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Fred Ho refutes the claim that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant

August 21, 2012

by Fred Ho

I knew Richard Aoki from the period of the late 1990s to the end of his life in 2009. Prior to the publication of Diane Fujino’s book, “Samurai among Panthers” (University of Minnesota Press), I probably was the main person who had published the most about Aoki (cf., “Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America,” AK Press).

Richard Aoki is attacked by police at a protest near the UC Berkeley campus in 1969. This photo appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle Aug. 20, 2012, to illustrate a story accusing Aoki of having been a FBI informant. – Photo: Lonnie Wilson, Oakland Tribune
In fact, Richard Aoki and I spoke on the telephone a day or two before he killed himself. During the spring of 2009, we were in regular contact via telephone – as he was in the Bay Area and I in New York City – as I had undergone another surgery in the cancer war I have been fighting since 2006, and he was facing major illness and deterioration, hospitalized during this time. Richard regularly contacted me, as he was very concerned about my dying, and I was concerned for him as well.

We had a very special relationship that allows me to easily, comfortably and assertively rebut the claims made by the two proponents of the accusation that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant.

What was our special relationship? Richard was exasperated at how creative, revolutionary ideology had seriously waned, both from Panther veterans and from the younger generation stuck in the Non-Profit Industrial Complex mode of organization and their “activistism” – or what I humorously proffer as “activistitis,” the political tendency to be tremendously busy with activism but failing to have a revolutionary vision guide and dominate that activism.

As Fujino remarks, Aoki viewed me as someone with creative revolutionary ideology and he sought me out and we shared many discussions and a special closeness. (Note: Aoki did not know the brilliant political prisoner, Russell Maroon Shoatz, someone who now at age 68 could go toe-to-toe ideologically with Richard Aoki!)

Black Panther Field Marshal Richard Aoki, Bato Talamantez of the San Quentin 6 and Shaka At-Thinnin of the Black August Organizing Committee wear Black August 2004 T-shirts in this photo. Aoki gathered with radical comrades from the ‘60s often. Accusing him during Black August of being an informant feels sacrilegious to many movement veterans.
Why would an FBI agent do this, almost 50 years past the hoorah days of the ‘60s? It is implied by the calumnious assertions by journalist Seth Rosenfeld – whose book is opportunistically coming out today: “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicalism, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – that Aoki was probably still an agent even to the time of his death, though, like the rest of the “evidence” or assertions by Rosenfeld, never substantiated or clearly documented.

That is because Aoki NEVER was an agent, and unlike many of the prominent Panthers – notably Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton – remained a revolutionary for life and never degenerated into self-obsession and egomania. To the end of his life, Aoki could go toe-to-toe with any revolutionary intellectual, theorist or organizer on the complexities and challenges of revolutionary theory, including the U.S. “national question,” socialism etc.

Aoki NEVER was an agent, and unlike many of the prominent Panthers remained a revolutionary for life and never degenerated into self-obsession and egomania.

Here is my rebuttal to Seth Rosenfeld and to former FBI agent Wes Swearingen, the two main proponents of the Aoki-was-an-FBI-agent claim.

1. The written FBI documents are very vague and much is redacted. The T-2 identification has Richard Aoki’s middle name incorrectly listed. All other identities of other informants are redacted. Why? Why was only Aoki “revealed”? This is the only real factual evidence that Rosenfeld has to offer. The rest is supposition and surmise.

Three of the most prominent veterans of the Black Panther Party – Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Billy X Jennings and Richard Aoki – talk at the January 2009 premiere of the film “'Merritt College, Home of the Black Panthers.” - Photo: Carole Hyams
2. Scott Kurashige asserts in his contextualization and weak challenge to Rosenfeld that perhaps Aoki during the 1950s had agreed to be an FBI informant during a period in Aoki’s life when he wasn’t interested in politics or “communism.” But that later, in the ‘60s, when Aoki, as so many of that generation got radicalized, he couldn’t admit to what he had done earlier as it would have cast huge aspersion and suspicion around him among the Panthers who were quick to be intolerant and unwilling to accept such past mistakes.

