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 shockwaves 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 third installment in a four-part series examining Aoki’s confidential life, and what it means for the communities that revered him as a hero.
Richard Aoki’s death in March 2009, at age 70, has been considered in a different light since the news of his role as an FBI informant broke.
Before his death, Aoki had been suffering from diabetes-related illnesses and kidney failure (he also had a stroke in 2005). For many years friends say he had been an alcoholic, and although he sought treatment and eventually broke free of his addiction, he ate poorly and smoked, which contributed to his health problems.
He had undergone several dialysis treatments, which gave him momentary heart failure, and had spent much of February 2009 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, CA, hooked up to tubes, catheters and needles, according to his friend and executor of his estate, Harvey Dong.
Mike Cheng, Aoki’s neighbor, was with him the day he died. For several years prior, Cheng had been working on a documentary about the community leader, and on March 14, 2009, he brought him home from the hospital. Cheng remembers Aoki seemed exhausted; he disliked being in the hospital because of the multiple treatments. “The dialysis definitely had a draining effect on him,” said Cheng in a recent interview with Hyphen. “Every day I saw him in the hospital, he was like, ‘This sucks, get me out of here,’” Aoki also seemed to believe that some procedures were unnecessary and the hospital was just trying to make money off of him. Cheng summed up Aoki’s words that day: “I’m on to them. They’re making so much money, and this is a medical scam.”
Around 5 a.m. the next morning, Aoki called Cheng, telling him that he had fallen and suspected he had a broken ankle. Cheng walked to Aoki’s unit and inspected his swollen ankle. He offered to take Aoki back to the hospital and returned to his own apartment to give Aoki time to decide. About ten minutes later, Cheng went back to Aoki’s unit to check on him. He found Aoki on his living room floor, bleeding from his stomach. Cheng’s first thought was that Aoki had a stroke and that the blood was coming from a dialysis treatment tube.
Cheng called 911, and then made small talk with Aoki to ensure he stayed conscious. When the paramedics arrived, Aoki was still alive; one asked him if he shot himself, and he replied yes, according to Cheng. Aoki was rushed to the county hospital, where he died later that day. His autopsy report said his death was due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen.
The autopsy report also listed multiple medical procedures and wounds, including needle puncture marks, chest tubes protruding from an incision, surgical incisions with stitches, and multiple catheters, all of which put into context Aoki’s unhappiness and frustration with his medical care.
Mike Cheng on Richard Aoki's suicide | Interview with Hyphen Magazine
After his death, friends told reporters that Aoki died from complications from dialysis (Seth Rosenfeld and I both wrote obituaries reporting this). Hundreds of people attended his memorial and filled UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium. A year later his friends revealed the truth of his suicide on the Richard Aoki Memorial website, claiming that the lie was not to protect his image, but because they were all still in shock (later Dong explained that they made the announcement because the cause of death would eventually become available through public records). “In that initial phase, the rush of it and trying to figure out what to do, we thought, maybe we should say it was related to his complications” with illnesses, Dong told Hyphen.
Since the recent news that Aoki was an FBI informant, some have speculated that he committed suicide because he was afraid of the reaction to Rosenfeld’s book, or because he felt guilty about his double life.
Rosenfeld interviewed Aoki twice on the phone in 2007 as part of the reporting for his book on FBI activities at UC Berkeley. He first heard Aoki’s name in 2002 while talking to Burney Threadgill Jr., a former FBI agent. Rosenfeld would bring stacks of FBI documents for Threadgill to look through, and one file contained a news clipping from the Third World Strike that included Aoki’s photo and name. Threadgill told Rosenfeld that he knew Aoki because he developed him as an informant.
In 2007, with Threadgill’s account as his primary evidence (the majority of Aoki’s FBI files were released in 2012), Rosenfeld asked Aoki about any connection to the FBI. Aoki denied it, but also said “People change…It’s complex, layer upon layer,” as if offering a vague explanation.
Aoki left no suicide note, but Cheng suggested a few reasons why he may have wanted to end his life. Cheng thinks that Aoki was suffering greatly because of his illnesses and “he wanted to go out on his own terms.” He also theorized that the death of Aoki’s mother the month prior may have played a role; perhaps Aoki believed he had fulfilled his last remaining familial obligation: to give his mother, the only remaining member of his immediate family, a proper funeral. “I think his mom was a huge motivation for him to stay alive, to take care of her affairs,” Cheng said. “He never said this, but it’s more my belief: she dies in 2009, and shortly after, he said, ‘Well, I’m glad I lived long enough to take care of her.’”
Regardless of the reasons for his death, some friends continue to believe he never wavered from his revolutionary commitment. Dong noted that as he went through Aoki’s closet, he saw something that struck him: two uniforms neatly pressed and hanging in dry cleaning bags. One was his army uniform, the other his Panthers outfit. “He was always talking about how he was in the army,” Dong says. “He never hid it from people. He talked about how that was his patriotic period. But then he was even more proud that he was involved with the Black Panthers. So he definitely had to transition from this patriotic conservative to a revolutionary. And when he transitioned, he was fully committed.”
Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California. 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.