It wasn’t a great surprise when the FBI files reviewed by Seth Rosenfeld for “Subversives” showed that Ronald Reagan was an FBI informant: He’d been accused of that before. But a section in Rosenfeld’s book about Richard Aoki, the only Asian American to have a major leadership role in the Black Panthers, had a more explosive impact: It appeared that Aoki had been a paid informant long before his involvement with the Panthers and also into his years as a respected teacher and community leader.
The initial reaction among Aoki’s former comrades and colleagues was one of denial. Aoki was remembered as a militant, uncompromising revolutionary. Some people suggested that Rosenfeld had inflated the information in the files or misinterpreted it.
A few weeks after the book’s publication, however, 221 pages of FBI files on Aoki were released to Rosenfeld. They seemed to provide indisputable evidence that Aoki had been considered an invaluable informant by the bureau. In 1972, the agent supervising him even reminded him to report the payments he’d received from the FBI on his IRS tax return.
Aoki sounds like the epitome of mid-1960s revolutionary cool: He wore sunglasses most of the time, even at night, and spoke the language of the black Oakland neighborhood where he’d grown up. He sometimes suggested escalation of protest actions. At one point, he proposed that students raid local National Guard armories to get weapons. He was one of the earliest suppliers of weapons to the Panthers, furnishing them guns from his own collection. Before joining the Panthers, he had provided the FBI information on the youth groups of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, among others.
There’s nothing in the heavily redacted files to suggest that Aoki was an agent provocateur, nor is there information about exactly what he told the FBI. Nevertheless, his influence within the Panthers raises questions about whether the FBI knew what kinds of actions he was encouraging and, if bureau members did know, how they reacted.
It could be that Aoki was spying on the FBI, i.e., was a kind of double agent. It’s also possible that all the information he fed the bureau was garbage, though that contradicts the FBI’s opinion of his information.
Fred Ho, a friend of Aoki’s, suggested in August in the online newspaper San Francisco Bay View that Aoki’s appearance in the released FBI files was disinformation intended to discredit the revolutionary movement. As quoted in International Examiner, a pan-Asian newspaper based in Seattle, Aoki’s biographer Diane Fujino insisted that the files need to be studied more carefully. “Perhaps, and the jury is still out on this, Aoki was an FBI informant in the early ’60s at a time when he was rather conventional. ... But he may have gotten changed in the process of reading and working with the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party.”
None of these explanations seems probable on its face, but at this point only the FBI knows. Or maybe no one really knows. Aoki committed suicide three years ago, two years after Rosenfeld let him know there was evidence he’d been an informer. Rosenfeld’s report of that interview makes Aoki sound evasive: “‘People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer.’ When pressed further for a yes or a no, Aoki again replied indirectly, saying, ‘I’m denying it. Or “no comment” is the standard response, I think.’”