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Richard Aoki wasn’t there to defend himself. But Bobby Seale was.
After a couple of weeks of revelatory newspaper accounts of Aoki’s alleged stint as an FBI informant, Oakland’s Black Panther Party legacy seemed to shake on its very foundations.
Aoki’s storied past, as the Panthers’ revered Asian-American comrade, was suddenly questionable. Generations of Asian-American activism, as well as the BPP’s multicultural reach, had seemingly been placed in jeopardy by the testimony of a dead government agent and a stack of declassified documents.
Seale wasn’t about to let all that go without a fight. Stepping up to the podium at Sunday’s East Side Arts Alliance’s town hall discussion, he offered a glimpse of the firebrand who founded the Panthers more than four decades ago. He regaled the standing room-only crowd – many of them veterans of the ‘60s-‘70s black liberation and Third World activist movements - with anecdotes from the BPP’s glory days, aided by liberal doses of his own mythology. Aoki, he said, was an integral force in the Panthers’ conception; back in the pre-BPP Merritt College days, it was he who told Seale where to find Huey Newton: “Down on 47th Street.”
Seale took the allegations as an insult.
“It’s so personal. It’s a crying shame,” he said. “This … is about a defamation of my old colleague … Richard Aoki being a so-called snitch? Bulls--t.”
This was classic Seale: righteously indignant, verbose, gruff and charismatic. Peppering his stories with curse words, he recalled telling FBI agents who visited him to “get the f--- off my porch,” referred to “snatching the leather jackets” of wanna-be Panthers and upheld Aoki as nothing less than a blood brother.
Aoki, he said, had been named field marshal “at the very beginning of the Black Panther Party.” Seale confirmed that Aoki had given him and Newton weapons, at Newton’s request: “He gave Huey an M-1 carbine. He gave me a .45.”
Despite the Panthers’ militant stance - and their predilection for carrying guns - Seale claimed it was a “big-ass lie” that the group disliked non-violent protest. He noted that he once broke up a riot and that he had continually advocated for an electoral platform as a means of affecting meaningful societal change. “I don’t believe in riots,” he said. “I believe in organizing the community.”
Following Seale’s comments, ESAA’s Greg Morozumi told audience members they should think about the sources of information: “Anytime a sentence starts with ‘FBI says,’ you should question it.” After all, he said, the FBI were the architects of COINTELPRO - a program designed to infiltrate and discredit radical leftist groups “by any means necessary.”
The next speaker, Asian-American studies professor and author Diane Fujimo, was highly skeptical of basing an account of the history of Asian American political activism primarily on FBI sources. Fujimo maintained that Seth Rosenfeld’s book “Subversives,” in which the allegations against Aoki were first named, failed to provide sufficiently detailed evidence of Aoki’s relationship with the government and distorted the context of 1968s Third World Strike, making Aoki the main focus. According to Fujimo, the actions at San Francisco State and University of California, Berkeley, were the result of collective leadership, which she called “one of the strengths of the Asian-American movement.”
Rosenfeld, she said, exaggerated incidents of violence by strikers against whites, while downplaying incidents of violence by police against strikers. She accused the journalist of selectively picking and choosing the information in his book, “to paint a picture of Aoki as violent.”
Fujimo noted that her own book, “Samurai Among Panthers,” examined the larger context behind Aoki’s involvement with the Panthers and the Third World movement, which included critiques of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam.
The bottom line, she said, was, “we need to control our own history.”
ESAA’s Maisha Quint referenced the SF8 case as evidence that the tactics employed by COINTELPRO were still happening today. The federal government, she said, was attempting to “cut off the line of knowledge” between older activists and the young generation.
Emory Douglas, a visual artist and former BPP Minister of Culture, brought a thick stack of papers with him – his FBI file, which he had obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It had taken him three and a half years, he said, to get his file, of which some documents were still classified. The FBI, he revealed, had once profiled him “as someone they could approach.”
Attempts to discredit the Panthers, Douglas said, included threatening letters mailed to community members by unknown individuals made to look like they came from the BPP.
In Douglas’ mind, the allegations about Aoki were nothing more than another “misinformation campaign.” For a freedom fighter, this was par for the course, he suggested.
“All kinds of things like this come up," Douglas said. "You have to be prepared.”
Joan Tarika Lewis, the first female member of the Panthers, said she had been a friend of Aoki’s since 1967. Had Aoki been an informant, she claimed, “there would have been more than 28” – alluding to the Panthers killed since COINTELPRO’s advent, a number cited earlier by Seale.
No one on the panel believed the FBI account was credible in the least, especially given that this was the same federal agency whose leader once declared the Panthers’ free breakfast program “a threat to internal security,” as Seale noted.
Once the floor was opened for comments from community members, several former Panthers spoke up on Aoki’s behalf. Billy X, a member of the Black Panther alumni committee, called Aoki “a hero to this community,” noting that “Richard helped promote Bobby Hutton Day” – an event in honor of the teenage Panther killed by police in 1968 after an infamous shootout. Others noted that Aoki was involved in many Asian American activist organizations providing services to immigrant communities during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
There was only one voice of dissent during the discussion, when a woman who identified herself as the “child of Communists” said she was “uncomfortable with the notion (Aoki) couldn’t have been compromised.”
But the panelists remained firm that Aoki never undermined or attempted to destabilize the movement, insisting that his actions, over a long period of time, were inconsistent with that of a paid informant.
But if Aoki was an informant, what exactly did he tell the FBI? And how informed was the federal government about the full extent of his activities? Did they know he armed the Panthers? If so, were they complicit?
The answers aren’t found in Rosenfeld’s book, the articles naming Aoki as an informant or any of the declassified FBI documents released thus far.
As Morozumi said, “There are a lot of unresolved questions.”