Interviewer: Terry Rockefeller
Production Team: X
Interview Date: October 18, 1988
Camera Rolls: 3020-3023
Sound Rolls: 310-311
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Howard Saffold, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 18, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Now, in 1968, you were a relatively new officer on the force. Now, as a Black policeman, what were some of the things about the police-community relations that were beginning to, um, concern you? What were you seeing? What did you feel?
1968 was about my third year on the job. I had been assigned as a recruit coming out of the training academy to a predominantly White community, and I was the only Black officer that worked on the shift that I worked on. And it was an experience that sort of introduced me to the Chicago Police Department probably in a, in a, in a fashion that most Blacks don't get introduced to it under normal circumstances 'cause they don't basically send us to White communities when we first come out of the academy. Because of the numbers, basically, there's not enough of us to go around. But, I had, uh, worked in a district where there was a small, uh, community of Hispanics that lived in that particular area of the city, and, um, I recall very vividly one incident where I watched a young Hispanic kid that had stolen an automobile be subjected to probably, um, one of the most brutal, physical beatings a person could ever endure. And he was only about seventeen years old at the time. And I was like, uh, about four weeks on the street, and it was rather horrifying, as a matter of fact, when I looked around and I saw some police supervisor personnel looking at the incident, etc. It made me wonder, "What do they do when, uh, when, uh, there's nobody here?" Um, um, consequently, I ended up, or subsequently, I ended coming to, coming back to the south side of Chicago after several, um, rather interesting experiences in that predominantly White community.
As a Black officer, what was the reaction of your own community to your being on the force. How, how do you--
As a young Black officer, what, what was the response of the people in your own community to the job choice you made and what you were doing, and what you could do to, to, uh, help in your community?
Initially, just from a personal friend, family perspective, people sort of looked upon it with favor. They said, "Oh, you know, you're finally going to make something out of yourself. You've stopped gangbanging. You've actually joined the ranks of the servers and the protectors." And it was accepted by the, rather positively in the first instance. But, oh, around the '68s, pressure from the Black community begin to be applied to Black officers because police brutality was rampant. I mean, it was not uncommon for Black women who were out after dark to be treated as if they were prostitutes. Black men driving big cars, legitimately, ministers, businesspeople, stopped and searched in, in public as if there was no, no constraints, no distinctions between them and the criminal element. People had begin to ask, you know, "What, what, what are you part of? What is that institution about, really? Are you just pawns? Are you part of the oppressive South African-type army? Are you part of an occupying army?" It was, the peer pressure was beginning to set in, and Black police officers, across the country, were being used to infiltrate civil rights organizations as spies, _et cetera_. So, and then we had some, some, some characters, Black police officers who had reputations that had proceeded me, um, um, that had reputations for being, you know, just absolute brutes. And, so it was like, we had a choice. We had a choice of fitting in to a stigma or challenging an institution that we swore to, to be a part of, and, uh, I think that was the beginning of the turning point when, uh, when, when, when it was just very clear to us that you don't really have a choice at this point, even if you walk away from the job, you're going to have to deal with the institution as a Black man.
Now when, when, when Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush really started organizing the Panthers and started speaking out, what was your reaction?
I think basically, although we couldn't buy in to the total rhetoric, we felt that they had a right to exist. Um, we felt that they were, uh, a hue and cry that was really a part of the community's sentiment saying, "Give us some relief." Um, you know, "Let me live." You know, "Let me exist." Um, they were sort of like, um--
Can I ask you just to mention either Bobby Rush or Fred Hampton by name or talk about the Panthers rather than just "they."
Well, Bobby, Bobby Rush, and Fred Hampton, were, were, in my opinion, very intelligent young, Black men who could sense, um, um, the urgency of speaking out against police abuse. That's basically what they were doing. And it was very easy for them to be disliked, um, by certain elements of the--
How did you feel when Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton started speaking out? What reaction did you have?
