"My Initial Thoughts on the Richard Aoki Controversy
by Scott Kurashige on Monday, August 20, 2012 at 11:33am ·
The story of Richard Aoki being an FBI informant is all over the web. The published stories are drawing simple conclusions that need to be questioned and scrutinized. The stories are based on an article for the Center for Investigative Reporting by Seth Rosenfeld, who has just released a 720-page book on FBI efforts to disrupt radical activism.
I’m not afraid to learn new things. As a historian, I want to get to the truth, and I won’t evade contradictions. I want to see the records and the draw the best possible conclusions. However, there is clearly more to this story than what’s out there right now.
Here’s what we ALREADY knew: 1) In the aftermath of WWII, young Japanese Americans were a bundle of contradictions—still facing intense racism but also being embraced as a model minority. Richard embodied this contradiction—he was a stellar student but also got into fights and trouble with the law. He joined the army in the 1950s ready to be a gung-ho soldier but left soon after and later was a part of many radical groups in the 1960s. 2) The FBI infiltrated and disrupted many civil rights, Black Power and left wing groups in the era of J. Edgar Hoover. One tactic used was to have agent provocateurs spur radical groups to violence to justify the state using repression against it. Although Hoover’s COINTELPRO was ended, the FBI and police are still spying on and trying to undermine activist groups today. 3) Richard Aoki supplied the Panthers with guns. The Panthers advocated armed self-defense in the age of intense police brutality and a time when most in the black community saw the cops as an occupying army. The Panthers inspired wide support from the community for their militant opposition to white supremacy AND their survival programs. The Panthers were heavily infiltrated and got into many violent clashes with the state that devastated their ranks and led to increased internal dissension.
So what exactly is NEW about this story: 1) Rosenfeld says he dug up records saying that Aoki—around the time he graduated from high school in the 1950s--was commissioned by an FBI agent named Burney Threadgill to give reports on the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. This was at a time when Aoki does not claim to have any radical political consciousness and had been put in a compromised position by getting into trouble with law enforcement. Let’s accept this for now and accept that this is historically significant. But let’s keep it in context. It’s the height of the Cold War and both the CP and SWP would have been viewed by the public as fringe groups—moreover, they had little mass appeal to young people of color at this time. We know from here that Richard went on to join the army. 2) Rosenfeld has one document from 1967 that identifies Aoki as an FBI informant. It spells his middle name wrong. It does not say whether he is still actively on the FBI payroll. It doesn’t specify that Aoki did anything to aid the FBI’s work against the Panthers. Note that Hoover has yet to declare war on the Panthers at this time and is more concerned about SNCC and MLK. And to keep things in perspective, Geronimo Pratt will be fighting for the US military in Vietnam winning two Purple Hearts until 1968. 3) That’s it—at least all that’s on the internet right now. Everything else is speculation based on connecting dots that we already knew existed.
SETH ROSENFELD’S NARRATIVE
Again, we can’t draw definitive conclusions, yet. What we can saw is that Rosenfeld has not provided any evidence that Aoki was actively working to undermine the Panthers on behalf of the FBI.
What Rosenfeld says is that Aoki supplied the Panthers with guns and that the Panthers were undermined by violent clashes with the state. But these are things we ALREADY knew. All this story is doing is tapping into the simplistic white liberal narrative of the 1960s. The story goes like this: all the activism in the early 1960s was wholesome, nonviolent, and integrated but then the late 1960s was dominated by urban rebellions, violent militants, and black separatists who undermined all the achievements of the early 1960s and provoked a white middle-class backlash that led to Nixon, Reagan, and now the Tea Party. In the minds of white conservatives and liberals, the Panthers have always symbolized the turn toward the so-called bad activism of the late 60s (and of course conservatives never embraced the "good" early 60s and many liberals were slow to embrace them). The only twist to the story is that Rosenfeld wants to use Aoki to say the FBI was the source of the violent turn—and now after years of Aoki being largely unknown, he is almost being portrayed as the single figure who influenced the “extremist” turn in Bay Area activism. (The FBI certainly provoked violence--it's just not clear that it did so through Aoki.)
The simple story of the 1960s—already ripped to shreds by many, many historians—takes everything out of context, as if the US liberals didn’t push Vietnam and the Cold War, as if white suburbanites weren’t already against civil rights and integration, as if there wasn’t a Third World movement for liberation that led US communities of color to see themselves as fighting a war against internal colonialism. By the mid-to-late 1960s, MLK had declared the US government to be world’s greatest purveyor of violence and activists from the center-left to the far-left were looking for ways to transform the street force of the rebellions into disciplined, political organization. The Panthers heightened the political contradictions and the physical confrontations with the police and the state to unprecedented levels. Just as Fanon wrote, they tapped into a sense among the people that white supremacy and imperialism were breeding militant opposition. Aoki provided Huey and Bobby with some of the theoretical readings that guided them when they were Merritt College students and then helped them get guns. But what the white liberals refuse to accept is that young African Americans—sent to die in Vietnam, abused by the occupying force of the police, denied jobs from the shrinking industrial economy, watching nonviolent protestors repeatedly lynched, beaten, and jailed, and portrayed as the enemy by whites guarding their segregated suburbs—did not need any outside force to convince them that America was so rotten at its core that it was time to either burn the whole thing down or organize to overthrow the ruling class. All the liberals could do at this point in history was try to co-opt the insurgent movements in order to preserve their hold on power. Meanwhile the right wing went after the movements with savage ferocity.
