The recent revelation that Richard Aoki — a radical activist known as the man who provided arms to the Black Panthers — was actually an FBI informant has sent shock waves through Asian American and progressive communities. Activists, scholars and historians, including Aoki’s biographer, were quick to challenge the source of the news: investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld’s recently released book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Since then, the FBI has released thousands of other public records affirming Rosenfeld’s discovery, while Aoki’s followers have been left reeling.
Who was Richard Aoki, really, and what does this mean? This is the first installment in a four-part series examining Aoki’s secret life and what it means for the communities that revered him as a hero.
In 1942, 3-year-old Richard Masato Aoki was placed in an internment camp in Utah. He was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans whose lives were disrupted by World War II. Some believe this early experience with discrimination informed Aoki’s later work advocating for the rights of people of color and students. Over the next 70 years, Aoki would rise to prominence as a champion of ethnic studies, a pivotal member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and one of Asian America’s great activist heroes -- part of the cadre that first coined the term “Asian American.”
Richard Aoki was “one of the most important political leaders bridging the Asian American, Black Power and Third World movements,” noted Diane Fujino, author of Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life, a biography on Aoki that was released earlier this year and includes oral history interviews with Aoki. Following both the release of Fujino’s book and of a 2009 documentary on his life, Aoki had risen in acclaim in recent years to become one of the most prominent Asian American activists from the ’60s and ’70s and an inspiration to a younger generation of students and activists.
So when the San Francisco Chronicle published a story in August revealing that FBI records showed Aoki to be an informant, Asian American and progressive communities were stunned and dismayed. Initial reactions in the blogosphere included shock and name-calling; others stated, “I just lost a hero.”
My view of him has definitely changed," said Tamara K. Nopper, a writer and a lecturer in Asian American studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Can someone be a friend to the movement and an FBI informant at the same time? I think that if he was an FBI informant, and for so long, as the later released documents suggest, then that's something unforgivable."
The story, written by investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld for the Center for Investigative Reporting, asserted that Aoki was an FBI informant at the same time that he was giving guns to the Black Panthers and providing training on how to use them. In his book Subversives, released the same week as the San Francisco Chronicle story, Rosenfeld wrote that these actions had the effect of “encouraging them on a course that would contribute to shootouts with police and the organization’s demise.” Rosenfeld posed a question: “Did Aoki help the Panthers fight for justice, or did he set them up?”
Aoki’s friends reacted with shock and disbelief. “This here is a defamation against my friend, my comrade,” said Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, at a community forum in East Oakland in September. Tarika Lewis, the first female member of the Black Panther Party, said the allegation was a “character assassination” on Aoki. “You can’t have Richard. He’s one of us. He’s forever ours,” she said in an impassioned speech at the forum.
Tarika Lewis on meeting Richard Aoki for the first time | Interview with Hyphen Magazine
For many, the idea that Aoki, who committed suicide in 2009, was anything less than a hero remains inconceivable. But there’s no doubt that Aoki the man was much more complicated -- and conflicted -- than Aoki the hero. At the very least, Rosenfeld’s assertion (pieced together from FBI records, interviews and other sources) raised the question: Who was Richard Aoki?
We know Aoki was born in 1938 in San Leandro, CA, to nisei parents Shozo and Toshiko Aoki. Though only a small child, his experiences in the camp would teach him about the unfairness of the US government. “I know one of the main arguments for putting the Japanese into the camps was to protect the Japanese,” Aoki told his biographer, Fujino. “But if you look at the top of barbed wire fences, they’re designed to keep the people in ... In other words, it’s a damn lie that we were put in the camps to protect us.”
Aoki’s parents separated in the camp, and after the war, Aoki and his younger brother lived with their father’s family in West Oakland. Aoki felt the tension of living in a “broken home,” as he described it to Fujino, and he also felt stigmatized among his Japanese American extended family and community because of attitudes towards divorce and single parenthood at the time. Aoki was further set apart from other Japanese Americans because his father home-schooled his children, was involved in criminal activities like robbery, and had fallen into debt.
