What Seth Rosenfeld Will Never Know About Richard Aoki

I recognized two faces in this video: those of Richard Aoki and Harvey Dong. Both of these men have been highly visible in the API community through their work as Berkeley alumni, activists, and educators. Both took part in the 1969 third world Liberation Front protest movements that formed at Cal and San Francisco State University, and as a student of Harvey’s last spring semester, I benefited from the sacrifices former students had made in the struggle to build ethnic studies programs.

Before I came to Berkeley, I knew nothing about the struggle to establish academic departments that focused on the history of minorities. Only in Asian American Studies 20B did I learn more in-depth how the “passive” community stood up to voice its demands for public education and social justice, and I am inspired the experience that Harvey brings to his work.

Although I only heard about Richard Aoki long after his death in 2009, the contributions he had made as a student leader in the face of extreme opposition marked him as someone I could relate to after I being involved in the Occupy Cal protest last year. Now, with journalist Seth Rosenfeld claiming in his book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power that Aoki was a paid FBI informant, I am at a loss as to what I still believe. In this time of doubt over Aoki’s true identity, I know that the community has not wavered in its response to Rosenfeld’s findings, and Ethnic Studies students at Berkeley especially have a stake in the ongoing debate.

From what I saw with members of hardboiled at the event hosted by the Graduate School of Journalism on Wednesday, September 19, Rosenfeld stuck to the facts as he presented them, without offering much room for opinion. He seemed confident in his knowledge of Aoki’s history and career.

I would like to ignore the fact that he initially ignored me when I approached him after the conversation, shaking his hand and smiling as I introduced myself. What I will not ignore is that the same journalist who tirelessly pursued five lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act was never able to conduct more than two telephone interviews with Aoki, none in person. In response to my question on whether Aoki’s condition prevented him from meeting with Rosenfeld one-on-one, Rosenfeld said, “I don’t know.” I guess that as long as Aoki was alive, Rosenfeld could do little with the cryptic responses he was able to draw out. Granted, Rosenfeld deserves credit for doing the research and analysis, but ultimately his statement of Aoki leaves much to the imagination. Why include Aoki in the book if no concrete, comprehensive data shows what type of information he passed on (if he did work as an informant) to the FBI?

Much remains to be uncovered in the Richard Aoki case, but for those who have known him as a friend, leader, and role model, his standing in the API community will continue to be upheld, even as his right to privacy has diminished.

One thought on “What Seth Rosenfeld Will Never Know About Richard Aoki

  1. Watch Peralta TV’s Exclusive 2008 Interview with Richard Aoki at

    In 2008, Peralta TV produced an award-winning documentary on the origins of the Black Panther Party at Merritt College. As part of the documentary, “Merritt College: Home of the Black Panthers,” Peralta TV interviewed Richard Aoki, who for many years worked for the Peralta Community College District as a teacher, administrator and counselor.

    Although regarded by many as a leader in civil rights and activist circles, recent evidence suggests that Richard Aoki may have been an FBI informant. Peralta TV conducted a 90-minute interview with him in October 2008, just months before he died in 2009.

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