Seth Rosenfeld, writing for The Center For Investigative Reporting, revealed today that Richard Masato Aoki, the revered 1960’s radical who helped arm the Black Panthers, was an FBI informant. The information came to light as the result of research being done for Rosenfeld’s book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.”
Even before he joined the Black Panther Party, Richard Aoki was a force in San Francisco’s exploding political scene. Sporting slicked back hair, and wearing sunglasses in the dark of night, Aoki was known as a fearsome street fighter, and a serious revolutionary, among the movers and shakers of California’s radical elite. He exuded such a strong personality that he even scared his militant cohorts. Former Berkeley activist Victoria Wong recalled, “He had swagger up to the moon.”
It was in October of 1966, when Aoki reconnected Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who has been friends from his days at Oakland’s Merritt College. The three radical firebrands met at Aoki’s apartment and enjoyed a few drinks. They read through a draft of of Newton and Seale’s 10-point program, and Aoki agreed to join the Black Panthers.
A few days later, the fledgling Black Panthers received their first guns from the ever accommodating Mr. Aoki. Seale remembered the event in his memoir, “Seize the Time,” when he wrote, “Late in November 1966, we went to a Third World brother we knew, a Japanese radical cat. He had guns … .357 Magnums, 22’s, 9mm’s, what have you. … We told him that if he was a real revolutionary he better go on and give them up to us because we needed them now to begin educating the people to wage a revolutionary struggle. So he gave us an M-1 and a 9mm.”
Little did his radical associates know that FBI agent, Burney Threadgill Jr. had recruited Aoki as an informant in the late 1950’s, when the young man was graduating from Berkeley High School. Despite a history of fighting and petty theft, Aoki was also President of Stamp and Coin Club, and he excelled academically. Just the sort of smart, but troubled youngster, who was a perfect target for the FBI to use as an informant.
Agent Threadgill decided to approach Aoki, after he was recorded on a wiretap talking to a classmate whose parents were members of the Communist Party. Threadgill questioned him about the Soviet Union, and when Aoki replied that he has no interest in Communism, the agent recruited him to join left-wing organizations, and report on their activities. Richard Masato Aoki became known to the FBI as Informant T-2.
Now retired, Threadgill proudly described how his relationship with Aoki began, saying, “I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about? Very pleasant little guy. He always wore dark glasses, He was my informant. I developed him. He was one of the best sources we had.”
The FBI was well aware of Mr. Aoki’s value. M. Wesley Swearingen, a retired FBI agent, who investigated the Black Panthers, explained, “Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in a Black Panther Party, because I understand he is Japanese. Hey, nobody is going to guess – he’s in the Black Panther Party; nobody is going to guess that he might be an informant.”
After the turmoil of the ’60’s, and the Vietnam war died down, Aoki completed his education. He worked for 25 years as a teacher, counselor and administrator at the Peralta Community College District, and remained active in left-wing causes. He committed suicide in 2009, shooting himself after a long illness. Aoki, who was born in 1938, was 70 at the time of his death.
Just how the revelations will impact Mr. Aoki’s reputation remains to be seen. Prior to today’s shocking news, he was something of legendary figure in the world of radical politics. In 2009, a full length documentary, “Aoki,” was released, and in 2012, the biopic, “Samurai Among Panthers,” portrayed Aoki as a militant radical leader.
As the story of Aoki’s work for the FBI began to circulate, close friend and fellow radical, Harvey Dong seemed stunned by the news that Aoki was an informant. Dong, who was executor of Aoki’s estate, said, “It’s definitely something that is shocking to hear. I mean, that’s a big surprise to me.”
Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale commemorated Aoki, at his memorial service in 2009, as a “fearless leader and servant of the people.” When he was asked to comment on the news that Aoki was an informant, Seale expressed his disbelief, and then declined further comment.
Perhaps we will never know the truth about Richard Masato Aoki. He is no longer here to defend himself, and the FBI is known for its expertise at disinformation. Rosenfeld has filed more FOIA requests to recover all the files on Aoki, and he promises to keep digging until he gets to the bottom of the case.
Meanwhile the radical community is not buying the story. Phil, from The Angry Asian Man Blog, had this to say about Aoki as an informant, and about the FBI:
“I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this.”
“Granted, Aoki, who committed suicide in 2009, is not around to verify, deny, or explain these claims–claims that will no doubt help to sell the crap out of this new book. I’m not willing to accept this bombshell just like that, especially based on one article that happens to be written by Seth Rosenfeld, the same guy who wrote the book making these claims.”
“We’re also talking about the FBI, who definitely aren’t amateurs when it comes to shady discrediting tactics. It’s not hard to believe that there are holdovers from that era who would go to these lengths to tarnish Aoki’s legacy. Hell no. Not buying this. Need more information.”
What do you think? Is this a cut and dried case of another hero, who had some skeletons in his closet, or is this an example of the FBI, and the authorities, doing everything in their power to spread distrust, while ruining a legendary radical’s reputation?