by katherine wang
There’s much to say about Seth Rosenfeld’s new book, I’m sure, but so far, all I’ve heard is about ten pages of it. Whether Aoki was really an informant and to what extent, I don’t know. But, what I do know is how callously Rosenfeld sensationalized something so impactful not only to those who knew and respected Aoki, but to the Asian American community. To Rosenfeld, perhaps, it is media fodder, but to so many others, it means a lot more – and that is something Rosenfeld was clearly aware of and manipulated. Why else would he choose to make a documentary of Richard Aoki – and drop the bombshell without sufficient evidence – just days before his book was published? To treat such a revelation with such little respect is not just disrespectful of Aoki, but of the entire API community.
As a student journalist and former member of a constitutional team, I believe strongly in the press’s responsibility for revealing the truth and would defend, had someone found comprehensive, solid evidence of Aoki’s involvement with the FBI, his right – his responsibility, even – to publish it. It is even understandable, given that Aoki is not the focus of his book, that Rosenfeld cannot give a comprehensive image of the truth surrounding Aoki’s involvement with the FBI. But, he purposely chose to stir up controversy with only a partial understanding, making it seem like Aoki is a much larger part of his book than he is. And honestly? I think that demonstrates a complete lack of empathy and respect to the community he purposely targeted for a little extra publicity. An Asian American Studies professor at UC Berkeley and close friend of Aoki, Harvey Dong pointed out that “Rosenfeld should have asked people who knew Richard.” Truth is, Rosenfeld had never even met Aoki in person and only talked to him in two phone conversations in 2007.
Those who did know Aoki met the news with disbelief and outrage. Diane Fujino, who published Aoki’s biography, Samurai Among Panthers, earlier this year, was among the first to respond, pointing out that Rosenfeld relies on unconvincing evidence and provides neither motives nor conclusive evidence. Fred Ho, who worked with Aoki during the 90s, also spoke out in defense of Aoki. “If Richard was a FBI agent, how did he help the FBI? By training the Panthers in Marxist ideology, socialism? By leading drill classes at 7 a.m. daily and instilling iron discipline in their ranks? By being one of the leaders to bring about Ethnic (Third World) Studies in the U.S.?” Fred challenged.
To a community often stereotyped as compliant and passive, Aoki is representative of what Asian Americans are capable of. Aoki’s legacy lives on, in the Ethnic Studies department here, in this paper, even, and nothing should detract from what he has done for this campus and for both the Asian American movement and the African American movement – especially when there is no conclusive evidence he helped to sabotage either. The impact of his activism is clear, the impact of his alleged informant identity much less clear and regardless of the truth, what he fought for – solidarity and understanding between minorities, for one – remains important.
Ultimately, we must remember, as Dong said so aptly during his meeting with interns in APASD (Asian Pacific American Student Development) on September 25, that “stories like this shouldn’t discourage us from making social changes.” Yes, I think the evidence is inconclusive at best, yet in the end, no matter what Aoki may have chosen to do in the past, it doesn’t change the fact that what he stood for – and what I still believe he truly believed in – is still worth striving for. As Newton once told Aoki, “the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality transcends racial and ethnic barriers.” That struggle is universal, and it continues to this day. If anything, Rosenfeld’s insensitive actions towards the API community only prove that.
by janice wong
As Berkeley students, it is our responsibility to find the truth – no matter how difficult it is for us to acknowledge. This means that the “facts” that Seth Rosenfeld presents in his book Subversives are not going to be accepted without a thorough investigation and analysis from community members. Rosenfeld’s claims rest primarily on the testimony of deceased FBI agent Burney Threadgill, heavily redacted FBI documents on Richard Aoki, and M. Wesley Swearingen, a former FBI agent. A portion of the conversation Rosenfeld has with Threadgill is available online, and we are only able to hear what we are told is Threadgill’s voice, saying “Oh yeah, he was a character. He said ‘I don’t have any interest in communism,’ and I said, ‘Well why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about?'” We have no way of knowing whether or not it is actually Threadgill speaking, and the context of the conversation is only provided by Rosenfeld. Additionally, Rosenfeld claims that Threadgill brought up Aoki after seeing his name on an FBI document in 2002; however, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) states that it does not disclose any information about any person in their records, unless that person is already deceased. Aoki passed away on March 15, 2009 – which means that Aoki’s name should not have been included in the FBI document that Rosenfeld claimed he possessed. Redacted information in the released FBI files on Aoki clearly demonstrates the type of censorship and level of privacy provided for people that are still living.
