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The Case of Richard Aoki: Berkeley Radical, Black Panther, FBI Informant

Richard Aoki was well-known as a lifelong Bay Area radical, playing key roles in the Socialist Workers Party, Berkeley ethnic studies strike, and Black Panther Party. He was also an FBI informant.

Richard Aoki, Charles Brown, and Manuel Delgado, UC Berkeley circa 1968. Third World Liberation Front

My joining the Black Panther Party was about being in the right place at the right time – or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it.
Richard Aoki
He was one of the best sources we had. Oh yeah he was a character.
—Former FBI SA Bernie Threadgill

The eager recruit was going through the standard operating procedure. There was the haircut, the issuing of fatigues, the medical exam, and of course the paperwork. With the latter a particular form stood out, “The Statement of Personal History.” Among its questions was a Cold War standard — “Are you now or have you ever been” a member of the Communist Party? In all earnestness, he answered “No.” Then for the follow-up question, have you ever associated with communists? He displayed a surfeit of honesty answering, “Yes.” When instructed to elaborate he proceeded to list the names of eight people he had met in high school whom he thought had ties to the Communist Party. He dutifully included the name of a girl he had “taken out on a date.”1 Such was the way that Richard Aoki inaugurated his role as a government informant; modest in comparison to what would come, but a solid beginning.

In 2012, Seth Rosenfeld published Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, a book about California governor Ronald Reagan, UC Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr, and Free Speech Movement spokesman Mario Savio. Within the multiple chapters of his far-ranging story was a subsection detailing the exploits of Richard Matsui Aoki, a relatively minor character in Sixties history, but someone who had been gaining esteem among a new generation of political activists, especially Asian Americans.

Aoki had been at different times a member of the Young Socialist Alliance, a “secret” member of the Black Panther Party, and a leader in the strike on the campus of UC Berkeley that led to the establishment of an Ethnic Studies department. In the course of his research Rosenfeld stumbled across the fact that Aoki had also been a government informant. The book release, coming on the heels of a glowing Aoki documentary and the publication of a sympathetic academic monograph, set off a minor firestorm. Among Aoki’s friends and old comrades there was a wave of outrage. His defenders argued that it could not be true, Aoki’s commitment to the radical causes he was associated with was genuine and Rosenfeld’s claims were self-serving, he was just trying to sell books. Aoki himself was unable to respond, having committed suicide in 2009 in the aftermath of a stroke.

Initially Rosenfeld’s evidence was spare; Aoki’s name appearing as an informant in a single FOIA document, corroboration from his first FBI handler, Bernie Threadgill, and Aoki’s less than convincing denial. Over the course of the ensuing weeks, the FBI was compelled — Rosenfeld had sued them for access — to release more documents. Those documents came in two significant sections, the first a release of two-hundred pages within weeks of the book’s release, the latter a release of thousands, coming months later. After the first release, Aoki’s defenders held their ground. His biographer, Diane Fujino, along with long-time friend, musician, and Asian-American activist, Fred Ho, were especially vocal. Ho was more unilaterally dismissive of the evidence, while Fujino was a bit more careful, saying that “rather than take the FBI files at face value, they [the files] require more scrutiny.” With the release of the full Aoki informant file, which totaled well over three-thousand pages, the defense of Aoki gave way to defensive statements along the lines that perhaps Aoki was an informant, but that his allegiance over time had shifted. Harvey Dong, the executor of Aoki’s estate, and someone himself that Aoki informed on,2 offered a non-rebuttal rebuttal, saying, “The documents themselves show that he did not fully cooperate with his FBI handlers.” All in all it was a cringe- inducing episode. Well-intentioned people passionately defending an old comrade, friend, or a person they had unwittingly conferred their academic prestige on, who was in reality a highly mendacious Bureau informant who had misled and deceived some of them for decades.

Amid the controversy of “is he or isn’t he,” an important opportunity was being missed. Here was an informant who had operated for seventeen years, penetrating some of the most famous organizations of the Sixties. Now there was documentary evidence laid out in meticulous detail, available for all to see — and it needs to pointed out that even without the released FBI material, there were glaring contradictions in Aoki’s own narrative — yet instead of welcoming the chance to get at the truth it was opposed with not a little success by arguments that aimed to freeze the Aoki myth to the time before the revelations.

The Making of an Informant

Richard Aoki’s early life started with a stark rebuke from the United States government. At the age of four, he along with his brother, mother, and father were interred at Topaz Utah in the Spring of 1942, as a result of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that mandated the deportation of Japanese-Americans in “military areas” of the United States to concentration camps. This would have a lasting impact on Aoki.

In 1945, on release from Topaz, Aoki moved with his father and brother — their mother and father had separated in the camp — and settled in Oakland, California. It was there that Richard attended Berkeley High School and met some of the people that would ultimately lead him in the direction he took.

