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.