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 the 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 second installment in a four-part series examining Aoki’s confidential life, and what it means for the communities that revered him as a hero.
To Aoki’s friends and admirers, he represented all of the things that people wanted to see in an Asian American activist. When the model minority myth was rearing its head in the ’60s -- with the idea that Asian Americans were obedient, silent and assimilated juxtaposed against the increasingly outspoken and empowered African American community -- Aoki stood out as someone who spoke loudly against injustices and who aligned himself with black radicals.
Dressed in dark shades and a black beret and sporting a mustache on his slim 5-foot-6-inch frame, Aoki was mysterious, intimidating and inspiring -- the antithesis of the model minority stereotype.
Harvey Dong on Aoki's legacy | Interview with Hyphen Magazine
But before he became that man, he was on FBI books as an informant. Burney Threadgill, Jr., had been Aoki's FBI "handler" for many years and developed Aoki beginning in the late 50s, according to investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld's interview with Threadgill in 2002. Large portions of Aoki's files are redacted, with information like the names of organizations and individuals and the reports he filed to the FBI covered up, but he was likely recruited to inform on socialist organizations, which were one of the FBI’s main targets during this time. During these years, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover’s administration, also showed an extreme interest in activities on or near the UC Berkeley campus, as detailed in Rosenfeld’s book.
Aoki said that in 1963, after seven years in the military, his politics began to shift. Though he had enlisted, he increasingly questioned the war in Vietnam. “I went from being for the war to being opposed to the war,” he told Wayie Ly in a 2006 interview with APEX Express, a public radio show on Berkeley’s KPFA station
Aoki on his changing political convictions | 2006 Apex Express interview with Wayie Ly
It was in 1964 that Aoki became better acquainted with Seale and Newton, his schoolmates at Merritt College. “I’m talking before the Black Panther Party was conceived of,” said Seale at a recent community forum, about meeting Aoki. Seale had been following the work of Malcolm X at the time, and the three would often talk about politics because they were involved in student organizations with a political bent, Aoki told this reporter in a 2006 interview.
Then came that fateful day in February 1965. “When Malcolm X was killed, I made up my mind that I was going to do something to organize something,” Seale said. Aoki was present in the group’s early days, according to Aoki, Seale and others’ accounts, and the founders consulted him on the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program, which laid out the organization’s goals of freedom, employment, housing, education and an end to police brutality, among others.
Aoki on forming the Black Panther Party | 2006 Apex Express interview with Wayie Ly
The Panthers sought militant means to counter the law enforcement agencies who were brutalizing people in the neighborhood. The Panthers formed “shotgun patrols” or “community patrols” to bear witness to any police misconduct, showing up where there were police or following police while carrying unconcealed weapons, which was legal.
Bobby Seale on getting to know Aoki | Hyphen magazine, recorded at Eastside Cultural Center
About a month after the organization was formed in 1966, Aoki gave the Black Panthers their first guns -- at Newton and Seale’s request, according to Seale and Aoki. An avid gun collector who had picked up sharpshooting while in the Army and trained fellow soldiers on weapons use, Aoki also provided the group with basic firearms training, such as disassembling, cleaning and reassembling weapons to maintain them. “We told him that we wanted these guns to begin to institutionalize and let black people know that we have to defend ourselves as Malcolm X said we must,” Seale wrote in his 1970 memoir, Seize the Time. “We didn't have any money to buy guns. We told him that if he was a real revolutionary he better go on and give them up to us because we needed them now to begin educating the people to wage a revolutionary struggle.”
Aoki seemed to begin to distance himself from the FBI in early 1965. Having completed his eight-year term of duty in the military -- with four of those years as an informant -- he was at the time a student at Merritt College in Oakland, CA, and worked in Berkeley. For about six months in 1965, he provided little if any information to the FBI: “Due to informant’s curtailed activities because of fulltime employment six days a week, as well as his taking a full course as an undergraduate student at Merritt College, no steps have been taken to advance the informant,” states a FBI file dated Nov. 2, 1966 (page 122), a few months after Aoki transferred to UC Berkeley and a few weeks after the Black Panthers were formed. The document states that Aoki continued to be an informant but that the local field office asked the FBI director to stretch contact with Aoki to every 30 days, the longest period of time possible while still maintaining informant status. The reason cited was “security problems” related to making contact with Aoki, who the file noted was well known to “dissident elements.”
