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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However, none of the heavily redacted FBI documents released show that the FBI had any knowledge of Aoki's role in supplying guns to the Panthers or his involvement with the group prior to early 1967 — even though he had been involved with the Panthers months earlier. The files only indicate that the FBI knew Aoki was a part of the Panthers by 1967.

One FBI file, however, does show that Aoki informed on the Panthers. In a file dated November 16, 1967, Aoki is given the temporary code "T-2." According to the FBI, the information T-2 gave was: "In early 1967, the exact date not known, RICHARD MATSUI [sic] AOKI of Berkeley, California, also a former Oakland City College student, was drawn into the BPPSD and had the title of Minister of Education bestowed upon him. NEWTON and SEALE knew AOKI to be a scholar of the classic writings on revolution by such former black militants as FRANTZ FANON, MARCUS GARVEY, MALCOLM X LITTLE and W.E.B. DuBOIS. The organizers of the BPPSD also selected AOKI for a position of leadership in the organization because of his experience while serving as Chairman of the Campus Committee for Lowndes County, a Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) front organization on the Campus of the University of California, Berkeley, (UCB), which collected contributions for the aforementioned Lowndes County Freedom Organization – SF T-2, 5/1/67."

This is the only indication in all the files released that Aoki provided any information to the FBI about the Panthers — and the information Aoki gave, according to the file, was only about his own role in the group.

Aoki helped organize the Black Panthers' first public rally in Richmond in April 1967. In addition to being head of the group's Berkeley chapter and its Minister of Education — though the chapter had less than a handful of members at any given time — he was also a field marshal at large, a role that likely included doing internal security and making sure the Panthers were protected. In one of the FBI's files on the Black Panthers, Aoki is listed as third in leadership in the organization — the highest-ranking non-black member of the Panthers.

But the FBI files also indicate that the agency appears to have been not fully aware of Aoki's involvement in the Panthers. None of the FBI files mention his much more important position as field marshal, nor do the files mention anything about him providing the Panthers with guns around November 1966, or even his earlier involvement in the group .

In 1967, the FBI formally launched COINTELPRO, the infamous counterintelligence program that sought to disrupt and destroy militant US political organizations like the Black Panthers. That year, two assistant directors of the FBI sent a directive to all field offices stating: "The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black Nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder."

By Rosenfeld's account in Subversives, the Panthers' use of unconcealed weapons, though legal at the time, "contributed to confrontations between the Panthers and police." In total, an estimated 28 members of the Black Panthers as well as at least a dozen police officers were killed by the 1970s. "By any reckoning," Rosenfeld stated in the book, "the use of guns brought violence, legal trouble, and discredit to the Panthers, all goals of the FBI's COINTELPRO." Rosenfeld also posed the question: "Did Aoki help the Panthers fight for justice, or did he set them up?"

But even if Aoki played a role in COINTELPRO, he would not have been aware of it, according to M. Wesley Swearingen, a former FBI agent and whistle-blower. "Aoki would not have had the slightest clue of what the FBI was doing," Swearingen wrote in an email to me. "At this point I would have to say, in all fairness to Aoki, that the FBI took advantage of Aoki and that Aoki did not know what Hoover's big picture was for the [Black Panther Party]." 

The lack of detail in the FBI files about Aoki's participation in the Panthers, particularly in the creation of the group, also raises more questions about whether the FBI was fully aware of what he was doing after late 1964. "Richard helped create and found the Black Panther Party," noted Mike Cheng, one of the directors of the 2009 documentary Aoki. "It doesn't really make sense to me why the FBI would want to help found and create an organization that they would then turn around and say is the greatest internal security threat to the US."

Making things murkier are a number of minor inaccuracies in Aoki's FBI files that cast suspicion on the reliability of the bureau's records. Aoki's name is spelled "Richard Matsui Aoki" or "Richard Masa Aoki," among other variations. One of his files states that he's an "Oriental of Korean descent," though Aoki was Japanese American. 

Informants could also be unreliable, providing false information or acting as a so-called double agent. "Richard was incredibly intelligent," Cheng noted. "He was capable of pulling off anything he wanted to. What he was doing remains to be seen."

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