Connecting The Past And The Present: Harvey Dong’s Insights On The Allegations Against Richard Aoki

By Guest Contributor Tala Khanmalek

L-R: Richard Aoki, Charlie Brown of the Afro American Student Union and Manuel Delgado of the Mexican American Student Confederation, March 1969. Photo: Muhammad Speaks via San Francisco Bayview.

On September 6, 2012 I interviewed Harvey Dong, a veteran of the Third World Liberation Front and Asian American Political Alliance at the University of California-Berkeley, where he is a professor in the school’s Department of Ethnic Studies. As our conversation progressed, I noticed the American and California flags waving through the window, and that’s when the irony of our personal and political complexities hit me.

However, Dong’s timely insights about the allegations against fellow veteran Richard Aoki connected the past and the present to clarify our positions in critical ways that also provide tools for the future of social justice scholarship and activism.

Tala Khanmalek: I was re-reading Richard Aoki’s speech notes from the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) Founding Rally (July 28, 1968) in “Stand Up: An Archive Collection of the Bay Area Asian American Movement, 1968-1974″ and remembering what I think is one of the most important things about Aoki’s legacy: his comparative analysis of racialization as well as his centralization of interracial solidarity. Is there a relationship between Aoki’s politics and Seth Rosenfeld’s claim that he was an FBI informant?

Harvey Dong: Definitely. His politics is internationalism, and he’s a symbol of Afro-Asian unity. A lot of times when people talk about peoples of color and examples from history, examples from the past, Richard’s name is always mentioned because he was someone that bridged two or three different worlds. There’s a lot of support for Richard’s life and what it represented. So, in a lot of ways I kind of felt it was an attack on his legacy in terms of what he contributed and what he had represented.

In terms of the author, Seth Rosenfeld, was this something that he had misread, did sloppy work and, from there, set off a hailstorm? That’s possible. One person’s sloppy academic research…I mean, that’s possible, too, that there was a misreading and bad analysis, bad historical research and documentation on Seth Rosenfeld’s part, which is actually what a lot of the academics in the Chronicle of Higher Education who were interviewed for that essay were saying. But one thing though that made me kind of angry about Rosenfeld was that he seemed to have a certain conspiracy theory in his mind, to the point where any bits and pieces that he could pull together he would use to draw his own conclusions. He doesn’t seem to be that thorough.

TK: Some have argued that Rosenfeld’s claim was meant to promote the sale of his book. Is there also a relationship between the allegation and the current political moment? For example, the social justice activism in Oakland that pre-dated the Occupy movement, namely movements for Oscar Grant. While refuting the allegation is necessary, situating it in the present so that strategic connections become visible is necessary, too.

HD: I mean it would align with all these things that are going on. Oakland is a big mess, and there’s a need for political direction and leadership. So people always look at, well, what can we draw on? You know, what type of solidarities are needed, and Richard and the legacy of the Panthers. They had this idea of the rainbow, or different races of people coming together, as opposed to cultural nationalism where everybody just sticks to themselves. Those are things that were very positive from the 60s and 70s, that can be drawn on, and which Richard Aoki represented.

I would say that by latching onto this issue, the conservative media is helping promote a certain summation of the 60s and 70s. I think Rosenfeld himself is part of that conservative media and he has that summation also. If you look at his book he makes a sharp dichotomy between the politics of the Free Speech Movement, which actually happened in 1964, and the politics of the Third World Liberation Front, which took place in 1968 at SF State and continued on the UC Berkeley campus in 1969. Whole different time period, whole different move in terms of the nation, whole different move in terms how politicians and how the government viewed social movements.

Because basically, in ’68-’69 there was severe political repression on the movement, and the movements were in a much different place. I would not make the dichotomy between the Free Speech Movement and the Third World Liberation Front because the Free Speech Movement found its roots out of the Civil Rights Movement. Students didn’t have civil rights and fought for civil rights using the strategies and tactics of that time. Then, from ’64 to ’68, the country was changing a lot.

You had the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in ’68, and you had this huge escalation of the war in Vietnam. There was a lot of questioning and challenging about where the country was at. There was a lot of turmoil in the country and, because of that, you had even more people, beyond just the numbers of the FSM, coming out in active protest wanting to change things, wanting to put forth their own demands, wanting things such as Ethnic Studies type of programs.

