[Marxism] Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver & Natsu T Saito - Distorting Richard Aoki's Legacy

X Y whdgm66 at gmail.com
Mon Sep 10 19:53:48 MDT 2012


Distorting the legacy of Richard Aoki
September 9, 2012
by Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver and Natsu Taylor Saito

Former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld reveals in his
newly-released book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals,
and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” that the late Richard Aoki, an
extraordinary Asian American activist, was a long-term FBI informer.
>From there, Rosenfeld goes on to assert that Aoki was not only a paid
snitch but an agent provocateur as well, having provided “the Black
Panthers some of their first guns and weapons training, encouraging
them on a course that would contribute to shootouts with the police
and the organization’s demise.”

This is a classic example of how truth is mixed with falsehood to
rewrite history and promote a more sweeping agenda. The goal is to
discredit the movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and key activists of
that era who might serve as role models for coming generations. The
failed prosecution of former Black Panthers in the well-known case of
the “San Francisco 8” is just one of many recent examples.

Anyone familiar with the party’s history will recognize that
Rosenfeld’s depiction of Aoki as “the man who armed the Black
Panthers” is decisively at odds both with reality and the sources he
cites to support this assertion. This is equally true with respect to
Rosenfeld’s conclusion that “by any reckoning” Aoki’s provision of an
M-1 carbine and a 9mm. handgun to Party founders Huey P. Newton and
Bobby Seale, at their request, “brought violence, legal trouble, and
discredit to the Panthers” and thus may have been designed to “set
them up.”

To arrive at his conclusion, Rosenfeld simply disregards inconvenient
facts. He ignores the endemic pattern of police violence against
Oakland’s Black community that had existed for over two decades before
Newton and Seale founded the party in 1966; that Newton and Seale
adopted a posture of armed self-defense against the police from the
outset, in direct response to the preexisting level of official
violence; and that they drew explicitly upon the concepts of Malcolm X
and Frantz Fanon, as well as the concrete examples of Robert F.
Williams in North Carolina, the Deacons for Defense and Justice in
Louisiana, and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama.

Similarly unremarked is the fact that the Black Panthers’ armed street
patrols dramatically reduced the level of violence visited by
Oakland’s white cops upon the city’s Black residents. Far from
bringing “discredit to the Panthers,” as Rosenfeld contends, a poll
conducted by the Wall Street Journal in 1969 revealed that the
Panthers’ willingness to pick up the gun under such circumstances had
earned them the admiration of an astonishing 62 percent of inner city
Blacks and was being emulated by organizations emerging among other
peoples of color, as well as certain sectors of the white left.

Although Rosenfeld does concede that “carrying unconcealed weapons was
legal [in California] at the time,” he nonetheless claims “there is
little doubt that their presence contributed to confrontations between
Panthers and police.” He never acknowledges anything untoward about
the police responding violently to Blacks “guilty” of exercising their
rights, or that the police made no comparable response to the Ku Klux
Klan, the Secret Army Organization and other rightwing organizations
comprised of armed and demonstrably violence-prone whites.

In sum, Rosenfeld’s portrayal of the Panthers, including Richard
Aoki’s role in the organization, is grossly inaccurate. His analysis
of the violence surrounding the party’s challenge to racial inequality
and injustice is simplistic and racist, a regurgitation of the
shopworn liberal apologia advanced by those comfortable with the
status quo.

The way Rosenfeld presents radicalism in the 1960s is clearly intended
to influence young activists today. This generation has been exposed
to the horrors of war, as well as officially sanctioned torture,
extraordinary rendition, targeted killing, and economic and
environmental devastation.

As young people begin challenging these realities, they look to the
history of movements that inspired previous generations. Those
committed to preserving the status quo devise means of discrediting
such movements and their leaders. A government considering itself at
war with dissent will inevitably empower its security and intelligence
apparatus to use psychological as well as physical means of

A key weapon in their arsenal is the spreading of false and derogatory
information – “disinformation,” in the counterintelligence vernacular
– to “disrupt, destabilize, discredit, and destroy” radical activists
and organizations. The FBI has utilized numerous techniques to convey
such disinformation, from planting rumors in targeted communities to
mass dissemination of half-truths or outright lies through the press,
electronic media and books claiming to provide “objective” analyses.