Well, both Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton, uh, in my opinion were very serious, very, um, intelligent individuals. Young. Um, um, I thought, uh, that their committment was, was a very sincere committment. Um, and, and the slogans of "Off the pig," and stuff like that, if you strip the rhetoric, if you strip the rhetoric, they were basically saying, you know, "We are, we are part of this society. We have a right to exist. Ah, we have a right to be protected. Ah, we have a right to not be abused by police powers." Um, I think much of the, uh, activities that they found themselves involved in, uh, was more or less a learning process and a teaching process for them at the same time. I think they found themselves thrust into leadership roles because of where they were located and the limited amount of, of, uh, potential, uh, leaders or existing leaders in this area of the country. And they sort of just took the responsibility on head-on. And the, uh, the interesting part about our coexistence was that, most of them went to Malcolm X College, where a lot of us had part-time jobs during that time. And we had a chance to talk to them when they weren't trying to impress the media. When they weren't making bizarre public statements. And, and, you could, you could tell that this was a, a movement that was, was, was very meaningful to them. And none of them were suicidal, so it wasn't like they were out there trying to figure out a way to get killed. But they did honestly and truly believe in power to the people. I mean, that was their slogan.**. And, uh, it was, uh, it was, uh, a respectful relationship. Let me put it that way. Um, White police officers had started to refer to us as the Black Panther Police because we didn't have any reservations about saying, "If they're committing criminal acts, you know, be the police, but you can't be the judge, the jury, and the executioner." And that was basically our philosophy towards the Panthers and, and their movement.
You were on the gang intelligence unit?
Yes, I, I, I went to the gang intelligence unit at about, uh, January of 1969.
And you saw some very interesting dynamics--
Oh, yes, yes, yes. They--I was in the task force prior to that. And, uh, the task force had been used during the 1968 Democratic Convention, to sort of beat down young, White protestors. That was the first time Chicago, I don't know about the rest of America, but I was watching Chicago. That was the first time White people in Chicago realized that the police were actually brutal. They could be very, very brutal. And, and, and our, uh, hue and cry for relief in terms of Black victims, uh, uh, was sort of vindicated as a result of the 1968 Democratic Convention. After that convention turmoil and, and, and, a few reports that came out, etc., the police department started to shift personnel around. So I was moved from the task force, I was given an opportunity to go into the gang crimes unit. That's what it was called, in the gang intelligence unit. And basically, the, the initial purpose for going into the unit, they were bringing Black guys in because young, Black gangs had started to spring up and were getting rather rambunctious in terms of committing crimes against each other, committing crimes against businesses in the Black community, and _et cetera_. Um, my, my intent was to be a part of, of curtailing that and, and, and trying to bring some, some, uh, some, uh, uh, safety back to, to, to my own respective community. Well, at the same time the Panthers were pursuing uh, uh, uh, an ideology that said, "We need to take these young minds, this young energy, and, and turn it into part of our movement in terms of Black liberation and the rest of it." And, and I saw a very purposeful, intentional, uh, effort on the part of the police department to keep that head from hooking up to that body. It was like, you know, "Do not let this thing become a part of what could ultimately be a political movement," because that's exactly what it was.**. And, uh, so consequently, yes, I was put into a unit that, um, went from the gang intelligence unit to what they called, they called me a member of the Panther Squad. And what that was was to go to the public meetings, they didn't actually infiltrate the organization. But go to the public meetings, and see if you could come back with a report, 'cause they were piecing together 50 or 60 different pieces of information to try to figure out what was really going on within that, in that, um, um, community. Um, needless to say, uh, it got to be a joke after a while because the, the Panthers would start, one of the, one of the, whoever was conducting the meeting would say, "Would the, would the pigs please leave?" You know, then half the room would get up and walk out, you know. 'Cause it had got that bad, I mean, everybody was in the Panthers. So, um, that was probably the only humorous part of it, because there were, um, some Black officers who seriously wanted to make a distinction between the criminal element, and our young men who were trying to find themselves in terms of, you know, "What role do I play in this, this rather complex society?" And I think that, um, my own outspokenness, um, uh, and being part of an organization such as the Afro-American Police League made it very easy for them to say, "Well, we don't think you're very happy here." Um, I'm sure they didn't trust me. Um, I'm sure I wouldn't have been told any secrets, um, that, uh, that they didn't want anybody to know, and I wasn't trying to be any kind of double agent. It was just a matter of principle for us.
Now, if I remember correctly, you told me about a raid on the Panther office. I believe it was in October of 1969.
