’s autopsy table. Anthony has no need to ask any questions about his death. He’s expected it since the day he first exchanged a soul handshake with the Chairman. So has Barry. For that matter, so did the Chairman.
Fredrick Allen Hampton had a way of making people love him. And that, both Barry and Anthony tacitly understand, is what got him killed. The details really don’t matter now.
But the details will come spilling out this morning. Barry flicks on the car radio. It’s the news. The first story, the only story, is the Chairman.
Fred Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were killed this morning in a predawn raid by police officers assigned to State’s Attorney Edward Halloran. Halloran’s office told WGN radio the officers were serving a search warrant for weapons when they were fired upon and returned fire. No police officers were reported hurt. Hampton’s revolutionary rhetoric….
Barry backs into a parking space on Augusta Boulevard. He and Anthony walk the block and a half to the Wood Street police station, the only sound being the crunching under their feet of what remains of a sunrise dusting of snow. In his mind, Barry figures the cops were lugging the Chairman, all zipped up in a black body bag, down the steps of his apartment building right about the time the snow was falling. He hasn’t yet seen the photograph that ran on the front page of the Sun-Times this morning. It shows those very patrolmen balancing the litter bearing the Chairman out of the apartment at 2337 West Monroe Street. To a man, they are smiling, as if their team has just scored a touchdown at a key moment in the game. And, in fact, it has.
Barry and Anthony elbow their way past the mob of reporters outside the cop shop entrance. There are more than a handful of angry looking young black men milling around outside as well. Two cops are posted on either side of the front entrance, each armed with a shotgun, just in case those angry looking young men get any funny ideas. Barry flashes his attorney’s credentials at the front desk officer. “We’re here to see Deborah Johnson,” Barry says. It takes Anthony a moment to associate the name with the Chairman’s girlfriend, who just happens to be eight months pregnant and is sitting in her bedclothes and slippers in the basement lockup. Anthony had always heard Fred Hampton’s girlfriend referred to as Sister Deb. But it clicks soon enough.
Anthony thinks, This is what’s important. Not some silly crap Anna wants to hash over.
Upon hearing Johnson’s name, the desk officer narrows his eyes and turns the edges of his mouth down, as if someone has just shown him a photo of dog shit smeared on a dinner plate. The officer makes a big production of checking Barry’s ID photo against his face. He glances at Anthony. “Who’s d’is?” he asks. “My assistant,” Barry lies. “Yer both gonna hafta get frisked,” the cop tells them. Anthony leans forward to protest but Barry heads him off. “Let’s just get it over with,” he whispers
Two patrolmen take their sweet time patting Anthony and Barry down. Anthony wonders why they spend so much time reaching around his inner thighs so he asks Barry about it as they descend the stairs to the basement. “That’s just to show you they can do anything the want with you,” Barry whispers again. “Just to let you know they can shove their fists up your ass if they want.” Anthony actually shudders.
The two are ushered into a small room with unadorned walls covered by countless coats of paint, the latest of which is some indeterminate shade of green. This non-color is made even more bilious by the piercing fluorescent light hanging by two chains from the ceiling. Anthony and Barry cool their heels for what seems twenty minutes until finally the door creaks open and a matron escorts Deborah Johnson in. “Ten minutes,” the matron says. She closes the door and leaves the three alone.
Deb’s hair is a fright. She smells of sleep. Her eyes are puffy, yet there’s something more to them — something Anthony instantly concludes is murderous rage. Barry asks her how she is and she shrugs. He apologizes and tells her that since there isn’t much time, she must tell him exactly what happened, quickly. Deborah Johnson never asks the attorney who the frizzy-haired kid sitting next to him is. Anthony sits and listens. He realizes as soon as he hears the first sentence she utters he’ll never forget a single word of Sister Deb’s story.
They came to murder him.
