“All Power to the People!” (Black Panther Party slogan, often used by Richard Aoki.)
From relative obscurity, the unusual life of Richard Aoki (1938-2009) is finally being recovered and acknowledged for his integral roles in the Black Panther Party, the Asian American Movement and building Third World solidarity. Diane Fujino organizes his biography in chronological and thematic vignettes describing his political development and activism. Each chapter closes with critical comments by Fujino that frame and interpret the stories transcribed: 100 hours of interviews collected over “11 multiday interview sessions.” Fujino’s analytical introduction and epilogue provide a strong context to Aoki’s voice. Her thorough endnotes and comprehensive bibliography are excellent guides for activists who seek to apply the past to present and future struggles.
Aoki’s street voice–West Oakland and Black – is compelling. His recounting of incarceration, first at Tanforan Assembly Center, then Topaz, Utah, concentration camp during World War II is raw and violent. His parents separated while in camp and his father was forever disillusioned. His mother leaves the family and doesn’t reappear until he is in high school. After camp, his father brings his sons back to West Oakland. As a youth, Richard’s neighborhood gang provided a strong sense of identity and practical self-defense.
Richard volunteers for the army, though originally hoping to become a fighter pilot. He was eager for action, in his own words, to be a warrior. He considered whether he might be able to become the first Japanese American general. He served a total of eight years that included active duty, Ready and Standby Reserve. Interestingly, the military discipline, mind-set and familiarity with weapons would be highly useful as he became involved with revolutionary groups and had to make tactical plans when confronted by the police. Fujino notes that the male leaders of the Third World Liberation Front, which led the student strike in 1969, were all military veterans.
    Even before meeting founding leaders of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Aoki had studied and organized with the Young Socialist Alliance, an auxiliary of the Socialist Workers Party. Aoki embraced Marxist analyses of capitalism and imperialism. The position of people of color as essentially internal colonies, as articulated by sociologist Robert Blauner, convinced Aoki that despite many differences, there were far more similar ties in the oppression experienced by people of color and working class communities. Newton and Seale, in recognition of Aoki’s theoretical understanding allowed him to serve as sometimes Minister of Education. Aoki also participated in production of Black Politics, the BPP’s journal of liberation, but otherwise served as a Field Marshal.
When Aoki became a full-time student at UC Berkeley, he shifted his focus to building the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA). Yet, he never faltered in his deep loyalty to what he understood as the BPP’s vision and regarded his membership as simply dormant.
AAPA brought together the most radical Asian UC Berkeley students and community members in 1968. It was through their initial discussions that Yuji Ichioka proposed the term, “Asian American,” to best describe their identity. Aoki states, “Up to that point, we had been called Orientals. Oriental was a rug that everyone steps on, so we ain’t no Orientals”! This notion of self-determination and empowerment would guide AAPA’s participation in the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and their demands for a Third World College. While the TWLF finally accepted the creation of a department of Ethnic Studies (not an autonomous College), AAPA initially retained a dominant role in the governance of the Asian American Studies Program. Aoki served as a co-coordinator while the program still focused on serving the community, (i.e. Serve the People projects).
Why does this history stay hidden? Aoki was not one to broadcast his affiliations and roles. As organizers of the 30th anniversary of the Third World Strike reached out to him, Aoki began to speak more publically about himself and to set the record straight. His insights into the revolutionary significance of the BPP, AAPA and the Third World student strike resonate today. Indeed, his story strongly complements Fujino’s “Heartbeat of Struggle: the Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama,” in illuminating “Afro-Asian” solidarities and defying the mainstream narrative of social movement fragmentation or separatism. Aoki’s fierce commitment to justice and liberation speaks to the 99 percent: today, class divisions have deepened, “culture” wars continue. To this, Aoki would have quoted Bobby Seale, “we are not out-gunned, we are out-organized.” A movement’s strength is in the organization of its people: all power to the people!

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