On Monday, the Center for Investigative Reporting released a damning report alleging that the late, longtime activist and former Black Panther Richard Aoki worked as an FBI informant at points in his life. The allegations were met with shock and skepticism from those familiar with Aoki’s work, but also reintroduced the very real challenge of state intervention in movements for social justice–past and present.
The news was considered a bombshell revelation in light of Aoki’s reputation as one of the most prominent and well-respected Asian American activists of the 20th century. In an accompanying video, reporter Seth Rosenfeld lays out evidence that suggests that Aoki may have been on the FBI’s payroll shortly after graduating high school in West Oakland, Calif. and before becoming active in Bay Area social movements and, later, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Rosenfeld unearthed a Nov. 16, 1967, intelligence report that lists Aoki as an “informant.”
The revelations come as part of Rosenfeld’s new book, published today, on the FBI’s relationship with radical student activists in the 1960’s and ’70s.
An interactive timeline published alongside the report alleges that Aoki, who was a celebrated marksman in the Army before his work in progressive social movements, gave the Black Panther Party its first weapons and weapons training, while also reporting to FBI personnel bent on destroying the group’s work through the agency’s infamous counter intellegence program, known as COINTELPRO.
“He was my informant. I helped develop him,” former FBI agent Burney Threadgill, Jr., who investigated Bay Area cases for J. Edgar Hoover, told Rosenfeld. “He was one of the best sources we had.” Threadgill died in 2005. Aoki committed suicide in 2009, reportedly after a long battle with diabetes.
Aoki denied the allegations in an interview with Rosenfeld in 2007, saying somewhat cryptically: “People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.”
Yet people familiar with Aoki’s work with the Panthers and decades later as a community college educator are still waiting for more facts.
“Anyone who’s seriously concerned needs to examine the facts,” says Mike Cheng, co-executive director of the film “Aoki.” “I have a bias, [Aoki] was a mentor of mine. However, before I can speak definitively one way or another about it, I have a responsibility look at the information presented, analyze it, and see how it all fits.”
Attempts to reach Aoki’s biographer Diana C. Fugino were unsuccessful.
The allegations against Aoki are the latest in decades of revelations about civil rights and black power movement activists who worked with the FBI at points in their lives. Movements have long been successfully fractured by the power of the state, no matter how celebrated those moments later become. The agency is known to have recruited close friends and family of movement leaders, using everything from coercion to misinformation to enlist them in efforts to spy on domestic activism. The long list of surveilled subjects includes, but is by no means limited to, Martin Luther King, Jr; Malcolm X; Cesar Chavez; W.E.B. DuBois; Paul Robseson; and labor organizer Ella Baker.
In 2010, after news broke that distinguished black photographer Ernest Withers worked as an informant during the 1960’s, Barbara Ransby wrote for Colorlines.com that stories like Withers’ serve as a reminder that “our government has routinely violated the basic civil liberties of so many black activists over several generations.”
Nor has the practice ended. Both the FBI and the New York Police Department have been found to engage in aggressive surveillance of Muslim communities around the country without cause, under the guise of counter terrorism efforts. An AP investigation found NYPD spying on student groups on at least 16 college campuses in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, as well as mosques nationwide. The effort, which includes mapping every Muslim-owned business in the New York area, was supported with federal funds.
Still, the allegations against Aoki are particularly troubling, according to Cheng. Aoki didn’t only tell stories of historical figures; he was one.
“We thought Richard’s life offered lots of valuable lessons, from his example of solidarity to involvement in the more radical, revolutionary movements of the ’60s,” says Cheng. “Richard’s story was one that inspired us.”
Decades before Bob Wing co-founded Colorlines, he says he was politicized by Aoki and the fight for ethnic studies at UC Berkeley in 1968. When he saw news on Facebook that Aoki may have worked as an FBI informant, he says that he was “sad, but not shocked.”
“I have no idea whether Richard was an informer,” said Wing. “I think it’s a matter for the movement to internalize that this comes with the territory. Fighting for social justice means going against very powerful forces who do not want us to succeed and will pretty much do anything they can to stop us from succeeding.”
Wing says that spending his formative political years in movements led by students of color has had a significant impact on how he views surveillance. “I personally always act like I’m being spied upon,” he said. “I don’t let it affect what I do because if you let the idea of being spied upon affect what you do, then they’ve already won. They’ve already diverted you from the work that you need to be doing.”