Richard Aoki at a demonstration supporting Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party via BASICSnews.ca

TK: What Aoki represented politically is essential and should not be overshadowed by the emphasis on him providing the Panthers with their first firearms.

HD: I always try to bring out that was not the primary part of the Panthers. When they went out on those patrols there was a lot of police brutality, so what they did was they carried unloaded guns as a symbol of self-defense–and they also brought with them law books, and they brought with them cameras. Those patrols, from what I understood, did bring a lot of attention on the issue of police brutality because that was what was needed at that point in time.

But I do notice that people tend to look at the gun part as something romantic or revolutionary, where if you look at that a little bit too much it can kind of lead towards a pretty narrow and dangerous path by itself. It’s always the political part that’s the most important…Richard was not the main supplier of guns to the Panthers.

In fact, if anything, the guns that he donated were not even that functional as weapons. It was more symbolic. And then the other thing is, in terms of politics and someone’s theory versus the person, I think for someone like Richard his politics had to do with his positions in terms of working with people, uniting with people. It’s not like a theory that’s in isolation. It’s something that he actually tried to apply in everyday life. Like the presidential election: should he vote Republican or Democrat? Richard told me that he didn’t vote for Obama because he felt that the most important thing was to build the mass movement. He didn’t want to just rely on the two-party system itself because he didn’t think that that was where change was most effective.

TK: In your interview with KPFA’s Apex Express, you talked about Rosenfeld’s claim being an injustice because Aoki has passed. How are such allegations themselves a violence, not just against Aoki, but also against you, me, all peoples of color and our histories of resistance?

HD: That bothered me a lot, too. We had the memorial, and then there was a scattering of the ashes. We had thought that the only thing now is just to talk about his contributions and that would be it. But then with the launching, not in terms of the launching of the book, but the way it was done in terms of the infomercial–I call it the infomercial for the book–it seems like it was a very well-oiled machine where something like that could go viral and they could do that to the extreme.

They don’t even care if it’s the truth about a person. They would do everything possible to push that idea about, oh, “We’ve caught an informant who was a beloved leader of the movement” and expose it to the world. They don’t really care if the people that they interviewed are surprised, let’s say, like myself.

I was not really given any inkling that they were gonna lay that on me that, “Your friend for the past 40 years is an FBI informant and we have all this evidence, here’s this stack of papers you have two seconds to look at.” I felt that was completely ridiculous. I spend all night looking at the papers and the next day. I emailed Seth Rosenfeld and I said, “I disagree. I don’t see Richard’s name written in this document.” They only have his name in parenthesis next to the redacted informant name. There are a lot of problems that I had with his conclusion.

TK: Re-writing history is at the heart of these allegations against peoples of color and our histories of resistance. How does silencing the past and narrating it from a dominant point of view affect transformations in the present?

HD: It seems like the period of the 60s and 70s is still a very unsettled history. Sometimes, there’s no focus on that at all, and people forget about things. But probably what underscores the importance of it is the current situation and crisis that the country is in today. Whenever people look at the present they try to look at what was done in the past or at alternatives that can be done.

I think it’s a similar type of thing in terms of how activists and scholars today also need to sum up what happened during that period of the 60s and 70s, not as something that’s in isolation, but as something that’s of value. And then you have the situation where you have activists from the Third World Liberation Front such as Jean Quan, who was very active back then, and today she’s being blamed for a lot of the repression that’s going on in terms of the Occupy movement and those other social movements that are taking place. People look at that and say, “We can’t look that far back because all we see is informants and people whose politics have changed.” It’s almost like you always have to not just take things superficially. You have to really look at what the real issues were, what spurred people into motion, what were their shortcomings, and how can you advance off of that.

TK: How can these allegations be used pedagogically, to teach and to learn from?

HD: For one thing, the need to focus on really important themes that affect our time today has to go beyond just identity and identity politics. It’s important to look at race, racism, and racialization, but also to see that America itself is headed in a certain direction internationally–in a very dangerous direction, in terms of what’s happening in the Middle East.

