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Forum Post: When a Celebrated Activist Turns Out To Be an FBI Informant

Posted 7 years ago on Nov. 13, 2012, 11:11 a.m. EST by LeoYo (5909)
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When a Celebrated Activist Turns Out To Be an FBI Informant

Monday, 05 November 2012 16:11 By Trevor Griffey, Truthout | News Analysis


Richard Aoki was a well-known activist in the San Francisco Bay Area - celebrated for his role as one of only a handful of Asian American members of the Black Panther Party, a leader in UC Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a mentor to a generation of left-leaning activists. So when the journalist Seth Rosenfeld alleged in August 2012 that Aoki was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Rosenfeld shocked Aoki’s family, friends, and allies. He also sought to shake up how we tell black freedom movement history by playing up the fact that Aoki provided the founders of the Black Panther Party (BPP) with their first guns. In the process, Rosenfeld raised important questions about what it is that informants do and what it means when an ally in struggles against government racism and police repression turns out to be an informant for the government. Rosenfeld’s allegations were surprising in part because they followed on the heels of the creation of two recent celebratory histories of Richard Aoki’s life. Aoki died in March 2009. In November of that year, activist filmmakers released a history of his work with documentary film, Aoki. And in April, 2012, University of Minnesota Press published a scholarly, 496 page biography of Aoki titled Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.

Only four months after the publication of Samurai Among Panthers, Rosenfeld alleged in an August 20 news article that "the man who armed the Black Panthers was FBI informant, records show." Rosenfeld tread gently on the revered figure’s memory. Having chosen not to share his research with activists or historians beforehand, he announced that "unbeknownst to his fellow activists, Aoki had served as an FBI intelligence informant, covertly filing reports on a wide range of Bay Area political groups." Rosenfeld described asking Aoki directly, during an oral history interview, whether he had been an informant (Aoki denied it). And Rosenfeld twice mentioned in his story that Aoki committed suicide in 2009. Could Aoki have committed suicide out of fear that Rosenfeld would expose him? Rosenfeld didn’t speculate overtly about Aoki’s decision. But he seemed to raise the issue by paying significant attention to the way that Aoki died (something few others have dwelled upon).

Rosenfeld’s story was provocative, and arguably sensationalistic. Rosenfeld’s highlighting of Aoki’s connection to the BPP piqued international interest. He played up that interest when he wrote that after Aoki provided guns to the Black Panthers, "although carrying weapons was legal at the time, there is little doubt their presence contributed to fatal confrontations between the Panthers and the police." It was an exaggeration that played to headlines. Rosenfeld seemed to be suggesting, without explicitly saying or proving, that Aoki acted on behalf of the FBI, and therefore the FBI set the Black Panthers up; the BPP might not have armed themselves had it not been for Aoki or the FBI; and that carrying guns was a major cause of the Panthers’ later "fatal confrontations" with police.

Rosenfeld published his story on Aoki just one day before the formal release of his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. As his allegations raced around the globe, the exposure of Aoki as an informant not coincidentally also delivered extraordinary free publicity for Rosenfeld’s new book. The method that Rosenfeld first used to out Aoki as an informant put Aoki’s allies, friends and historians on the defensive. For weeks afterward, a number of people sympathetic with Aoki and/or the Black Panther Party - including Aoki’s biographer Diane C. Fujino, Asian American Studies professor Scott Kurashige, and Black Panther historian Donna Murch - criticized Rosenfeld for his use of evidence, while also suggesting that his liberal politics distorted his ability to portray Aoki or the Black Panther Party in a sympathetic or even historically responsible way. The San Francisco Bay View also published a number of defenses of Aoki by former Panthers and their allies.

Then, according to Rosenfeld, "The FBI released [new] records [on Aoki] as a result of a lawsuit [by Rosenfeld] under the Freedom of Information Act after the initial story and video were completed." These weren’t just any records. In a remarkable turn of events, Rosenfeld was able to use the courts to compel the FBI to do something that it almost never does: release its file on an informant. When Rosenfeld published this file (FBI Headquarters file 134-10010, or 134-HQ-10010 for short) in response to his critics on September 7, with the story "FBI files reveal new details about informant who armed Black Panthers," he conclusively proved (in my opinion) that Aoki was an informant for the FBI. The only question that remains is what kind of informant Aoki was.

In what follows, I offer a close reading of FBI documents to explain how and why they prove that Aoki was an informant. I also use the documents to draw attention to potential ambiguities in the relationship between Aoki and the FBI, to raise questions that can only be answered with further research and to identify documents whose declassification might help us better understand Aoki’s dual role as informant and activist.



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[-] 1 points by stevebol (1269) from Milwaukee, WI 7 years ago

You can't infiltate a leaderless movement like OWS in the same way. You can derail it temporarily and give it a bad name but that's about it.

[-] 1 points by nomdeguerre (1775) from Brooklyn, NY 7 years ago

This is such a huge problem (infiltration by government agents). One that progressive causes have not gotten a handle on.

Just as a starting point one should always be suspicious of those with no visible means of support. Further, movements should be very wary of accepting "free" help from outsiders. And of course, any individuals urging violent actions or posturing that would alienate public support and/or invite overwhelming state response should be viewed with suspicion.

[-] 2 points by Renneye (3874) 7 years ago

Very, very well said.

[-] 0 points by GirlFriday (17435) 7 years ago

any individuals urging violent actions or posturing that would alienate public support and/or invite overwhelming state response should be viewed with suspicion.

Yep. The gots.

[-] 1 points by Coyote88 (-24) 7 years ago

Do you think that the FBI plants don't know that? The far right has learned that very well.

[-] 0 points by GirlFriday (17435) 7 years ago

Entrapment is an ..............old thang. Yeah?

[-] 2 points by Coyote88 (-24) 7 years ago

Very old. And a common tactic.

[-] 0 points by GirlFriday (17435) 7 years ago

So, how the hell do they manage to get away with it?

Did you see that little deal in Texas? That was local LEO, not FBI, but still.......

[-] 2 points by Coyote88 (-24) 7 years ago

Left or Right anyone can win one every once in a while.

[-] 0 points by GirlFriday (17435) 7 years ago

They lost it. Rightly so. Still.......same game played all over the place. I gots.

[-] 1 points by Coyote88 (-24) 7 years ago

Yes. The Left won. But now what?

[-] 1 points by GirlFriday (17435) 7 years ago

The left didn't win. LEO lost.

[-] 1 points by Coyote88 (-24) 7 years ago

Labels.. WTF is your point?


[-] 1 points by Coyote88 (-24) 7 years ago

Yeah....thought I found an actual adult here

[-] 0 points by GirlFriday (17435) 7 years ago

You did.

[-] 0 points by richardkentgates (3269) 7 years ago

Raygun was also an informant at UC Berkeley which paved the way toward his presidency. Personally, I think there is a serious conflict of interest in having law enforcement, military or the like as elected officials. I see little difference between this and WallSt execs holding office or position as a regulator.