By Steve Woo and Alex T. Tom
OPINION In a new book, Bay Area journalist Seth Rosenfeld publicly names longtime Asian American leftist Richard Aoki as an FBI informant during his time as a leader of the Third World Liberation Front movement and as a founding member of the Black Panther Party. As Asian American activists in the movement today, we denounce these claims as baseless and false and are shocked at the way Rosenfeld makes such unsubstantiated claims while promoting his book release. His allegations damage the movement and reinforce trite "yellow peril" stereotypes of Asian Americans.
The allegations against Richard come without any credible evidence. Rosenfeld provides one incomplete document that he claims identifies Richard as an informant called "SF T-2." It reads: "SF T-2 was designated for [redacted] (Richard M. Aoki) for the limited purposes of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing him." The FBI cover sheet associates names of informants with their "T" codes. All informants' names have been redacted.
It is astounding to us that Rosenfeld concluded Richard was an informant from that scrap of evidence. Later in this document, Aoki's name is used again in order to name an FBI file location. In the few pages available under his FBI file, the informant "SF T-2" goes on to inform about the readings, political thought, and organizational/party membership of Richard Aoki. It appears to us that an informant named "SF T-2" was assigned to inform about Richard.
Rosenfeld also cites a former agent named Burney Threadgill, who claims Richard was an informant; before his death in 2009, Richard denied that in an interview. Threadgill is hardly a credible source and was a major player at the height of COINTELPRO, implementing FBI policy that was designed to deter and divide the movement. Unfortunately, both men are now deceased and cannot defend their claims.
He also uses testimony of a former FBI agent, M. Wesley Swearington, who had no relation to Richard Aoki. Despite this, Swearington claims that Richard was a "perfect informant" because he was a Japanese person in an organization of Black Americans. That makes no sense because Richard stuck out while in the Black Panther Party, and again feeds into the divisive stereotypes of Asian Americans.
Rosenfeld implies that Richard worked as an instigator, pushing people toward violent action. In fact, Richard was cautious about the use of violence and was vigilant about it during mass actions. It's true that Richard armed the Black Panthers; however, he did so in the name of self-defense and protecting the people against police brutality.
All in all, Seth Rosenfeld's news story on Richard Aoki was poorly researched and only a small fraction of his new book. His public accusations are unfounded and sensationalist.
Richard advanced leftist political thought, mentored and developed new leaders, educated his working-class sisters and brothers, and built Black and Asian solidarity — and this was invaluable. Richard and other movement veterans inspired us and a new generation of young leaders to carry forward the work today. We are stronger because of them — and that is how people should be judged and remembered.
Steve Woo is an organizer in the Tenderloin and steering committee member of the Richard Aoki Fund. Alex T. Tom is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.