There was a raid, early, early, uh, 1969. It may have been--
--summer. Or, um, it might have been the changing of the season. It wasn't icy cold, it wasn't, uh, it was prior to December because I, I very vividly remember that, the raid on the Panther house on December 4th was a few months after this.
Now what did you do?
Well, basically what, what had happened, they had taken a group of us and, uh, uh, prepared us to serve what they call some John Doe warrants, um, that evening on, on, on certain Panther, known Panther members and several aliases and etcetera. And they had targeted, um, um, some suburban communities, some Chicago communities, and specifically the, uh, Panther headquarters there on, uh, Madison and Western. And, uh, although I wasn't part of the group that went to the Panther headquarters on Madison, obviously there was much discussion about it after it aborted. It, it, it fell through. Ah, it seems that they had planned to, the police had planned to follow um, um, one of the cooks, one of the ladies that volunteered for the Panther breakfast program, um, um, into the headquarters as she, as they allowed her in that morning to start preparing breakfast. They were to go in behind her rather than try to beat down this barricaded, um, fortress that they, uh, described as being the headquarters. And, and subsequently they, they went into this, this building. They were very selective about who was going to be allowed to be at that site, and who wasn't going to be at that sight, in terms of police personnel. Um, they expected to, uh, to catch certain people there. And, uh, it seems as though they were disappointed because the intelligence information that they had received gave them some, some names that weren't physically on the, on the site there. And out of frustration, they ended up destroying, uh, several pounds of food, uh, you know, they took some files, they threw some stuff in the streets. It was a typical police response of frustration back in those days. I mean, it was not uncommon, uh, for the police to behave in a, in a, in a fashion like that when they got disappointed, or when, when, uh, when they felt as though they had been made fools of. And which they had. Because their, the person who was coordinating that, uh, had made several notifications, and he had a lot of people standing by waiting for the, for the big show. And it never came about.
So did you go see the office?
Um, the, the, uh, there was no need to physically go in there. The, once the police left the office was secured. What we had then was people like Bobby and others describing what had happened there, and, and, um, they did several press releases and, and, had several public meetings in terms of what the pigs had, had, had perpetrated or attempted to perpetrate at that particular location. So, they were, they were, they were, um, very much aware that, um, that, um, the police community was, was, was on their case. And, and, um--
How does that kind of behavior from the police make you feel?
Well, again, the frustration comes in, then as it does now, when the police cannot make a distinction between the criminal element and a, and, uh, a social movement. Um, I was, I, I, I suspect that there was some Panthers that, under the guise of the Panthers, were committing criminal acts. I know that. Because the records will show that. Some of them were actual, uh, double agents. Some of them were people with known criminal records and etcetera. And I'm not, um, naive enough to think that some of those people had not infiltrated that particular organization. But the fact that the police felt, um, comfortable about lumping everybody with a Black tam and everybody with combat boots was a Panther. And even that was a fad in those days. Some kids just wore them because they thought it looked macho. Um, every kid that had a tam on was a gangbanger. A member of a gang. Every, every, every bit of information that they could gather, that identified a particular group, than they would just forcefully, uh, uh, cause people to, to, to react as if they were part of the group because they treated them that way. Um, our, our attitude back then was the police department was the ga--greatest gang recruiting tool in Chicago because they treated everybody as if they were gangbangers anyway. So the kids were...
Now you ultimately chose to leave the gang intelligence unit. How did, how did that come about?
