Richard Aoki Reconsidered

by Louis Proyect, Unrepentant Marxist on September 5, 2012

Although my Maoist comrades will probably be disappointed in my failure to do a full-scale breast-beating self-criticism, I am now ready to admit that my original take on the Richard Aoki controversy was shortsighted.

I placed far too much credit in Seth Rosenfeld’s investigation based on his having been honored with a George Polk award in 1992. Named after a CBS correspondent who died in the Greek civil war (1946-1949), it is often given to fearless journalists such as Robert Knight, the WBAI radio reporter who received the award for his coverage of the U.S. invasion of Panama.

I also took into account the fact that he was a staff member of the Center for Investigative Reporting whose board members include Ben Bagdikian, Bill Moyers, and Mark Dowie (the author of Losing Ground, a tough-minded investigation of mainstream environmentalism and American Foundations, an equally tough-minded take-down of the Pew Charitable Trust and company.)

Finally, I placed a lot of trust in Wesley Swearingen’s involvement with Rosenfeld’s investigation since this former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent is about as close to a Philip Agee as the bureau ever produced. In a January 15, 1979 New York Times profile on Swearingen, John Crewdson reported that the ex-agent accused the FBI of killing Fred Hampton in a “deliberate set-up.” I also heard Swearingen’s testimony first-hand on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) when it was suing the FBI as an occasional visitor to the courtroom in New York where the case was being heard.

So I was inclined to give Rosenfeld and Swearingen the benefit of the doubt. These are two men who appeared at first blush to be exemplars of integrity, and still are worthy of respect. However, I am afraid that Rosenfeld did not live up to past standards when writing about Aoki as I will now attempt to demonstrate. I have read his chapter on Aoki at least three times and have had the opportunity to read Diane Fujino’s Samurai Among Panthers, up to and including the chapter on the 1969 student strike at Berkeley.

Like Rashomon, there are clashing versions of who Aoki was. I am ready at this point to accept Fujino’s version that is based on Aoki’s own testimony.

The biggest problem with Rosenfeld’s writing is its “slippery” quality, a hedging tendency that always allows him to defend against counter-attacks—and most of all, an approach that allows multiple interpretations, something that becomes second-nature to professional journalists I am afraid.

For example, Rosenfeld writes that Aoki gave the Panthers their first guns and weapons training, “encouraging them on a course that would lead to shootouts with police and the organization’s demise.” Now, “encouraging” is a word that can have multiple meanings. One possible reading is that it was the act of an agent provocateur: “Hey, Huey, here’s some pistols. I am going to show you how to use them. Then you will be in a better position to off some pigs.” Another possible meaning is that of assisting. Throughout his discussion of Aoki’s role in arming the Panthers, Rosenfeld oscillates between the two versions of the word “encouraging.” It might help him to make his political point but it comes at the expense of scholarly rigor.

Another big problem is Rosenfeld’s tendency to blur the lines between informer and those who are being informed upon. On page 422, he refers to FBI records that trace Aoki’s political steps through the Communist Party (CP) and the SWP. It reminded me of a nagging doubt I had about Aoki’s status when he was first referred to as a “T-2” informant in a file on the Black Panthers. Since when can you find FBI files obtained through a Freedom of Information Action (FOIA) request including the names of informants? This is news to me. I got my own files through a FOIA request in the early 1980s. The page seen below has data on me obviously provided by an informer.

See how his or her identity is blacked out? That is what you can expect. That Aoki gets named “accidentally” as an informant seems improbable. A much more likely explanation is that the FBI was reporting on a “subversive,” just as it was the case with me. The biggest problem, of course, is that Rosenfeld does not share the goods with his readers so we are in no position to pin down the truth.

Goods like the above not included in Rosenfeld’s book.

Maybe he thought we should just rely on his good word? Well, up to a certain point, but privileges should not be abused.

Most of the chapter that takes up Aoki’s connections to the FBI is focused on the ethnic studies strike at Berkeley that began at the end of January 1969. As was the case in the discussion of the Aoki/guns/Panther ties, Rosenfeld tries to indict Aoki as an agent provocateur without actually making the specific charge. He points out that Aoki proposed using sticks against students trying to break a picket line, for example, while other student leaders preferred nonviolent resistance.

