New book explores life of alleged FBI informant
on September 13, 2012
The debate over Richard Aoki’s status as an FBI informant came home to the former Black Panther’s neighborhood Tuesday night in the form of a crowded basement book discussion.
“This has been three weeks of searching for truth as a moving target,” said Diane Fujino, associate professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.
Fujino’s book tour promoting her May release took an unexpected turn after the publication of two recent San Francisco Chronicle articles citing interviews and FBI documents to assert that Aoki was an FBI informant. Fujino’s book does not address the informant issue, but depicts Aoki, a longtime Bay Area political activist who later worked as a college counselor and teacher in the Peralta Community College District, as a “warrior-scholar” who fought social injustice and was well versed in political analysis.
More than 50 people attended the book discussion held at the Temescal branch of the Oakland library. “I’ve been so energized by this tour,” Fujino said, adding that she has enjoyed responding to critical inquiries from the audience. “For now, what I’d like to do is share the Richard Aoki that I came to know,” she said, “so that you might understand him in his full humanity and not as a fill in the blank, yes/no.”
The book consists mostly of Aoki’s oral history, with a section at the end of each chapter for Fujino’s analysis and additional research. The narrative begins with Aoki’s limited knowledge of his own family history, and continues through his life story until the epilogue depicting his funeral in 2009.
The format “is unique,” Fujino said. “Not everyone will agree with it, but I stand by it. He’s a great orator. He’s funny. He’s witty.” She declined to give a definitive answer on Aoki’s role with the FBI, choosing instead to question the documents’ generalities and reporter Seth Rosenfeld’s evidence for the assertion.
Rosenfeld, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, conducted his initial Aoki reporting as part of the research for his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, which was released in late August and chronicles a history of FBI surveillance at Berkeley.
Working with the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, he published a second article on Aoki after he received 221 pages of FBI documents from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI. These records were obtained after his book had been published.
Rosenfeld based his argument on multiple pieces of evidence — an FBI document from 1967 that identifies Aoki as an informant, a 2007 interview with Aoki prior to his death, and two separate interviews between Rosenfeld and FBI agents — along with hundreds of other FBI records.
The informant record, Rosenfeld wrote, shows Aoki’s name, but redacts much of the other information, such as his informant number.
In the articles, Rosenfeld cited a 2005 interview with retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill, Jr., in which the agent said he developed Aoki into “one of the best sources” the Bureau had. A later consultation with retired FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen independently confirmed the contents of the records and documents obtained by Rosenfeld through the Freedom of Information Act, Rosenfeld wrote.
The final piece of evidence — Aoki’s own interview with Rosenfeld — came under the most fire at Tuesday’s discussion. In audio recordings of the interview that are part of a video on the Center for Investigative Reporting website, Aoki denies charges that he was an informant, but said the issue was “complex. Layer upon layer.” In the article, Rosenfeld said Aoki’s response was “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”
Fujino said Rosenfeld strung together the series of phrases and that the context of the phrase was unclear, making the evidence not substantive. In a phone interview this week, Rosenfeld confirmed that the quote “people change” is recorded on the audiotape, but just not included in the video snippet.
Since Rosenfeld’s book does not focus solely on Aoki’s work during the 1960s, Fujino said she was unsure why Aoki had been singled out in his recent articles. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” Fujino said. “I do question the timeliness of the piece.”
Aoki was one of the earliest members of the Black Panthers, and was active in the organization in the 1960s and 1970s. He was notable for being the highest-ranking non-black leader, and also for providing weapons and weapons knowledge to the group, knowhow he gained from his army service.
During his time as a student at Merritt College and UC Berkeley, Aoki was also active in the Asian American Political Alliance and the Third World Liberation Front protest for greater ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.
He committed suicide in 2009, at age 70. His funeral was attended by many, and he was lauded by his fellow Black Panthers as the “people’s warrior”.
Tuesday’s event represented a cross-section of the online debates surrounding Rosenfeld’s recent articles. The Oakland visit was the second-to-last stop on Fujino’s book tour.
Fujino said typical reactions to the news have fallen into the two extremes of belief and disbelief. She also proposed a middle scenario, one she was quick to argue was not supported by hard evidence.
“Perhaps—and the jury is still out on this in my mind—Aoki was an informant in the early 60s,” Fujino said. “But he may have gotten changed through his connections and study with the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance. Richard seemed to really absorb this and make it his own.”
Opinions on the informant evidence was mixed.
“I know there were informants—that’s absolutely true,” said Al, 66, an Oakland resident who declined to give his last name.
He added that he believed the Aoki informant information was along these lines, and not simply erroneous research. “The evidence shows he was absolutely an informant,” Al said. “Maybe he was playing both sides.”
Yet friends of Aoki emphasized his benefit to the Panthers.
“Informants leave a path of destruction,” said Gerald Smith, 62, a former Black Panther and friend of Aoki. “Where is the damage from Richard?”
At the least, Fujino and other friends of Aoki said the book discussion encouraged dialogue with the community.
“It shows that a lot of people are thinking about what’s been going on,” said Harvey Dong, a lecturer in the UC Berkeley ethnic studies department and Aoki’s close friend and fellow activist. “The thing is, is [the FBI release of information] being used to discourage social activism? I tend to believe that.”
When her book tour concludes, Fujino said, she will think critically about the news and determine the next steps in the Aoki story.
“I need to do more research, read more documents,” she said. “There’s a lot of questions to ask and a lot of lessons to be learned.”
As for Rosenfeld, there are still about 4000 pages of FBI files that have not yet been released.
“I’ll continue my journalistic inquiry and bring as much information to the public as possible,” he said in a phone interview this week. “I believe the truth will prevail.”
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: firstname.lastname@example.org.