None of the heavily redacted FBI documents released show that the FBI had any knowledge of Aoki’s role with the guns or his involvement with the Panthers prior to February 1967 (the files indicate that the FBI knew Aoki was a part of the Panthers by 1967. While they seem to confirm that Aoki was an informant at the time, it’s not clear whether he provided any information on the Panthers.) But some facts suggest that Aoki did not provide the Panthers with guns at the behest of the FBI; they later received guns from other sources as well, and the police patrols were Newton’s idea, not Aoki’s.
Bobby Seale on Aoki and guns | Hyphen magazine, recorded at Eastside Cultural Center
By Rosenfeld’s account, Aoki’s role in providing the Panthers their first guns led to fatal shootouts with police and many arrests. In total, an estimated 28 members of the Black Panthers as well as at least a dozen police officers were killed by the '70s. “By any reckoning,” Rosenfeld writes in Subversives, “the use of guns brought violence, legal trouble, and discredit to the Panthers, all goals of the FBI’s COINTELPRO,” the infamous counterintelligence program that sought to disrupt and destroy US political organizations like the Black Panthers. Rosenfeld poses the question: “Did Aoki help the Panthers fight for justice, or did he set them up?”
Even if Aoki played a role in COINTELPRO, he would not have been aware of it, according to M. Wesley Swearingen, a former FBI agent and whistle-blower. “Aoki would not have had the slightest clue of what the FBI was doing,” Swearingen wrote in an email to this reporter. “At this point I would have to say, in all fairness to Aoki, that the FBI took advantage of Aoki and that Aoki did not know what Hoover's big picture was for the [Black Panther Party].”
Aoki later expressed regrets about the firearms. “Seale would later acknowledge that in other instances some Panther members broke party rules and used guns for crimes,” wrote Rosenfeld in Subversives, which draws on a 2007 interview between Rosenfeld and Aoki. Aoki confirmed this, adding, “I'm not exactly proud of that.”
Yet Aoki claimed that his proudest achievement was his involvement with the Panthers. He helped organize the Panthers’ first public rally in Richmond, CA, in April 1967. Aoki held leadership positions, including head of the Berkeley chapter and its Minister of Education -- though the chapter had less than a handful of members. He was also a field marshal at large, a role that likely included doing internal security and making sure the Panthers were protected. In one of the FBI’s files on the Black Panthers, Aoki is listed as third in leadership in the organization -- the highest-ranking non-black member of the Panthers.
Diane Fujino on Aoki's evolving politics Interview with Hyphen magazine
Aoki’s role with the Panthers was first publicized in Bobby Seale’s memoir, which was published in 1970 and written while he was in jail serving a four-year sentence for incitement to riot and conspiracy. The book referred to Aoki (his surname was spelled “Iokey”) as the “Japanese radical cat” who first gave them guns. But, for the most part, Aoki’s role with the Panthers was not well known until the 1990s through his interviews with the media and public speeches about his role. Aoki was also portrayed as a Chinese gun supplier in the 1995 Mario Van Peebles’ movie Panther and in a Giant Robot feature story.
In 2009, Mike Cheng and Ben Wang released the documentary Aoki which, in the years following, played at dozens of film festivals, in college classrooms and on Comcast Cable. (Full disclosure: this writer is working with Wang on a forthcoming documentary.) This exposure helped catapult Aoki to cult status among Asian American progressive communities as someone who was humorous and fiercely committed to social justice activism.
Mike Cheng on making a documentary about Aoki | Interview with Hyphen magazine
Seale said that Aoki sought to separate himself from the Panthers in order to remain a student at UC Berkeley. “He says, ‘I can’t operate with you guys right now, just leave me alone right now, I’ll get back to you. They keep harassing my ass and threatening me. They’re probably going to threaten to kick me out of UC,’” Seale said at a recent community forum, adding that he didn’t cross paths with Aoki again until 1972 when Seale was released from jail.