However, Kurashige falls short here. Even if this were the case, that Richard had naively agreed to be an informant in his youth, prior to being radicalized, and couldn’t admit to it later, what is impossible to reconcile is that the entire 50-year arc of Richard’s life and work has helped the movement far more than hindered or harmed it.

3. If Richard was a FBI agent, how did he help the FBI? By training the Panthers in Marxist ideology, socialism? By leading drill classes at 7 a.m. daily and instilling iron discipline in their ranks? By being one of the leaders to bring about Ethnic (Third World) Studies in the U.S.? Other questions that aren’t answered by Rosenfeld: How much was Aoki paid if he was an agent? What did Aoki get out of it? How long was he an agent for? There is no evidence that Aoki sabotaged, fomented divisions, incited violence etc.

The over-emphasis upon Aoki providing the Panthers their first firearms is sensationalist fodder. What is conveniently ignored is what he contributed most to the Panthers and to the legacy of the U.S. revolutionary movement: promoting revolutionary study, ideology and disciplined organization. That’s why he was field marshal – because the cat could organize and tolerated no indiscipline and lack of seriousness.

Two old comrades, Elbert “Big Man” Howard and Richard Aoki, embrace at the “Merritt College” film premiere in January 2009. The two were especially close during Aoki’s final years.
4. How does a FBI agent acquire the super-Jason Bourne-equivalent ideological skills to influence so many radicals both of the ‘60s and continuously to his death, including myself? There is no Cliff Notes or Crash Course FBI Training Academy 101 on Revolutionary Ideology on the nuances of debates on “peaceful transition to socialism as revisionism” or “liberal multi-culturalism as the neo-colonialism within U.S. Third World communities” etc. You get the picture. Richard Aoki intellectually had the brilliance that surpassed any professor of radicalism at any university or college. Could a FBI agent really be this? We see from the FBI agent who helped in the assassination of Mark Clark and Fred Hampton, that he was paid around $200, that he was primarily head of security for the slain Panther leader Fred Hampton, and that he committed suicide ostensibly for the guilt that he had over his role in the murder of Hampton and Clark. There is no evidence of this for Aoki; in fact, Aoki remained a committed revolutionary to the end.

The over-emphasis upon Aoki providing the Panthers their first firearms is sensationalist fodder. What is conveniently ignored is what he contributed most to the Panthers and to the legacy of the U.S. revolutionary movement: promoting revolutionary study, ideology and disciplined organization.

5. The supposed admission that Rosenfeld has on tape is typical Aoki humor in answering “Oh.” The subtext, as Aoki knew he was talking to a reporter, is really: “Oh, you motherfucker, so that’s what he said. Well, stupid, then it must be true!” Rosenfeld notes that Aoki laughs – he is laughing AT Rosenfeld! Anyone who really knew Richard Aoki knows that he used humor often to turn someone’s stupid questions back at them, saying to the effect: Well, if you are stupid enough to think that, then it must be true for you!

6. The corroboration offered by former FBI agent, now turned squealer, Wes Swearingen, is not evidence. Swearingen only thinks that it is likely Aoki was an informer for the FBI because he was Japanese! How stupid! Would fierce Black nationalists accept someone more easily because he was Japanese? If that were so, there would have been more Asians in the Panthers! Yes, Richard personally knew many of the founding Panther members, including Seale and Newton, precisely because these hardcore guys truly trusted Richard because Richard could do the do! Again, the question must be asked, what benefits did the FBI get from having Aoki as an informant to lend credibility to this assertion? At best, Swearingen can only offer speculation and surmise, as he can’t testify that he actually KNEW Aoki to be an agent or witnessed FBI encounters with Aoki.

