Richard Aoki was a well-known activist in the San Francisco Bay Area – celebrated for his role as one of only a handful of Asian American members of the Black Panther Party, a leader in UC Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a mentor to a generation of left-leaning activists.
So when the journalist Seth Rosenfeld alleged in August 2012 that Aoki was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Rosenfeld shocked Aoki’s family, friends, and allies. He also sought to shake up how we tell black freedom movement history by playing up the fact that Aoki provided the founders of the Black Panther Party (BPP) with their first guns. In the process, Rosenfeld raised important questions about what it is that informants do and what it means when an ally in struggles against government racism and police repression turns out to be an informant for the government.
Rosenfeld’s allegations were surprising in part because they followed on the heels of the creation of two recent celebratory histories of Richard Aoki’s life. Aoki died in March 2009. In November of that year, activist filmmakers released a history of his work with documentary film, Aoki. And in April, 2012, University of Minnesota Press published a scholarly, 496 page biography of Aoki titled Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.
Only four months after the publication of Samurai Among Panthers, Rosenfeld alleged in an August 20 news article that “the man who armed the Black Panthers was FBI informant, records show.”
Rosenfeld tread gently on the revered figure’s memory. Having chosen not to share his research with activists or historians beforehand, he announced that “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.” Rosenfeld described asking Aoki directly, during an oral history interview, whether he had been an informant (Aoki denied it). And Rosenfeld twice mentioned in his story that Aoki committed suicide in 2009. Could Aoki have committed suicide out of fear that Rosenfeld would expose him? Rosenfeld didn’t speculate overtly about Aoki’s decision. But he seemed to raise the issue by paying significant attention to the way that Aoki died (something few others have dwelled upon).
Rosenfeld’s story was provocative, and arguably sensationalistic. Rosenfeld’s highlighting of Aoki’s connection to the BPP piqued international interest. He played up that interest when he wrote that after Aoki provided guns to the Black Panthers, “although carrying weapons was legal at the time, there is little doubt their presence contributed to fatal confrontations between the Panthers and the police.” It was an exaggeration that played to headlines. Rosenfeld seemed to be suggesting, without explicitly saying or proving, that Aoki acted on behalf of the FBI, and therefore the FBI set the Black Panthers up; the BPP might not have armed themselves had it not been for Aoki or the FBI; and that carrying guns was a major cause of the Panthers’ later “fatal confrontations” with police.
Rosenfeld published his story on Aoki just one day before the formal release of his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. As his allegations raced around the globe, the exposure of Aoki as an informant not coincidentally also delivered extraordinary free publicity for Rosenfeld’s new book.
The method that Rosenfeld first used to out Aoki as an informant put Aoki’s allies, friends and historians on the defensive. For weeks afterward, a number of people sympathetic with Aoki and/or the Black Panther Party – including Aoki’s biographer Diane C. Fujino, Asian American Studies professor Scott Kurashige, and Black Panther historian Donna Murch – criticized Rosenfeld for his use of evidence, while also suggesting that his liberal politics distorted his ability to portray Aoki or the Black Panther Party in a sympathetic or even historically responsible way. The San Francisco Bay View also published a number of defenses of Aoki by former Panthers and their allies.