According to Aoki, one of the most important experiences in his life was his time spent in the US Army. It is also a time about which he was significantly — and demonstrably — deceptive. Counter to his radical persona, Aoki — even later in life — expressed affection for the US military. He had enlisted in the Army while still in high school, but had to wait on active enlistment until he graduated. While he signed up as a medic to mollify his parents, he secretly planned to transfer to the infantry — “I wanted to be a career soldier, I wanted to become the first Japanese American General in the United States Army.” Like many other aspects of his time in the Army, how he planned to become a general when he had enlisted, not as a full-time soldier, but in the reserves, is not something he explained.

He does offer an explanation about why, after eight years, he decided to leave. In his telling it was because of the stories he was hearing about Vietnam. It is worth recounting this in some detail because it is revealing as to the way in which Aoki constructed and held to a certain narrative that if actually looked at critically would have raised questions regardless of any FBI documents. As Aoki described things in a 2008 interview:

I began talking with buddies that were coming back from Vietnam in the early stages who had been advisers, they were telling me stories I couldn’t believe, zippoing villages … going into villages and burning the whole damn place down. And wiping out women and children, and this was years before My Lai … and I said wait a minute that doesn’t sound kosher to me.

Because of this, when it came time for him to reenlist, he informed the clerk that he was not going to sign up for another eight years. The clerk, alarmed by this news, called Aoki’s colonel in the middle of the night, leading to the officer trying to convince Aoki to change his mind; not only offering him extra money, but also saying he could get him into Green Beret training. Aoki told a similar story to Diane Fujino, with a few pointed differences. He was more candid about his military service, making clear he had been in the Reserves — a branch of the military that at the time served one weekend a month and two weeks a year — rather than having the full-time commitment of an active duty soldier. With Fujino he wholly omits the story of waking his colonel, instead saying the Army offered him direct admission to Officer Candidate School, assignment to the 101st Airborne Division (not the Green Berets), and a signing bonus of $3,500; all of which he declined because “I had acquired moral opposition to the Vietnam War.”

There are, however, things he omits in both the 2008 interview and in his interview with Fujino. Leaving aside the specious claim that he was morally opposed to Vietnam in 1964 — before that war had actually become Vietnam — Aoki was not going to be sent there. Aoki had an official status of “Non-inductable”; being a Reservist in the Sixties meant automatic deferment from full-time induction and being sent overseas, something it is hard to imagine he was not aware of — though he never mentions this.

The bigger conflict in his story, however, is that by 1964, while still in the US Army Reserves, he had become an FBI informant, infiltrating the Trotskyist Young Socialist Alliance. As such his loyalties were firmly aligned with the US government, not its opponents.

Aoki’s military service is the critical piece in understanding how the Bureau recruited him. In Seth Rosenfeld’s book, retired FBI agent and Aoki’s initial handler, Bernie Threadgill, claimed that Aoki came to their attention after his voice turned up on an FBI wiretap; specifically when he was speaking to classmate Doug Wachter, whose parents were in the Communist Party. As interesting and seemingly credulous as Threadgill’s story is, it is not true. Aoki’s recruitment was much more mundane.

Specifically, the revelations in his Army personal statement prompted the military to conduct a follow-up interview. In that interview, Aoki offered more specifics on the people he knew and why he thought they were Communists — information that was later outlined in an FBI memo:

He first came to the attention of the San Francisco [FBI] Office in 1957, at which time CIC [Counterintelligence Corp US Army] advised that Aoki, while serving as a Private, Company C, Reserve Forces at Regiment, Fort Ord, California, gave a statement to the Army officials to the effect that he attended some Labor Youth League (LYL) sponsored socials while attending Berkeley High School, Berkeley, California in 1956, and was acquainted with several fellow students whom he considered to be LYL members.3

It is noteworthy that the apparent “standard operating procedure” for the military was to forward such intelligence to the FBI. It is also noteworthy that the Bureau — unlike many of the radicals Aoki worked with — did not take him at his word. Instead they fully vetted him. In doing so they did not immediately adopt him as an informant, citing a number of questions that would need to be answered before they would agree to proceed:

Your letter does not disclose results of your field search, efforts to obtain information regarding his reliability, stability, general reputation, present and past employment and check of local credit and arrest records.

It concludes by saying, “once you have done this your request will be given further consideration.”5 As things developed, these matters were cleared up and Aoki was brought fully on board as a paid informant.

Informing on the Trotskyists

While Threadgill’s recollections of Aoki’s recruitment do not match the documentary record, his memory of what he wanted him to do does line up. After approaching Aoki and asking him how he felt about the Soviet Union, Aoki told him he had no interest in communism. Threadgill then suggested, “Well, why don’t you go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about?” For the next seven years he did exactly that.

