Bay Area activists rally to defend Aoki in light of recent FBI informant allegations

On Aug. 20, the legacy of Nikkei activist and educator Richard Aoki, the former field marshal of the Black Panther Party, was suddenly thrown into question when the Center for Investigative Reporting released a news article and video asserting that Aoki was an FBI informant, starting before the formation of the Panthers and during its most active years.

The claim, based on declassified FBI documents and interviews with two FBI agents, sent shockwaves through the Asian American activist community. In the following weeks, a string of prominent Asian Pacific Islander activists and academics made statements defending Aoki, calling the evidence produced so far inconclusive, and demanding deeper investigation.

On Sept. 9, the EastSide Arts Alliance (ESAA) and the Freedom Archives hosted a public event in support of Aoki, which featured a panel discussion with former Black Panthers Emory Douglas, Joan Tarika Lewis and Bobby Seale, as well as Aoki biographer Diane Fujino.

The event drew a highly diverse capacity crowd to ESAA, an organization — comprised of artists, cultural workers and community organizers of color in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland — that supports its local community, particularly youth, by presenting workshops, events and festivals at which individuals learn to use the arts as a way to express themselves and advocate for their community.

“We estimate over 200 attendees at the event with a diverse multi-generational crowd, including a number of Black and Asian movement veterans who knew Richard Aoki,” Greg Morozumi, of EastSide Arts Alliance, told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The main purpose for the event, originally organized as a book party for Diane Fujino’s biography of Aoki, was to dispel … distorted assumptions about the history of movements for social change [that undermine] important junctures of Black and Asian cooperation and unity.”

The tone of the event was largely consistent with community reaction overall, which has primarily been supportive of Aoki and his legacy. Many at the event and in print believe the allegations to be entirely false.

“It’s b——-,” Black Panther Party Co-Founder Bobby Seale said at the event, asserting that his trust in Aoki remains steadfast. He reminisced on the many contributions Aoki made to the formation and organization of the Black Panthers.

Joan Tarika Lewis, the first female member of the Panthers, echoed Seale’s sentiments, saying she had known Aoki closely since 1967.
“Richard was a dear friend,” she said. “He was one of us.”

Questioning the Evidence
The assertion that Aoki had been an FBI informant appeared first in the Center for Investigative Reporting’s piece, and was based on an FBI record that identified Aoki as an informant, interviews that Seth Rosenfeld, author of the recently published book detailing the FBI’s attacks on the student radicals, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” conducted with retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr., then a subsequent consultation with former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen — who has since become a critic of the Bureau’s tactics and helped free political prisoner Geronimo Pratt.

The FBI released an additional 221 pages of records as a result of a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

The documents begin in 1961 and go through 1977, at which point, the documents say, Aoki concluded that being an informant was “inconsistent with his work as an educator,” Rosenfeld reported. They categorize information they say he provides as “unique” at some points.

Many of Aoki’s defenders, both at the event and online, have cited skepticism of the FBI, due to its long history of deceiving the public.
Its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) took a series of secret, often illegal, actions against activists, including forging documents, planting false reports in the media to discredit movement leaders and falsely naming movement members as government informants.

“It seems a bit too coincidental that this information was made available to Rosenfeld just as two UC Berkeley students, Ben Wang and Mike Cheng, were producing the documentary film ‘Aoki,’ released in 2009, and Asian American scholar Diane Fujino was researching and writing Aoki’s biography, ‘Samurai among Panthers,’” Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver and Natsu Taylor Saito, wrote in a piece for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.

Some have even speculated that Aoki may have actually been deceiving the FBI.

“All of us who knew and respected Richard believe that he was more than capable of engaging in this type of ‘snake-eating’ (counter-counter insurgency),” author and artist Fred Ho wrote in the Bay View.

Rosenfeld, who has been the focus of some backlash for his reporting, appears to be willing to entertain the possibility Aoki was not a genuine FBI collaborator. He’s quoted in Berkeleyside as saying, “It’s entirely possible he was playing both sides of the fence.”

The full unredacted content and the extent of the FBI’s files on Aoki has not been released and the FBI has, so far, refused to comment publicly.

What is Known
Unanswered questions remain about Aoki’s relationship to the FBI and concern that reporting on Aoki, the Black Panthers and the Third World Movement did not sufficiently engage community voices.

The Center for Investigative Reporting’s articles and Rosenfeld’s book pose questions of whether Aoki armed the Panthers or encouraged violence at the request of the FBI, but they do not state any explicit answer to those questions. The allegations about Aoki have made up a large portion of the local press about Rosenfeld’s book, due at least in part to the author’s Center for Investigative reporting piece on Aoki. However, it is covered in but one chapter of a work of more than 700 pages, which contains new revelations about the extent of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s illegal surveillance of activists and the extent of Ronald Reagan’s corrupt dealings with the Bureau — none of which is currently being disputed.

Aoki’s impact on the movements in which he participated remains indisputable. “Subversives” poses questions, but doesn’t explicitly claim Aoki intentionally hurt the movements and groups he was a part of. Thus far, there has been no indication that he has. No one from the Asian American Movement or the Black Panthers has come forth asserting that Aoki hurt either one in any way.

“There are some things that, those who know don’t tell … that will probably go to the death. If [Aoki] had been [on the FBI’s side], there would have been more than 28 [Black Panthers killed by the police],” Lewis said. “If he had been, the movement wouldn’t have proliferated the way it did. There would have been no breakfast for children program that became an institution … there would never have been a food bank, free health clinic, lead paint testing, sickle cell anemia testing …

“Richard put his life on the line for us,” she continued. “He got beat down. There’s no way in hell I’d believe he was a card carrying FBI agent.”

“Aoki had demonstrated exceptional leadership in building radical coalitions among Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, African Americans and Native Americans in the Third World Liberation Front and other organizations,” Churchill, Cleaver and Taylor Saito, wrote.
The recent controversy, it seems, has not created a tear in those coalitions.

“This could have easily been turned into a split between the Black Movement and the Asian American Movement and it has not,” Fujino said.

“There is going to be more research done, but we need to go beyond ‘yes-no’ questions, ‘was he or wasn’t he,’” she continued. “We need to think about how radical voices are taken out of public spaces and out of the media. Within the mainstream academy, the ‘60s is written off … we shouldn’t adopt them without modification or critical thinking, but there was a lot about the ‘60s that was pushing for revolution in ways people aren’t even talking about today, and we need to bring a lot of those kinds of critical ideas back.”
Maisha Quint, of ESAA, echoed the sentiments.

“The main purpose of this program today, is not to get distracted from the work… We don’t have a whole lot of free breakfast programs going on in Oakland today,” she said. “We need to get back to the work.”

Audio of the event was provided by APEX Express, on KPFA 94.1 FM on Thursdays at 7 p.m.

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