As a child, Richard Masato Aoki was interned during World War II at the Topaz, Utah concentration camp. Early childhood trauma and stigmatization would lead him on a trajectory that lasted throughout his life. He became a young man who held some traditional views, yet continued to challenge himself and those around him with new ideas. Later in life, he became known as the Japanese American who stood in solidarity with the Black Panther Party and gave the Panthers their first guns, as well as being a key leader in the bloody Third World Liberation Strike at UC Berkeley. When Aoki took his own life in 2009 following a series of debilitating illnesses, he was firmly established as a movement superhero.
But that was only part of the story.
In late August, the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets published a story by respected investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld, revealing that Aoki had also been an FBI informant. The social media machine exploded with disbelief, shock, dismay, and anger. Much of the outrage was directed at the FBI and Rosenfeld himself, whose book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, was released the day after his article on Aoki was published. Many of Aoki’s friends and supporters questioned Rosenfeld’s evidence and sources.
The string of fervent reactions, from sources ranging from former Black Panthers to professors at major universities, displayed not only the mass distrust of FBI sources and mainstream media, but also of the need to protect someone of Aoki’s stature. For many, Aoki had become an untouchable figure.
But people’s initial doubts were soon swept away when Rosenfeld released a second article in collaboration with the Berkeley-based nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, and publicly posted more than two hundred pages of Aoki’s FBI informant files. The files, although heavily redacted, appeared to be damning. They provided strong evidence that Aoki was an FBI informant from 1961 to 1977, a time during which he also held critical roles in organizations such as the Social Workers Party, Vietnam Day Committee, Black Panthers, Asian American Political Alliance, and Third World Liberation Front.
According to Rosenfeld’s reporting, Aoki was an FBI informant at the same time that he also was arming and training the Black Panthers, “encouraging them on a course that would contribute to shootouts with police and the organization’s demise.” Rosenfeld then asked provocatively in his book: “Did Aoki help the Panthers fight for justice, or did he set them up?”
Aoki’s role in the Black Panther Party was not well known until the death of the group’s co-founder, Huey P. Newton, in 1989. In the years that followed, Aoki’s radical past became more public through published interviews, newspaper articles (including one that I wrote), a ninety-minute documentary, and a biography.
Mike Cheng and Ben Wang premiered their documentary, Aoki, to a full house at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. (Full disclosure: I am working on a forthcoming documentary with Wang that is not related to Aoki). Since it was released, Aoki has been shown in dozens of film festivals, in college classrooms, and even on Comcast Cable. In it, the filmmakers focus on Aoki the activist, primarily his affiliation with the Black Panthers, Asian American Political Alliance, and Third World Liberation Front. Last May, Diane Fujino, chair of the department of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara, published a seven-hundred-page biography on Aoki, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.
All this exposure helped catapult Aoki to hero status among Asian-American and progressive communities as someone who was humorous and fiercely committed to social justice activism. But none of the reports mentioned that Aoki also had been involved with the FBI.
Following Rosenfeld’s second investigative report, some of Aoki’s closest friends and allies have come to the conclusion that Aoki was indeed informing for the FBI and joined Communist, socialist, and anti-war groups at the behest of the FBI — but later had a change of heart after becoming heavily involved with and influenced by members of radical militant groups in the mid- and late-Sixties.
And they may be right. FBI files, interviews, and public statements made by Aoki’s former close colleagues raise questions about Aoki’s actual role as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Records show, for example, that Aoki pulled back from the FBI in early 1965, not long after he became close with Newton and Bobby Seale, the founders of the Oakland-based Black Panther Party. Moreover, even after the FBI said Aoki returned to being a consistent and reliable informant, agency records raise doubts as to whether the agency knew of Aoki’s membership in the Panthers until months after the group had formed, or of Aoki’s role in helping Seale and Newton establish the Panthers and providing guns to the group.
The FBI documents also do not reveal whom Aoki was informing on, and what type of information he provided the FBI. Nearly all of the reports he made to the FBI were redacted by the FBI. As such, the 4,000 pages of FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act — and as a result of a lawsuit filed by Rosenfeld as part of his book research — that were first provided to Rosenfeld and later obtained by me provide no evidence that Aoki reported anything that harmed any of the groups he participated in.
