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Mugshot of William O’Neal
Who was William O’Neal?
William O’Neal (1949–1990) was an FBI informant who infiltrated the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. He recently returned to prominence through the recent Oscar-winning film Judas and the Black Messiah, a depiction of the events leading up to and including the assassination of Illinois BPP leader Fred Hampton.
We at the Zero Theft Movement are working to eradicate the rigged parts of the economy so that all Americans can thrive. In this article, we will cover William O’Neal, his involvement in the Black Panther Party, and how the FBI saw the organization’s growth through youth education and programs as a danger.
One Crime Too Many
Born and raised in Chicago, William O’Neal earned a reputation as a troublemaker. His exploits eventually caught up with him when he stole one car too many in 1966, at the age of 17. O’Neal faced a long list of charges beyond the most recent car theft, and the FBI knew that all too well.
In 1968, the FBI brought him in. O’Neal’s uncle Ben Heard, quoted in a Chicago Reader article, recalled “[O’Neal] said they had someone tied up and they were pouring hot water over his head. They were trying to get him to do something.” After showing him the horrific scene, the FBI made O’Neal an offer: in exchange for a monthly stipend and to have his felony charges dropped, he would have to infiltrate the budding Black Panther Party as a counterintelligence operative. As we know decades later, he accepted the deal.
FBI agent Roy Martin Mitchell, known for his skills of persuasion, had tracked down the teenager. Eventually he developed O’Neal into an informer. U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras spoke to the Chicago Tribune after Mitchell had passed, stating: “[He was] the last person you might think would strike up a relationship with a black teenager in the 1960s…But he became like a father to O’Neal and he trusted Roy at a time when not many people trusted anybody.”
Why Infiltrate the Black Panther Party?
J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI from 1924-1972, had long kept watch over dissenting or ‘subversive’ movements through the illegal covert surveillance operation COINTELPRO. By the 1960s, the FBI’s focus on communism had broadened to include various civil rights groups, feminist organizations, AIM (American Indian Movement), the Ku Klux Klan, etc.
Out of all the surveilled organizations, the Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale’s Black Panther Party perhaps concerned Hoover most. He once claimed, “The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Not because of their militicancy, but because of their Free Children’s Breakfast Program. It gained the respect of others, specifically many White Americans.
In an NPR interview, Donna Murch, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, explores why a “small group of radical Black college students and teenagers” could concern the Director of the FBI: “It was their ability, not that they were anti-white. It’s that they were able to organize with whites.”
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William O’Neal Becomes a Panther
A day after accepting the FBI deal, William O’Neal went to the Panthers’ office in Chicago to see if they would let him join. The group was recruiting, and only three or four Panthers were working in the large office. O’Neal could tell the party needed more numbers, and he easily earned a position as the Security Captain.
In his interview for Blacksides’ Eyes on the Prize II documentary series, O’Neal recounted his rapid rise up the ranks: “…because of my knowledge of electronics and, you know, I was just a handy-man basically around the office, and we had this office building that they fel–felt like wasn’t too secure. I started working right away to secure the building, and in that regard I fell right into the security position. And it got more sophisticated as donations start–started to flow. As the membership increased as a result of speaking engagements on school campuses and so forth, my responsibilities doubled and so I, I was given a staff of security people. And, and I just advanced from that point on.”
Early on, O’Neal established himself with Fred Hampton, a major leader of the Black Panther Party. The informant’s rapid ascendancy continued until he became one of the heads of Hampton’s personal security, and owned keys to several Panther headquarters and safe houses. Throughout this period, he regularly provided intel to Mitchell, even though it was generally quite inconsequential (e.g. rallies, classes, recruitment drives, etc.).
The Assassination of Fred Hampton
Around the same time William O’Neal joined the Panthers, Hampton arguably engineered his greatest achievements. He, for instance, helped form a nonaggression pact among the Panthers, the Young Patriots Organization and the Young Lords (two of Chicago’s major street gangs). The racial and ethnic conflict between the gangs, he argued, only left its members impoverished. This effort led to an alliance between gangs and minority groups known as the Rainbow Coalition, led by political activist Jose Cha Cha Jimenez.