Robert Rosenthal, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, joined the Center for Investigative Reporting as executive director in 2008. An announcement by Poynter.org of CIR’s recent merger with the Bay Citizen, a nonprofit online newspaper launched in 2010 with a $5 million donation from the late Warren Hellman, revealed that Rosenthal and Bronstein will each make $220,000 annually.
7. The one FBI agent who might have actually encountered Aoki, an agent named Threadgill, now (conveniently) deceased, claimed in mid-1965 he was Aoki’s handler. We have no way of verifying this except by relying upon Rosenfeld’s claims. When Rosenfeld asked Aoki point blank if he knew this guy Threadgill, Aoki flatly denies knowing such a person and jokes about it – again, in the Aoki style: “Oh, if that’s what he claims, and you think it so, then it must be so, stupid!”)

8. Lastly, what is to be gained by this accusation of Aoki as FBI informant, a day before Rosenfeld’s book hits the bookstores? To sell books via this hype and sensationalism. Aoki did more to build the student movement in the Bay Area than many others. Let’s ask the question, how much was Rosenfeld paid for his book deal? We should ask that same question about the late Manning Marable, whose supposition-filled and sloppy “scholarly” account of Malcolm X is equally reprehensible. Besides the obvious gain to Rosenfeld directly of hoping to increase book sales and his wallet, we must ask the larger political question, how does this accusation against the deceased Aoki affect the larger politics of today?

Well, here’s how: It fuels doubt on so many levels to building radical politics, sowing dissension between Black nationalists and Asian American radicals, distrust of our revolutionary leaders of past and present, fear for the police-state and its power to extend itself into the core leadership of revolutionary movements and, as witnessed by Scott Kurashige’s capitulation to the reformist politics of non-violence, to elevating Martin Luther King Jr. above the Black liberationists (Kurashige calls for a re-look and re-examination of MLK, implying this is safer and more amenable than the “violence” advocated by Aoki and the Panthers). And this is simply the tip of an iceberg building to stave off the growth of radicalism generated by the Occupy, eco-socialist and anti-globalization movements both in the U.S. and across the planet.

Phil Bronstein, former executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, was named executive chair of the board of the Center for Investigative Reporting in April 2012, when CIR merged with The Bay Citizen and is in charge of overall operations. On Aug. 20, CIR and the Bay Citizen published Seth Rosenfeld’s accusation that Richard Aoki was a FBI informant.
Here is the initial reaction by most people not cowered or shocked by Rosenfeld’s accusations, who either personally knew Richard Aoki, as I did, or who are accustomed to or familiar with such “dirty tricks” as employed by Rosenfeld: If Aoki was an agent, so what? He surely was a piss-poor one because what he contributed to the movement is enormously greater than anything he could have detracted or derailed. If it is implied that Aoki promoted firearms and violence to the Panthers, well, here’s some news: The Panthers were well on that direction as part of the trajectory set by Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, the Deacons of Defense, who the Panthers modeled themselves upon, Harriet Tubman, Geronimo, Tucemseh, Crazy Horse and so many others.

And if you are gullible enough to believe these “dirty tricks” – which isn’t surprising given how media hype today is so powerful and influential – and rely upon the internet instead of actual experience in struggle and revolutionary organizing, then you need to get real, get serious and deal with counter-hegemonic consciousness-raising for yourself. But most of us who never were shocked by this accusation towards Richard simply took the attitude, PHUCK THEM – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; Swearingen, Rosenfeld and anyone who swallows this crap!

Fred Ho is described by Wikipedia as an American jazz baritone saxophonist, composer, bandleader, playwright, writer and social activist … many of (whose) works fuse the melodies of indigenous and traditional Asian and African musics, which as Ho would say is the music of the majority of the world’s people. He has also co-edited two books: Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America and Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/ Resistance/ Revolution. He has a third book in progress about African Americans and Asians working together in civil rights, which he is co-writing with Purdue University professor of African American studies Bill Mullen. The Bay View thanks Freedom Archives for alerting us to this story.

 

16 thoughts on “Fred Ho refutes the claim that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant

  1. Scott Kurashige

    I'm glad to read Fred Ho’s thoughts on this subject. He certainly knew Richard Aoki well and can give the personal angle that I would never claim to provide. I especially appreciated his characterization of Richard's answer to Rosenfeld's allegations. Rosenfeld basically says Richard's failure to give a direct answer is an admission of guilt, Fred says Richard's comments like "oh" and his laugh mean something more like " well if you are stupid to think that, then it must be true for you!"