Complex is a useful word to describe Richard Aoki, and it was the way he described his life. Aoki was the firstborn of Shozo and Toshiko Aoki. As a small child, he was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans whose lives were disrupted by WWII. His father worked as a civics teacher at their concentration camp and had been a student at UC Berkeley. Though Aoki was only three years old when interned at the camp, his experiences in that harsh environment, along with witnessing his parents’ separation, would teach him about the unfairness of the US government. “I know one of the main arguments for putting the Japanese into the camps was to protect the Japanese,” Aoki later told his biographer Fujino. “But if you look at the top of barbed wire fences, they’re designed to keep the people in. In other words, it’s a damn lie that we were put in the camps to protect us.”
After leaving the camp, Aoki was raised by his single father, which was uncommon among Japanese Americans at the time. Separated from his mother — the reasons are still unclear as to why — he lived with his father’s family and younger brother in West Oakland, where his paternal grandparents ran a noodle factory. Aoki felt the tension of living in a “broken home,” a stigma among his Japanese-American extended family and in the Japanese-American community because of conventional mores around family and single parenthood. Another curious fact is that in the ten years he lived with his father’s family, he only saw his mother about eight times, even though she lived a few miles away in Berkeley, Fujino told me. Aoki’s father also was steeped in debt and became a thief, setting Richard Aoki further apart from other Japanese Americans who tended to be more law-abiding.
In many ways, Aoki was more comfortable with the predominantly African-American community that had congregated in West Oakland during WWII. As a youngster, he ran with a street gang largely composed of African Americans. His first girlfriend was an African-American neighbor, and he later said that he knew members of Seale and Newton’s families in West Oakland while growing up there. At the time, Aoki was a juvenile delinquent who often got into fistfights.
At the age of fourteen, Aoki saw his family disrupted again when his parents officially divorced and he was reunited with his mother. (Around this same time, his father left town and completely disappeared from Aoki and his brother’s life.) After high school, Aoki joined the Army. He could have enrolled in UC Berkeley right away, but instead, he sought structure, training, and adventure in the US military (according to Rosenfeld’s reporting, joining the military also allowed Aoki to clear his juvenile record). It was the 1950s, smack in the middle of the Cold War, and he had ambitions to become the first Japanese-American general in the US Army, he said later in interviews.
In the military, Aoki was staunchly anti-Communist, and it was around this time that the FBI was first interested in recruiting him. FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr., now deceased, came into Aoki’s life through the family of Aoki’s Berkeley High classmate, Doug Wachter, according to Rosenfeld’s reporting. Wachter’s parents were prominent Communist Party members, and the FBI had tapped their phone. Under J. Edgar Hoover’s watch, the FBI’s covert activities had spread throughout the country to liberal cities like Berkeley. Aoki, the nineteen-year-old enlistee, was recruited by Threadgill, who would be his handler for seven years, according to Rosenfeld’s reporting.
Threadgill told Rosenfeld that the FBI singled Aoki out after overhearing a recorded conversation between him and his friend Wachter. The fact that Aoki was associated with someone involved in the Communist Party likely piqued the FBI’s interest. In the early Sixties, Aoki, though anti-Communist, joined organizations such as the Young Socialist Alliance and Socialist Workers Party. Threadgill told Rosenfeld that it was at the behest of the FBI that Aoki joined these groups, though this has not been corroborated. FBI documents later released stated that Aoki began officially as an informant in 1961.
Threadgill talked to Rosenfeld in 2002 when Rosenfeld was doing research for his book. By naming a confidential informant, Threadgill violated FBI protocol: Aoki was still alive at the time. Threadgill knew he was talking to a journalist who was writing a book.
Politically, Aoki was still conservative in the early Sixties. He later explained why he voted for Richard Nixon, a Republican, in 1960. Nixon was a Quaker, and Quakers were one of the only groups that spoke up publicly against the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. And it was a Democrat, President Franklin Roosevelt, who signed Executive Order 9066, which put Japanese Americans in the camps. As to being anti-Communist — that wasn’t particularly unusual during the Cold War — Aoki had another reason. The Communist Party had also endorsed 9066 during WWII and even kicked out some Japanese-American members — a fact Aoki made a point of bringing up in interviews later in life.
(Members of the Socialist Workers Party, however, has come to Aoki’s defense, stating that they give no credibility to FBI sources. “These charges are not solely about destroying the reputation of Richard Aoki,” Willie Cotton of the SWP in San Francisco stated in a letter following Rosenfeld’s initial story. “They are directed against the working-class movement today. … The ‘snitch-jacket’ against Aoki is meant to put a chill on groups—those active today and in the future—who seek to politically organize workers, youth, farmers, and others interested in building a mass work-class movement.”)
