Famed Panther Activist Richard Aoki Named as FBI Informant

The following story first appeared in the San Francisco Chonicle, a bourgeois news source, and as such should be taken witha grain of salt.

Aoki is well known for having joined the Black Panther Party nearly from its inception, and was eventually promoted to the position of Field Marshall. While he was only one of several Asian-Americans in the Black Panther Party, Aoki was the only one to have a formal leadership position. 

The man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training – which preceded fatal shootouts with Oakland police in the turbulent 1960s – was an undercover FBI informer, according to a former bureau agent and an FBI report.

One of the Bay Area’s most prominent radical activists of the era, Richard Masato Aoki was known as a fierce militant who touted his street-fighting abilities. He was a member of several radical groups before joining and arming the Panthers, whose members received international notoriety for brandishing weapons during patrols of the Oakland police and a protest at the state Capitol.

Aoki went on to work for 25 years as a teacher, counselor and administrator at the Peralta Community College District, and after his suicide in 2009, he was revered as a fearless radical.

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.

“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.

Book Details Role

Aoki’s work for the FBI, which has never been reported, was uncovered and verified during research for the book by this reporter, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.” The book, based on research spanning three decades, will be published Tuesday by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In 2007, two years before he committed suicide, Aoki was asked in a tape-recorded interview for the book 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.”

FBI Code Number

The FBI later released records about Aoki in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request made by this reporter. A Nov. 16, 1967, intelligence report on the Black Panthers lists Aoki as an “informant” with the code number “T-2.”

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on Aoki, citing litigation seeking additional records about him under the Freedom of Information Act.

Since Aoki shot himself at his Berkeley home after a long illness, his legend has grown. In a 2009 feature-length documentary film, “Aoki,” and a 2012 biography, “Samurai Among Panthers,” he is portrayed as a militant radical leader. Neither mentions that he had worked with the FBI.

Harvey Dong, who was a fellow activist and close friend, said last week that he had never heard that Aoki was an informant.

“It’s definitely something that is shocking to hear,” said Dong, who was the executor of Aoki’s estate. “I mean, that’s a big surprise to me.”

Finding the Informant

Threadgill recalled that he first approached Aoki after a bureau wiretap on the home phone of Saul and Billie Wachter, local members of the Communist Party, picked up Aoki talking to Berkeley High classmate Doug Wachter.

At first, Aoki gathered information about the Communist Party, Threadgill said. But Aoki soon focused on the Socialist Workers Party and its youth affiliate, the Young Socialist Alliance, which also were targets of an intensive FBI domestic security investigation.

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Posted on August 20, 2012, in Radical History, State Repression and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think this really does need to be taken with a grain of salt, especially since there has always been a concerted effort to portray revolutionaries as being agents [for example, there was an FBI dossier published in the 70s that named a whole bunch of people who weren’t agents as FBI agents in a concerted attempt to spread paranoia amongst the left, and COINTELPRO files even admit to this]. This discourse is especially loved by opportunist organizations in order to justify a lack of militancy on their part. The specific claims about Aoki, after all, go so far as to claim the Panthers wouldn’t be militant if it wasn’t for Aoki’s influence––a pretty absurd claim.

    In any case, there is a response article about this going around various blogs and tumblrs that questions the analysis of this story. Enaemaehkiw, obviously feel free to cut this out if it violates the posting links qualification of your blog policy (though this isn’t my own analysis, so I’m not advertising for myself here, lol):

    http://le-kif-kif.tumblr.com/post/29850970629/my-initial-thoughts-on-the-richard-aoki-controversy-by

    In any case, it’s well worth a read. Because if we start saying that people who were known personally by other radicals as being very dedicated, and who maintained a dedication to anti-imperialist politics their entire life, were really agents, then we could start promoting an ideology that *everyone* is an agent and that there’s no point in doing anything even half-ways militant because it is what the state wants us to do (which is ludicrous).

  2. My quick thoughts on it are this: we already know that the BPP was absolutely bloated with agents. Bob Brown (now with the A-APRP) recounts stories of how at meetings of 80 Panthers upwards of 50 of those individuals present were agents! I largely (following Yeshitela and Rashid Johnson) place the blame for much of this at the feet of the Panthers’ blurring of the line between mass and vanguard organizations, creating awful security conditions where anyone willing to don the beret, jeans and jacket could waltz down the BPP HQ and join the party. Everyone from lumpen criminal types to agents were thus able to join the party with ease, and wreaking all kinds of chaos on the Panthers.

    So I have been asking – why is it so hard to believe that Aoki could have indeed been an agent, one who was fortunate enough (as far as the state is concerned) to rise to such a prominent position in one of COINTELPRO’s major targets?

    I mean, it’s now like this would be a first. I know I need not remind folks of the long standing accusations against Ward Churchill by many forces in around AIM, from the current AIM GGC leadership to others like Jimmie Durham and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

  3. It’s not that I find it hard to believe, because many of these organizations were infiltrated, I just think the evidence against Aoki is not very clear-cut. The reason I linked that one article is because, while it admits that Aoki being an agent is possible, it also points out the extreme problems of the claims about his agent-hood (premised on some pretty wild extrapolations and shitty research) vis-a-vis the BPP.

    But yeah, the qualifications for membership did become pretty wide (though we should note this was *after* Aoki), and the blurring between mass/vanguard, as you pointed out, was clearly a problem. People still try to argue that the whole mass org. “Serve the People” focus that eventually became the prime BPP program is some sort of revolutionary example for party building and yet forget: a) it happened after the BPP was a party; b) it was also what caused the BPP to be infiltrated, and was something of a right line that caused people to split from the party and ended up destroying the BPP.

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