Well, first of all, I was more than familiar with the type of individuals that were, were, were being utilized to, to, to pursue the Panthers and the gang, um, element in Chicago. And many of them had been in the task force with me. And I knew their general attitude, not just towards Blacks, but specifically towards Blacks who talked about being part of some kind of, um, a movement such as the Panthers. Um, and on this one particular evening when they carried out, um, uh, uh, attempted to carry out a raid that didn't materialize, uh, the aftermath of it, the discussion of, um, they knew first of all that there were going to be civilians, non-Panther members, inside that headquarters that were there specifically to prepare and serve breakfast to people on, in that area of the city. Um, it didn't matter to them. The, the plan was if there's any shots at all fired, we'd just open up on the, on the headquarters. Well, I know, I've been around long enough to know that if any police officer happens to fire a shot, that opens up the floodgates. And the insensitivity of, of, of how that particular, and I mean they, they had physically followed a female from the South Side to the West Side and they knew in terms of all the intelligence that they had done, that she was not a part of any kind of armed resistance in America. Um, and they were willing to take a chance on taking a lady like that's life, a like, uh, a life like that, uh, in pursuit of, of, of, of, um, stamping out the Panthers. And I'm saying, this was a little bit too vicious, and it was most definitely something that could not be left unattended. So I went, um, to my commander, uh, who was a Black guy, and explained to him that I didn't have the stomach to, to stay in this particular unit because it had veered away from what I thought it was. I thought it was going to actually try to separate the criminal element from these young, uh, individuals that had been classified as gangbangers, and, and prosecute them according to the law, and, and try to turn the rest of them away from the criminal justice system. But obviously, somebody else had a different plan. And, uh, so once, once I did that, it was a declaration for them that I was not one of the boys. I most definitely couldn't be part of the team. And that I wasn't to be trusted at that point, and the Afro-American Police League, um, uh--
J. Edgar Hoover made what's been an often quoted remark about the Panthers. Can you recall what it was that he said, how he characterized the Panthers, and the impact that that had on the Chicago police force?
J. Edgar Hoover's comment really amounted to, the Panthers were in his opinion the biggest threat to national security in America. Um, they had about six guns, half of them didn't work. Ah, we had all kinds of, of Klan movements going all over this country. And, and, and he decided to set the tone for how the Panthers were going to be dealt with in America. I don't know what his motivation was. I don't know whether he was actually personally afraid, or whether he thought in fact that his, his statement would, would, would, would, would be the, the binding fiber for, for police conduct, and I think it was. Um, you know, we live, we're in a, uh, uh, the police community is, uh, sort of a built-in reward and punishment system of its own. And you get a lot of rewards when you, when you go after who the boss says is the bad guy, and you get him. And I think what, um, J. Edgar Hoover was able to do was to give police officers the impression that it was okay, it was open season, you didn't have to worry about, um, the law, you didn't have to worry about the difference in, uh, the executive branch of government and the judicial branch of government. Um, I think what he in effect said is, is, is,"It's our ball game, guys. We've got the authority. Um, um, we have the capacity. Ah, let's crush 'em.".** And I think that that, that caused the kind of the reaction that, that, that was very easily, um, perpetrated here in Chicago. Um, the sad part about that, because it, it, it, it lends itself to what we're confronted with right today. The vast majority of police officers, White or Black, are not really prone to break the law. There's just a small percentage of them that would take it on themselves to, to, to steal, to murder in the name of the law. But the real problem is, that the vast, excuse me, the vast majority of them have bought into a code of silence that allows them to be apathetic, indifferent, when that kind of conduct is being perpetrated by members of this particular profession.
All right, on the morning of December 4th, how did you get the news about what happened.
Ah, I got a phone call, oh, it must have been about five, five o'clock in the morning. And, um, the call had been placed by, by a police officer, who was assigned to that district that it had happened in. And, obviously a bunch of network calling right after that, and everybody was up and out of bed and moving in, in a very few minutes. And it was total shock. Ah, it was obvious to us at this point that the police department was very, very serious and determined to, to, to, to be a part of what we thought was a conspiracy to destroy that group. Um, um, there was, um, one particular guy, um, from the organization that was in on the raid. Um, he was the first person we called. And, um, his story changed a couple of times, um, between the debriefings and the debriefing and the debriefing. But it was obvious to us that, um, that the long arm of the, the law had, had, had reached out and taken it upon themselves to literally, uh, in my opinion, murder, uh, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Um, you, you, you can't Monday-morning quarterback the entire scenario, but I'm, I'm of the opinion that they had infiltrators that had helped them clearly identify where people were located in that apartment, who they were after, and, and, and I think they selected the people that they know didn't have any problem carrying it off. And, and I'll always believe that.
Did you go down to Monroe street?
Oh, yes. We went, we went through the apartment several times. Several times. The police didn't really decide to place any kind of, uh, protection on the crime scene 'til several days later, ironically enough. Normally you would expect them to seal it off, but they sort of wanted, it looked as if the, the evidence needed to be contaminated. I mean they, I think they were scrambling around at that point, trying to figure out how to explain that, that, that very bizarre, uh, activity. And, and I don't know that they ever, uh, really found out who the real conspirators were. I think the local states attorney here and the chief of police, uh, found out some things that, uh, rather unsuspectingly, uh, was going on, even that, that they didn't--weren't being made, uh, privileged to. And that's not to excuse them for responsibility. But I'm saying that, uh, I think the people who carried out that raid had been very carefully selected. And, and I think the objective was very plain, way before they carried it out. My personal opinion.