In 1961, when Aoki officially became an FBI informant, he was three years out of active military duty, and more or less living a civilian life. This is where the narrative diverges. How did Aoki transform from an avowedly anti-Communist US soldier into an FBI informant and then into a radical activist and self-styled expert on Marxism? How did he come to befriend Seale and Newton while secretly informing for the FBI?
Aoki consistently stated in interviews later in life that his proudest achievement was his involvement with the Black Panthers. But the question of what Aoki’s motivations were for providing the Black Panthers their first guns perhaps can never be fully answered.
To understand the significance of Aoki the hero, it’s important to understand the history of Asian Americans in this country. In the Sixties and Seventies, when the myth of the model minority — Asian Americans as obedient, silent, and assimilated, juxtaposed with the increasingly fervent and empowered Civil Rights and other social movements at the time — was created, Aoki stood out as someone who spoke against injustices. Dressed in dark shades, a black beret, and sporting a mustache on a slim five-foot-six frame, Aoki was mysterious, intimidating, and inspiring, and did not fit the model-minority stereotype.
After the military, he enrolled full-time in 1963 at Oakland City College, later renamed Merritt College. The following year, he became better acquainted with fellow students Seale and Newton. “I’m talking before the Black Panther Party was conceived of,” Seale said at a recent community forum, about befriending Aoki. Seale had been following the work of Malcolm X at the time, and he, Newton, and Aoki would often talk about politics because they were involved in student organizations with a political bent, Aoki told me in a 2006 interview.
Then came that fateful day in February 1965. “When Malcolm X was killed, I made up my mind that I was going to do something to organize something,” Seale said at a recent forum. Seale and Newton created the Black Panther Party the next year. Aoki was present in the group’s early days, according to Aoki, Seale, and others’ accounts, and the founders consulted Aoki on the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program, which laid out the organization’s goals of freedom, employment, housing, education, and an end to police brutality, among other issues.
The Panthers sought militant means to counter the law enforcement agencies that were brutalizing people in black neighborhoods. The Panthers formed “shotgun patrols” or “community patrols” to bear witness to any police misconduct, showing up where there were police, or following police while carrying unconcealed weapons, which was legal at the time.
About a month after the organization was formed in October 1966, Aoki gave the Black Panthers their first guns — at Newton and Seale’s request, according to Seale. Aoki confirmed this in several later interviews. An avid gun collector who had picked up sharpshooting while in the Army and trained fellow soldiers on weapons use, Aoki also provided the group with basic firearms training, such as disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling weapons to maintain them. Seale recounted how the Panthers obtained guns from Aoki in his 1970 memoir. “We told him that we wanted these guns to begin to institutionalize and let black people know that we have to defend ourselves as Malcolm X said we must,” Seale wrote in Seize the Time. “We didn’t have any money to buy guns. We told him that if he was a real revolutionary he better go on and give them up to us because we needed them now to begin educating the people to wage a revolutionary struggle.”
Although the FBI considered Aoki to be a reliable and consistent informant in the early 1960s, agency records indicated that Aoki pulled back from his FBI handlers in late 1964 or early 1965 — not long after becoming close to Newton and Seale. At the time, Aoki was still attending Merritt College, while also working in Berkeley. For about six months in 1965, he provided little, if any, information to the FBI: “Due to informant’s curtailed activities because of full-time employment six days a week, as well as his taking a full course as an undergraduate student at Merritt College, no steps have been taken to advance the informant,” stated a FBI file dated January 11, 1965.
A June 1965 FBI file stated that Aoki returned to being a consistent and reliable informant. It was also in 1965 that Aoki’s longtime FBI handler, Threadgill, moved to Monterey and Aoki was transferred to another agent: Philip Baruth Nottingham, also now deceased, according to the most recently released FBI documents.
In the fall of 1966, Aoki transferred to UC Berkeley, and in October of that year, Seale and Newton created the Black Panthers. Aoki continued to be an informant but the local field office asked the FBI director to stretch contact with Aoki to every thirty days, the longest period of time possible while still maintaining informant status, according to an FBI memo dated November 2, 1966 — just a few weeks after the Panthers were formed. The reasons cited for the change in Aoki’s status was “security problems” related to making contact with him. The file also noted that Aoki was well known to “dissident elements.”
