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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In 1961, when Aoki officially became an FBI informant, he was three years out of active military duty, and more or less living a civilian life. This is where the narrative diverges. How did Aoki transform from an avowedly anti-Communist US soldier into an FBI informant and then into a radical activist and self-styled expert on Marxism? How did he come to befriend Seale and Newton while secretly informing for the FBI?

Aoki consistently stated in interviews later in life that his proudest achievement was his involvement with the Black Panthers. But the question of what Aoki's motivations were for providing the Black Panthers their first guns perhaps can never be fully answered.

To understand the significance of Aoki the hero, it's important to understand the history of Asian Americans in this country. In the Sixties and Seventies, when the myth of the model minority — Asian Americans as obedient, silent, and assimilated, juxtaposed with the increasingly fervent and empowered Civil Rights and other social movements at the time — was created, Aoki stood out as someone who spoke against injustices. Dressed in dark shades, a black beret, and sporting a mustache on a slim five-foot-six frame, Aoki was mysterious, intimidating, and inspiring, and did not fit the model-minority stereotype.

After the military, he enrolled full-time in 1963 at Oakland City College, later renamed Merritt College. The following year, he became better acquainted with fellow students Seale and Newton. "I'm talking before the Black Panther Party was conceived of," Seale said at a recent community forum, about befriending Aoki. Seale had been following the work of Malcolm X at the time, and he, Newton, and Aoki would often talk about politics because they were involved in student organizations with a political bent, Aoki told me in a 2006 interview. 

Then came that fateful day in February 1965. "When Malcolm X was killed, I made up my mind that I was going to do something to organize something," Seale said at a recent forum. Seale and Newton created the Black Panther Party the next year. Aoki was present in the group's early days, according to Aoki, Seale, and others' accounts, and the founders consulted Aoki on the Panthers' Ten-Point Program, which laid out the organization's goals of freedom, employment, housing, education, and an end to police brutality, among other issues.

The Panthers sought militant means to counter the law enforcement agencies that were brutalizing people in black neighborhoods. The Panthers formed "shotgun patrols" or "community patrols" to bear witness to any police misconduct, showing up where there were police, or following police while carrying unconcealed weapons, which was legal at the time.

About a month after the organization was formed in October 1966, Aoki gave the Black Panthers their first guns — at Newton and Seale's request, according to Seale. Aoki confirmed this in several later interviews. An avid gun collector who had picked up sharpshooting while in the Army and trained fellow soldiers on weapons use, Aoki also provided the group with basic firearms training, such as disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling weapons to maintain them. Seale recounted how the Panthers obtained guns from Aoki in his 1970 memoir. "We told him that we wanted these guns to begin to institutionalize and let black people know that we have to defend ourselves as Malcolm X said we must," Seale wrote in Seize the Time. "We didn't have any money to buy guns. We told him that if he was a real revolutionary he better go on and give them up to us because we needed them now to begin educating the people to wage a revolutionary struggle."

Although the FBI considered Aoki to be a reliable and consistent informant in the early 1960s, agency records indicated that Aoki pulled back from his FBI handlers in late 1964 or early 1965 — not long after becoming close to Newton and Seale. At the time, Aoki was still attending Merritt College, while also working in Berkeley. For about six months in 1965, he provided little, if any, information to the FBI: "Due to informant's curtailed activities because of full-time employment six days a week, as well as his taking a full course as an undergraduate student at Merritt College, no steps have been taken to advance the informant," stated a FBI file dated January 11, 1965.

A June 1965 FBI file stated that Aoki returned to being a consistent and reliable informant. It was also in 1965 that Aoki's longtime FBI handler, Threadgill, moved to Monterey and Aoki was transferred to another agent: Philip Baruth Nottingham, also now deceased, according to the most recently released FBI documents.

In the fall of 1966, Aoki transferred to UC Berkeley, and in October of that year, Seale and Newton created the Black Panthers. Aoki continued to be an informant but the local field office asked the FBI director to stretch contact with Aoki to every thirty days, the longest period of time possible while still maintaining informant status, according to an FBI memo dated November 2, 1966 — just a few weeks after the Panthers were formed. The reasons cited for the change in Aoki's status was "security problems" related to making contact with him. The file also noted that Aoki was well known to "dissident elements." 

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