And now there’s attention focused on Asia, this pivot towards Asia and attempts to build empire. And then you have the racism and all that stuff that comes in with that. So it has to go beyond just cultural identity in terms of looking at society, but looking in terms of the political and the international and the internationalism that has potential to be built. All those things. I’m still trying to pull all that stuff together, too, myself.

So for the field of Ethnic Studies, it can’t be an isolated field by itself in terms of just cultural in one corner. What type of culture is evolving? A culture in which everyone’s complacent? Or was there another counterculture that was actually much more progressive, internationalist, and revolutionary, where people come together to change, not just the culture but to change the political.

TK: Although COINTELPRO has ended, the FBI still spies on political organizations and even on individuals or communities who do not identify as activists. We have, especially since 9/11 and the subsequent PATRIOT Act, experienced a fearsome rise in legalized COINTELPRO-like surveillance and operations in the name of national security. How are these issues connected?

HD: In last week’s meeting, we also talked about APPA, an organization that lasted less than three years, maybe three years at the most. I was surprised to see in the Freedom of Information Act FBI files there was so much surveillance of a very small organization that focused on the theme Asian-American or Asian-American solidarity with other peoples of color. There was a lot of focus and attention on that, which shows that there’s probably a lot of paranoia within the government of groups that are oppositional or have dissenting viewpoints.

At the same time, these groups aren’t committed to violence or overthrow, but there are organizations that are critical of policy. So, I was kind of surprised that that actually had happened. Because just thinking back we were basically freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors who wanted to change the world, who were putting forth demands that this is our university and this is the way we envision it with Ethnic Studies programs such as Asian-American Studies, African-American Studies, and so forth. And there was all this attention, so you can kind of see that there was heavy surveillance then–and I would say that it’s still going on today.

The other thing is that it seems like different ethnic groups are affected by all this but they may not necessarily see each other as connected. Because during 9/11 you had the Special Registration Program that affected South Asians and Muslims in terms of people being stopped and people disappearing. That was duplicated during the McCarthy era with Chinese in the United States. And now with this pivot towards Asia you start to see cases that involve industrial-espionage related cases all of the sudden being turned into defense-related cases. Being accusing of stealing secrets for things such as paint formulas are now considered national-security risks, and they’re being placed in jails for things like that.

Tribute banner for Richard Aoki, via Oaklandlocal.com

TK: Can you offer any wisdom for us now about the relationship between scholarship and activism in light of Aoki’s legacy and the social justice movements of the past?

HD: I guess you could really see the powerful effects, you know, of the movements of the 60s and 70s. Here at UC Berkeley we have the American Cultures requirement. That was part of the struggle that people learn about other races and ethnicities; that’s part of the requirement here at UC Berkeley. We have an Ethnic Studies program, which is still battling for survival. You could say that that was the legacy of these movements. And if we detach it and say that it has nothing to do with struggles, that it was handed over and things like that, then you end up having a watered-down program, you end up having a watered down American Cultures requirement where everybody just learns about different races and peoples, and that’s it.

But you don’t learn about struggle and the Civil Rights Movement and so forth. I would say–even in terms of the gains that we do have, in terms of Ethnic Studies and changes in academia–it was all part of this movement and it was linked to the 60s and 70s and it was linked to civil rights. We have Peace and Conflict Studies today. If you introduced that during the McCarthy period, they probably would have considered that sedition. Opposition to the Vietnam War, opposition to foreign policy was considered sedition. If you were a person, immigrant from a country where the United States was at war with, you were considered an alien that was [and] has the potential of being a spy.

There’s still that type of thinking today: you still see it everywhere, and you still have that paranoia today. But people had to struggle through that. So I guess you could say that, from the past, you can learn from it. You can also learn from the mistakes because it wasn’t all done well. There were a lot of mistakes in terms of how women and men relate to each other. There were mistakes in terms of inter-ethnic solidarity. It wasn’t exactly the smoothest. But it was all part of a learning experience. But in terms of can we learn from it, it’s whether or not people want to make those connections. If you don’t want to make those connections, there’s nothing that’s gained.

For more information, see the Asian Art Museum’s Samurai Blog.

Tala Khanmalek is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. Her uncle was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and an activist in the Free Speech Movement, for which he was expelled from UC Berkeley.