While I doubt that Rosenfeld thought through the meaning of his words, he implicitly debunks the notion that Aoki was an FBI agent in this revealing passage:

The next day fewer people joined the picket lines, and during the following week support for the strike dwindled, which was attributed partly to student disgust about the fire [a reference to arson at Wheeler Auditorium] and partly to the inclement weather.

Despairing, Aoki and the other strike leaders met at their makeshift headquarters in the university’s Chicano Center, a house on Channing Way near Telegraph Avenue, a few blocks from campus, where a Mexican flag hung above the front door. They were chagrined at the low turnout, even by minority students. They knew they needed strong support from white students for the strike to be effective—but few whites seemed ready to strike for ethnic studies.

If Aoki were on the FBI payroll, why would he be “despairing” or “chagrined” over the “low turnout”? You’d think that he’d be elated since the job of a provocateur is to reduce mass participation in social struggles, if not end it entirely. They, including Aoki, “knew they needed strong support from white students for the strike to be effective”. If this were the case, what exactly was Aoki’s role?

In general, you are left with the impression after reading Aoki’s own recollection of his role in the Berkeley strike contained in Fujino’s book side-by-side with Rosenfeld’s account that he was fairly typical of a certain kind of student militant of the time. His “extremism” was unremarkable in fact. The fights with the cops, the sabotage (including stink-bombs), the snake dancing through campus; all of this was happening everywhere, including San Francisco State.

Hari Dillon, my colleague at Tecnica who faces a jail term for improprieties at the Vanguard Foundation, was one of the key leaders at San Francisco State. He spent a year in prison for inciting to riot. He was in the Progressive Labor Party at the time, a Maoist group that did not need “encouragement” from an agent provocateur to look for ways to get students beaten up and arrested by cops. That is the way things were. When the student leaders at Berkeley decided to call a strike, they asked the San Francisco State activists for advice. Nobody needed to get the FBI involved for buildings to be burned or for heads to be busted; that was par for the course.

I think that Rosenfeld could have made his points about the dangers of ultra-leftism without introducing a red herring about Aoki’s connections to the FBI. Those dangers were real back then and continue to be real today.

Although I never had a definitive opinion on whether Aoki was an FBI informant, I think that there might be a plausible explanation. When he was approached originally in the late 50s, he was a poverty-stricken working-class youth with no strong feelings about communism. He likely began informing on the CP and then the SWP mostly as a way to make ends meet. I strongly doubt that he did anything except go to meetings and report back to his “handler” about who was there and what was being discussed, as if the FBI was trying to preempt some major insurrectionary assault by a group of aging trade unionists.

Somewhere along the line he began to think about world politics for the same reason that everybody else began thinking about them, including me. My guess is that he stopped dealing with the FBI and became a full-tilt radical. After reading his life story—up to the student struggle at Berkeley—I am left with the impression that he was a thoughtful, serious, and frequently mistaken activist. The older he got, the wiser he became, as is so often the case with homo sapiens.

My advice to Seth Rosenfeld, if he ever stumbles across this piece, is to drop the Richard Aoki stuff in the next edition of his book since it does nothing to enhance his reputation or to sell copies. He is dealing with very important questions that still confront the left, such as how to successfully wage a mass struggle. Mealy-mouthed accusations about someone being an FBI informant trying to “encourage” Black Panthers or Berkeley students to engage in self-destructive acts does not belong in a book written by a progressive journalist. It smacks of the Henry Luce school of journalism and hardly advances Rosenfeld’s career or the broader goals of our movement.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

peter herreshoff September 5, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I tried to post the following on marxmail about 2 weeks ago, which I would amend to agree with Proyects suggestion that Rosenfeld was too hasty in drawing his conclusions about Aoki:

The allegations against Richard Aoki appear to me to depend mainly on the account of retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill. It should be noted that Threadgill approached Rosenfeld when he learned of Rosenfeld’s research, and not the other way around. What was Threadgill’s motive for that? Was it to reveal historical truth or was it to continue the work that he was engaged in when he was in the FBI. Did he reveal anything to Rosenfeld that impugned the FBI. Did he reveal the names of the entire set of informers whom he claims to have handled? Does he have a history of taking an honest approach vis a vis the crimes of the FBI similar to the positive record of former agent Wesley Swearingen?