    It’s peculiar that Fred should mention me as prominently as he does here. I am not connected in any way to Rosenfeld or his book and have not published anything on Aoki. Fred’s criticism is in response to preliminary notes I posted in a dialogue with Facebook friends—nothing close to the level of attention given Rosenfeld’s massively promoted and corporate published book. I suspect this is reflective of Fred’s lingering views about a political split we had within left organizing two decades years ago, but there’s no need to say anything more personal when the focus should be on the core issues and arguments at hand:

    1) Based on what I’ve read here, I’d say Fred agrees with the gist of 90% of what I've previously said in my Facebook posts. We share a desire to question and challenge Rosenfeld where he does not provide sufficient evidence to substantiate his claims and where he uses spurious reasoning. Fred even repeats some of the exact points I've already written on Facebook notes that he apparently accessed, though I also think he misreads at least one or two things I wrote.

    2) Fred, however, feels the need to foreground his differences with me without identifying these points of unity. Well that’s his prerogative, but I prefer a different practice. I think if the Rosenfeld/Aoki episode can in anyway be used positively, it should caution us that the movement needs better methods to resolve internal differences and handle suspicions and tensions. The sectarian idea that one side has the whole truth is antiquated. And the “purity” test–i.e. you either uphold some idealized theoretical model of revolution or you're a traitor to the people–has needlessly led to self-inflicted damage to our movements. Mao's idea of unity-struggle-unity is very useful and comes from his emphasis that contradictions among the people must be resolved through non-antagonistic means. But Maoist notions of justice driven by the determination to answer "who are our enemies? who are our friends?" led to some crimes and setbacks in the name of upholding the "people's democratic dictatorship." We need to continue pursuing Freirian popular education approaches to building a healthy, democratic, and empowering movement culture.

    (continued)

    Reply
  2. Scott Kurashige

    3) There is one legitimate difference Fred states between us. I do think that Martin Luther King's views on revolution are highly valuable to understanding history and to thinking about movement strategy and radical philosophy today. We need to organize primarily from love rather than anger because we need to realize that the methods we use to confront the oppressor are modeling the relationships and the values we project for our movements and our future society. Fred thinks MLK's ideas can only derail movements that are on a path toward revolution. As I wrote in my book with Grace Lee Boggs (The Next American Revolution), I believe we need to embrace aspects of MLK's and Malcolm X's ideas of revolution, which are far more complex and far more compatible than simplistic mainstream portrayals pitting MLK vs. Malcolm lead us to believe. And I think it’s hard for anyone to suggest that MLK’s path was necessarily “safer” than Malcolm’s. I also think we have much to learn from the Panthers, though we must ultimately transcend what they did in response to the conditions of their historical era and develop theories and methods that fit our times. Fred thinks true revolutionaries must choose between MLK and "Black Liberationists." In his characterization, only the latter are of value to true revolutionaries because they affirm armed struggle whereas my embrace of MLK represents "capitulation to the reformist politics of non-violence."

    This last point raises the issue of how current and future generations of activists will view Richard Aoki’s legacy. Fred emphasizes that Aoki will be remembered for “promoting revolutionary study, ideology and disciplined organization.” I think this certainly is a fair characterization of what Aoki stood for. However, I don’t think more younger activists were drawn to Richard and inspired by him because they wanted to digest every morsel of Marxist-Leninist theory he could offer. The sense I get is that they were attracted by his genuine desire to serve others, his generous spirit, and his warmth and compassion. They didn’t memorize some blueprint for revolution he might have provided—indeed, they may not have agreed with every theoretical position he held and he didn’t dogmatically insist that they do so. What they saw and experienced were replicable models of revolutionary practice, leadership development, and relationship building.

    In that spirit, let us work toward and operate from the maximum level of unity possible for the current struggle over historical interpretation. And let us all have a de-personalized discussion about the broader values, principles, and methods that will advance our movements.

    Note: I'm planning to publish a longer article stating my views Rosenfeld's story and its impiications in the very near future.