Aoki’s UC Berkeley Years
At Berkeley, Aoki -- dubbed the “Yellow Panther” -- used his role with the Panthers to unite different racial groups, particularly the Asian American Political Alliance (the AAPA coined the term “Asian American”) with the Afro American Student Union, the Mexican American Student Confederation and the Native American Student Union, according to Harvey Dong, who met and befriended Aoki while both were students at Berkeley. Together, those groups formed the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). Dong said the Asian American Political Alliance’s platform was influenced by the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program: the AAPA’s plan was against racism and imperialism, while the Panthers focused on eradicating police brutality and providing education and social services to the poor, among other goals.
Aoki’s activities at Berkeley attempted to harness the potential cooperative power of blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans. Aoki became a leader of the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front, which mounted a student strike after a similar strike began at San Francisco State University. The Berkeley strike, the costliest and bloodiest strike on campus, lasted for three months in 1969. The idea was to establish an independent Third World College that would meet the needs of the Third World community and serve the entire campus and community, including white students, Dong said. Although the strike fell short of this goal, it led to the founding of the ethnic studies department, which still exists today. Aoki was one of its first coordinators and lecturers in Asian American studies.
Manuel Ruben Delgado, a student leader in the Mexican American Student Confederation and TWLF, met Aoki in 1968 and worked with him during the strike. “[Aoki] seemed to be one of the more radical people there,” Delgado said. “Radical in two ways: that the only way for us to win was for different ethnic groups to unite, and that we all unite together for a Third World College,” with complete autonomy from the existing university structure. “At the time, that was a very radical idea.”
An FBI file dated April 12, 1967, (page 127) suggests that Aoki was told to inform mostly on activities at the university, but details about what information he provided and about whom are redacted. Some of Aoki’s closest friends now believe that Aoki started as an FBI informant -- perhaps to inform on groups he was a member of, like the Young Socialist Alliance, Socialist Workers Party and the anti-war organization the Vietnam Day Committee -- but they maintain that he later became radicalized through campus organizations.
Belvin and Miriam Louie met Aoki during the late 1960s as members of the Asian American Political Alliance. They said their first response to the accusations against Aoki was rage and later their “hearts plummeted” when the FBI released further documents that forced them to make a sober assessment of their friend.
In recent weeks, they wrote a report to progressives that detailed their theory of Aoki’s transformation from informant to revolutionary called the “A-Files.” “Richard became an informant for the FBI while still a patriotic soldier, but shifted in the 1960s during the high tide of our mass movements, qualitatively transforming into a revolutionary due but not limited to his intersection with the Black Panther Party, Asian American Political Alliance and Third World Liberation Front.” They believe he joined those groups on his own initiative and not as an FBI assignment. “The most striking lesson to emerge from Richard’s life is that people can change, especially during such heart-leaping times as those, and that our own actions can influence that change,” they note.
The Louies speculate that Aoki hid his relationship with the FBI after this transformation because he feared ostracism by activists who were hostile toward informants: “Richard had to live with the pact he’d made with the Devil as a young man. Richard knew he could never disclose his informant past to his friends. Given who he was -- and who we were at the time -- he could not divulge his relationship with the FBI without risk to his person, livelihood and rep.” They strongly caution against taking the FBI files at face value because of the FBI’s history of infiltration, disruption and falsifying information.
Delgado echoes their sentiment that Aoki was a loyal radical even if he had previously been an informant. “If it’s true that he was an informant, I believe he became radicalized when he was [at Berkeley] and then became a true revolutionary and activist.”
Others believe that Aoki did not work with the FBI to organize the Black Panthers. “Richard helped create and found the Black Panther Party,” said Mike Cheng, one of the directors of the 2009 documentary Aoki. “It doesn’t really make sense to me why the FBI would want to help found and create an organization that they would then turn around and say is the greatest internal security threat to the US.”
