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Social Justice Debates, September 17, 2012

The Case for and against Richard Aoki

Tony Platt

The blogs are full of charges and countercharges about journalist Seth Rosenfeld's claim (in his recent book, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power and published articles) that Black Panther Party cadre Richard Aoki was a "paid FBI informer."

Here are a few thoughts about the debate:

Rosenfeld's claim that Aoki was an FBI informant takes up only a few pages in his 734-page book and is not central to his argument. Rosenfeld, however, chose to publish an article about Aoki on the release date of his book, thus making the topic appear central to his book.

Rosenfeld's piece about Aoki, published in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 20th, summarizes what appears in Subversives, namely that Aoki was "an undercover FBI informer." His evidence is based on an interview with Aoki's FBI handler, internal FBI records, the expertise of an ex-FBI agent, and an interview with Aoki. Rosenfeld's book thoroughly documents his evidence and is persuasive.

Rosenfeld's book and August 20th piece do not provide many details about what Aoki actually did for the FBI or how long he was an informant. Recently, the FBI released another 221 pages about Aoki in response to a FOIA claim. In an article published on September 7th in the San Francisco Chronicle, Rosenfeld sums up his new evidence: Aoki was an FBI informant from 1961 to 1977; Aoki was a paid informant; and Aoki and the FBI terminated their relationship in 1977.

There have been several attacks on Rosenfeld's motivation and character: (a) that he is an "opportunist" for linking his attack on Aoki with publication of his book; (b) that Rosenfeld's claim is made on "inconclusive evidence"; (c) that Rosenfeld is unfamiliar with recent scholarship on the history of the Black Panther Party; (d) that Rosenfeld implies that the FBI via Aoki encouraged the BPP's use of guns; and (e) that Rosenfeld had "snitch-jacketed" Aoki in order to politically discredit the Black Panther Party.

I don't think these attacks on Rosenfeld are warranted. (a) He has a right to publicize his book, though in retrospect he could have chosen a less sensational topic for his August 20th article. (b) His claim in Subversives that Aoki was an informant is backed up by well-documented evidence; and the release of new FBI files in September confirms Rosenfeld's charges against Aoki. (c) It is not fair to attack Rosenfeld for a book that he didn't set out to write. His focus is not on the Black Panther Party, but on the role of the FBI on the Berkeley campus from the Cold War through the early 1970s. Rosenfeld is a journalist, not a historian. I would have liked to see more interpretation and analysis in the book, but Rosenfeld's exhaustive and revealing research now makes it possible for historians to do the work of interpretation. (On a personal note, it is a pity that Rosenfeld did not explore the role of the FBI in the demise of the School of Criminology in Berkeley, where I taught from 1968 to 1975. The first report in my FBI file is dated 1969.) (d) There is a big difference between an informant and an agent. Aoki was an informant, not an agent. He was supposedly reporting on what he knew and witnessed, not trying to get the BPP to engage in adventurism. Moreover, the BPP didn't need any help from the FBI in developing its politics of self-defense. (e) Associating Rosenfeld with snitch-like behavior is an unprincipled way to attack the messenger rather than confront the disturbing message he is delivering.

We still don't know the details of Aoki's role in the FBI or how he justified to himself what he did. But, as I and my fellow authors documented in The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove (1975), we know that the FBI had thousands of informers inside progressive movements of the 1960s and 1970s. According to federal court records, for example, the agency placed 1,300 informers in the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance between 1960 and 1976, paying them $1.7 million. The Black Panther Party was designated by J. Edgar Hoover "as the greatest single threat to the security of the country." Between May 1967 and December 1969, an average of one Black Panther was arrested every day. There is no doubt that the FBI had informants, agents, and provocateurs operating inside the BPP.

As for Richard Aoki's motivation for working as an FBI informant and how he justified his behavior, we will probably never know. But we do know that many people like Aoki, with a record of arrests for crimes are vulnerable to recruitment because they are at risk of being targeted for further prosecution. And once recruited and paid by the FBI, it is very difficult to quit for fear of being publicly identified.

The debate today about Rosenfeld's revelations has become far too simplistic and one-dimensional, positing either that Aoki was an agent posing as a leftist or that Aoki is being smeared in order to discredit the legacies of the Black Panther Party. I think we also need to consider the possibility that Aoki was both an informant and a leftist, and that he both reported to and fought against the FBI. When he committed suicide in 2009, he left near his body a clue to his contradictory life: his Black Panther Party and military uniforms.

Rather than spend our energy on ad hominem attacks on the messenger, we need to ponder the implications of the message: Why were so many progressive organizations of the 1960s and 1970s vulnerable to infiltration by the state? How did that infiltration shape and disrupt our movement? Why is it so difficult for us to honestly explore the contradictions within the progressive movement of the 1970s and the human frailties of its leaders?

Citation: Platt, Tony. (September 17, 2012). "The Case for and against Richard Aoki." Social Justice Debates. Copyright © 2012 Social Justice, ISSN 1043-1578. Social Justice, P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140.

See also Gregory Shank, Richard Aoki's Troubled World: A Response.