Say it ain’t so.
When the news broke that beloved radical activist and former Black Panther Richard Aoki may have been working as an FBI informant, I was floored. I had the same reaction as Phil, over at Angry Asian Man:
I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this.
Granted, Aoki, who committed suicide in 2009, is not around to verify, deny, or explain these claims–claims that will no doubt help to sell the crap out of this new book. I’m not willing to accept this bombshell just like that, especially based on one article that happens to be written by Seth Rosenfeld, the same guy who wrote the book making these claims.
We’re also talking about the FBI, who definitely aren’t amateurs when it comes to shady discrediting tactics. It’s not hard to believe that there are holdovers from that era who would go to these lengths to tarnish Aoki’s legacy. Hell no. Not buying this. Need more information.
So I went looking for all the information I could find–and what remains is frustratingly inconclusive. Here’s a quick walkthrough of FOIA requests, COINTELPRO, other informants, and why the truth in these situations is so hard to find.
Here are the allegations. The discovery was made by one Seth Rosenfeld, who has spent the past decade looking at government infiltration into radical student groups. According to SF Weekly:
Nearly 10 years ago, local journalist Seth Rosenfeld garnered fame for his scathing series “The Campus Files: Reagan, Hoover, and the UC Red Scare,” which uncovered the FBI’s conspiracy to harass UC Berkeley students and faculty during the Cold War. It also detailed the FBI’s role in the firing of the college’s then-president, Clark Kerr, because government officials didn’t agree with his politics.
It took court orders for the FBI to turn records over to Rosenfeld, who wrote the series for the San Francisco Chronicle. And now the famed journalist is taking the FBI back to court, demanding the agency release more records for a book he is writing.
But this time Rosenfeld wants “any and all records” pertaining to Richard Masato Aoki, the infamous militant activist who was at the center of of the civil rights movement around Berkeley in the 1960s.
So it would appear that Rosenfeld stumbled across information on Aoki in his research for other projects. It’s possible–history is complicated. So Rosenfeld kept digging. The fruits of his labor are in a thoughtful piece on the Center for Investigative Reporting’s website. One of the major points:
But unbeknownst to his fellow activists, Aoki had served as an FBI intelligence informant, covertly filing reports on a wide range of Bay Area political groups, according to the bureau agent who recruited him.
That agent, Burney Threadgill Jr., recalled that he approached Aoki in the late 1950s, about the time Aoki was graduating from Berkeley High School. He asked Aoki if he would join left-wing groups and report to the FBI.
Aoki is listed in an FBI report on the Black Panther Party as an “informant” with the code number “T-2.”
“He was my informant. I developed him,” Threadgill said in an interview. “He was one of the best sources we had.”
The former agent said he asked Aoki how he felt about the Soviet Union, and the young man replied that he had no interest in communism.
“I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about?’ Very pleasant little guy. He always wore dark glasses,” Threadgill recalled.
According to Rosenfeld, Aoki started out reporting on other types of organizations, before moving into the Panthers. FBI records show that he did inform on the Panthers activities in May of 1967. Rosenfeld had the opportunity to ask Aoki about his involvement, and describes the exchange.
In a tape-recorded interview for the book in 2007, two years before he committed suicide, Aoki was asked if he had been an FBI informant. Aoki’s first response was a long silence. He then replied, “ ‘Oh,’ is all I can say.”
Later during the same interview, Aoki contended the information wasn’t true.
Asked if this reporter was mistaken that Aoki had been an informant, Aoki said, “I think you are,” but added: “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”
This slightly cryptic message makes total sense: Richard Aoki may have been an informant at some point, but we don’t know why or for how long. The last time Rosenfeld mentions Aoki reporting to the FBI, it is 1967. Aoki remained active in his community and embraced his life as an activist until his death in 2009. That’s a long time to keep up a ruse.
However, it isn’t as if there are not precedents. Someone was gathering the information on activists and feeding it to the FBI. A similar scandal occurred a few years ago, when it was discovered that iconic photographer Ernest Withers was cited as a key informant for the FBI. Again, the discovery was met with shock and disbelief. But interestingly, as in Aoki’s case, Withers’ friends made sure to put one key phrase into their responses:
“If these allegations are true, I am shocked and extremely disappointed,” Dorothy Gilliam, a journalist who worked with Withers while covering the 1957 integration of Little Rock, Ark.’s Central High School, wrote in a statement.
If these allegations are true.
It seems strange to doubt them–after all, the whole reason behind FOIA requests are to access truthful information that should be obtained by citizens seeking information. FOIA requests generally aren’t easy: if the subject is the least bit controversial, or has ramifications for the government, information seekers find themselves in a long battle with multiple requests, endless paperwork, and lawsuits. And even then, compliance is broadly interpreted. I have fond memories of a summer spent in the basement of HUD, sorting through unmarked boxes of papers in hopes of finding the handful of documents we needed among a hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper. (That’s literal, by the way–I was the one tagging the documents.)
So why would we doubt the claims that are backed up by documents? Because of the legacy of COINTELPRO, a series of covert (and often illegal) actions taken by the government to disrupt the activities of groups they deemed subversive. Most of these actions targeted leftist organizing, like labor, civil rights, and women’s rights. While COINTELPRO is most often associated with J. Edgar Hoover, it was a program that spanned decades and relied on sowing seeds of doubt and engineering situations with false information.
Farai Chideya had a great piece on News and Notes that works as an overview to COINTELPRO. And it was such a defining force throughout the civil rights movement that Democracy Now has an entire category of shows that refer to or discuss COINTELPRO as it relates to activism in the United States.
One of the tactics was false information. Carlos A. Rivera writes a piece for Oakland Local’s community voices section, noting that “Snitch Jacketing” may still be in full effect:
“Snitch Jacketing” is a classic counter-intelligence practice, in which people who are not informants are named as informants either via “leaks” or via other actual informants, in order to de-stabilize the targetted individual or the targetted group. It is historically extremely effective, and hence has been used time and time again.
But why wouldn’t this information been made more public at the height of Aoki’s activism, if snitch jacketing is in play? Rivera believes that the current political climate around the globe means that we should expect more undermining of civil rights leaders. He also makes an interesting point near the end of his piece:
But what if it is true?
This recalls the Malinovsky Affair from Bolshevik times. Roman Malinovsky was a leader of the Bolsheviks–a member of the Central Committee and leader of the Bolshevik group in the Duma, as well as a protege of V.I. Lenin. He was also an informant of the Czar’s secret service–and responsible for the exile and jailing, one by one, of all of the Bolshevik leadership between 1910-1914. Lenin, when confronted with this information, took it in stride: “If he is a provocateur, the police gained less from it than our Party did.”
He finally met his demise at the orders of Zinoviev, when he tried to rejoin the victorious Petrograd Soviet in 1918.
Aoki is dead. He can neither confirm nor deny this information–nor can we evaluate him as a living participant in the revolutionary movement, and much less provide some sort of justice.
We can, however, at the very least, judge as Lenin did, if the movement or the State gained more in this situation. I offer that the balance lies with the movement. His contributions–in practice and as a symbol, are much more important and central than any snitching he might or might not have done. This is an extremely important point to raise in breaking the encirclement of the counter-intelligence effort.
Can we believe these allegations? And if we do, how does it impact Aoki’s legacy?
Related: Richard Aoki, the FBI, and the Long (Ongoing) Saga of State Spying [Related]