Richard Aoki, the famous Berkeley radical best known as field marshal of the Black Panther Party, was an FBI informant, first recruited after his graduation from Berkeley High School, reports investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld.
Aoki died by his own hand five years ago, suffering from a lengthy a debilitating disease.
Rosenfeld, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who has done excellent work reporting on the FBI’s infiltration of the student left at UC Berkeley, outlines the allegations, backed by statements from Aoki’s handler, in a new book and in a lengthy account for the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Here’s a video report based on his findings:
Rosenfeld’s book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, documents the FBI’s extensive penetration of America’s radical movements, with a focus on Berkeley.
Writing at Truthdig, author Peter Richardson notes one of Rosenfeld’s more interesting findings relating to Reagan’s hatred of former UC Berkeley Chancellor Clark Kerr following the former actor’s election as California governor:
Two weeks after Reagan took office, FBI agents came to his home to brief him on subversive elements in Berkeley. He asked for additional intelligence on Kerr, liberal UC regents and any upcoming protests. Less than a week after that, the regents fired Kerr with Reagan in attendance. Regent Edwin Pauley, who had resented Kerr’s liberal outlook ever since the university’s loyalty oath controversy in the early 1950s, led the charge. Pauley had shared confidential FBI files with CIA Director (and Berkeley classmate) John McCone, who suggested that President Johnson order the FBI to “clean out the Communists and get rid of Clark Kerr.”
Disbelief from the left
Carlos A. Rivera, writing for the Oakland Local, suggests that Aoki may be the victim of “snitch jacketing,” the counterintelligence practice of branding a legitimate radical as an informant in an effort to discredit a movement:
To cast him in the light of a snitch shakes the very foundations of one of the most important, successful, and tragic examples of revolutionary organizing in the second half of the 20th century in the United States of America. It opens wounds of anti-Asian bigotry among Black revolutionaries, questions the internationalist instincts of the BPP, and in general pushes the ever present question of a security culture to the forefront. It also forces us to revisit COINTELPRO, and its current incantations as an existing force, rather than a painful memory of a long-gone era.
Writing at Racialicious, Latoya Peterson offers a more nuanced view, though the charges of snitch jacketing strike a chord:
So why would we doubt the claims that are backed up by documents? Because of the legacy of COINTELPRO, a series of covert (and often illegal) actions taken by the government to disrupt the activities of groups they deemed subversive. Most of these actions targeted leftist organizing, like labor, civil rights, and women’s rights. While COINTELPRO is most often associated with J. Edgar Hoover, it was a program that spanned decades and relied on sowing seeds of doubt and engineering situations with false information.
Mike Cheng and Ben Wang, creators of Aoki, a laudatory 2010 documentary on Aoki, find Rosenfeld’s charges lacking:
Accusing anyone of being an informant is extremely inflammatory and any allegations must be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated for evidence. For those familiar with the history of COINTELPRO and tactics employed by the FBI falsely hanging snitchjackets on prominent contributors to the Movement to create internal dissent and conflict, the burden of proof must lie with the individual or group making the claim. After reviewing Rosenfeld’s article, video, and book, there is no solid evidence presented that Richard was as an FBI informant.
Here’s an interview they conducted for their film with Kathleen Cleaver on Aoki’s role in the Panthers:
So what’s the answer?
We’ve been following Rosenfeld’s work for years, and he’s one of the few really good investigative journalists still working in California these days.
One has to remember the FBI’s extensive infiltration of radical movements, which date back to the days of the Palmer “Red Raids” after World War I, which broke the back the American left.
J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO devastated the left during the 1960’s and 70’s, penetrating radical movements with informants and provocateurs who enticed their erstwhile comrades into disastrous actions with the goal of provoking police action and public opprobrium.
During the 1950s, the Bureau’s penetration of the American Communist Party was so complete that some cells had more informants and undercover agents than actual communists.
The Black Panther Party was the target of one of the FBI’s most thorough COINTELPRO efforts, documented in this 1976 report from the Senate Select Committee To Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities.
Here’s what Hoover had to say about the Panthers, which became the FBI’s main target in 1969. The Panthers, Hoover said, “are the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.
Schooled in the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the teaching of Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung, its members have perpetrated numerous assaults on police officers and have engaged in violent confrontations with police throughout the country. Leaders and representatives of the Black Panther Party travel extensively all over the, United States preaching their gospel of hate and violence not only to ghetto residents, but to students in colleges, universities and high schools is well.”
Here’s one example from the report of the FBI’s actions against the Panthers:
In March 1970, the FBI initiated a concerted program to drive a permanent wedge between the followers of Eldridge Cleaver, who was then out of the country and the supporters of Huey P. Newton, who was then serving a prison sentence in California. An anonymous letter was sent to Cleaver in Algeria stating that BPP leaders in California were seeking to undercut his influence. The Bureau subsequently learned that Cleaver had assumed the letter was from the then Panther representative in Scandanavia, Connie Matthews, and that the letter had led Cleaver to expel three BPP international representatives from the Party.
Encouraged by the apparent success of this letter, FBI headquarters instructed its Paris Legal Attache to mail a follow-up letter, again written to appear as if Matthews was the author, to the Black Panther Chief-of-Staff, David Hilliard, in Oakland, California. The letter alleged that Cleaver “has tripped out. Perhaps he has been working too hard,” and suggested that Hilliard “take some immediate action before this becomes more serious.”
Aoki provided the Panthers with weapons, precisely the kind of move the Bureau would encourage, and to our mind a strong point in favor of Rosenfeld’s thesis.
As noted in the video, the Bureau is still withholding 4,000 pages of documents, which, if released, should provide more evidence. But given the FBI’s history, we’re not surprised that another prominent Panther may have been an informant.
Aoki would’ve been the perfect target for recruitment into the wilderness of mirrors, as the late CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton described that strange world.