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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Rosenfeld also said that while he expected surprise and skepticism, he was not prepared for the barrage of what he felt were personal attacks on his credibility as a journalist. Since Aoki's death in 2009, Rosenfeld has relentlessly pursued all the FBI records on Aoki and his FBI connection, filing numerous requests and even suing the bureau for access to the files. In fact, if he had not pursued the information for years, Aoki's secret past would have likely never been publicly known.

It also should be noted that the bulk of Rosenfeld's book does not focus on Aoki. Instead, Subversives examines the FBI's secret activities at UC Berkeley during the Cold War by following the bureau's involvement with three main characters: Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio, UC President Clark Kerr, and the rising conservative politician Ronald Reagan. The book is based on more than 300,000 pages of FBI records released as a result of five lawsuits Rosenfeld filed under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as other research. Aoki is just one of many figures examined in the book; he is described in a chapter on the Third World Liberation Front and is included in about ten pages. The book also has received some critical acclaim, including in The New York Times.

Despite Rosenfeld's revelations about Aoki, many argue that Aoki's contributions — mentoring and inspiring young activists, helping community college students gain access to four-year institutions, and his political contributions during the Sixties and Seventies — cannot be taken away, and that Aoki's role helping forge unity between different racial groups cannot be denied. His work helped "rearticulate the nation's ideological constructions of race," Diane Fujino noted in her biography on Aoki, which came out just a few months before Rosenfeld's book.

But some argue that Aoki's reputation made him an untouchable figure, resistant to critiques. "Was there something about what Aoki represented to us as progressive people of color — especially we who are Asian American leftists — that made many of us refrain from a healthy skepticism of Aoki and indeed, any person whose celebrity rests largely on racial border crossing?" wrote Tamara K. Nopper, a writer and a lecturer in Asian American studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, in The New Inquiry.

Nopper is one of the few who have become more critical of Aoki's legacy since the news of his relationship to the FBI broke. She said that the wave of public reaction — mostly in defense of Aoki — make it difficult to raise tougher questions. "There seems to be this perverse need to protect his legacy," she told me. "It's been very difficult to speak out critically of Aoki and to be okay with considering him an informant."

Nopper pointed out that many other activists, including ones in the black community, have been branded as informants with less evidence, yet it seems no one has spoken out publicly to the same degree as they have for Aoki. "If he agreed to collude with the FBI for so many years, the ethical thing to do is to seriously reconsider Richard Aoki's legacy," Nopper told me. "You can't be an FBI informant for so long, and never reveal it so as to work towards community accountability, and still be considered a hero to the movement. To me, it raises serious questions about why there is so much need to keep Richard a hero."

In a widely read post on Facebook, Scott Kurashige, a professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies and American Culture at the University of Michigan, was one of the first to question Rosenfeld's assertions (accusing Rosenfeld of failing to provide adequate context about why the Third World Liberation Front students were striking) and to suggest that if Aoki was an informant, he could have become politicized over the years. (Kurashige was criticized by some at the time for even entertaining the idea that Aoki could have been an informant.) Rosenfeld noted in response that he devoted a chapter in his book to the TWLF strike, detailing both the violence of the police and protesters. In the same chapter, he noted that the creation of Ethnic Studies "prompted people to examine human experience from a wider range of ethnic viewpoints, better preparing America to succeed as a democracy in a changing world."

Although Kurashige remains skeptical of Rosenfeld's work, he sees value in revealing FBI secrets, and exposing the struggles that idolized movement leaders went through, including their complexities and flaws, as a way to understand their political work and contributions. "[Aoki] was a trusted, loyal comrade of many people for many years, and that's a very important side of him," he told me. "And yet there may have been other things going on with him that don't in any way detract from the work that he did but makes us, as students of history and as people who are trying to make history, in need of learning some deeper lessons."

In an interview with me after Rosenfeld's second article was released along with more FBI documents, Aoki's biographer Fujino agreed that this is a "teachable moment," demonstrating that "all history is interpretive." She pointed out that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was once framed as necessary for their safety. "Now there's a different frame," she said. "It's not like what they did changed, but the interpretation changes. I think we have to be careful about how we interpret facts, and about FBI files in particular." Fujino, who had questioned Rosenfeld's evidence after his first article came out, acknowledged that Aoki could have been an informant based on the more recent documents released. She and Rosenfeld both say they will continue to follow this story.

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