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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The autopsy report listed wounds from medical procedures, including needle puncture marks, chest tubes protruding from an incision, surgical incisions with stitches, and multiple catheters, all of which put into context Aoki's deep frustration with his medical care. After his death, friends told reporters that Aoki died from complications from dialysis (Rosenfeld and I both wrote obituaries reporting this). Hundreds of people attended his memorial, filling UC Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium. A year later his friends revealed the truth of his suicide on the Richard Aoki Memorial website, claiming that the lie was not to protect his image, but because they were all still in shock (later Dong explained that they made the announcement because the cause of death would eventually become available through public records). "In that initial phase, the rush of it and trying to figure out what to do, we thought, maybe we should say it was related to his complications" with illnesses, Dong told me.

Since the news broke that Aoki was an FBI informant, some have speculated that he committed suicide because he was afraid of the reaction to Rosenfeld's book, or because he felt guilty about his double life. Rosenfeld interviewed Aoki twice on the phone in 2007 as part of the reporting for his book on FBI activities at UC Berkeley. He first heard Aoki's name in 2002 while talking to Threadgill, the former FBI agent. Rosenfeld would bring stacks of FBI documents for Threadgill to look at, and one file contained a news clipping from the Third World Strike that included Aoki's photo and name. Threadgill said he knew Aoki because he developed him as an informant.

In 2007, with Threadgill's account as his primary evidence (the majority of Aoki's FBI files were released in 2012), Rosenfeld asked Aoki about any connection to the FBI. Aoki denied it, but also said "People change...It's complex, layer upon layer," as if offering a vague explanation. To this day, no one besides Threadgill, who died in 2005, has publicly admitted knowledge of Aoki's being an FBI informant. His other known handler, Nottingham, according to recently released FBI reports, died in 2004.

Aoki left no suicide note, but Cheng suggested a few reasons why he may have wanted to end his life. Cheng thinks that Aoki was suffering greatly because of his illnesses and "he wanted to go out on his own terms." He also theorized that the death of Aoki's mother the month prior may have played a role; perhaps Aoki believed he had fulfilled his last remaining familial obligation: to give his mother, the only remaining member of his immediate family, a proper funeral. "I think his mom was a huge motivation for him to stay alive, to take care of her affairs," Cheng said. "He never said this, but it's more my belief: she dies in 2009, and shortly after, he said, 'Well, I'm glad I lived long enough to take care of her.'"

Regardless of the reasons for his death, some friends continue to believe he never wavered from his revolutionary commitment. Dong noted that as he went through Aoki's closet, he saw something that struck him: two uniforms neatly pressed and hanging in dry cleaning bags. One was his Army uniform, the other his Panthers outfit. "He was always talking about how he was in the army," Dong said. "He never hid it from people. He talked about how that was his patriotic period. But then he was even more proud that he was involved with the Black Panthers. So he definitely had to transition from this patriotic conservative to a revolutionary. And when he transitioned, he was fully committed."  


The revelation that Aoki was an FBI informant has created a firestorm of responses from former Black Panther Party members, activists of all ages and backgrounds, and Asian-American and African-American scholars. After Rosenfeld's first story was published, some attacked Rosenfeld's credibility as a journalist. Many activists and people of color were distrustful of the initial report because of the mainstream media's contentious relationship with those communities, said Jamilah King, an editor at Colorlines.com, a news organization with an office in Oakland that is devoted to coverage of race, culture, and politics. "The reaction to the first report and the length to which people went to discredit Seth Rosenfeld showed how deeply embedded that distrust is in communities of color of mainstream journalists and of white journalists who are trying to shape or form the story of people who lived through this time."

Some took issue with Rosenfeld's reporting. In a video that accompanied the original article, Rosenfeld interviews Dong and then films his reaction as he presents Dong with a stack of Aoki's FBI documents. Audiences see the shock on Dong's face and his response that he had no idea Aoki was an informant. Dong said he thought the interview would be about the Sixties and Seventies; others felt like it was an unfair "gotcha" moment. Rosenfeld told the Express that he had told Dong in advance that they would discuss Aoki, and that since Dong was Aoki's executor, it was fair to ask him the question. 

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