Aoki ran with a rough crowd and spoke like his African American neighbors in West Oakland. He kept company with a street gang largely comprised of African Americans and was a juvenile delinquent who was involved in thefts and got into fistfights.
2006 Richard Aoki on growing up in West Oakland | Apex Express interview with Wayie Ly
Aoki and his brother moved into their mother’s small apartment in Berkeley when they were in junior high. Aoki later attended Berkeley High School and seemed to clean up his act. He enlisted in the military while still in high school, aiming to be the first Japanese American general in the US Army, as he later said in interviews. It was also around this time that Aoki’s father deserted his family. Within days after graduation in 1957, Aoki went on active duty in Fort Ord, CA, where he trained as a medic for about six months and remained on reserve until 1964, when he was honorably discharged.
FBI documents indicate that Aoki officially began as an informant in 1961.
Defined simply, an FBI informant is one who gathers information and reports it to the FBI. There is no single profile of an informant, but they generally start as unpaid volunteers and may later receive pay (as Aoki did, based on the FBI records). People become informants for many reasons: to serve out of patriotism, to make money, to express interest in a law enforcement career or to avoid or reduce a criminal sentence.
Informants are not actual FBI agents nor necessarily agent provocateurs -- undercover agents who disrupt organizations or causes by compelling people to commit illegal acts. Informants themselves can also be unreliable, providing inaccurate information due to incompetence, or purposeful falsification or omission of pertinent information. M. Wesley Swearingen, a former FBI agent who has become a whistle-blower on the FBI’s illegal activities, said that informants run the gamut, providing information on groups ranging from the mafia to the radical Weather Underground to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and they can be directed to gather many kinds of information.
In a 2002 interview, former FBI agent Burney Threadgill, Jr., revealed to Rosenfeld that Aoki was an informant he developed during the late 1950s (this was a violation of FBI protocol, which prohibits current and former agents from revealing the identities of informants). Threadgill approached Aoki after the FBI tapped the phone of Aoki’s high school classmate, whose parents were prominent, longtime Communist Party members, and hearing a recorded conversation between Aoki and the classmate, according to Rosenfeld's interview with Threadgill.
At the time, Aoki was an ardent anti-Communist and a conservative; he voted for Richard Nixon in the 1960 election on the grounds that a Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which allowed the US government to put Japanese Americans in internment camps. The Communist Party had endorsed Roosevelt’s executive order and kicked out its Japanese American members. According to some FBI documents, however, Aoki had been affiliated with the Labor Youth League, the youth arm of the Communist Party, in the 1950s, though it’s not clear to what extent he was involved.
Richard Aoki on his early political convictions | 2006 Apex Express interview with Wayie Ly
The FBI wanted Aoki to inform on communist and socialist activities and organizations, and it was at the bureau’s behest that Aoki joined the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party, according to Threadgill. J. Edgar Hoover made investigating communist activities, whether real or alleged, a priority throughout his tenure as director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972. Eventually, that focus broadened to any group involved in dissent. UC Berkeley’s campus became one of his primary targets, as Rosenfeld laid out in his book, which he researched over the course of 30 years. Subversives details the FBI’s activities on the Berkeley campus, with Free Speech Movement activist Mario Savio, Ronald Reagan and UC Berkeley President Clark Kerr as the main characters. Aoki is mentioned in 10 pages in a chapter on the Third World Liberation Front.
But how did Aoki transform from an avowedly anti-communist, patriotic soldier into a radical, anti-war activist and self-styled expert on Marxism? How did he come to befriend future Black Panther founders Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton? And how did he reconcile his secret identity as an FBI informant while he was heavily involved in political organizing?
Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, CA. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune, where she covered Asian American communities. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has written for the East Bay Express, San Francisco Bay Guardian and ColorLines, among other publications. She is an editor, writer and blogger for Hyphen.
Additional reporting by R.J. Lozada.
Correction: An earlier version of the story stated that the FBI first made contact with Aoki in 1957, when Aoki was on active duty in the military. It seems that that file was a part of an Army intelligence interview, seeking information about his affiliation with a socialist organization.