However, none of the heavily redacted FBI documents released show that the FBI had any knowledge of Aoki’s role in supplying guns to the Panthers or his involvement with the group prior to early 1967 — even though he had been involved with the Panthers months earlier. The files only indicate that the FBI knew Aoki was a part of the Panthers by 1967.
One FBI file, however, does show that Aoki informed on the Panthers. In a file dated November 16, 1967, Aoki is given the temporary code “T-2.” According to the FBI, the information T-2 gave was: “In early 1967, the exact date not known, RICHARD MATSUI [sic] AOKI of Berkeley, California, also a former Oakland City College student, was drawn into the BPPSD and had the title of Minister of Education bestowed upon him. NEWTON and SEALE knew AOKI to be a scholar of the classic writings on revolution by such former black militants as FRANTZ FANON, MARCUS GARVEY, MALCOLM X LITTLE and W.E.B. DuBOIS. The organizers of the BPPSD also selected AOKI for a position of leadership in the organization because of his experience while serving as Chairman of the Campus Committee for Lowndes County, a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) front organization on the Campus of the University of California, Berkeley, (UCB), which collected contributions for the aforementioned Lowndes County Freedom Organization – SF T-2, 5/1/67.”
This is the only indication in all the files released that Aoki provided any information to the FBI about the Panthers — and the information Aoki gave, according to the file, was only about his own role in the group.
Aoki helped organize the Black Panthers’ first public rally in Richmond in April 1967. In addition to being head of the group’s Berkeley chapter and its Minister of Education — though the chapter had less than a handful of members at any given time — he was also a field marshal at large, a role that likely included doing internal security and making sure the Panthers were protected. In one of the FBI’s files on the Black Panthers, Aoki is listed as third in leadership in the organization — the highest-ranking non-black member of the Panthers.
But the FBI files also indicate that the agency appears to have been not fully aware of Aoki’s involvement in the Panthers. None of the FBI files mention his much more important position as field marshal, nor do the files mention anything about him providing the Panthers with guns around November 1966, or even his earlier involvement in the group .
In 1967, the FBI formally launched COINTELPRO, the infamous counterintelligence program that sought to disrupt and destroy militant US political organizations like the Black Panthers. That year, two assistant directors of the FBI sent a directive to all field offices stating: “The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black Nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.”
By Rosenfeld’s account in Subversives, the Panthers’ use of unconcealed weapons, though legal at the time, “contributed to confrontations between the Panthers and police.” In total, an estimated 28 members of the Black Panthers as well as at least a dozen police officers were killed by the 1970s. “By any reckoning,” Rosenfeld stated in the book, “the use of guns brought violence, legal trouble, and discredit to the Panthers, all goals of the FBI’s COINTELPRO.” Rosenfeld also posed the question: “Did Aoki help the Panthers fight for justice, or did he set them up?”
But even if Aoki played a role in COINTELPRO, he would not have been aware of it, according to M. Wesley Swearingen, a former FBI agent and whistle-blower. “Aoki would not have had the slightest clue of what the FBI was doing,” Swearingen wrote in an email to me. “At this point I would have to say, in all fairness to Aoki, that the FBI took advantage of Aoki and that Aoki did not know what Hoover’s big picture was for the [Black Panther Party].”
The lack of detail in the FBI files about Aoki’s participation in the Panthers, particularly in the creation of the group, also raises more questions about whether the FBI was fully aware of what he was doing after late 1964. “Richard helped create and found the Black Panther Party,” noted Mike Cheng, one of the directors of the 2009 documentary Aoki. “It doesn’t really make sense to me why the FBI would want to help found and create an organization that they would then turn around and say is the greatest internal security threat to the US.”
Making things murkier are a number of minor inaccuracies in Aoki’s FBI files that cast suspicion on the reliability of the bureau’s records. Aoki’s name is spelled “Richard Matsui Aoki” or “Richard Masa Aoki,” among other variations. One of his files states that he’s an “Oriental of Korean descent,” though Aoki was Japanese American.
Informants could also be unreliable, providing false information or acting as a so-called double agent. “Richard was incredibly intelligent,” Cheng noted. “He was capable of pulling off anything he wanted to. What he was doing remains to be seen.”
What we do know is that sometime in late 1967 or 1968, Aoki distanced himself from the Panthers at a time when the group was reaching the pinnacle of its popularity and influence. According to Seale, Aoki pulled back from the Panthers in order to remain a student at UC Berkeley. “He says, ‘I can’t operate with you guys right now, just leave me alone right now, I’ll get back to you. They keep harassing my ass and threatening me. They’re probably going to threaten to kick me out of UC,'” Seale said at a recent community meeting, recalling what Aoki told him at the time. “I didn’t see Richard anymore. You know the next time I saw Richard, was when I came out of jail [in 1972].”