According to Aoki he did not join the Socialist Workers Party or any other organization until he was out of the Army because “I didn’t feel free to join anything until October ’64 when I got my honorable discharge.” In the 2009 documentary Aoki, the film makes an abrupt jump from his speaking about his decision to not reenlist in the Army to his talking about how he then “got to meet some people who were, what we would call the old-left, communist, Trotskyites, social-democrats, primarily in the union movement.” He then says, “I’m bringing up the date real fast because there were a lot of things happening in the world.” The film then moves to Diane Fujino talking about the state of the world and how Aoki “became politically conscious and radicalized.” The events are arranged in such a way to suggest Aoki “became political” after leaving the Army. This is not what happened.

Instead, beginning in 1960 and accelerating in 1962, Aoki was consistently attending meetings of the Socialist Workers Party’s youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance. His reports came frequently, systematically listing the names of everyone attending meetings and giving a capsule description of what went on. By the fall of 1962 the FBI was reporting that “Informant continues to report on 75 security subjects.”6 He also appeared to have advanced quickly in the organization, to the point where by the following year the Bureau reported that “[A]s of Sept 10, 1963, Richard Aoki is a member of the SWP.”

While later in his life he obscured this, his association with the SWP was an open fact. The student newspaper of Oakland City College (later Merritt College) ran a story on his Trotskyist activity in 1964. Under the headline “Revolutionary Socialist Leads New Club” it explained, “Richard Aoki, who calls himself a ‘revolutionary socialist,’ was elected temporary chairman of the new Socialist Discussion Club.” The article, appearing a full seven months before his discharge from his Reserve obligation, makes clear that being in the Army and being active politically was not — contrary to his claims to the opposite — a conflict.

While Aoki did not attempt to conceal his YSA/SWP membership while in the military, he does appear to have broadened his informant activity once he was discharged. By the fall of 1965 the Bureau was recording that “[i]nformant currently participates in Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) in a leadership capacity.”8

Informant regularly attends and reports on weekly meetings in Oakland – Berkeley Branch of the SWP. He maintains personal contact with SWP and YSA members in the Oakland – Berkeley area. He has furnished information of value concerning PLP [Progressive Labor Party]. He has attended and reported on numbers meetings and functions of VDC [Vietnam Day Committee].

Along with all this, he also gave the FBI information on the Students for a Democratic Society, as well as groups opposing the war in Vietnam.10

Here a word needs to be said about Aoki’s motivation. Aside from Threadgill’s remarks about Aoki’s anti-communism, a more nuanced
understanding of what impelled him is likely lost to history. It is the case, however, that the stipend the Bureau gave Aoki was not
inconsequential. While he worked numerous jobs, some full- and others part-time, while informing, he garnered a consistent income
from the Bureau of around $150 a month, along with another $50 or so for expenses — or $1500 in 2016 dollars. Further insight into his motivation are offered in the following from 1962:

The informant contends that he is satisfied with his situation [of having
a modest income from the Bureau] because he feels that his services
are in the best interests of his country and that whatever service he
is able to perform for this Bureau, he only expects a small amount of
remuneration.

While money does not appear to have been the primary motivation, it did subsidize his career aspirations in attending college, but the main drive appears to have been the desire to do something “patriotic” — along with stoking his considerable ego, much on display in his myriad interviews.

Nonetheless, his tenure in the Socialist Workers Party does not seem to have been smooth. In December 1964 he was put on six months’ probation for “general misconduct.”12 At issue were his missing meetings, to the point where his comrades told him, “It was unfair
to other members of [the] YSA for him to enjoy membership in the Local, yet not attend meetings.” Aoki claimed that his job, which ran from 4 PM to midnight, six days a week, was the reason. Being put on probation appears to have rattled him, as he reported to the FBI that he hoped he would not be asked to resign.

Despite the missed meetings, he was still cataloging a fair amount about the Trotskyists. One FBI review notes that he had passed on information on “55 security subjects in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Among them were members of the Trotskyists group he was part of, as well members of the Communist Party Youth Group, the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs, and the Afro-American Student Association.14

All the while he did this, however, he maintained his goal of moving his academic career forward:

Informant claims that he is saving a considerable amount of money, which he is earning at the present time, and after another semester at Merritt College he hopes to be able to discontinue his current employment and enroll at the University of California (UC) Berkeley, for his last two years of schooling. Informant feels that once he is enrolled at the UC he will be in a good position to assist the Bureau in its investigations of any subversive elements.

Aoki did eventually enroll in UC Berkeley, which would come to be fateful in numerous ways. Before then, however, his membership in the SWP would end and he would briefly become part of one of the most prominent radical organizations to arise in the United States in the Sixties.

Informing on the Black Panther Party

To the degree he is known today, Richard Aoki is seen as one of the few non-Black members to have joined the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, later the Black Panther Party. While there is firm evidence of his having been involved in the origins of the group, specifically through his friendship with Panther founder Huey P. Newton and his acquaintance with Bobby Seale, the nature of his membership and activity with the Panthers beyond that is shrouded in mystery, mythology, and exaggeration, all which served to obscure his actual role.

