The legacy of Richard Aoki as an activist, scholar, and educator remains at the center of recent claims that he had worked as an FBI informant over a period of 16 years since 1961.
Known popularly in life as the man who brought arms to the Black Panther Party’s citizen patrols of Oakland police, Aoki was the sole Asian American in an official leadership position with the Panthers. Since his death in 2009, Aoki has been remembered as an icon of the Asian American movement and a critical component in Afro-Asian solidarity in the 1960s and ’70s.
On August 20, journalist Seth Rosenfeld, of the UC Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting, released the report that first alleged Aoki had been an undercover FBI informer. The report, which coincided with the promotion of Rosenfeld’s book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” was based on the accounts of now-deceased FBI agent Burney Threadgill, Jr. as well as two FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
In an interview on Democracy Now, Diane Fujino, an Aoki biographer, refuted Rosenfeld’s initial claims, saying Threadgill’s account was unreliable and that the two FBI documents were unclear and insufficient. Fujino is a professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of “Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.”
Weeks later, on September 7, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a second report further alleging Aoki’s history as an FBI informant. This second report was based on 221 pages of redacted FBI documents, some of which describe Aoki as working as an FBI informant.
In light of the most recent emergence of redacted FBI documents, Aoki supporters say the new evidence is also inconclusive and that more research must be done.
In the week following the release of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s second report, Fujino travelled throughout the San Francisco Bay area to speak against Rosenfeld’s claims.
“The jury is still out on Aoki’s guilt, and requires more investigation and critical analysis,” Fujino said at a September 10 forum at San Francisco State University.
Fujino described three major responses to the release of the latest redacted FBI documents. The first major response, she said, came from “those who believe [the FBI documents] unquestioningly, assuming that FBI sources are accurate.” The second major response came from “those who deny Aoki could have been an FBI informant, and this is the stance taken by some Black Panther party leaders, including Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.”
As for the third major response, Fujino said the truth may lie somewhere in between unquestioning acceptance and denial and that more investigation is needed.
“I raise the possible third option to show that rather than taking the FBI files at face value, they require more scrutiny,” Fujino said. “Perhaps, and the jury is still out on this, Aoki was an FBI informant in the early ’60s at a time when he was rather conventional and he voted for Richard Nixon in 1960. But he may have gotten changed in the process of reading and working with the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party.”
Fujino said that, at several times, the redacted FBI documents point to moments that Aoki may have wanted to leave his role as an informant. The documents describe instances where Aoki had to suspend or limit his role as an informant due to school.
Fujino also pointed to two documents, one in 1965 and another in 1967, that describe the FBI’s alleged concern of Aoki causing embarrassment to the bureau. While Fujino did not say what the full extent of this “embarrassment” meant, only that it raises questions about Aoki’s cooperation with the FBI.
Because most of the documents are redacted, Fujino explained, it’s hard to know precisely what happened,
Fujino said that there was no name on most of the documents allegedly referring to Aoki, only minor information on most of the documents (such as statements that the informant was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley), and that only a minority of the 221 documents precisely name Aoki as an informant.
“I’m just raising questions and suggesting that there’s more that needs to be asked,” Fujino said.
Others who knew Aoki personally have also been speaking out against the allegations and warned against jumping to conclusions.
In a commentary in Los Angeles’ Japanese language newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo, activist Mo Nishida said the public should not jump to conclusions about Aoki. Nishida, who said he was friends with Aoki, wrote: “Seth Rosenfeld, the author of the book and accuser, claims to have investigated over 30 years for the materials in his book. Yet the only source he cites is FBI records. NO OTHER SOURCES, just FBI records and an old retired former agent now dead.”
Activist Fred Ho said in a San Francisco Bay View commentary that Aoki’s contributions as an activist were far greater than any information that could have been provided to the FBI, if he really was an informant.
Ho wrote: “If Richard was a FBI agent, how did he help the FBI? By training the Panthers in Marxist ideology, socialism? By leading drill classes at 7 a.m. daily and instilling iron discipline in their ranks? By being one of the leaders to bring about Ethnic (Third World) Studies in the U.S.? Other questions that aren’t answered by Rosenfeld: How much was Aoki paid if he was an agent? What did Aoki get out of it? How long was he an agent for? There is no evidence that Aoki sabotaged, fomented divisions, incited violence, etc.”
Here in Washington State, Aoki’s legacy means different things for local activists.
Seattle author Doug Chin was living in Oakland and attended Merritt Community College at the same time that Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale attended the school.
“I never heard of Richard Aoki until recently,” Chin said. “I knew many of the Asian students who were involved in the Third World Coalition at UC Berkeley at the time, and do not recall Aoki as one of the leaders.”
Seattle activist Frank Irigon believes Aoki’s legacy won’t be impacted by the allegations, regardless of whether further information confirms or absolves Aoki of having worked as an informant.
“Personally, at the time Richard (Aoki) was creating his own legacy in the Bay Area, we were creating a legacy here in Seattle,” Irigon said.
Irigon served as vice-chair of the University of Washington Asian Student Coalition from 1972 to 1975.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no harm no foul in terms of what we (Asian Student Coalition members) were doing in Seattle in the ’70s,” Irigon said.
Irigon said he does not believe Aoki was an informant. He also said that people will have to draw their own conclusions as to what Aoki’s legacy means for them.
In the weeks to come, as more questions are asked, as the redacted FBI documents are further scrutinized, and as more information may come to light, the truths of Aoki’s legacy will have to be weighed against the uncertainties.