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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."