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The Strange, true story of William O’Neal snitch in Judas and the Black Messiah

When it comes to William O’Neal, the chameleonic FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois faction of the Black Panthers in the late Sixties, even the truth can’t be trusted.

Watching his infamous ‘tell-all’ interview with the 1990 docuseries Eyes on the Prize II, you’d be hard pressed to find a semblance of guilt or shame about his role in the Chicagoan group’s violent downfall. Equally, he refused to accept any blame for the murder of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton at the hands of the Chicago Police Department in 1969.

“Do I feel like I betrayed someone? Absolutely not. I had no allegiance to the Panthers,” O’Neal told the interviewer, in a section that ultimately didn’t air. He simply thought of himself as a man who “had the courage to get out there and put it on the line”; a man who had been made a “better person” through his work with the FBI. By the end of the conversation, he seemed sanguine about his legacy. “I think I’ll let history speak for me.”

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O’Neal stuck to that promise. Nine months after conducting the explosive interview, in the early morning of 15 January, 1990, the 40-year-old committed suicide by running out onto the westbound lanes of Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway.

Scenes from the show, both real and recreated, bookend Judas the Black Messiah, director Shaka King’s new film that delves into the duplicitous relationship that O’Neal forged with Hampton at the behest of the FBI. The film paints a suitably slippery picture of the spy, played by LaKeith Stanfield – but how much of it is grounded in truth?

The movie begins with William O’Neal walking into a South Side pool hall dressed like a G-man in a Stetson fedora. He confronts a group of Black gang members wearing green berets, brandishes a hooky FBI badge, and begins shaking them down before failing to make off with one of their cars. It’s a neat way of establishing O’Neal’s talent for deception and adds a weighty charge to his rap-sheet (“five years for impersonating a federal officer”) that goes some way to explaining why he agreed to work for the government as an informant.

By O’Neal’s own admission, he stole a car with his friend and drove it across state lines to Michigan, where he “had an accident” from which he fled (he was 17 at the time). Unluckily for him, he had signed over his personal details at a nearby pool hall prior to the mysterious incident, and that’s how FBI agent Roy Mitchell got a hold of him months later. Initially he didn’t ask for anything. According to O’Neal, “He said something like, ‘Well, you know, there’s no need in you trying to bullshit me. I know you did it, but it’s no big thing […] I’m sure we can work it out.’”

 

By this time, the teenager already had a pretty heavy criminal record dangling over him. In the years before his death, O’Neal revealed to his uncle, Ben Heard, that he had been involved in home invasion, kidnap and even torture in his youth. “He said they had someone tied up and they were pouring hot water over his head,” Heard revealed. “They were trying to get him to do something.” According to The Chicago Tribune, O’Neal was actually arrested for flashing a fake FBI badge several months after the FBI agent had first been in touch. As an informant, O’Neal received $300 a month plus substantial bonuses.

Despite his early crimes, O’Neal admitted that he once harboured ambitions of protecting the law. “I think I grew up wanting to be a policeman, admiring and respecting policemen, although I always thought it was outside of my reach,” he told Eyes on the Prize in another unaired segment. That being so, it maybe explains why O’Neal gravitated towards FBI agent Mitchell so easily. “He never used the word informant. He always said, ‘You’re working for me,’ and I associated him as the FBI […] I felt like I was working undercover for the FBI doing something good for the finest police organisation in America. And so I was pretty proud.” Contrary to the accelerated plot of the film, almost half a year went by before Mitchell actually asked O’Neal to join the Black Panthers.

It’s true that Mitchell welcomed O’Neal into his life and introduced him to his family, and a strong emotional bond was formed in that time. “I had been to Mitchell’s home. I have held his child in my hands, in my arms when he was one years old,” he said. “[Mitchell] was a role model for me, when I needed one. We had very few role models back then. We had Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, I had an FBI agent.”

original caption 1968 chicago, il  fred hampton, about 22, shown in a 1968 file photo, illinois chairman of the black panther party and another black panther, who was identified as mark clark, 22, peoria, il, were killed early 124 in a gun battle when police entered a chicago apartment to search for weapons four persons were wounded and three arrested
Fred Hampton

BETTMANN

In life as on film, O’Neal infiltrates the Illinois Black Panthers only to find that his suspicions of violence and street crime were unfounded. “I expected that there would be weapons, and we would be out there doing turf battles with the local gangs, but they weren’t about that at all,” he revealed. “They were into the political scene: the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and specifically freeing Huey [P Newton, the Black Panthers co-founder who was convicted for his role in the death of a police officer]. That was their thing.”

According to The Assassination of Fred Hampton, O’Neal was the one pushing for violence. “He advocated the most militaristic line; he often carried a gun; he was constantly suggesting other Panthers engage in criminal activities,” author and attorney Jeffrey Haas writes. He goes on to say that Fred Hampton grew wary of O’Neal’s preoccupation with weaponry, and apparently downgraded him from chief of security to errand runner as a result. (O’Neal even built an electric chair to, in his own words, “punish and deter informants.” He claimed in court that it was at the “urging of Hampton and [Bobby] Rush.”)

Regardless, O’Neal grew to like and respect the group’s chairman.“I thought Fred Hampton was pretty idealistic. He was pretty dedicated to the Black struggle,” he told Eyes on the Prize. “I felt like he gave a lot. He gave his life, and, out of the 16 months that I knew him, I don’t have anything bad to say about him […] Had he lived today, he probably would be a politician, a successful politician.”

