When journalist Seth Rosenfeld wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle article in August that Richard Aoki, the mysterious Japanese American who was one of the leaders of the radical Black Panther Party, was an FBI informant during the turbulent 1960s, the revelation exploded within the Asian American community.
The bombshell brought on a fussilade of defenses of Aoki’s place as a revered activist and civil rights leader.
Aoki had become a godfather of Asian American activism for his role as “Field Marshall” for the Panthers, and getting the revolutionary group its first guns and firearms training. After his time as the only high-level Asian with the Black Panthers, he became an educator and counselor, and committed suicide in 2009 after an illness and hospitalization.
Rosenfeld’s article was a sham, and not based on credible or complete information, claimed the critics. After all, it ran in the Chronicle the same week that his new book about the FBI’s long history of surveillance and infiltration of radical groups at the University of California at Berkeley, “Subversives,” was published. But after the FBI released stacks of more documents that confirmed Rosenfeld’s assertions, even diehard Asian American supporters and Panther-era friends had to admit that Aoki must have lived a double life.
He was apparently recruited in the early 1960s as an informant starting when he was a student after getting out of the Army, and stayed on the FBI’s payroll well into the 1970s, when he had settled into a career as a college counselor and teacher, and had no more radical organizations he could inform on.
Here’s a video about Aoki and the FBI that was produced by the Center for Investigative Journalism, where Rosenfeld works:
The original revelations caused a lot of discussion on Asian American social media and blogs. I didn’t get a chance to chime in, and I’m glad, because I would have decried the Chron article like other Asian Americans at the time.
Now, Hyphen Magazine’s Momo Chang has written an excellent, four-part article that includes audio clips of interviews with Aoki’s friends and supporters, an earlier biographer (who’ll now have to rewrite the bio, unfortunately) and Rosenfeld himself, as well as recordings of earlier interviews that Aoki had with others.
Chang profiles Aoki in the first part:
For many, the idea that Aoki, who committed suicide in 2009, was anything less than a hero remains inconceivable. But there’s no doubt that Aoki the man was much more complicated — and conflicted — than Aoki the hero. At the very least, Rosenfeld’s assertion (pieced together from FBI records, interviews and other sources) raised the question: Who was Richard Aoki?
Then she looks at his entree into activism, and his parallel life as an informant:
To Aoki’s friends and admirers, he represented all of the things that people wanted to see in an Asian American activist. When the model minority myth was rearing its head in the ’60s — with the idea that Asian Americans were obedient, silent and assimilated juxtaposed against the increasingly outspoken and empowered African American community — Aoki stood out as someone who spoke loudly against injustices and who aligned himself with black radicals.
Dressed in dark shades and a black beret and sporting a mustache on his slim 5-foot-6-inch frame, Aoki was mysterious, intimidating and inspiring — the antithesis of the model minority stereotype.
But before he became that man, he was on FBI books as an informant.
Chang’s story then chronicles Aoki’s suicide, and finally what the revelations about this pioneering hero means to his legacy:
Many argue that Aoki’s contributions—mentoring and inspiring young activists, helping community college students gain access to higher education, and his political contributions during the 60s and 70s—cannot be taken away and Aoki’s role helping forge unity between different racial groups cannot be denied: his work helped “rearticulate the nation’s ideological constructions of race,” Fujino noted in her biography on Aoki.
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 said. “It’s been very difficult to speak out critically of Aoki and to be okay with considering him an informant.”
The articles left me sad but marveling at Aoki’s ability to keep such huge secrets from the people closest to him. Whether, as some of his friends assert, that he had become radicalized by the time of the Panthers and was informing on the group, or whether he kept feeding the FBI intelligence — or worse, as some wonder, if he “set up” the Panthers to commit violent crimes at the urging of the federal government — the entire time, Aoki has become an enigma even more mysterious than he had been.