In Subversives, Rosenfeld writes that Richard Aoki “armed the Black Panthers.” Quoting Aoki, he writes, “I had a little collection and Bobby and Huey knew about it, and so when the Party was formed, I decided to turn it over to the group.” Likewise, Rosenfeld recounts how Bobby Seale in his 1971 history of the Panthers describes how there was a “Japanese radical cat” that “had guns for a motherfucker.” Rosenfeld’s news hook made for good headlines, but did not really break much new ground on the matter of weapons and the early Black Panthers. The group’s raison d’être was its armed patrols. Aoki handing over weapons (at Newton’s request), along with Newton and Seale fundraising through selling Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong (the Little Red Book), was how they initially were able to obtain arms for these patrols. It also needs to be noted that in conducting these patrols they were operating within the law, utilizing a legal loophole that allowed the public carrying of firearms. This was before passage of the Mulford Act, a law that the Panthers protested, vaulting them to national attention with their armed protest in the State Capitol in Sacramento in 1967. In other words, things appear to be what they were — the guns were needed and were used for patrolling the police. In fact, Seale recounts Aoki’s resistance to their using guns, explaining that his reaction to the patrols was, “you’re gonna get your goddam asses killed. …” — suggesting Aoki made the loan with reservations.

Saying that, Aoki’s military mindset, which he promoted among the Panthers, was highly problematic for a radical organization, making them more vulnerable to counter moves by law enforcement. In one interview Aoki bragged that, “I’m somewhat responsible for the military slant to the organization’s public image.” Aoki himself loved guns — in a way that was either ignorant or reckless. In one interview toward the end of his life he gleefully recounts how while in the Army they let him fire a particularly powerful weapon and says, “I almost had an orgasm.” It is the kind of thing one might hear from a twenty-year-old recruit who has never been in combat — yet Aoki tells the story as a middle-aged man.

It is also clear from the documentary record that Aoki played at least a consultative role in the initial politics of the Panthers. Both Seale and Aoki recount how Newton showed him the draft of the Panther Ten-Point program for review and he approved it. Along with this, Aoki says that it is he who introduced them to the communist politics of Mao Zedong, “[t]he Maoist twist, I kind of threw that one in. I said so far the most advanced Marxists I have run across are the Maoists in China.” His FBI file tends to back up the claim:

Only RICHARD MITSUI AOKI, HUEY PERCY NEWTON AND BOBBY GEORGE SEALE were fully informed on the political philosophies of the organization. With the possible exception of ELDRIDGE CLEAVER, the San Francisco Branch Captain of the BPPSD, none of the other activist members appeared knowledgeable of or interested in the political philosophies of the organization expounded by the top leadership. [Informant report, 10/25/67]15

Because of his Trotskyist political training, his initial position in the BPPSD was that of “Minister of Education,” a fact that Aoki and later Panthers appear to have forgotten, ignored, or gotten confused in the subsequent mythology. This can be seen in the following from May 1, 1967:

In early 1967, the exact date not known, RICHARD MATSUI AOKI of Berkeley, California, as a former Oakland City College student, was drawn into the BPPSD and had the title Minister of Education bestowed upon him. NEWTON AND SEALE knew AOKI to be a scholar of the classic writings on revolution by such former black militants as FRANTZ FANON, MARCUS GARVEY, MALCOLM X LITTLE and W.E.B. Du BOIS.16

Regardless, that position did not last long and gave way to Aoki’s status as a “secret member” for which he is more known. The FBI documents suggest that that status may have something to do with his ongoing membership — and informing — on the SWP. In talking with Diane Fujino, with whom he was more upfront about his SWP membership, Aoki claims that his SWP leaders

[w]ere stunned by what I was doing as a member of the BPP. They went into executive session, came back, and said that I would be asked to be placed out of my assignment as the resident on the Negro Question. They wanted me to work on something else.

When asked why, they told him that “it could lead to some heavy duty stuff and then if my SWP membership is revealed, it might not reflect well on the SWP.” In other words, the group wanted distance between themselves and the BPP organizationally and politically. As a result, according to what he told Fujino, he went to Huey Newton and told him about his conundrum. Newton in turn told him he had no problem with him being in both the Black Panther Party and the Socialist Workers Party. Given that the SWP was telling him he could not be in both, Aoki then claimed, “I wrote my letter of resignation and hand-delivered it to the SWP leadership.”

As with many of Aoki’s stories this does not appear to be what actually happened. Instead, the FBI reports show Aoki attempting to keep a foot in two different doors. Specifically in June 1967 the FBI was reporting that Aoki had been suspended from SWP and he was working to get reinstated, and doing this by cutting his ties with the Panthers.