    Reply
    1. msfreeh

      for the uneducated and the uneducable

      high school dropout can't find work so he joins the Marines to Semper Fi
      and collect some money.
      High school dropout is sent to Paris Island to be all he can be. He is trained to kill women and children and a occasional freedom fighter trying to protect his wife from being raped by Mr Semper Fi.
      High school dropout ships out to invade Iraq for USEmpire and US oil companies.
      American oil companies are struggling with the problem of Peak Oil.
      Peak oil means we no longer have a infinite supply of oil.Maybe you saw the documentary film END OF SUBURBIA see http://www.endofsuburbia.com/previews.htm

      high school drop out didn't because his high school teachers were too busy DUMBING him down
      see http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/bookstore/dumbdnbl

      High School dropout manages to kill a couple hundred women and children while throwing in a occasional rape. Mr Sempi Fi has now been transformed into Mr serial killer.
      Mr high school dropout/serial killer now begins to experience extreme depression from his actions. Mental Wealth workers call it Post Traumatic
      Stress Syndrome. But the only people who experience traumatic stress in Iraq are the Iraqi women being raped by Semper Fi's before they shot and killed them.
      Good thing serial killer/high school dropout has never read the research
      of Ian Stevenson MD whose groundbreaking study of 3,000 children who remember previous lives provides the science for the existence of reincarnation. see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/154235

      What this means for high school dropout is that he will be coming back
      again for another life . Of course so will the people he murdered , so for practical purposes he has another couple hundred lives he has to live getting "wacked" by the life forms he semper fi'd.

      The difference this time is the raped and murdered have had some time to ponder while they wait for him to pass over, how they will "do" Mr Semper Fi- the high school drop out serial killer.

      Mr high school dropout comes back from Iraq out of work unless he re-enlists. There are not to many job openings for serial killers until he lands a job working with his be all you can be buddies at the local police department or the FBI.

      Reply
    2. Che Joubert

      I also knew Richard and worked with him in arming the Panthers '66, and knew him through the '90's. I disagree with most posters for many reasons – first, that I have found people have a very dim idea of what real political theory and strategy are comprised of. They do not understand the difference between a 'war' mentality such as Richard's and a young black man's viewpoints and position in the 60's. Most people have not truly studied how to build and dismantle a democracy, or how media and government must be joined, or what groups are most vulnerable to manipulation. All these things Richard did understand. He had his own grim goals and told me many times that no one knew him or what he was really doing. I agree with that. In my opinion he knew full well when he armed the Panthers, that he was cooperating with Reagan in 'militarizing youth' so that there would be a strong backlash. Reagan was coming from being president of SAG – and that group had a huge campaign to militarize youth and blacks in particular, so as to get Reagan elected president, get their goals from SAG ratified, and bring media under one umbrella – an important part of national takeovers. Richard was an extremely well informed thinker who understood these processes on a far more penetrating level than most people. He may even have started working as an informant out of sheer fear, but I do think he used all resources at his disposal to bring about his goal to get even with the US. This would include destroying the black movement from within, cozying up to pacifistic asians as a shield, and using these endeavors so as to undermine the US all the while. If you really knew the man, you would know as a militant asian who went through internment, he worked and thought things out alone, and that he would use the FBI just as he used all the above for his own 'revolutionary . . . organization.' The reason people don't see it, is that they aren't serious like Richard, and are essentially just playing around, unlike Richard.

      Reply
  3. Selina

    If I were Richard Aoki I would have left the US right after the Panthers were disbanned

    This Govt murdered him, I don't have any proof, but Aoki so-called kills himself due to a " long illness" now the FBI says he was an informant for them????

    All this is bunch of BS why come out now saying he was an FBI agent 2yr.s after his death
    What's the Agenda here????? what is this Gov't trying prove?????????

    Reply
    1. Dieu Huynh

      One main cause for suicide is patients dealing with chronic illness like cancer that is creating a lot of pain and sufferings.