Hampton’s success as a leader posed a threat to the FBI and police. They grew increasingly concerned about his activities and the burgeoning support for the Black Panther Party. Near the end of 1969, the FBI requested O’Neal to draft a layout of Hampton’s apartment, a place where the Panthers often gathered. According to nonprofit news organization Truthout, FBI documents released to the public include Hoover’s personal messages of praise to Mitchell after the agent had secured the layout.
FBI model of Hampton’s apartment
On the night of December 3, 1969, Hampton taught a political education class at a local church. He and several Panthers returned to his apartment and ate dinner William O’Neal had made. The Cook County chemist would later find Seconal, a barbituate, in Hampton’s blood. O’Neal left the premises around 1:30 a.m., and Hampton fell asleep while on the phone with his mother.
At 4:00 a.m., a 14-man team of Chicago police officers raided the apartment, purportedly executing a search warrant to confiscate any weapons and explosives the Panthers had stored. While the police testified the Panthers had shot first, witnesses painted a very different picture.
According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, “Officers armed with shotguns and rifles opening fire on sleeping Black Panther members inside, among them Hampton’s pregnant fiancee. A special federal grand jury determined that police sprayed 82 to 99 gunshots through doors, walls and windows while just one shot appeared to have been fired by someone inside.”
The article goes on to state: “[Mark] Clark [a Panther] was killed in early gunfire, but survivors Harold Bell and Hampton’s fiancee, Akua Njeri, then known as Debra Johnson, testified at the 1972 criminal trial against the state’s attorney and officers in the raid that Hampton was pulled alive from his bed and shot dead after the group had surrendered. Later, an FBI whistleblower said the agency coaxed local law enforcement across the country, including Chicago police, into deadly clashes with heavily armed Black Panthers.”
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The Guilt William O’Neal Carried
In the Eyes on the Prize interview linked above, O’Neal recounted the assassination of Hampton: “I just began to realize that the information that I had supplied leading up to that moment had facilitated that raid. I knew that indirectly I had contributed—and I felt it, and I felt bad about it. And then I got mad. And then I had to conceal those feelings, which made it worse. I couldn’t say anything. I just had to continue to play the role.”
O’Neal continued on as an informant in the Black Panther Party until he was found out in 1973. He disappeared through the witness program protection but later resurfaced when he returned to Chicago. On January 15, 1990, after visiting with his uncle, O’Neal dashed out of the apartment and ran into traffic on the Eisenhower Freeway. His death was ruled a suicide, though his wife said that it was accidental.
Perhaps most revealing was what O’Neal had to say about the informant job in relation to his childhood dreams of becoming a policeman, something that simply didn’t seem like a possibility for the young troublemaker. “So all of a sudden I was working for the FBI, which, in my mind, at that point, I associated with being an FBI agent. So I felt good about it. I felt like I was working undercover for the FBI doing something good for the finest police organization in America. And so I was pretty proud.”
The Black Panther Party & the Zero Theft Movement
William O’Neal was a loyal pawn in a much larger game. But while the FBI and Hoover apparently got many things wrong, they correctly assessed the power of the Panthers. Their militant costumes perhaps raised eyebrows and brought much attention to the group, but in reality, their major efforts centered around the education and support of minority youths.
As you can see from the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program, the organization sought to establish proper socioeconomic opportunities for the Black community. Redlining, wage inequality, slavery. We can trace the deep rotten roots of racism to economic exploitation, to greed. The complete distortion of the profit motive.
While the particulars may not look different today, that does not mean bad actors have stopped taking advantage of citizens. Parts of the U.S. economy could be getting rigged in order for the corrupt to maximize their profits. This potential problem extends beyond race, creed, and partisanship. Most Americans might be getting ripped off every single day.
So what can you do?
The Zero Theft Movement, along with our growing community, works to calculate the most accurate estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the United States. We achieve this collectively through our independent voting platform.
The public investigates potential problem areas, and everyone votes on whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically.
Only through hard evidence can we prove where the rigged parts of the economy exist and force Congress to hold all the bad actors accountable.
The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.
Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.