A very brief internet search suggests that there might be cause for caution regarding the veracity of Threadgill’s testimony. At the time of his death seven years ago, the family asked that contributions be made in his memory to the Chrisler Biblical Institute (a fundamentalist biblical research outfit) and the (fundamentalist and anticommunist) Campus Crusade for Christ, (in addition to the Monterey Bay Aquarium). From this, one gets an idea of the outlook that Threadgill likely had during his FBI career and that likely informed his responses to Rosenfeld’s inquiries 15 or so years after his retirement from the FBI. It is certainly possible that Threadgill’s is truthful when he states that Aoki got his start in the radical movement as a relatively apolitical informant and that Aoki was one of Threadgill’s best sources. However, I would want to see more independent evidence before I had any confidence that it is true.

I do not see justification for impugning the motives of either of the scholars involved in this dispute. Rosenfeld seems to be quite transparent re his sources and research. It would be good for him to make the entirety of his primary materials (tapes of interviews) available. Likewise, Diane Fujino, appears to be an honest scholar who is ready to consider evidence that Aoki was a police agent. That they both have ego involvement regarding their writing should not be held against them.

Retired FBI agent Wesley Swearingen’s opinion (as recorded in Rosenfeld’s interview) that Aoki probably was an informant seems to be based on a cursory examination of the evidence. It would be good to get his opinion after a more thorough perusal of the evidence against Aoki.


Matt September 5, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Yeah I’d agree, and the theory that Aoki (or anyone) could have been an agent who defected would be interesting to find evidence for.


Ismael September 7, 2012 at 11:32 am

Update: 200 pages of FBI documents on Aoki have been released. The docs are available here:’s-paper-trail-3834


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp September 12, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Fujino’s response to the above starts at 36 minutes into this radio interview:


Arthur September 7, 2012 at 1:25 pm


I stayed out of the Aoki threads because my only comment was going to be “Why not just wait for the imminent court ordered release of FBI records?”

Then I thought, “So why even post that?”

From quick scan the released file doesn’t shed much light on how FBI agent Aoki operated (which was presumably the purpose of the massive redactions). But certainly confirms he was at all relevant times working for the FBI,

The propensity to speculate enthusiastically instead of basing analysis on factual information goes a long way to explain why such penetration is feasible.

A higher political level with more respect for facts and less for speculative pontification is the only way to reduce the impact of penetration efforts.


Louis Proyect September 7, 2012 at 6:40 pm
Arthur September 8, 2012 at 8:00 am

I was hoping there might be some reflection on having got it wrong. Instead, just more pontificating.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp September 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Proyect was more right than wrong. Some comrades are still in denial:


Jonathan Nack September 13, 2012 at 11:29 am

The revelation that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant once again underscores the folly of attempts at building secretive radical organizations.

As a radical activist in Oakland for the past 25 years, I’ve met many former Panthers who held a deep reverence for Aoki, I didn’t know Aoki, but was introduced to him a couple of times and always with the great respect afforded a movement celebrity. He had been a icon for many former Panthers and Panther admirers.

Aoki certainly seemed to be the genuine article. How could someone who had so much trust placed in him, who was so well read and conversant in radical theory and history, and who became a respected leftist academic could have actually been an FBI informant? The fact that we ask such questions with such wonder is a sure sign that we are completely over-matched and out of our league we are against the FBI, and the rest of the secret police, when it comes to secrecy.

Secrecy is their game. You may think you can play it well, but you’re really putting yourself and the people’s movements you’re fighting for at great risk.


Louis Proyect September 13, 2012 at 9:26 pm

Nice to see Jonathan Nack showing up here since he was a member of the North Star Network back in the day.


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