[Marxism] My Initial Thoughts on the Richard Aoki Controversy

X Y whdgm66 at gmail.com
Tue Aug 21 02:54:12 MDT 2012


My Initial Thoughts on the Richard Aoki Controversy by Scott Kurashige

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.


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

“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.

Scott Kurashige is an associate professor of American culture and
history, and director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies
Program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The
Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making
of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton University Press, 2008), which
received the American Historical Association’s 2008 Albert J.
Beveridge Award “for the best book in English on the history of the
United States, Latin America, or Canada from 1492 to the present.” He
is also co-author of Grace Lee Boggs’ The Next American Revolution:
Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (University of
California Press, 2011) He has over twenty years of experience as a
grassroots activist and is a board member of the James and Grace Lee
Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership based in Detroit,

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