Rafu Staff Report
Asian American activists are reacting with surprise — and in some cases, skepticism — to a report that Richard Aoki, a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, was an FBI informant.
Aoki, who died in 2009 at age 70, was an icon for many, a symbol of solidarity between Asian Americans and African Americans. Although he was in poor health in his final years, it was later revealed that he killed himself at his Berkeley home. Since his death, he has been the subject of a documentary, “AOKI,” and a book, “Samurai Among Panthers.”
During the turbulent late 1960s, Aoki became a high-ranking member of the Black Panthers and provided them with weapons and training. Since then, he remained friends with the surviving Panthers and continued to promote the ideals that he embraced as a member of the BPP, Third World Liberation Front and Asian American Political Alliance.
This week, Seth Rosenfeld of the Center for Investigative Reporting published an article in The San Francisco Chronicle about Aoki’s ties with the FBI. The article and a companion video, “The Man Who Armed the Panthers,” were released in conjunction with Rosenfeld’s book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” which is based on 30 years of research.
Rosenfeld said in the video that he was contacted by a former FBI agent, Burney Threadgill. When Threadgill saw an FBI document containing Aoki’s name, he said, according to Rosenfeld, “I know that guy. Aoki was my informant. I developed him.”
Threadgill, who died in 2005, said of Aoki in a 2002 interview with Rosenfeld, “Oh yeah, he was a character. He said, ‘I don’t have any interest in communism.’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about?’ So one thing led to another and he became a real good informant.”
As a student at Merritt College in Oakland, Aoki met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founders of the Black Panther Party. Aoki was a leader of the Third World Liberation Front’s strike at UC Berkeley in 1969 and headed the Berkeley chapter of the Black Panthers, later earning the title of field marshal.
“I knew from my research that he was a very smart and complex person who had a fascinating history,” Rosenfeld says. “His family was interned during World War II. He had grown up in West Oakland, a very rough neighborhood … He was part of a gang, he was involved in a lot of petty crimes, co-valedictorian in his junior high school. When he was in the Army, he became a firearms expert, so I was really curious to know about this other side of his life.”
In his book “Seize the Time,” Seale wrote, “We went to a Third World brother we knew, a Japanese radical cat. He had guns. We told him that we wanted those guns to begin to institutionalize and let black people know that we have to defend ourselves, as Malcolm X said we must.”
Both Seale and the FBI refused to comment on Rosenfeld’s story. Newton died in 1989.
In a 2007 interview, Rosenfeld asked Aoki if he knew Threadgill. The response: “I don’t think so.”
When told that Threadgill had identified him as an informant, Aoki said, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and laughed.
The interview also included this exchange:
Rosenfeld: Am I wrong?
Aoki: I think you are.
Rosenfeld: Yeah, so would you say it’s untrue, that you ever worked with the FBI or got paid by the FBI?
Aoki: I would say it.
Rosenfeld: And I’m trying to understand the complexities about it, and I, I think –
Aoki: It is complex.
Rosenfeld: I believe it is, and –
Aoki: Layer upon layer.
Rosenfeld interviewed former FBI agent Wes Swearingen, who confirmed that informants were routinely used to “report on the inner workings of an organization” and that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was anxious to “neutralize” the Black Panthers.
But Swearingen appeared to have no first-hand knowledge of Aoki’s involvement. “Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in the Black Panther Party,” he said. “As I understand it, he’s Japanese … Nobody’s going to guess that he might be an informant.”
Surprise and Shock
Harvey Dong, a lecturer in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley and a long-time friend of Aoki, is featured in the video. He recalled, “The impression I got was basically if you become his friend, he’s like your friend for life. He was like that with most people.”
Dong discussed Aoki’s arming of the Panthers for their community patrols, which were a response to police brutality. Whenever party members saw police interacting with African Americans, “there would be a Black Panther present with a camera and also an unloaded shotgun. The goal then was to be an eyewitness to prevent any possibility of police brutality,” Dong said.
When Aoki died, Dong noted, “he had in his apartment two uniforms, neatly pressed, in his apartment. One uniform was a Black Panther uniform. The other uniform …was his Army uniform.”
Rosenfeld showed Dong some FBI documents pertaining to Aoki and asked, “He never mentioned this to you?”
“No … That’s like a big surprise to me. I don’t think I ever heard any information as far as him even talking to the FBI. That’s kind of a shock for me,” Dong replied.