When Aoki shifted away from the Panthers, he dove into radical student activism at UC Berkeley. Dubbed the “Yellow Panther” at Cal, Aoki was instrumental in uniting different racial groups, particularly the Asian American Political Alliance (the AAPA coined the term “Asian American”) with the Afro American Student Union, the Mexican American Student Confederation, and the Native American Student Union, according to Harvey Dong, who met and befriended Aoki while both were students at Berkeley.
Together, those groups formed the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF). Dong said the Asian American Political Alliance’s platform was influenced by the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program: the AAPA’s plan was concerned with racism and imperialism, while the Panthers focused on eradicating police brutality and providing education and social services to the poor, among other goals.
Aoki’s activities at Berkeley attempted to harness the potential cooperative power of blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans. He became a leader of the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front, which mounted a student strike after a similar strike had begun at San Francisco State University. The Berkeley strike, the costliest and bloodiest strike on campus, lasted for three months in 1969. The idea was to establish an independent Third World College that would meet the needs of the Third World community and serve the entire campus and community, including white students, Dong said. Although the strike fell short of this goal, it led to the founding of Cal’s Ethnic Studies Department, which still exists today. Aoki was one of its first coordinators and lecturers in Asian American Studies.
Manuel Ruben Delgado, a student leader in the Mexican American Student Confederation and TWLF, met Aoki in 1968 and worked with him during the strike. “[Aoki] seemed to be one of the more radical people there,” Delgado said. “Radical in two ways: that the only way for us to win was for different ethnic groups to unite, and that we all unite together for a Third World College,” with complete autonomy from the existing university structure. “At the time, that was a very radical idea.”
An FBI file dated April 12, 1967 suggested that Aoki was told to inform mostly on political activism on campus, but details about what information he provided and about whom are redacted. Some of Aoki’s closest friends now believe that Aoki started as an FBI informant — perhaps to inform on groups he was a member of, like the Young Socialist Alliance, Socialist Workers Party, and the anti-war organization the Vietnam Day Committee — but they maintain that he later became radicalized.
Belvin and Miriam Louie met Aoki during the late 1960s as members of the Asian American Political Alliance. They said their first response to the accusations against Aoki was rage and later their “hearts plummeted” when the FBI released further documents that forced them to make a sober assessment of their friend.
In recent months, they wrote a report to progressives that detailed their theory of Aoki’s transformation from informant to revolutionary called the “A-Files.” “Richard became an informant for the FBI while still a patriotic soldier, but shifted in the 1960s during the high tide of our mass movements, qualitatively transforming into a revolutionary due but not limited to his intersection with the Black Panther Party, Asian American Political Alliance and Third World Liberation Front.” They believe he joined those groups on his own initiative and not as an FBI assignment. “The most striking lesson to emerge from Richard’s life is that people can change, especially during such heart-leaping times as those, and that our own actions can influence that change.”
The Louies speculate that Aoki hid his relationship with the FBI after this transformation because he feared ostracism by activists who were hostile toward informants: “Richard had to live with the pact he’d made with the Devil as a young man. Richard knew he could never disclose his informant past to his friends. Given who he was — and who we were at the time — he could not divulge his relationship with the FBI without risk to his person, livelihood and rep.” They strongly caution against taking the FBI files at face value because of the FBI’s history of infiltration, disruption, and falsifying information.
Delgado echoed their sentiment that Aoki was a loyal radical even if he had previously been an informant. “If it’s true that he was an informant, I believe he became radicalized when he was [at Berkeley] and then became a true revolutionary and activist.”
No one knows for sure why Aoki became or continued to be an informant. According to Rosenfeld, people become informants for a variety of reasons, among them to earn money, to be patriotic, or to reduce or avoid a criminal sentence. Rosenfeld has been clear that an informant is merely someone who provides information. “It’s not someone who disrupts,” he told me. “The phrase for that is agent provocateur, an agent who goes undercover and provokes and sets people up. But that isn’t what I said Richard Aoki was.”