Now, down Monroe street, what was the sense of the response of the community?
People who normally, and we did a lot of talking. A lot of young people around there were students at Malcolm X. Um, um, several police brutality complaints had come from that area. Ah, I didn't live that far from that area. Um, people were like saying, uh, "They didn't have to murder them". A lot of the people that didn't even sympathize with the Panthers originally, who said, you know, they kind of looked at them with a jaundiced eye. "What is this?", I mean, "Who are these guys? I don't want to be a part of that. It's too militant, etc., etc." They found a lot of sympathy for them at that point. Because it was rather obvious that, um, we, Chicago was known for unexplained police killings anyway. And, and so it wasn't like this was something that never happened. But when they said, "This particular incident is out and out murder." And I think that was the sentiment. People were saying, "What can we do to prevent this from happening again? Um, what safeguards do we have, um, um, that, that, that preclude the police from, from being in the position to police themselves?" Because that's essentially what they were doing at that point. Um, White people who, um, considered themselves part of, of, of, of America's, um, um, true patriotic, you know, "We are, we are all one cloth," even those people who would normally be considered right-wing supporters of, of, of law and order couldn't stand it. They couldn't stand for it. And subsequently I think the, uh, the kind of, uh, public scrutiny that came as a result of that, um, was the beginning of the end of, of, of, just open and notorious vicious conduct on the part of police officers, um, um, being perpetrated because of, of a person's ideology.
Did you actually get posted out by the apartment?
Now after the raid, during that time when you probably were still hoping[SIC] I guess, you were trying to guard the front, is that it?
Yeah, I was one of the, uh, several police officers. I was working--I had been transferred during that, that whole so-called investigation, um, in a matter of weeks, um, I had been transferred twice. And I ended up being detailed to the front door of that apartment, um, um, right during the, uh, mid-December. Ah, standing outside, you know, in, uh, sub-zero weather, and it was kind of ironic. We--our, our whole position was, "Why guard it now?" I mean, it should have been protected, uh, on the night of the incident if you were serious. So now it was just a publicity stunt. And it was rather appalling, uh, to think that we were still playing the facade. Ah, even several weeks after the incident.
So you saw lots of people go through, and you heard lots of their responses.
Lots of responses, and like I said, there was, there was nobody that was, was, was doubtful about whether or not this had been, um, a person had been killed while lying in bed. That was obvious. Um, it was very obvious that, um, the, the described, um--
You saw a lot of people come through, seeing that scene. What were they saying?
The people who had just come purely out of curiosity were saying, "This is atrocious." Even law and order people were saying, "This is unlawful, and it's disorderly. And it's obviously not part of what I want to condone in terms of my law enforcement or my taxes to be protected. This is not the police function here." People realized that there had been a, a trial, a conviction, and an execution in that house.**.
Now, right after that raid, you and Renault Robinson together felt that Bobby Rush might also be in danger.
Well, Bobby, he reached out. He called, um, several community organization people. He called, um, a few elected officials. Um, people were concerned about him. He called Father Clements, who was the chaplain of the Afro-American Police League, and, uh, we arranged to, to have Bobby surrender to some police officers, members of the Afro-American Police League, and turn him over to, uh, the police department. But, uh, it was not without an attorney present and several witnesses, and that was, that was essentially what was the whole purpose of it.
What happened? What did you do for Bobby?
Well, we arranged to meet him along with--
Can you use Bobby Rush's name.
We, we, we arranged to meet Bobby Rush at a specified location, with, um, our attorney, Kermit Coleman. Um, with, uh, several elected officials, community organization people. And we, uh, surrendered him to the police department with all those people being witness to his, uh, his condition when he was surrendering. So that there couldn't be any, uh, hanky-panky, uh, in terms of something that may happen after he turned himself in. So it was a safety precaution on our part. And, um, we all felt that he was in jeopardy at that point.