In the video, Rosenfeld talked about the FBI documents. “In reviewing the records, there was a list of informants. Most of their names were blacked out, but for some reason, Richard Aoki’s name had not been blacked out and he was listed in the report as ‘Informant T-2.’ Why was he arming the Panthers and was the FBI involved?
“Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI had a secret operation called COINTELPRO, an acronym for ‘Counter-Intelligence Program.’ Techniques ranged from sending false letters to planting negative news stories to trying to foment violence between the Panthers and other groups. The FBI also used informants as part of its COINTELPRO operation.”
Rosenfeld said that the FBI released about 1,900 pages on organizations that Aoki was involved with, but it claimed that it had no files on Aoki himself.
Swearingen said that the FBI would have had a file on Aoki “if he just knew Huey Newton or Bobby Seale and he went out to lunch with them every day.”
Rosenfeld sued the FBI to obtain additional files, and Swearingen provided a sworn statement that he believed Aoki was an informant.
A court has ordered the FBI to release all records on Aoki, but 4,000 pages of documents have yet to be made public, according to Rosenfeld.
Reaction to Report
Bob Wing, founding editor of the anti-war newspaper War Times and the racial justice magazine ColorLines, posted the following statement on Facebook:
“As a leader in the historic Third World Strike of 1969 at UC Berkeley, Richard Aoki was one of my first political leaders. I am sad to hear the report that he was an FBI informer and have no insight about the truth of the matter. I wish Richard was around to tell us his side of the story.
“Richard was charismatic and fun, but loved guns and talked of the need to ‘off pigs’ way too much, even in a time and place where such talk was not uncommon. I liked Richard, never suspected he was an informer, and never heard that anyone else did either, even though speculation about informers was rife in that era of COINTELPRO. Yet I was wary of people who had such a public love affair with guns or any type of illegal action.
“Whatever the truth about Richard, informers and agents come with the territory of the fight for social justice. My view has always been that suspected informers (or voyeurs) are best tested by being put to hard work for social justice and watched carefully, but also by doing our best not to allow them to become such a distraction that they unduly disrupt or divert our work.”
Dong shared with The Rafu Shimpo his thoughts on the report:
“From reading the FBI documents on Richard Aoki, I don’t see proof he was an informant.
“We are only presented with redacted documents that could also have been doctored to discredit Richard. The retired FBI agent, Burney Threadgill, passed away in 2005 and cannot be re-interviewed; and the second retired agent, Wesley Swearingen, never knew Richard and only profiled him as an informant for the author in a lawsuit to get the FBI files.
“Richard Aoki was interviewed by the author Seth Rosenfeld in 2007 during a time he was suffering from stroke and diabetes-related illness. In the interview, Richard Aoki three times denied the accusation that he was an informant but also added, ‘People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.’
“Rosenfeld may surmise that this was an admission of guilt. I would also inject here that anyone recovering from stroke is taking more than a dozen medications a day, and under the pressure of dealing with his mother’s debilitated health, his tone of voice and answers would also be affected.
“In reading into the comment ‘People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer,’ a number of people have surmised that a younger Richard Aoki, out of high school, in trouble with the law, sent by the courts to serve in to the Army, could have acquiesced into becoming an informant during the Cold War era but changed his political views later during the civil rights, Black Panther, anti-war years and Asian American movement years. Although plausible and less condemning of Richard Aoki, more information is needed.
“We have the DVD documentary, autobiography and biography and now Seth Rosenfeld’s chapter to analyze. Richard Aoki’s voice and politics present us with a consistent view, but the documents and charges he was an FBI informant are not consistent.
“The following questions still need to be asked from the FBI:
“1. Full transparency of documents. Why haven’t all FBI files on Richard Aoki been released? All we see are redacted, unclear documents that do not provide hard evidence.
“2. Legal confirmation or denial that Richard Aoki was an informant. Why has not the FBI legally confirmed or denied Richard Aoki’s status as an informant? We see documents where he is being largely reported on and a few areas where his name is inadvertently placed. So far everything has been circumstantial, hearsay and unofficial.
“3. Existence of COINTELPRO or similar operations today. Is COINTELPRO still in operation today where such disinformation is being disseminated? This was rampant during the 1960s-70s with much funding utilized to destroy people’s movements of the past.”
(To see the CIR report, click here.)