Richard Aoki: Informant Turned Radical? 

Documents, interviews, and public statements raise questions as to whether the ex-Black Panther pulled back from the FBI when he became a militant activist.

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No one knows for sure why Aoki became or continued to be an informant. According to Rosenfeld, people become informants for a variety of reasons, among them to earn money, to be patriotic, or to reduce or avoid a criminal sentence. Rosenfeld has been clear that an informant is merely someone who provides information. "It's not someone who disrupts," he told me. "The phrase for that is agent provocateur, an agent who goes undercover and provokes and sets people up. But that isn't what I said Richard Aoki was."

After the TWLF strike at UC Berkeley ended in 1969, the student activists headed off in different directions. Some remained to build the nascent Asian American Studies department. Others went into youth work, and some participated in the I-Hotel (International Hotel) struggle, in which a San Francisco residential hotel housing many elderly Filipinos was demolished. AAPA ceased to exist by the year's end. Aoki became less politically involved after 1969 and turned his focus to helping minority students gain access to higher education, according to Dong. In 1971, Aoki began working as a counselor at Merritt College. "Even if he was an informant, there didn't seem like he had much to inform on," said Dong of those years. 

Aoki officially quit working with the FBI in 1977. The agent who worked on his file stated: "Source advised that 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, CA."

Aoki went on to dedicate 25 years to working in community colleges mostly as a counselor but also as a teacher and administrator until he retired in the 1990s. In later years, Aoki spoke out against the wars in the Middle East and supported Asian Americans for the SF8, a group that defended former Black Panthers on trial. He also became reacquainted with the former members of the Panthers, AAPA, and TWLF, participating in most of the reunions for these organizations. He helped organize memorials for Black Panthers who passed away and attended the memorial for Newton, who was murdered in 1989.

Aoki worked with a Black Panther alumni organization to help organize Lil' Bobby Hutton Day to commemorate the life of Bobby Hutton, who was the youngest member of the Panthers and the first to die in a police shootout at age seventeen in 1968. Recently, the newspaper run by the Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party published a front-page story about Aoki, defending his image as a radical activist. In it, the paper called him a "founding member and Field Marshal, longtime Bay Area activist, groundbreaking educator in Asian-American ethnic studies, co-founder of the Third World Liberation Front and a loyal comrade to the end."

In his later years, Aoki also expressed regrets about supplying firearms to the Black Panthers. "Seale would later acknowledge that in other instances some Panther members broke party rules and used guns for crimes," Rosenfeld wrote in Subversives. In a 2007 interview, Aoki confirmed this to Rosenfeld, adding, "I'm not exactly proud of that." 


Richard Aoki's death in March 2009, at age seventy, is now being viewed by some in a different light since the news broke of his role as an FBI informant. Before his death, Aoki had been suffering from diabetes-related illnesses and kidney failure; he also had a stroke in 2005. Friends say he had been an alcoholic for many years, and although he sought treatment and eventually broke free of his addiction, he ate poorly and smoked, which contributed to his health problems.He had undergone several dialysis treatments, which gave him momentary heart failure, and had spent much of February 2009 at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, according to his friend and executor Harvey Dong. Aoki spent weeks hooked up to tubes, catheters, and needles.

Mike Cheng, Aoki's neighbor, was with him the day he died. For several years prior, Cheng had been working on his documentary, Aoki, and on March 14, 2009, he brought him home from the hospital. Cheng remembered Aoki seemed exhausted; he disliked being in the hospital because of the multiple treatments. "The dialysis definitely had a draining effect on him," said Cheng in a recent interview. "Every day I saw him in the hospital, he was like, 'This sucks, get me out of here.'"

Aoki also seemed to believe that some procedures were unnecessary and that the hospital was just trying to make money off him. Cheng summed up Aoki's words that day: "I'm on to them. They're making so much money, and this is a medical scam." 

Around 5 a.m. the next morning, Aoki called Cheng, telling him that he had fallen and suspected he had a broken ankle. Cheng walked to Aoki's unit and inspected his swollen ankle. He offered to take Aoki back to the hospital and returned to his own apartment to give Aoki time to decide. About ten minutes later, Cheng went back to Aoki's unit to check on him. He found Aoki on his living room floor, bleeding from his stomach. Cheng's first thought was that Aoki had a stroke and that the blood was coming from a dialysis treatment tube.

Cheng called 911, and then made small talk with Aoki to ensure he stayed conscious. When the paramedics arrived, Aoki was still alive; one asked him if he shot himself, and he replied, "yes," according to Cheng. Aoki was rushed to Alameda County Medical Center, where he died later that day. His autopsy report said his death was due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the abdomen. 

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