After the TWLF strike at UC Berkeley ended in 1969, the student activists headed off in different directions. Some remained to build the nascent Asian American Studies department. Others went into youth work, and some participated in the I-Hotel (International Hotel) struggle, in which a San Francisco residential hotel housing many elderly Filipinos was demolished. AAPA ceased to exist by the year’s end. Aoki became less politically involved after 1969 and turned his focus to helping minority students gain access to higher education, according to Dong. In 1971, Aoki began working as a counselor at Merritt College. “Even if he was an informant, there didn’t seem like he had much to inform on,” said Dong of those years.
Aoki officially quit working with the FBI in 1977. The agent who worked on his file stated: “Source advised that he desired to discontinue seeking information for the FBI because he believed that this was inconsistent with his present career and objectives as a student counselor and instructor at a junior college in Oakland, CA.”
Aoki went on to dedicate 25 years to working in community colleges mostly as a counselor but also as a teacher and administrator until he retired in the 1990s. In later years, Aoki spoke out against the wars in the Middle East and supported Asian Americans for the SF8, a group that defended former Black Panthers on trial. He also became reacquainted with the former members of the Panthers, AAPA, and TWLF, participating in most of the reunions for these organizations. He helped organize memorials for Black Panthers who passed away and attended the memorial for Newton, who was murdered in 1989.
Aoki worked with a Black Panther alumni organization to help organize Lil’ Bobby Hutton Day to commemorate the life of Bobby Hutton, who was the youngest member of the Panthers and the first to die in a police shootout at age seventeen in 1968. Recently, the newspaper run by the Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party published a front-page story about Aoki, defending his image as a radical activist. In it, the paper called him a “founding member and Field Marshal, longtime Bay Area activist, groundbreaking educator in Asian-American ethnic studies, co-founder of the Third World Liberation Front and a loyal comrade to the end.”
In his later years, Aoki also expressed regrets about supplying firearms to the Black Panthers. “Seale would later acknowledge that in other instances some Panther members broke party rules and used guns for crimes,” Rosenfeld wrote in Subversives. In a 2007 interview, Aoki confirmed this to Rosenfeld, adding, “I’m not exactly proud of that.”
Richard Aoki’s death in March 2009, at age seventy, is now being viewed by some in a different light since the news broke of his role as an FBI informant. Before his death, Aoki had been suffering from diabetes-related illnesses and kidney failure; he also had a stroke in 2005. Friends say he had been an alcoholic for many years, and although he sought treatment and eventually broke free of his addiction, he ate poorly and smoked, which contributed to his health problems.He had undergone several dialysis treatments, which gave him momentary heart failure, and had spent much of February 2009 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, according to his friend and executor Harvey Dong. Aoki spent weeks hooked up to tubes, catheters, and needles.
Mike Cheng, Aoki’s neighbor, was with him the day he died. For several years prior, Cheng had been working on his documentary, Aoki, and on March 14, 2009, he brought him home from the hospital. Cheng remembered Aoki seemed exhausted; he disliked being in the hospital because of the multiple treatments. “The dialysis definitely had a draining effect on him,” said Cheng in a recent interview. “Every day I saw him in the hospital, he was like, ‘This sucks, get me out of here.'”
Aoki also seemed to believe that some procedures were unnecessary and that the hospital was just trying to make money off him. Cheng summed up Aoki’s words that day: “I’m on to them. They’re making so much money, and this is a medical scam.”
Around 5 a.m. the next morning, Aoki called Cheng, telling him that he had fallen and suspected he had a broken ankle. Cheng walked to Aoki’s unit and inspected his swollen ankle. He offered to take Aoki back to the hospital and returned to his own apartment to give Aoki time to decide. About ten minutes later, Cheng went back to Aoki’s unit to check on him. He found Aoki on his living room floor, bleeding from his stomach. Cheng’s first thought was that Aoki had a stroke and that the blood was coming from a dialysis treatment tube.
Cheng called 911, and then made small talk with Aoki to ensure he stayed conscious. When the paramedics arrived, Aoki was still alive; one asked him if he shot himself, and he replied, “yes,” according to Cheng. Aoki was rushed to Alameda County Medical Center, where he died later that day. His autopsy report said his death was due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen.
The autopsy report listed wounds from medical procedures, including needle puncture marks, chest tubes protruding from an incision, surgical incisions with stitches, and multiple catheters, all of which put into context Aoki’s deep frustration with his medical care. After his death, friends told reporters that Aoki died from complications from dialysis (Rosenfeld and I both wrote obituaries reporting this). Hundreds of people attended his memorial, filling UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium. A year later his friends revealed the truth of his suicide on the Richard Aoki Memorial website, claiming that the lie was not to protect his image, but because they were all still in shock (later Dong explained that they made the announcement because the cause of death would eventually become available through public records). “In that initial phase, the rush of it and trying to figure out what to do, we thought, maybe we should say it was related to his complications” with illnesses, Dong told me.
