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My comrade, Richard Aoki

August 24, 2012

by Elbert “Big Man” Howard

Their revolutionary spirit as strong as when they met 42 years earlier – despite life-threatening maladies – proud Black Panthers Richard Aoki and Elbert “Big Man” Howard enjoy coming together for the Oakland premiere of the award-winning documentary, “Merritt College Home of the Black Panthers,” in October 2008. - Photo: Carole Hyams
At almost 75 years of age, there are very few things in life that surprise me anymore. However, I can say I was not only surprised by the allegations made against my comrade Richard Aoki, I was sickened. I should not have been surprised because I know that this government still has unfinished business with us, we Panthers, and being dead doesn’t free us from their need to persecute us and create chaos and mistrust among those of us who remain.

The San Francisco Chronicle, like most mainstream press, loves this shit. It was not so long ago when this administration found a way to try to destroy my comrades, the San Francisco 8, decades after several of them had been tortured and the case had been thrown out. The brothers were amazingly strong and eventually most of them have been able to go on with their lives, but at a great cost to all of them.

My comrade John Bowman’s death was most definitely hastened by the persecution (not prosecution, persecution). The SF Chronicle, at a very sensitive time in the case, produced a huge front page spread by a writer who tried to link the murder of a young woman, a totally unrelated occurrence, to this case. So the fact that the SF Chronicle was so eager to publish and sensationalize the garbage put out by this so-called author, Rosenfeld, with his “30 years of research,” is not a surprise to me.

Black Panthers John Bowman and Minister of Culture Emory Douglas talk outside the Party’s San Francisco office.
Because I have been around for a long time, I have seen that a number of people with books to peddle are capable of resorting to the most heinous acts of sensationalism in order to promote themselves and will do so with total shamelessness and disregard for others. The sickening part is that these scandalous accusations are targeting my dead comrade, Richard Aoki – Richard, who is no longer around to defend himself, Richard, a revolutionary to the end of his days, the littlest man with the largest stature I ever knew. Not one of his comrades, not one, mind you, has ever had anything but the highest respect and love for Richard Aoki.

My wife and I have read and emailed back and forth anything and everything we can get our hands on about the sources involved and listened as learned people shared their knowledge with us and have investigated, as much as we can, these scandalous, unsubstantiated charges leveled at our dead comrade, Richard.

Persecuted by the SF Chronicle the way the paper is now crucifying the character of Richard Aoki are the San Francisco 8, former Black Panthers charged with killing a cop more than 40 years after he died using evidence obtained by torture: Harold Taylor, Francisco Torres, Richard Brown, attorney Soffiyah Elijah, Richard O'Neal, Hank Jones, Supervisor Eric Mar and Ray Boudreaux. Here, they are celebrating the dropping of the charges against most of them, a victory won by the power of the people. The other two SF 8 defendants, Jalil Muntaqim and Herman Bell, remain political prisoners. – Photo: Scott Braley
Being nearly 75 years of age, and having been in the Black Panther Party from 1966 to 1974, I know a lot about this government. I know that the mission to spread disorder and mistrust amongst those of us who remain is alive and well and that now, as in the past, fools can be used as tools and pawns by them to foment chaos.

Why do you think there are political prisoners still locked up decades later? Elderly men and women now, still threats to the power structure. The best of us, so many, still locked away in dungeons or in exile, thousands of miles away from their people.

We may now be lawyers, businessmen, physicians, state representatives or businessmen. We may be old and ravaged by the sands of time; it matters not. We may be living relatively innocuous lives, or we may be community activists, or we may be dead. It does not matter – they must make examples of us. They must show the people we were under their thumbs and not serving the people, as we claimed.

Panthers Big Man and Terry Cotton display a banner honoring Richard Aoki at Richard’s funeral in March 2009. – Photo: Carole Hyams
It was only this past Monday and yet it seems like such a long time ago that Seth Rosenfeld’s “exposé” appeared in the SF Chronicle. My wife and I have been so busy since then that the days are gone before we know it!

The events now occurring around the feeble, incredible fiction Rosenfeld has put out there to promote his book (yeah, we know, 30 years in the making) at the expense of Richard Aoki’s name bring me back to years ago when I was one of several young Party members and we started publishing our newspaper. We found a way to do this because we realized that with the mainstream newspapers and media lying to the people, we needed to create an instrument of our own to tell our own stories in our own way – to tell the truth about ourselves and our communities and about the lying, racist, corporate criminals who controlled the media and were oppressing the people. To create a revolutionary tool which would wake up and shake up the world. And we did that.

