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 final installment in a four-part series examining Aoki’s confidential life, and what it means for the communities that revered him as a hero.
The revelation that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant has created a firestorm of responses from former Black Panther Party members, activists of all ages and backgrounds, and Asian American and African American scholars.
After a story by Seth Rosenfeld broke the news in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 20, 2012, some attacked Rosenfeld’s credibility as a journalist. Many activists and people of color were distrustful of the initial report because of the mainstream media’s contentious relationship with those communities, said Jamilah King, an editor at Colorlines, a website devoted to coverage of race, culture and politics. “The reaction to the first report and the length to which people went to discredit Seth Rosenfeld showed how deeply imbedded that distrust is in communities of color of mainstream journalists and of white journalists who are trying to shape or form the story of people who lived through this time.”
Some took issue with Rosenfeld’s reporting techniques. In a video that accompanied the original article, Rosenfeld interviews Harvey Dong, Aoki’s friend and executor of his estate, and then films his reaction as he presents Dong with a stack of Aoki’s FBI documents. Audiences see the shock on Dong’s face and his response that he had no idea Aoki was an informant. Dong said he thought the interview would be about the 60s and 70s; others felt like it was an unfair “gotcha” moment. Rosenfeld said that since Dong was Aoki’s executor, he wasn’t sure what Dong knew, and he felt it was fair to ask him the question.
Diane Fujino, author of Aoki’s 2011 biography, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance and a Paradoxical Life and chair of the Asian American studies department at University of California at Santa Barbara, publicly critiqued Rosenfeld’s evidence, as well as his framing of the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of students-of-color groups including the Asian American Political Alliance. Fujino says that Rosenfeld “over-relies on the FBI files as if they are accurate” and also that Rosenfeld sets up the Free Speech Movement as the “good,” nonviolent 60s, while setting up the later Third World Liberation Front movement as violent, or “bad.” Rosenfeld believes that in his book he places the violence in context and is also critical of the violence used against the Third World Liberation Front strikers. “The Third World Strike is presented in the context of gradually increasing violence by both protestors and police as the 60s continues,” he told Hyphen.
Fujino also questioned the reliability of the FBI reports, some of which she also received through her own FOIA requests. “Could it be true? Or was this a ‘snitch-jacketing,’ a classic FBI tactic used to cast suspicion on a legitimate activist by spreading rumors and manufacturing evidence?,” Fujino wrote in an op-ed shortly after Rosenfeld’s Chronicle article was published. There is no evidence that the FBI falsified information in order to discredit Aoki. But Fujino argues, “The FBI documents need to be scrutinized. All kinds of motivations go into the FBI documents, people careers, or for money. What people report isn’t always accurate.”
Rosenfeld said in a recent interview with Hyphen that while he expected surprise and skepticism, he was not prepared for the barrage of what he felt were personal attacks on his credibility as a journalist. Since Aoki’s death in 2009, Rosenfeld has relentlessly pursued all the FBI records on Aoki and his FBI connection, filing numerous requests and even suing the bureau for access to the files. (The bulk of Rosenfeld’s recently released book does not focus on Aoki — in fact, Aoki is only in about 10 pages.)
The resistance by some Asian Americans and activists to believe that Aoki was an informant is understandable given his role as a prominent Asian American activist from the 60s and 70s, some say. “When some people only know about two or three prominent Asian American activists, and one of the three turns out to be an informer, that’s a terrible ratio,” said Bob Wing, a longtime activist who met Aoki when they were both students at UC Berkeley and active in the Asian American Political Alliance and Third World Liberation Front. (The two other widely known activists, according to Wing, are Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs.) “It can be demoralizing for some people, whether you’re Asian American or not.”
Aoki also stands as a rare symbol of interracial solidarity between African Americans and Asian Americans, two groups that have struggled with very real interracial tensions. There is something powerful about an Asian American who was not only affiliated with but also had leadership roles within one of the most intriguing and controversial black revolutionary groups in the 60s and 70s. “He deserves all of our respect,” said Elbert “Big Man” Howard, one of the first members of the Black Panther Party, to an audience at a community forum. “I miss Richard. I will always remember him.”
The Socialist Workers Party has also come to Aoki’s defense recently, stating that they give no credibility to FBI sources. “These charges are not solely about destroying the reputation of Richard Aoki,” reads a letter signed by Willie Cotton of the SWP in San Francisco. “The ‘snitch-jacket’ against Aoki is meant to put a chill on groups—those active today and in the future—who seek to politically organize workers, youth, farmers, and others interested in building a mass work-class movement.”
Many argue that Aoki’s contributions—mentoring and inspiring young activists, helping community college students gain access to higher education, and his political contributions during the 60s and 70s—cannot be taken away and Aoki’s role helping forge unity between different racial groups cannot be denied: his work helped “rearticulate the nation’s ideological constructions of race,” Fujino noted in her biography on Aoki.