His public verdict on the Black Panther movement was decidedly less positive. “There were a lot of Panthers that died in Chicago, got killed needlessly and senselessly. At this point I questioned the whole purpose of the Black Panther Party. It got a lot of people hurt, did very little else,” he told the documentary-makers. “I mean, if you associate the Black Panther Party with the Civil Rights Movement, that’s a mistake. In my thinking, they were necessary. It was a shock treatment for white America to see Black men running around with guns just like Black men had saw white men running around with guns.”

warner bros
Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Messiah

WARNER BROS.

It’s hard to know what O’Neal truly thought about the party’s ambitions and actions, and many have suggested that he was ultimately overcome by guilt – Fred Hampton’s brother included. ”The act he committed was unjust and ignorant,” he said in the aftermath of O’Neal’s death. ”It’s something he tried to live with and couldn’t.”

In the film, FBI agent Mitchell consistently attempts to poison O’Neal’s perception of the group, and eventually fears that he has been indoctrinated during one of Hampton’s rallies. “That day at the speech? I watched you. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Either this guy deserves the Academy Award, or he really believes this shit.” In the same conversation, which grows angry and sinister, he demands that O’Neal draw up a floor-plan of Fred Hampton’s west-side apartment, where the informant has told him that much of the group’s artillery is kept. He agrees.

In his TV interview, O’Neal admits that he believed there would be a raid of Hampton’s apartment following the recent killing of two policemen by a Black Panther, but he denied any knowledge of premeditated murder. He said that he found out about the deaths of Hampton and several other Black Panther members the following morning, when he walked into the organisation’s headquarters and saw a copy of the Chicago Sun Times newspaper. He said he then went to the blood-soaked apartment and ruminated over how his role in the raid. He felt “bad” and “angry”, and began to question the purpose of the FBI’s mission. Then, somewhat risibly, he said he felt “betrayed.”

“I felt like if anyone should have known it was going to be a raid that morning, I should have known,” he said. “I felt like I could have been caught in that raid. I was there that night, and I felt like if I’d have laid down I probably would have been a victim. So I felt betrayed, I felt like I was expendable.”

He said he didn’t speak to Mitchell for a few days, but eventually met him for a drink. The FBI agent supposedly told him that he didn’t know it was going to occur either, which O’Neal said was “hard for [him] to believe”. Mostly he just reckoned with the magnitude of the operation he was involved in. “I just began to understand basically how serious and deadly the game we’d all been playing for 16 months, the reality of what we were doing, just came to bare on us that morning.”

The movie tells things a little differently. In Shaka King’s vision of events, O’Neal is drinking alone at a bar when a stranger sidles up to him. He tells O’Neal that he knows he works for the FBI, and unfurls a newspaper in front of him to reveal an unmarked envelope containing powder. “I need you to let the chairman read it tomorrow night. Put that in his drink.” O’Neal angrily shoos him away, and the stranger leaves without his newspaper.

wikicommons
William O’Neal mug shot

WIKICOMMONS

Somewhat strangely, in his Eyes on the Prize interview, O’Neal refused to entertain the idea that Hampton could have been drugged by anyone, let alone himself. “I don’t buy it. There’s just no way. Fred was the type of person that you didn’t have to drug anyway. Fred was always tired. He could get in a car, and we couldn’t ride two blocks without him dozing off. I mean, he was a high-energy person that ran on very little fuel, and wherever he’d sit down, he was well-rested.”

O’Neal gave no reason for leaving Hampton’s apartment early that night. In the interview he described it as “a melancholy kind of day”, in which the male Panthers rested while the women prepared spaghetti and chilli. In the deposition that followed, he said that his memories of the hours before the raid were hazy. But a criminal associate eventually testified under oath that, when the two of them were high, O’Neal admitted to drugging Hampton the night of the assault; a substantial dose of secobarbital in a glass of Kool-Aid. On 4 December at 4.45am, a team of police officers armed with a 45-caliber submachine gun and two shotguns broke into Hampton’s apartment, where they killed Black Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. The chairman’s blood was eventually tested by Cook County chemist Dr. Eleanor Berman, who found a high dosage of barbiturates. He was only 21.

According to The Assassination of Fred Hampton, O’Neal had begged the Hampton family to allow him to be a pallbearer, to which they agreed. It was clear even in his 1990 interview that the chairman had left a big impression on him. “All of those people that showed up at Fred Hampton’s funeral and looked over his coffin,” he said, “didn’t give him ten minutes of their time when he was alive.” O’Neal continued to work for the Black Panthers as their membership rapidly decreased, before leaving in 1971 to become the owner and manager of a gas station in Maywood, not far from Hampton’s house. Two years after that the Chicago Tribune newspaper blew his cover as an FBI informant, and he was relocated by the Witness Protection Program to California under the alias of “William Hart”.

He secretly returned to Chicago around 1986, bringing his new wife and five-month-old son with him. He reached out to a few old acquaintances but mostly kept quiet, eventually getting work with an attorney in the city’s downtown district. He lost the job shortly before his suicide, owing to a fall-out with his boss.

Nobody knows for sure why O’Neal chose to open up about his past on national TV, nor why he decided to end his life prematurely – but people across the political divide shared a common theory. ”He was always a mysterious guy,” one official who knew him well told the Chicago Tribune following his death. ”He could play all the roles, every part they [FBI agents] needed. I think he never got it out of his system and was confused.”

Perhaps the true answer lies in a 1984 interview he gave to the same newspaper.

”If you ask me if the gains outweigh the losses, I think so,” he told the reporter. ”I think if I look back at myself, if I had never met Mitchell I would probably be in jail or dead.

”If you ask me if I’m a happy man? I’m not happy, no. I’m not even content.”

What do you think?

Written by The Editor

warrior dedicated to the cause of fighting the takeover of our culture.

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