We were asleep in the bed. Sumthin’ was wrong with Brother Fred, I know it. We ate dinner around midnight. Brother Fred looked like he liked to fall out before he was finished eatin’. We weren’t even drinkin’, you dig? Like, no spirits. We had Kool-Aid. So don’t nobody tell you he was drinkin’. I reminded him to call his Mama. She’s been insistin’ that he call up every single night before he goes to bed. She was afraid they were gonna kill her boy. She was right.
Right in the middle of talkin’ to his Mama, Brother Fred fell out. Just like that, asleep in the telephone chair. I had to practically carry him to the bed. He was dead weight. I got his pants off but that’s all. He couldn’t cooperate, you know? There was sumthin’ wrong. Sumthin’ real wrong.
Brother Mark took first watch. He was in that raggedy ole chair by the door in the front room. He had a shotgun, like every night. Brother Otis said he’d take the second watch so he went out somewhere. I don’t know where. He’s the lucky one.
Once I got Brother Fred in the bed it took me a long time to fall to sleep because I was listening to him breathin’. Sometimes I thought he done stopped breathin’ but right when I was ready to call somebody for help, he’d take a big breath. It must have been an hour, I guess, yeah, an hour before I could tell he was breathin’ regular. I thought whatever it is, he’ll sleep it off. It took me another hour to fall asleep myself.
I don’t know what time it was but it was still pitch black out when I heard the bangin’, like someone liked to break the doors down. I heard Brother Mark say, ‘What up?’
Deborah Johnson falls silent for a few moments. She stares straight ahead, looking at neither of the two men in the small room with her. Nor is she looking at the sick green wall directly before her. She’s looking through it. Anthony watches her eyes. There’s no sign of tears in them. She continues.
I ain’t gonna never hear Brother Mark say another word. There was a shot. Louder than anything. And then there was another one, louder than that. I shook Brother Fred but he wouldn’t get up. I shook him and shook him and shook him.
She falls silent again and stares before she continues.
The shootin’ started for real. It was like a war. Like Vietnam. Like World War II. I didn’t say a word. They must have had machine guns and shotguns. I know I heard automatic guns. I heard cracks like pistols. There were bullets comin’ right through the bedroom, right over us. I hit Brother Fred with my hand on his face, like slappin’ him. All he could do was lift his head just a little bit so I know he was alive but I pushed his head back into the pillow. He wasn’t hit. The bullets were comin’ from both sides, the front and the back. They were goin’ both ways over us. I pressed Chairman Fred down on the bed then I got on top of him, to protect him, like.
Then the shootin’ stopped. I heard heavy runnin’ all around. These two men in suits came into the bedroom. They weren’t in blue uniforms, you know? They were in suits like Hoover’s men. I don’t know who they were, but they were the Pigs. One of them yelled out, ‘Hey, we got a broad here!’ He grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me up. He looked at my belly. He went, ‘She’s pregnant.’ They pushed me off to some other men in suits. They definitely had automatic weapons. I saw ‘em. They took me into the kitchen and made me sit down. The first two men were in the room alone with Brother Fred. I heard one of ‘em say, ‘That’s Fred Hampton.’ The other man said, ‘Is he dead? Bring him out.’ Then that first man said, ‘He’s barely alive. He’ll make it.’ Then I heard them draggin’ sumthin’, like a ton of bricks.
Deborah Johnson turns silent a third time, this the longest silence of all.
Then I heard two shots. Bang. Bang. That second man said, ‘He’s good and dead now.’
The door creaks open. The matron says, “That’s it. You’re done.”
Deborah, Barry, and Anthony stand. “Thanks, Sister Deborah,” Barry says. “I’m so sorry.” Deb Johnson looks right through him. The matron holds Deborah by the elbow. “C’mon,” she says. Deborah follows her silently.
Barry and Anthony collapse in their chairs, spent. Neither says a word for at least three minutes. Finally, Anthony says, “I don’t know what to do.”
“I do,” Barry says. “We’re going downtown.”
“The County Building. Halloran’s going to have a press conference at noon. We have to be there.”
To be continued
All fictional characters, descriptions, and situations are the property of the author.