Since the news broke that Aoki was an FBI informant, some have speculated that he committed suicide because he was afraid of the reaction to Rosenfeld’s book, or because he felt guilty about his double life. Rosenfeld interviewed Aoki twice on the phone in 2007 as part of the reporting for his book on FBI activities at UC Berkeley. He first heard Aoki’s name in 2002 while talking to Threadgill, the former FBI agent. Rosenfeld would bring stacks of FBI documents for Threadgill to look at, and one file contained a news clipping from the Third World Strike that included Aoki’s photo and name. Threadgill said he knew Aoki because he developed him as an informant.
In 2007, with Threadgill’s account as his primary evidence (the majority of Aoki’s FBI files were released in 2012), Rosenfeld asked Aoki about any connection to the FBI. Aoki denied it, but also said “People change…It’s complex, layer upon layer,” as if offering a vague explanation. To this day, no one besides Threadgill, who died in 2005, has publicly admitted knowledge of Aoki’s being an FBI informant. His other known handler, Nottingham, according to recently released FBI reports, died in 2004.
Aoki left no suicide note, but Cheng suggested a few reasons why he may have wanted to end his life. Cheng thinks that Aoki was suffering greatly because of his illnesses and “he wanted to go out on his own terms.” He also theorized that the death of Aoki’s mother the month prior may have played a role; perhaps Aoki believed he had fulfilled his last remaining familial obligation: to give his mother, the only remaining member of his immediate family, a proper funeral. “I think his mom was a huge motivation for him to stay alive, to take care of her affairs,” Cheng said. “He never said this, but it’s more my belief: she dies in 2009, and shortly after, he said, ‘Well, I’m glad I lived long enough to take care of her.'”
Regardless of the reasons for his death, some friends continue to believe he never wavered from his revolutionary commitment. Dong noted that as he went through Aoki’s closet, he saw something that struck him: two uniforms neatly pressed and hanging in dry cleaning bags. One was his Army uniform, the other his Panthers outfit. “He was always talking about how he was in the army,” Dong said. “He never hid it from people. He talked about how that was his patriotic period. But then he was even more proud that he was involved with the Black Panthers. So he definitely had to transition from this patriotic conservative to a revolutionary. And when he transitioned, he was fully committed.”
The revelation that Aoki was an FBI informant has created a firestorm of responses from former Black Panther Party members, activists of all ages and backgrounds, and Asian-American and African-American scholars. After Rosenfeld’s first story was published, some attacked Rosenfeld’s credibility as a journalist. Many activists and people of color were distrustful of the initial report because of the mainstream media’s contentious relationship with those communities, said Jamilah King, an editor at Colorlines.com, a news organization with an office in Oakland that is devoted to coverage of race, culture, and politics. “The reaction to the first report and the length to which people went to discredit Seth Rosenfeld showed how deeply embedded that distrust is in communities of color of mainstream journalists and of white journalists who are trying to shape or form the story of people who lived through this time.”
Some took issue with Rosenfeld’s reporting. In a video that accompanied the original article, Rosenfeld interviews Dong and then films his reaction as he presents Dong with a stack of Aoki’s FBI documents. Audiences see the shock on Dong’s face and his response that he had no idea Aoki was an informant. Dong said he thought the interview would be about the Sixties and Seventies; others felt like it was an unfair “gotcha” moment. Rosenfeld told the Express that he had told Dong in advance that they would discuss Aoki, and that since Dong was Aoki’s executor, it was fair to ask him the question.
Rosenfeld also said that while he expected surprise and skepticism, he was not prepared for the barrage of what he felt were personal attacks on his credibility as a journalist. Since Aoki’s death in 2009, Rosenfeld has relentlessly pursued all the FBI records on Aoki and his FBI connection, filing numerous requests and even suing the bureau for access to the files. In fact, if he had not pursued the information for years, Aoki’s secret past would have likely never been publicly known.