Informants could also be unreliable, providing false information or acting as a so-called double agent. Cheng noted, “Richard was incredibly intelligent. He was capable of pulling off anything he wanted to. What he was doing remains to be seen.”
Making things murkier are a number of minor inaccuracies in Aoki’s FBI files that cast suspicion on the reliability of the Bureau’s records. Aoki’s name is spelled “Richard Matsui Aoki” or “Richard Masa Aoki,” among other variations. One of his files states that he’s an “Oriental of Korean descent,” though Aoki was Japanese American.
But more problematic is the suggestion that Aoki could have been part of a wider program to provide information on black neighborhoods as a way to quell uprisings, according to former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen. Agents during this time had a quota for “ghetto informants” -- even if some were on paper only, according to Swearingen. Every agent working on racial matters had to have a source from the community, he said. “Most of the ones I knew about in L.A. were names on paper, which meant the person was not really furnishing information about the ghetto,” Swearingen explains in an email to Hyphen. “There may have been some good racial informants, but the ones I knew of were paper informants just to please men like Hoover.” After reading some of Aoki’s files, Swearingen believes that Aoki did not start as a racial informant but was later classified as one when the FBI became aware of his involvement with the Panthers, AAPA and TWLF. (File notes indicate that he changed from one type of informant to another in October 1968).
Mike Cheng on Aoki and the FBI | Interview with Hyphen Magazine
No one knows for sure why Aoki became or continued to be an informant. According to Rosenfeld, people become informants for a variety of reasons, among them to earn money, to serve out of patriotism or to reduce or avoid a criminal sentence. Rosenfeld has been clear that an informant is merely someone who provides information. “It’s not someone who disrupts,” he said in an interview with Hyphen. “The phrase for that is agent provocateur, an agent who goes undercover and provokes and sets people up. But that isn’t what I said Richard Aoki was.”
After the TWLF strike at UC Berkeley ended in 1969, the student activists headed off in different directions. Some remained to build the nascent Asian American studies department. Others went into youth work, and some participated in the I-Hotel (International Hotel) struggle, in which a San Francisco residential hotel housing many elderly Filipinos was demolished. AAPA ceased to exist by the year’s end. Aoki became less politically involved after 1969 and turned his focus to helping minority students gain access to higher education, according to Dong. In 1971, he began working as a counselor at Merritt College -- the very school he attended with Seale and Newton. “Even if he was an informant, there didn’t seem like he had much to inform on,” said Dong of those years.
He quit working with the FBI in 1977. The agent who worked on his file states: “Source advised that he desired to discontinue seeking information for the FBI because he believed that this was inconsistent with his present career and objectives as a student counselor and instructor at a junior college in Oakland, CA.” He went on to dedicate 25 years to working in community colleges mostly as a counselor but also as a teacher and administrator until he retired in the 1990s.
In later years, Aoki spoke out against the wars in the Middle East and supported Asian Americans for the SF8, a group that defended former Black Panthers on trial. He also became reacquainted with the Black Panthers, AAPA and TWLF, participating in most of the reunions for these organizations. He helped organize memorials for Black Panthers who passed away and attended the memorial after Newton’s murder in 1989. He worked with a Black Panther alumni organization to help organize Lil’ Bobby Hutton Day to commemorate the life of Bobby Hutton, who was the youngest member of the Panthers and the first to die in a police shootout at age 17. This month, the newspaper run by the Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party wrote a front-page story about Aoki, defending his image as a radical activist. In it, they call him a “founding member and Field Marshal, longtime Bay Area activist, groundbreaking educator in Asian-American ethnic studies, co-founder of the Third World Liberation Front and a loyal comrade to the end.”
To this day, no one besides Aoki’s alleged FBI handler Burney Threadgill, Jr., who died in 2005, has publicly admitted knowledge of Aoki's being an FBI informant. Aoki seemed to have kept this 16-year part of his life a secret from almost everyone around him.
Years later, he would take his own life and with it, the truth about his so-called double life.
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.