Two close friends of Richard Aoki at his funeral in March 2009 are Yuri Kochiyama and Big Man. Like Richard, Yuri, a lifelong freedom fighter, built Black-Asian solidarity. Decades earlier, she had worked closely in Harlem with Malcolm X. On the stage with him when he was assassinated, she rushed to his side and comforted him as he breathed his last. – Photo: Carole Hyams
The Black Panther Party Newspaper became a paper with worldwide circulation and I was the editor for a while. We published articles which were based on our struggles and the day to day struggles of our comrades and the people we served in our communities. Stories where we talked about our fallen comrades and their killers. Where we talked about the war-mongering, racist, oppressive government of this US of A. Where we talked about ways in which we served our communities, educating people and each other. Young lives were ripped from us.

But we had a great newspaper; I have always thought so. We used that paper to communicate with each other and people all over the world. Now there’s email and Facebook. But nothing comes close to that beautiful, revolutionary paper. I still miss that paper to this very day.

But I digress. Being almost 75 years of age, I allow myself that privilege. And so, … Richard.

I have spoken of how I got to know Richard in the early years of the Party, how I learned of his internment, a young victim of America’s concentration camps for the Japanese, how he and his family were stripped of everything they had, but how he survived that and how he grew up on the mean streets of Oakland, how he learned to defend himself and how the Black Panther Party seemed to him the logical place for him to be.

Like me, he had been in the service. He knew about weapons, sure. He also saw that through education he could fight for equal rights, educate and organize his community. He never, ever stopped doing that. Never stopped fiercely loving the people. Never stopped speaking his mind. Never compromised his views. Never cared about saving his own skin. He was always out there, a fierce warrior for human rights, to the day he died.

Richard Aoki knew about weapons, sure. He also saw that through education he could fight for equal rights, educate and organize his community. He never, ever stopped doing that. Never stopped fiercely loving the people. Never stopped speaking his mind. Never compromised his views. Never cared about saving his own skin. He was always out there, a fierce warrior for human rights, to the day he died.

In early 2006, we were reunited at the West Oakland Library at the Li’l Bobby Hutton event put on by Its About Time. We had not seen or heard from each other for decades. We were both pretty weak, him frail and walking with a cane after several strokes and kidney problems, and me just recovering from cancer surgery and several other chronic health conditions. It was so good to see him again.

At the last gathering of the Panthers before Richard Aoki’s death – the San Francisco premiere of the film “Merritt College: Home of the Black Panthers” in January 2009 – are Panthers Big Man, Billy X Jennings, Richard Aoki and Ericka Huggins along with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who narrates the film. – Photo: Carole Hyams
In later years, no matter how sick he was, Richard would find a way to come to almost every event. We never ceased to find joy in seeing each other, and we would laugh at the fact that, amazingly enough, we were still around.

There are many people now fighting along with all of Richard’s comrades to educate people and repair any damage that this irresponsible assault on his character may have done. You can bet that Richard is somewhere cracking up at all of this and especially at how much work this has created for his many comrades, his students, his professional peers and members of his community – all of whom remain devoted to his memory.

Richard never had us guessing as to where he personally stood politically. He never stopped condemning the real criminals in America, not ever. And he kept us entertained with his wit and intellect until his death – suicide, some call it, but he was barely alive and very tired and did not want to be kept around by means out of his control. Richard, who we loved, admired and who made it clear how much he loved us and, in particular, all disenfranchised, oppressed people.

We will continue to fight these atrocious lies, lies without evidence, lies designed to sell a book and to create disturbances, anxiety and suspicion amongst us all.

Because I am almost 75 years of age, I can say with the certainty of one who has seen many things: I know that Richard walked the walk, not just talked the talk, and he continued to fight for human rights until his death.

That’s Big Man on the right at a July 1968 demonstration in Oakland. – Photo: Pirkle Jones
So we will continue to fight these atrocious lies, lies without evidence, lies designed to sell a book and to create disturbances, anxiety and suspicion amongst us all. Richard no longer is here to fight these ridiculous allegations himself, so we must do so. After all, we owe him, big time.

Elbert “Big Man” Howard is one of the original six founding members of the Black Panther Party; he served as the first editor of the Black Panther newspaper and as party spokesperson. He is also, more recently, a founding member of the Police Accountability Clinic and Helpline (PACH). An activist, author and lecturer, he resides in Sonoma County and can be reached at


29 thoughts on “My comrade, Richard Aoki

  1. Anita Wills

    The Chronicle was founded on Yellow Journalism by William Hearst. It should be no surprise that they continue with lies and distortions to sell papers. The Media is in Lock Step line with the efforts to destroy everything the Black Panthers and Civil Rights Movement built. My hope is that people will think, think, think. "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground" Frederick Douglass

  2. Cecile Lusby

    Big Man,

    I remember my dear friend Richard speak of you with deep respect. Thank you so much for your statement of support. I concur with everything you have said.