Informant has been ordered by the SWP organizer to resign from SWP and the Executive Committee of the Oakland Berkeley Branch of the SWP. Informant has complied with these orders which were given by the organizer because he feared that informant might be arrested as have many other members of the BPPSD. Informant was also ordered to slowly decrease his activity with the BPPSD. Informant is in the process of complying with this instruction. Informant has been further instructed to attend classes and functions other than business meetings of the SWP. Informant is to remain close to and in contact with the SWP organizer. SF 2496-8 [the FBI code assigned to Aoki’s informant file] anticipates that he will be reinstated as a full-fledged SWP member in the Fall of 1967.18

As for Newton being comfortable with Aoki being in both organizations, that too is suspect. The FBI, writing in April 1967,
reported that the Panthers “discouraged dual membership and sought not to be identified with the Communist Party USA, the SWP, the
Progressive Labor Party (PLP), or any other organizations having left wing tendencies.” Perhaps Newton was making an exception in Aoki’s case, one the SWP was not willing to make — he is no longer alive to clarify this. It is, however, possible that Aoki lied to Newton just as he lied to Fujino.

As things turned out it did not matter; Aoki ended up effectively expelled from the SWP anyways and in a diminished role in the BPP. An FBI evaluation in June 1968 reports that Aoki retained “the rank of Captain in the Black Panther Party (BPP)” and that “informant functions as a secret member of the BPP.” Meantime his attempts to conciliate the SWP failed and Aoki had “terminated efforts to regain entrance to the SWP.”19

All of this was done in the context of his informing on the Panthers. One gets a sense reading the Bureau reports of the specific value of Aoki and his serendipitous presence among the Panthers in a period when the Bureau was racing to catch up with the phenomena — before the fever years of the “Black Extremist” COINTELPRO aimed at the BPP hit its full stride between 1968 and 1971. For example, the following from May 1967 tells of a rally at UC Berkeley:

The speakers included Barbara Arthur who was introduced as co- chairman of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPPSD) (NOTE: She is not co-chairman but is a member of the steering committee according to Rich Aoki) She spoke about the facts surrounding the death of Denzil Dowell.20

Here one sees Aoki offering a corrective for the Bureau about the leadership structure of the Panthers, something that could not be
garnered by just sending an agent out to listen to speeches.

Aoki also shows up in a report concerning Huey P. Newton. Specifically right after Newton had been arrested for a confrontation with police, which ended with the killing of Oakland Police officer John Frey — leading to Newton’s jailing and trial for murder. In the wake of the shootout the FBI was trying to determine who owned the car Newton had been driving. While they knew the vehicle was registered to Laverne Williams in Oakland, they did not know why Newton had access to that particular car. The answer came in intelligence supplied by Aoki who reported that as “of October 1967, Huey Percy Newton was living with Laverne Edith Williams at 5939 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland.”

All in all, the Bureau was happy with what they were getting, writing that Aoki “has materially assisted the Bureau in keeping abreast of developments with this notorious organization.” In turn his intelligence was “disseminated to local law enforcement agencies” and deemed of “considerable value.”22

It seems fair to conclude that without the information supplied by Richard Aoki the FBI would have had a less clear picture of the Black Panthers and their leadership, especially in the critical formative period of the end of 1966 into the fall of 1967 — before there were other informants in place to pick up the slack. As is clear in the history of the Panthers, the information the Bureau collected went hand in hand with an unprecedented repressive onslaught leveled at that organization.

Strike for Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley

For all the focus on Aoki as a member of the Panthers, it appears his most active tenure there was short and his commitment spotty. By early 1968, little more than a year after the Panthers formed, he appeared to be moving on. The description of his activity in February 1968 suggests he was redirecting his efforts toward activity at UC Berkeley where he was going to school:

Informant is a member of the Executive Committee of the Tri- Continental Progressive Students Association (TCPSA). He is liaison representative of TCPSA to the Afro-American Student Union at the University of California, Berkeley. As a former Minister of Education and retaining the rank of Captain in the Black Panther Party (BPP), informant functions as a secret member of the BPP. Informant continues on the editorial staff of the magazine, Black Politics. He reports on activities of members of the SWP, YSA and members of Student Black Nationalist and new left organizations at the University of California, Berkeley.24

He continued to keep the Bureau apprised of the BPP — literally “phoning it in” in some cases. Thus we see in a report from April 1969 that “a man who identified himself as Richard Aoki” called the BPP national headquarters and asked for Panther leader David Hilliard. Hilliard was not in, but he was able to speak with June Hilliard [David Hilliard’s brother]. The reason he called is that he wanted to “know whether BOBBY [Seale?] was going to turn himself in.”

Aoki says of this period that he “had been working on life-and-death issues with the Black Panthers and I was getting tired out by the political stuff by then.” More probable is that his ardor for informing was waning as his academic career approached a new phase. In actuality, the entire course of his tenure as an informant coincided with either attending or making plans to enroll in college. Now, having received his Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, he was matriculated in a Master’s program in Social Work at UC Berkeley.