But some argue that Aoki’s reputation made him an untouchable figure, resistant to critiques. “Was there something about what Aoki represented to us as progressive people of color—especially we who are Asian American leftists—that made many of us refrain from a healthy skepticism of Aoki and indeed, any person whose celebrity rests largely on racial border crossing?” wrote Tamara K. Nopper, a writer and a lecturer in Asian American studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, in The New Inquiry.
Nopper is one of the few who have become more critical of Aoki’s legacy since the news of his relationship to the FBI broke. She said that the wave of public reaction—mostly in defense of Aoki—make it difficult to raise tougher questions. “There seems to be this perverse need to protect his legacy,” she said. “It’s been very difficult to speak out critically of Aoki and to be okay with considering him an informant.”
Nopper points out that many other activists, including ones in the black community, have been branded as informants with less evidence, yet it seems no one has spoken out publicly to the same degree as they have for Aoki. “If he agreed to collude with the FBI for so many years,” Nopper told Hyphen, “the ethical thing to do is to seriously reconsider Richard Aoki’s legacy. You can’t be an FBI informant for so long, and never reveal it so as to work towards community accountability, and still be considered a hero to the movement. To me, it raises serious questions about why there is so much need to keep Richard a hero.”
King, of Colorlines, warns against glorifying leaders. “When you build someone up to be this mythic creature… that is so embodied of all the political values that we hold dear, it doesn’t leave room for complexities, it doesn’t leave room for contradictions,” King said. “You can be a revolutionary person who has complicated motivations for doing things.”
In a widely read post on Facebook, Scott Kurashige, a professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies and American Culture at the University of Michigan, was one of the first to question Rosenfeld’s assertions (accusing Rosenfeld of failing to provide adequate context about why the Third World Liberation Front students were striking) and one of the first to suggest that if Aoki was an informant, he could have become politicized over the years. (Kurashige was criticized at the time for even entertaining the idea that Aoki could have been an informant.)
Although Kurashige remains skeptical of Rosenfeld’s work, he sees value in revealing FBI secrets, and exposing the struggles that idolized movement leaders went through, including their complexities and flaws, is a way to understand their political work and contributions. “[Aoki] was a trusted, loyal comrade of many people for many years, and that’s a very important side of him,” he said in an interview with Hyphen. “And yet there may have been other things going on with him that don’t in any way detract from the work that he did but makes us, as students of history and as people who are trying to make history, in need of learning some deeper lessons.”
Fujino agrees that this is a “teachable moment,” demonstrating that “all history is interpretive.” She points out that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was once framed as necessary for their safety. “Now there’s a different frame. It’s not like what they did changed, but the interpretation changes. I think we have to be careful about how we interpret facts, and about FBI files in particular.” Fujino now acknowledges that Aoki could have been an informant based on the more recent documents released. She and Rosenfeld both say they will continue to follow this story.
It took Rosenfeld three years and a lawsuit to compel the FBI to release several thousand more pages on Aoki; on November 1, the bureau is scheduled to release hundreds more. What information Aoki gave the FBI remains to be seen—and with the release of more documents, more questions than answers may be raised. Many doubt that the new files will provide any definitive answers. “They’re not going to release everything,” said Swearingen, the former FBI agent. “They’re going to withhold some stuff that would be embarrassing to the FBI.” Rosenfeld believes there are still more records and plans on pursuing them, including the information that has been redacted.
Meanwhile many of Aoki’s friends and associates continue to believe that his alliance and friendships with them were real. Aoki’s story has taken an even more complex turn, showing that nothing is black and white.
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.
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Momo Chang is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, CA. She writes, edits and produces media on subjects such as immigration, Asian American communities and youth culture. Her accolades include two Asian American Journalists Association national awards as well as an investigative journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter. Momo is also a writer and editor for Hyphen.
Lawrence Guzman is a freelance graphic designer who resides in San Francisco and is one of Hyphen's layout designers. He can be seen purchasing hot chocolate while working at the many fine coffee shops around the city that offer WiFi.
R.J. Lozada is a multi-media journalist and filmmaker in the Bay Area. His work can be currently experienced on APEX Express, Hyphen, and the Center for Asian American Media. Lozada has shot and co-produced Among B-Boys, a documentary on breakdancing and the Hmong American community, and is currently Director of Photography for Breathin': The Eddy Zheng Story.
Lisa Wong Macabasco is the editor in chief of Hyphen magazine. She joined Hyphen in 2006 and was previously the magazine's features editor and managing editor. She has written for Mother Jones, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, AsianWeek, Audrey, Filipinas and Colorlines’ RaceWire. She graduated from UC Berkeley and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Catherine Traywick is a multimedia journalist whose work has been published in TIME, the Bay Citizen, Ms. magazine and on CBS radio. She is Hyphen's assistant features editor and a master's student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.