by Diane C. Fujino
Rosenfeld's dramatic announcement that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant
provoked an enormous response from Chronicle readers. Could it be true? Or was
this a "snitch-jacketing," a classic FBI tactic used to cast
suspicion on a legitimate activist by spreading rumors and
a scholar, I insist on seeing evidence before concluding any "truth."
But as I read Rosenfeld's work and cross-checked sources from my biography on
Aoki, I realized Rosenfeld had not met the burden of proof. He made definitive
conclusions based on inconclusive evidence.
Aoki was an informant, when was he informing? How did he help the FBI disrupt
political movements? What were his motivations?
also questioned Rosenfeld's motives. Rosenfeld's piece, published the day
before the release of his own book, gained him widespread media and public
attention that surely will augment sales.
offers four pieces of evidence against Aoki.
Rosenfeld cites only one FBI document, a Nov. 16, 1967, report. It states:
"A supplementary T symbol (SF T-2) was designated for" - but the name
was deleted. Following the now-blank space was the name Richard
Matsui Aoki in parenthesis, and then the phrase "for the limited
purpose of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing
the FBI pages released to me, only brief background material on Aoki is linked
to T-2. Moreover, T symbols are used to refer to informants or technical
sources of information (microphones, wiretaps). So was Aoki the informer or the
one being observed?
FBI agent Burney
Threadgill Jr. said he recruited Aoki in the late 1950s, but we have no
substantial evidence other than Rosenfeld's reports, and Threadgill has
FBI agent M.
Wesley Swearingen's statement, as quoted by Rosenfeld, is hardly
compelling: "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." But more logically, Aoki's racial difference made him
stand out and aroused suspicion. Are we asked to simply trust
Aoki's remarks, as seen in the video, are open to multiple interpretations, and
Aoki denies the allegation. Anyone familiar with Aoki knows that he spoke with
wit, humor, allusion and caution. Where's the conclusive evidence?
reports notoriously get things wrong, unintentionally (misinformation, typos)
and intentionally ("snitch-jacketing"). The FBI in its Cointelpro
program created false letters and cartoons to foment conflict between the Black
Panthers and another black nationalist organization, resulting in the 1969
murders of two Panthers at UCLA.
have an FBI report, dated July 30, 1971, 105-189989-38, stating that Aoki had
been "invited to become Minister of Defense of the Red Guard" and
served as "the liaison link between the Red Guard and the Black Panther
Party." But this seems wrong, based on archival documents and my
interviews with Aoki and Red Guard leader Alex
put, because of the FBI's political motives, FBI reports must be carefully
cross-checked with non-FBI sources. But the entirety of Rosenfeld's evidence
relies on FBI sources.
was surprised that Aoki became the centerpiece of the chapter in Rosenfeld's
book on the 1969 Third World strike. While Aoki was an important activist, he
was largely unknown. Aoki and others agree that the Third World strike promoted
collective leadership. They believed, as did African American civil rights
Baker, that the charismatic leadership model encouraged hero worship,
reinforced individualism and narcissism, and diminished ordinary people's
belief in their own power to effect change. Rosenfeld elevates Aoki to
"one of the Bay Area's most prominent radical activists of the era,"
a point that amplifies the drama of his own discovery.
is particularly critical of activists' use of violence without placing this
violence in a larger context. He implies that Aoki's guns, given to the Black
Panther Party, triggered the police's, FBI's and government's backlash. Yet he
ignores the police brutality that inspired the Black Panther's police patrols,
and the violence of racism and poverty that inspired the Panther's free
breakfast programs. Instead, Aoki used the symbolic power of violence to stop
the greater violence of the government's failing to actively counter poverty
and institutionalized racism at home and in imposing war in Vietnam.
my book on Aoki, I write that instead of being the trigger, Aoki acted as the
"safety on the gun." He was careful to teach gun safety. Neither the
Panthers nor Aoki expected to win a military battle with the government. Firing
the gun wasn't their intended goal. Instead, Aoki used the symbolic power of
violence to stop the greater violence of the state.
why did Rosenfeld magnify Aoki when his book focuses more on Mario
Kerr and the Free Speech Movement? What responsibility does an author have
to provide evidence beyond reasonable doubt before broadcasting disparaging
accusations? Rosenfeld's article, video and book raise many questions, but fail
to meet the burden of proof.
Diane C. Fujino is a professor and
chair of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of Samurai
Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.