As things developed, however, he again found himself “in the right place at the right time.” Specifically at ground zero of what would turn out to be the longest and most violent student strike in UC Berkeley history. The focus of the strike was the demand for a department of Ethnic Studies.

The UC strike occurred in the wake of a similar confrontation at San Francisco State — an outpouring that had been met with especially harsh government and police repression. At the center of the UC Berkeley strike were four groups: the Afro-American Students Union, the Mexican-American Student Confederation, the Native American Students United and the Asian-American Political Alliance — who joined in the umbrella organization, the Third World Liberation Front, or TWLF. The TWLF in turn had a leadership consisting of Manuel Ruben Delgado, Jim Nabors, LaNada Means, and Richard Aoki. As the Bureau noted, Aoki was “in [an] excellent position to keep the Bureau informed.”26 Over the course of the ten-week strike
students leafleted, picketed, and occupied buildings to advance their demands; the university in turn repeatedly called out the police, leading to escalating confrontations and violence.

A flavor of events comes through in one FBI report describing how a demonstrator “threw a home-made tear gas canister into a group of law enforcement officers in front of Sproul Hall.” That was not particularly unusual for the time. What was, was the fact that the police “were not wearing gas masks and the tear gas caused both officers and demonstrators to disperse quickly.” Things escalated to the point that toward the end of the strike, California Governor Ronald Reagan dispatched the National Guard to campus.27 As a result of this the strikers and especially their leaders were targeted for disciplinary action by the school, along with facing arrest. What jumps out in this is how Richard Aoki, a known and visible leader of the strike, was relatively immune from arrest and punishment.

In discussing this period, Aoki presents things in such a way to suggest he was arrested multiple times. Thus we hear vague assertions such as “during a period of time when about a hundred of us were arraigned,” or “another time when we were arrested,” and “I remember one time I got thrown in jail” (emphasis added). Rather than multiple arrests, however, Aoki appears to have been arrested only once — and in that instance he was not punished.

In contrast to Aoki’s sketchy memory, fellow strike leader Manuel Delgado is much clearer. In his memoir he recounts how he had been arrested four times during the strike and Jim Nabors had been arrested three times. LaNada Means and Richard Aoki were both arrested only one time.

Diane Fujino’s conversations with Aoki — which now have the value of putting him on record on a number of things — included a discussion of his “arrests” during the strike. In discussing this, she picks up on contradictions in his account to the point of researching the matter, but relegates any skepticism to footnotes rather than follow-up. Thus regarding his claim to multiple arrests, she writes:

It’s difficult to verify the number of times Aoki was arrested during the strike. No other arrests of Aoki are mentioned in local newspapers. Misdemeanors remain on court records for only seven years; plus Aoki indicated that his criminal records were sealed. No felonies were listed under his name in the Alameda County court records.

The obvious question would seem to be why Aoki — unlike Manuel Delgado — could not recall something as eventful as how many times he was arrested. That said, the reason Fujino could not find any arrests beyond the one, felony or otherwise, is because there weren’t any. The background check the FBI conducted in 1961 showed that up to that point, he had never before been arrested. The only thing they uncovered was a speeding ticket.28 As for his claim that his records were “sealed,” that itself should have raised the question: Why?

The one arrest Aoki does describe — his only one during the strike — has its own unexamined peculiarities. He says that he was thrown into a holding cell with a group of thirty men and that the bailiff on depositing him there said, “Here is an Oriental Communist student from Berkeley” — the implication being he was trying to rouse the prisoners against him. Aoki then explains how he turned this provocation around by talking to his cellmates about his radicalism. He then, for reasons he does not explain, says that when lunch came, “I started a little ruckus over food. They threw me in solitary, the hole.” Leaving aside Aoki’s claim of being put in the “hole” in a county lock-up while awaiting arraignment (is there such a thing?), what is not interrogated is why, given everything that happened that day, did he choose that moment to create a disturbance over jail food? Given we now know he was an informant, an obvious explanation is that he was trying to get away from his fellow prisoners in order to call his FBI handlers.

Richard Aoki being arrested at the entrance of UC Berkeley, February 18, 1969
Lonnie Wilson / Oakland Tribune, Oakland Tribune Company

Fortunately, we have more than Aoki’s words as insights. Specifically we have the FBI, who were very concerned with the arrest, telling their agents to closely follow the “informant’s arrest on 2/18/69” and to “insure that he does not disclose his relationship with the Bureau and to insure that his informant status is not compromised.” They also give — or restate — his marching orders for his behavior during the strike:

Insure that informant clearly understands that he is not to initiate or participate in activities which result in personal or property damage and should not place himself in a position where he is subject to arrest if at all possible. While it is realized that informant must openly associate with element seeking to promote agitation in order to be in a position to obtain information concerning planned acts of violence, you must be constantly alert to balance informant’s activities in this regard against the undesirable results of having informant actually participate in such violence and thus leave himself open to prosecution.29

This further confirms this was Aoki’s only — and likely unintentional — arrest during the strike. Beyond that it shows that the Bureau wanted their informant free of legal constraints that would compromise his ability to be an informant.