Where does Richard Aoki fit into this? My best guess based on the available evidence is that Aoki—like millions of other young people of all races and especially people of color—developed a new identity during the mid-to-late 1960s, renouncing earlier attempts to fit into America and moving instead to be a Third World revolutionary. Had he previously worked for the FBI, he would of course have been tormented by this for the rest of his life. And it’s possible if this ever came out that he would have been discredited (fairly or unfairly) by his movement peers—if it came out during the FBI-heightened internal Panther wars of the late 1960s he might have been killed. Remember that one outrageous tactic COINTELPRO used to discredit Panther members and spur infighting was to send bogus mailings to other Panthers “outing” FBI informants within the BPP!
The idea that Aoki gave Huey and Bobby guns at the direction of the FBI does not make sense—at least not based on the evidence provided at this point. Aoki met Huey and Bobby when they were community college students and before the Panthers were a significant force—there was nothing for the FBI to disrupt at that point. Aoki also helped them do serious reading and study—something FBI informants would not have bothered with. We know that the FBI knew who Aoki was in 1967 but have no evidence that Aoki was doing anything for the FBI. Look at the Timeline provided with the Center for Investigative Reporting story—there’s no there there.
What other evidence does Rosenfeld provide? a) Aoki gave the Panthers guns--we already knew this; b) Former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen says he reviewed Rosenfeld’s records and concluded Aoki was probably an FBI informant. Swearingen is an important witness in general—he has renounced his former work with the FBI and sought to undermine COINTELPRO (giving testimony to help acquit Geronimo). But Swearingen does not say he had any connection to Aoki—the only FBI agent Rosenfeld interviewed with a connection to Aoki says he stopped working with Aoki with 1965 (and is there any report from the FBI agent who supposedly took over the Aoki relationship after 1965?). Swearingen, like Aoki, is rife with contradiction. It’s good for him to generally renounce COINTELPRO but he offers no insight one way or the other in this case. EXCEPT that is, to offer this ludicrous comment:
“Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in a Black Panther Party, because I understand he is Japanese,” he said. “Hey, nobody is going to guess – he’s in the Black Panther Party; nobody is going to guess that he might be an informant.”
Who in their right mind would think that a Japanese American would be the perfect person to infiltrate the Panthers? You would immediately stick at out and arouse suspicion as to why you were there and where your loyalties really lay. Again, there are better experts than me on this, but my best guess is that given Aoki’s history and identity that he went out of his way to be an extra-loyal and extra-committed member of the Black Panther Party and lots of testimony I’ve read substantiates this.
Swearingen, on this specific point, clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, has no real knowledge of Aoki, and has never heard of the model minority (as in you mean to tell me that at the same time the media is pushing the image of Japanese Americans as a model minority the Black Panther are going to think they are THE model black militant?). Rosenfeld is playing up his “testimony” in an opportunistic way. Then Rosenfeld and Swearingen say the FBI is withholding further documentation—ok, that’s probably true but that’s also probably because the evidence generally implicates the FBI in nefarious acts against the Panthers rather than offering more specific evidence implicating Aoki.
The story goes even further to say that Richard promoted violence in the Third World Liberation Front at Berkeley and even suggests his singular presence shifted the whole Bay Area left toward militancy. No doubt the TWLF was born out of militancy, but Aoki would have hardly been alone here--though perhaps he may have been more into "offing the pigs" if he had previously been under their spell. But all Asian American movement activists were trying to be more militant in order to counter the dominant trend of the model minority rather than impress the FBI. And if Aoki had such a big impact on the whole Bay Area it’s quite strange that San Francisco State’s TWLF strike erupted into much bigger clashes with law enforcement than UC Berkeley did—but again, the story is so much more simpler when we forget about Reagan’s and Hayakawa’s role in deploying excessive policing and state repression to put down an educational social movement.
But let’s remember that Rosenfeld is probably some kind of liberal, so let’s conclude by bringing the scrutiny back where it belongs in this case. White liberals don’t want to believe that there was an organic drive toward militancy and armed resistance in the age of Third World liberation: the spirit of the Tet Offensive was in the air and the rebellion was against not only the right-wing ruling class but also against liberalism and the "revisionist" Old Left. Richard Aoki clearly had a soldier's mentality—Geronimo Pratt fought for the US government and switched sides. Aoki seemingly did the same though allegedly under far more controversial circumstances. Perhaps that was the symbol he left when laying his US army uniform alongside his Black Panther Party uniform before he died. If this is the case, then Aoki’s story is part of a long line of people of color drafted to fight American wars (in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and yes, US cities) but forced by their own experience to question the whole enterprise of US imperialism.
Aoki remains a historically intriguing figure. Personally, I have not studied or written much about Aoki and only knew him in passing—mostly in his later years when he was connected to the RCP and my own radical politics had moved well away from the “agitation and confrontation” approach to movement building. We need a general rethinking of the role of militancy and armed self-defense in movement building, and I always say we need to read more MLK. But the fact that we are even discussing Aoki under these questionable circumstances demonstrates how much more Asian Americans are a subject of US history than we were not long ago, so we might as well use this as a teachable moment. At the same time, it’s probably true that we rush too quickly to create icons rather than embrace internal contradiction as the source of true knowledge and change.
These are quick and incomplete reflections. I don’t know where this story will end. What I do know is that people need to take it in a different direction than the one it’s headed on right now."