It also should be noted that the bulk of Rosenfeld’s book does not focus on Aoki. Instead, Subversives examines the FBI’s secret activities at UC Berkeley during the Cold War by following the bureau’s involvement with three main characters: Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, UC President Clark Kerr, and the rising conservative politician Ronald Reagan. The book is based on more than 300,000 pages of FBI records released as a result of five lawsuits Rosenfeld filed under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as other research. Aoki is just one of many figures examined in the book; he is described in a chapter on the Third World Liberation Front and is included in about ten pages. The book also has received some critical acclaim, including in The New York Times.
Despite Rosenfeld’s revelations about Aoki, many argue that Aoki’s contributions — mentoring and inspiring young activists, helping community college students gain access to four-year institutions, and his political contributions during the Sixties and Seventies — cannot be taken away, and that Aoki’s role helping forge unity between different racial groups cannot be denied. His work helped “rearticulate the nation’s ideological constructions of race,” Diane Fujino noted in her biography on Aoki, which came out just a few months before Rosenfeld’s book.
But some argue that Aoki’s reputation made him an untouchable figure, resistant to critiques. “Was there something about what Aoki represented to us as progressive people of color — especially we who are Asian American leftists — that made many of us refrain from a healthy skepticism of Aoki and indeed, any person whose celebrity rests largely on racial border crossing?” wrote Tamara K. Nopper, a writer and a lecturer in Asian American studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, in The New Inquiry.
Nopper is one of the few who have become more critical of Aoki’s legacy since the news of his relationship to the FBI broke. She said that the wave of public reaction — mostly in defense of Aoki — make it difficult to raise tougher questions. “There seems to be this perverse need to protect his legacy,” she told me. “It’s been very difficult to speak out critically of Aoki and to be okay with considering him an informant.”
Nopper pointed out that many other activists, including ones in the black community, have been branded as informants with less evidence, yet it seems no one has spoken out publicly to the same degree as they have for Aoki. “If he agreed to collude with the FBI for so many years, the ethical thing to do is to seriously reconsider Richard Aoki’s legacy,” Nopper told me. “You can’t be an FBI informant for so long, and never reveal it so as to work towards community accountability, and still be considered a hero to the movement. To me, it raises serious questions about why there is so much need to keep Richard a hero.”
In a widely read post on Facebook, Scott Kurashige, a professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies and American Culture at the University of Michigan, was one of the first to question Rosenfeld’s assertions (accusing Rosenfeld of failing to provide adequate context about why the Third World Liberation Front students were striking) and to suggest that if Aoki was an informant, he could have become politicized over the years. (Kurashige was criticized by some at the time for even entertaining the idea that Aoki could have been an informant.) Rosenfeld noted in response that he devoted a chapter in his book to the TWLF strike, detailing both the violence of the police and protesters. In the same chapter, he noted that the creation of Ethnic Studies “prompted people to examine human experience from a wider range of ethnic viewpoints, better preparing America to succeed as a democracy in a changing world.”
Although Kurashige remains skeptical of Rosenfeld’s work, he sees value in revealing FBI secrets, and exposing the struggles that idolized movement leaders went through, including their complexities and flaws, as a way to understand their political work and contributions. “[Aoki] was a trusted, loyal comrade of many people for many years, and that’s a very important side of him,” he told me. “And yet there may have been other things going on with him that don’t in any way detract from the work that he did but makes us, as students of history and as people who are trying to make history, in need of learning some deeper lessons.”
In an interview with me after Rosenfeld’s second article was released along with more FBI documents, Aoki’s biographer Fujino agreed that this is a “teachable moment,” demonstrating that “all history is interpretive.” She pointed out that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was once framed as necessary for their safety. “Now there’s a different frame,” she said. “It’s not like what they did changed, but the interpretation changes. I think we have to be careful about how we interpret facts, and about FBI files in particular.” Fujino, who had questioned Rosenfeld’s evidence after his first article came out, acknowledged that Aoki could have been an informant based on the more recent documents released. She and Rosenfeld both say they will continue to follow this story.
It took Rosenfeld three years and a lawsuit to compel the FBI to release more than 4,000 pages. The FBI claims that it has released all known files on Aoki. It should be noted that much of the 4,000-plus pages is redacted, and we still don’t know the full extent of Aoki’s involvement with the FBI, what he reported, and how it may have impacted the organizations and individuals he was involved with — and therein lies the power that the FBI has in withholding critical information that would provide a fuller picture. Rosenfeld believes there are still more records and plans on pursuing them, including the information that has been redacted.
Meanwhile, many of Aoki’s friends and associates continue to believe that his alliance and friendships with them were real. Aoki’s story has taken an even more complex turn, showing that nothing is black and white.