Beyond Aoki’s arrest during the strike, there is one other area rife with contradiction, specifically his treatment by authorities
in the aftermath of the strike. The short version is this: Aoki got a full pass. His comrades were not as lucky; LaNada Means was suspended from UC Berkeley for two semesters, while Jim Nabors and Manuel Delgado were expelled. Aoki — as we learn in another footnote in Fujino’s book — was not punished. Specifically Willis A. Shotwell, the coordinator of facilities and regulations, wrote a letter to the Committee on Student Conduct about Aoki’s case and found “insufficient evidence to make a finding of guilty — no penalty.” Aoki, the Chair of the Asian American Political Alliance, an iconic leader and one of the strike’s fiercest advocates, came out the other side with his academic career at UC Berkeley fully intact.

Aftermath

After the strike, ended Richard Aoki was awarded his Master’s Degree in Social Work and was beginning his transition to working in academia. In turn, he was giving less of his time to the Bureau.

SF-2469-R has just obtained a Master’s Degree in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). He has been active in the formation of a new department of Asian Studies at UCB and expects to obtain employment by the University as an Assistant Program Coordinator for the new department as a lecturer. Due to the demands of his academic pursuit the informant furnished little information subsequent to April 15, 1970.31

According to Aoki, he was “burned out”:

I was on automatic pilot. Academically I was on my way to completing the requirements for my master’s degree. Then the big split in the BPP hit, I’d been away from the party and I didn’t see it coming. Then I had my personal life and plans.

Aoki’s story is again contradicted by actual events, specifically that the split in the Black Panther Party was still a year in the future, when Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver publicly feuded in March 1971 after Cleaver confronted Newton via telephone during a TV taping. Beyond that detail is the odd fact that Aoki, who claimed to be a radical of the first order, effectively retired from the revolution in early 1970 — hardly an ebb year of political struggle.

Regardless, from that point on his reports dwindle from a trickle to a drip, albeit a wide-ranging drip; consistent with how deeply he had ingratiated himself among movement forces in the Bay Area. One of his last FBI progress reports gives the sweep of this:

In July 1975, information on whereabouts of AIM activist ROLAND Knox and BPP member PAUL MORGAN. In September 1975, information on current activity of former BPP Minister of Finance Melvin Newton. Evaluation of current leadership of BPP. Information on whereabouts and activity of SHARON KAPPLEMAN, an above-ground supporter of Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. In October 1975, information on whereabouts and occupations of two former BPP activists.33

The report also noted one other particular disturbing development. Aoki, the report stated, would be teaching a new college course in Asian Studies and as a result was expected to “be in contact with radical Asian organizations such as I Wor Kuen to gather and present course material and should be able to obtain information of value.”
Aoki the government informant, who had supplied a steady stream of information on the UC Berkeley strike, would now leverage the academic position he gained as a result of that struggle to supply the government with information.

Nonetheless, by 1976 the Bureau was reporting that Aoki’s request for “up to $150 a month” was denied because his productivity “does not warrant payments in the amount requested.” One exception to the dearth of reports was in September 1976, when he informed the Bureau that the “Revolutionary Communist Party is actively recruiting members and seeking to become influential within Asian activist organization in the San Francisco Bay Area.”34 The RCP, which had grown out of the Revolutionary Union, had by that time recruited a number of veterans from the Berkeley Strike along with absorbing a number of people from the Asian organization, Wei Min She.

In October 1977 the Bureau officially dropped Aoki as an informant. Their explanation is illustrative:

He desired to discontinue seeking information for the FBI because he believed that this was inconsistent with his present career and objectives as a student counselor and instructor at a junior college in Oakland, California. Source advised that he is not willing to testify in open court or before administrative hearing boards if such testimony would reveal his past connection with the FBI. This would alienate him from associates and friends and would cause him great trouble in his relationships with students as a student counselor.35

For seventeen years Aoki had been aggressively informing for the FBI, but he now wanted to cease informing and live the quiet life of an academic. He did this, however, with a caveat; he wanted to maintain the lie that had been his life up to that point.

Fallout

Richard Aoki is clearly a success story for the FBI, one compounded by the knee-jerk response of his defenders. In this, Aoki’s outing and the reaction conjures up images of the Malinovsky Affair of almost a hundred years earlier. The late political activist Fred Ho, much in the way Lenin argued about Malinovsky, said that even if Aoki had been an agent it didn’t really matter, “surely [he] was a piss-poor one because what he contributed to the movement is enormously greater than anything he could have detracted or derailed.” Ho does not then give an account — a balance sheet if you will — of how Aoki was able to do more good than harm over the many years of his informing, only this vague assertion. Ceding some ground, others have argued that Aoki may have done bad things, but he became genuinely enamored of the Left he had formerly spied on. To this it can be said that it is possible that Aoki convinced himself that on some level he played, or could play later in life, a positive role — we will likely never know his thinking on this. Regardless, it matters little; the truism that it is not what you think, but what you do, applies.

