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On the Richard Aoki Controversy
Commentary on the recent story about allegations that Richard Aoki was an FBI informat.
A few days ago, sfgate.com published an article about a new book coming out about the FBI surveillance of the student left in the 60s, and the rise of Ronald Reagan. The main story was about Richard Aoki, who recently has re-emerged as a famous radical, who was an Asian American leader, and was in the leadership of the Black Panther Party. The accusation is that he was an informant for the FBI.
On various websites, this has become a controversial story, with some people refuting the claim.
I thought the original sfgate article and the CIR website story were thin on concrete evidence, but fairly thick with innuendo, making it difficult to make any conclusions. The CIR story, which was a longer version of the sfgate one, was more problematic, because it was pretty forceful in raising the issue of guns and violence over and over. It seemed designed to appeal to the anti-gun and perhaps the nonviolent resistance advocates. At times, the issues of guns and violence were raised so prominently that Aoki seemed to be more of a prop within that story than the subject of the story.
Immediately, I thought of Occupy LA, Occupy Wall Street, and Occupy Oakland, where there were arguments about similar issues, but regarding property damage or the relationship with the police. The arguments in Occupy were pretty divisive and controversial, and could cause splits. Maybe they did.
It also recalled for me the conventional wisdom about informants or agents provocateurs being the ones who foment violence. That particular narrative is recapitulated a lot in the press, particularly in the stories about Judi Bari and Earth First, a pair of PBS documentaries about New Orleans and ELF, and some stories on WBEZ's This American Life. The Aoki story had no concrete evidence to fit this narrative template... but the CIR story certainly implied it.
The story, in this case, presents Aoki as an instigator, and the BPP, implicitly, as victims of this double-agent. (This recalls a stereotype about Asians during wartime.) Guns were presented as the key problem. Implicit here is that if only the BPP had gone down a path advocated by MLK and more mainstream white activists, they wouldn't have been in shootouts with the FBI. (This is within the scope of the story told on the CIR site.)
I just read Kurashige's first response, and it seemed like he was going along with the implied narrative, rather than looking only at the concrete evidence. It was an alluring narrative, too, and one that, had someone told me the story as fact, I would have believed: a young man becomes and informant against revolutionaries, is pulled over to the "enemy's" side, and lives a life supporting the revolution; in old age, he's found out, is in ill health, and kills himself.
My problem with this story, and the stories implied above, are that they are too "neat", too "tidy". History is always messy.
The historical fact is that in the 60s, you could buy and carry guns in California. Anyone could get guns. So Aoki's role in obtaining guns, while important, wasn't that significant -- they could have gotten them elsewhere. He initially gave them only an M1 rifle (the regular Army rifle), and a pistol -- both widely available.
Aoki's aggressive militancy, too, may have been a "problem" for middle class activists, but someone who had history in street gangs and the military would have a different perspective on militancy and violence. (Not to mention that Aoki had been in a concentration camp and witnessed that kind of violence.) This militant attitude can result due to a required level of community vigilantism in the poor neighborhoods that are under-served, or even exploited, by the local police.
With the passage of time, it's easy to forget that the BPP and Aoki emerged only years after residential segregation by race in California had been banned. They lived in ghettoes.
All around the world, nations were undergoing anti-colonial struggles, and these were all armed, militant conflicts. Certainly, many people would have agreed that armed conflict can work to liberate a country.
Unlike today, there was no conventional wisdom that nonviolent resistance was the best way to achive major social change.
I can't help but have serious doubts about the accusations that Aoki was an FBI informant. I'm waiting for more real evidence.