  3. Susan Power

    Thank you for this. I knew Richard in the 70's and 80's. I remember him as a good friend, a man of great intelligence and integrity. He was so proud of his place in the radical movement. I'm glad that his friends are standing by his memory.

  4. barbara easley cox

    my brother, big man
    thank you for expressing what i feel and know about our continued struggle in this war against
    humanity in general and the great leagacy of the bpp and our heroes/sheroes in particular.

    barbara easley cox

  5. Mother Muckraker

    Thanks for the article!!!

    Lie #1: Rosenfeld included "people change" in his article, but Aoki never said that in the interview on tape.

    Lie #2: Rosenfeld also wrote: "Asked if this reporter was mistaken that Aoki had been an informant, Aoki said, “I think you are,” but added: “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.” "

    The problem is that Rosenfeld's comments were taken out and it looks as if Aoki said that all i one sentence. Here's the transcript of the tape:

    Rosenfeld: Yeah. (pause) So, would you say it's untrue that you ever worked with the FBI or got paid by the FBI?

    Aoki: I would say it.

    Rosenfeld: (huge sigh) (pause) And I'm trying to understand the complexities about it and I and I think…

    Aoki: It IS complex. (very slight laugh)

    Rosenfeld: I believe it is and…

    Aoki: Layer upon layer.

    Rosenfeld wrote: "Aoki was asked if he had been an FBI informant. Aoki’s first response was a long silence. He then replied, “ ‘Oh,’ is all I can say.” " The problem is that Aoki did not say that. THe conversation was as follows:
    Rosenfeld: When I …. I was told in my research that during this period of time, you actually worked for the FBI.

    Aoki: They tell you that?

    Rosenfeld: Uh… Burney told me that.

    Aoki: He did? (slight laugh)

    Rosenfeld: He did.

    Aoki: Oh (slight pause) that's interesting. (laugh)

    This is not an accident as Rosenfeld is an award winning journalist who worked for the Sf Chron and SF Examiner and he should know better.

    Lie #4:
    Swearingen claims on the video that Aoki was the perfect informant because of his ethnicity; when in fact, Aoki's ethnicity IS the main reason to arouse suspicion. Swearingen is lying because he worked in the racial unit of the FBI which specializes in relations or "unrelations" to be more accurate. Swearingen knows the nature of race relations and how to separate people which is why calling Aoki a perfect informant is a lie.

    This is just a small portion of their overall lies. There are more lies from this coalition of corporate media and intelligence agents.

  6. renaldo ricketts

    You can't tust a pig from yellow journalism they are still yell;ow ion side and out . They said they recruited him in HS . They really must have been hard up for agents to start at that level. What could they have possibly learned form a HS student. The gov.set out to kill the Panthers,they were nevert a threat to national security ,this was a smokescreen for assasinations. Any nation threaten has a right to defend itself , the Panthers could have never bene a threat to erh most powrful nation on earth. This sis not only absurd but stupid. A ploy by by Hoover for the extermination of tjhe Panthers. Aokis role was more educational than con frantational with violence,this in deed looks like another case of disinformation by crypto nazi pigs of the FBI.

  7. steven harnack

    Human beings are complicated. Aoki could well be both the person that you describe and an informant for his own purposes too. Rosenfeld emphasizes that no one was arrested or prosecuted due to the information that he provided, but the proof is there that he had a long term dialogue with the FBI. Why can’t you just say that your friend must have had a good reason for doing what he did and must have thought that it enhanced, not negated, all that he did?

  8. Cinque

    The truth can be a bitch: "Revelations that prominent radical activist Richard Aoki was an FBI informant have prompted angry denials among his supporters, but newly released records confirm he was secretly providing information to agents during the period he gave the Black Panthers guns and firearms training.
    The documents from Aoki's FBI informant file – totaling 221 pages – were released after a court challenge under the Freedom of Information Act and show that Aoki was an informant from 1961 to 1977, with only brief interruptions. The records say that at various points, he provided information that was "unique" and of "extreme value."
    Time to face it, y'all was had.

  9. Aaron Parr

    Without Aoki's word on this its hard to say.
    Without anything related to what he actually informed the FBI on its even harder to say what was going on.

    Its just as likely that Aoki used the FBI.

    Without full transparency, you simply have doubt. Best not to let that eat at you, and let it be.

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