The government’s use of disinformation for repressive purposes traces
back at least as far as its campaigns to “neutralize” the anarchist
and Garvey movements during and shortly after World War I. Since the
process was systematized in the 1930s, an ever-greater flow of
material crafted by the FBI’s in-house spinmeisters and an unknown
number of contract writers, collaborating scholars, and cooperating
journalists, has been devoted to burnishing the bureau’s public image
while degrading its adversaries.

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. Perhaps the lesson we can draw from his legacy is, as
the late Kwame Ture observed, one is obligated to speak the truth even
if when one cannot practice it. That Aoki’s accomplishments inspired
younger generations of Asian Americans to become social activists must
have disquieted the FBI, the agency most responsible for maintaining
the social hierarchy and undermining political challenges to racist

Rosenfeld’s deliberate distortions of the general history and context
of Richard Aoki’s activism do not resolve the disturbing question of
Aoki’s relationship to the FBI. Nonetheless, it is useful to consider
the way in which Rosenfeld obtained and presented his information
because it raises significant questions about what his book and
subsequent articles and press releases are intended to convey.

In a Democracy Now interview, Rosenfeld stated that former FBI agent
Burney Threadgill Jr., now deceased, initiated contact. Voluntary
divulgence by any agent, active or retired, of confidential
information not previously released by the bureau is not only a
serious ethical breach but can lead to civil and/or criminal
penalties. Threadgill’s eagerness to talk – especially at a time when
the FBI was intensely focused on discrediting a wide range of
activists from the 1960s and 1970s – raises questions that should have
concerned any veteran journalist or scholar.

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,” published earlier
this year.

The timing of this week’s release of FOIA documents – just after a
wide range of scholars and activists had challenged the accuracy of
Rosenfeld’s claims on the basis of the lack of evidence in his book –
raises similar questions.

The Black Panthers are peripheral to Rosenfeld’s study, and he failed
to mention numerous other informants and/or provocateurs in that
organization. So why is Aoki-as-informant-arming-the-Panthers central
to Rosenfeld’s revelations? A range of messages is embedded in the way
information about Aoki has been made public:

"There really is an FBI agent behind every mailbox. You can’t trust
anyone involved in a strong movement for social change, no matter how
stellar their reputation. Never trust an Asian – they’re sneaky, and
often spies. Trying to develop alliances or coalitions across color
lines is a hopeless exercise. There is no legitimate basis for
advocating armed self-defense, and anyone proposing to go beyond
passive, symbolic protest must be a provocateur. In fact, resistance
is futile."

We know the FBI aggressively seeks to control the narrative of social
change and radical activism and acts to undermine popular literary,
artistic or scholarly expressions that challenge America’s racial and
economic hierarchy. Disinformation, and psychological warfare more
generally, is intended to convince us that the status quo is
inevitable. It should not surprise us that a government that brazenly
tortures and murders – or interns entire peoples on the basis of race,
religion or national origin – would engage in counterintelligence
activity against those it identifies as potential threats.

In the face of this harsh reality, it is all the more imperative that
we continue to transform our communities by engaging in the serious
work of cultural, political and economic liberation.

All power to the people!

Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of
Colorado at Boulder from 1990 to 2007, has written or coauthored 14
books and more than 150 published essays. Kathleen Cleaver joined the
Black Panther Party in 1967, serving as national communications
secretary and the first woman member of the party’s central committee.
She earned her law degree from Yale and currently teaches at Emory Law
School. Natsu Taylor Saito also earned her law degree at Yale and
teaches at Georgia State University College of Law, focusing on the
legal history of race in the U.S. The Bay View thanks Freedom Archives
for providing this story.


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