In the key years of 1957 to 1977, Richard Aoki was an aggressive government informant doing incalculable harm to those he came in contact with. The FBI, with their frequent and comprehensive assessments, attest to the considerable value Aoki was to them for a very long time. That he never took responsibility for that speaks volumes about his moral and ethical character. And here is the irony. Not only did he not take responsibility, he deliberately hid his past and assumed a role as deceptive in his latter life as the one he assumed while he was young. In turn he made a mockery of those that rose to defend him — many of whom were actually deserving of the respect he claimed for himself.

    1.   Richard Aoki, Statement of Personal History, US Army, 29
      March 1957. FBI Richard Aoki file. Aoki Part 12, 38.
    2.  FBI Report of James A. Sherriff, Report on the Asian American Political Alliance 1/29/70. FBI Aoki Files Section 2-3, 285 & 291. “SF T-1 is SF 2496S ‘[Aoki] …’ SF T1 on September 29, 1969 classified these leaders as follows… According to SF-T1 Harvey Dong occupies a middle position between militant and moderate.”
    3.  SAC San Francisco to Director, FBI, Subject: Richard Matsui Aoki, aka Richard Ford, SF 2473 PSI, 3/6/61. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 12, 57.
    4.  Ibid.
    5.  Ibid.
    6.  SAC San Francisco to Director, FBI, Subject: SF 2946 S, 10/29/62. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 13, 52.
    7.  SAC San Francisco to Director FBI, 10/29/65. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 14, 49.
    8.  Ibid.
    9.  SAC San Francisco to Director FBI, 11/2/66. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 14, 220.
    10.  SAC San Francisco to Director FBI, 7/19/62. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 13, document 14.
    11.  SA [REDACTED] to SAC San Francisco, 1/18/65. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 13, 150.
    12.  SAC San Francisco to Director FBI, 1/11/65. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 13, 145-146.
    13.  Ibid.
    14.  SAC San Francisco to Director FBI, 4/19/63. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 13, 137.
    15.  Report of Wilbert J. Weiskirch 11/16/67, “Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPPSD): The Vault.” Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 1, 612.
    16.  Ibid.
    17.  SAC San Francisco, to Direction FBI, SF 2496-S 6/30/67. The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 16, 12-14.
    18.  Report of Wilbert J. Weiskirch 11/16/67, “Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPPSD): The Vault.” Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 1, 600.
    19.  SAC San Francisco, to Direction FBI, SF 2496-S 6/30/67. The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 16, 65.
    20.  Informant Report “Rally on Sproul Steps UC Berkeley, Sponsored by YSA.” The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki, Aoki Section 15 p 149.
    21.  Report of Wilbert J. Weiskirch 11/16/67, “Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPPSD): The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 1, 638. Report references SF-T-1, “SF-T1 is SF 2496 S,” i.e. Richard Aoki, (577).
    22.  SAC San Francisco, to Direction FBI, SF 2496-S 6/30/67. The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 16, 14.
    23.  SAC San Francisco, to Direction FBI, SF 2496-S 6/24/68. The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 16, 65.
    24.  From SAC [REDACTED] to SAC, Subject: Richard Aoki. 4/17/69. The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 15, 3.
    25.  SAC San Francisco to Director FBI, 3/7/69. “SF 2496 R” FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 15, 21.
    26.  Memo: University of California, Berkeley (UCB). Third World Liberation Front (TWLF).” February 27, 1969. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 1, 466.
    27.  Rayburn & Bender.
    28.  From SA Burney Threadgill, Jr. to SAC San Francisco, 7/18/61. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 12, 79.
    29.  From Director FBI to SAC San Francisco. Subject SF 2496 R, 3/5/69. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 15, 30.
    30.  FBI memo, “Student Agitational Activities at the University of California, Berkeley, California, Fall and Winter Quarters, 1968-1969. April 18, 1969.” FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 2-3, 198.
    31.  SAC San Francisco to Director, FBI. Subject SF 2496 R, 6/30/70. FBI Records: The Vault. Richard Matsui Aoki. Aoki Part 6-8, 265.
    32.  SAC, San Francisco, to Director FBI, 1/5/76. Richard Aoki FBI release, Sections 6-8, 313-314.
    33.  Ibid.
    34.  Teletype From San Francisco, to Director FBI, Sept. 28, 1976. Richard Aoki FBI release, Sections 6-8, 311.
    35.  From San Francisco, to Director FBI, Subject SF 2496IA, 10/13/77. Richard Aoki FBI release, Sections 6-8, 324.