      Reply
  4. Warrior Wpman

    Kodah, I worked with Richard and he was a Revolutionary. He hated the pigs. Any involvement by fbi than they killed Richard gave him the sickness and shot him. Warrior Woman Oyate Nation

    Reply
  5. James Simpson

    We cannot begin to discern what is the "TRUTH" TO THESE ALLEGATIONS WITHOUT CONSIDERING THE QUESTION OF THE MOTIVES OF WHY WOULD AN INDIVIDUAL WANT TO PUBLISH A BOOK SMEARING A CERTIFIABLE LEGEND AFTER HIS DEATH, WITHOUT AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A REBUTTAL OF WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE ARE QUESTIONABLE CLAIMS!!!!

    Reply
  6. renaldo ricketts

    The Panther were riddled with paranoia, they accused many of being FBI spies who weren't while the real spies sat on the sidelines and laughed. These were crucial times in the movement,no one knew who the spies were, paranoia didn't help matters the FBI created an atmosphere of distrust amongst the Panthers and exploited it. The Panthers had good social prograns feeding the children,but the revolutionary rhetoric of arm struggle in my opinion was silly,and suicidal. The FBI nurtured this dis torted bravadot of the Panthers, the ideology of violence in a urban setting is simply absurd. I knew many Panthers and told them that line of thinking simply fuled the Hoover sick mentality and their obessesion to wipe you out. The Panthers were never a threat to the security of the US gov. They needed an excue to hunt '/kill them,and the panthers provided the rhetoric,that was suffice for the porch chop crypto racist pigs to launch a war on them.

    Reply
  7. renaldo ricketts

    Ann -exactly we're dealing with a regime who feel the workers are expendable,the deplorable conditions are part of the abusive system of degraditaion. I saw this in Mexico in San Quintin ,the workers lived in makeshift shacks,no running water,and dirt floors. This type of exploitations is common in Latin Amerika and many parts of th world, the people sub-exist on starvation wages. They are cultural slaves, the children work in the fields to help their parents, no schooling. The plantation then turns around and sell them good at inflated prices securing another generation of servitude. This is how the corporate structure of slavery is instituted world wide, it's genrational. The gov .S.A is a ceremonial body of elite Blacks who get paid to maintiaihn the status quo. Mandela was an empty shell, they brought in for symbolic posturing . Now that sactions have been lifted ,and the appearance of Black political power is a non reality . This is first class fraud ,the De Beers and Oppenheimers have a vast plantation to abuse for generations s to come. The truth should be told about the facade of S.Africa and the gran lie they tell the world .

    Reply
  8. Susan Power

    I knew Richard for many years. He was one of my husband's best friends from the time they met in the 60's until my husband's death in the early 90's. Richard was a committed radical. a man of great intelligence and was very proud of his role as a educator in bringing multicultural curriculum to Peralta Colleges. Several people have pointed to Richard's suicide as 'proof' that he was guilty.
    My husband and Richard both believed strongly in an individual's right to control their own body's. Both of them own books by the Hemlock Society and both considered suicide as a very real option if they were facing terminal illness. I would have told you back when I saw and spoke with Richard regularly that he would absolutely kill himself if faced with declining health.
    I believe the article published by the Huffington Post was a way to get a book that would not get much attention a lot of free publicity.

    Reply
  9. renaldo ricketts

    From what i see this was designed to sell books,accusation by a snake does not make facts. Aoki was highly respected by Panthers and non Black ,th perfect fall guy for disin formation. His role seems largely educational form the Panthers view of him. Would this book have gathered this type of publicity if it didn't have Aoki in it ,chances are ,nope. Looks like a good try by a snake,what exactly did Aoki feed the FBI ,it doesn't say looks like another FBI disinformation campaignnot tobe taken serirously. The FBI wanted an excuse to kill the Panthers,Hoover said they wwere a threat to security of the US ,a pathetic lie. This was to fuel his [igs to extermonate them,mis l;abel and shoot .

    Reply
  10. web

    links to a page that backs up what youre saying? or perhaps you would give us one thing to observe, one thing which might join what youre saying to one thing tangible? Only a suggestion.

    Reply

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