While we are still on the subject of the FOIA and redacted information, I would like to point out that because of the heavy censorship throughout Aoki’s FBI file, we are unable to conclude what kind of information Aoki supposedly furnished, and who was actually involved. Because of this, it’s hard to say whether Aoki was actually an informant – or being informed on. There are inconsistencies throughout the FBI file that make it appear as if Aoki were being informed on, rather than being the informant. For example, on page 53 of the FBI file, it states that Aoki is of “Korean” descent, incorrectly listing his ethnicity. A second example is on page 242, or AOKI-246, dated December 29, 1972. Rosenfeld states that on this particular report, Aoki is reminded to report his income from the FBI on his tax return in a hand-written notation, which is not actually present on the document. Along with the incorrect references throughout the document, Rosenfeld constructs data that never really existed. During his short interview with Aoki, he claims that Aoki stated, “People change. It is complex, layer upon layer,” in response to Rosenfeld’s question about whether or not he was an FBI informant. Upon listening to the actual recording, one finds that what Aoki may have been referring to is ambiguous. Although Rosenfeld claims that the words were in the exchange immediately before the others, the transcript of the conversation never has Aoki saying that at all, despite Rosenfeld’s claims. Instead, listening to the recorded conversation gives it different context than what his book makes it out to be. It is clear that Rosenfeld is at least somewhat guilty of manipulating his findings in order for them to resonate with his arguments.
Rosenfeld’s self-proclaimed evidence has too many cracks for it to be considered admissible. Twisting the information on Aoki only serves to increase the sales for his book, Subversives – which, admittedly, piqued the interest of many students and community members alike. It is unfair for Aoki’s legacy to be damaged in such a way, and Rosenfeld’s information is barely circumstantial evidence at best.
While Rosenfeld’s research may have come to the conclusion that Aoki worked as an FBI informant, it is inconclusive in determining whether or not this had an impact on the most important aspects of Richard Aoki’s legacy. The 1960s was a period where the government was obsessively suspicious of any and all “radical” groups, and considering that FBI agent Burney Threadgill claimed that he first found out about Aoki via wiretap, it is very possible that Aoki was being monitored long before he supposedly became an informant. Today, the notion of being an FBI informant may seem absurd, but back in the sixties, it was likely that it did not bear the same weight. Aoki’s legacy should continue to live on, despite the negative media surrounding the allegations brought up in Subversives.
by jenny lu
No one knows. No one knows, for sure, if Richard Aoki was a FBI informant. So how do we come up with a conclusion as to whether or not to believe Seth Rosenfeld’s claims?
Our Asian Pacific Islander American community is torn. There are avid believers who defend Aoki’s image; there are believers who completely disagree with and refuse to understand Rosenfeld’s claims. Bobby Seale, one of the Black Panther Party’s founding fathers, wholeheartedly believes in Aoki’s innocence. Seale stated, “This… is about a defamation of my old colleague… Richard Aoki being a so-called snitch? Bullshit.”
Then there are those who are disappointed, confused, and lost—who is this man we had once deemed an honorable figure who stood for justice?
Aoki became the icon of API activism at Berkeley—his image screamed “Third World Liberation” and “Black Panther Party.” Aoki was an educator; his dedication to supporting diversity helped land Ethnic Studies classes on this very university. We cannot let go of a hero who has defined and strengthened the activism in the Asian American community. We cannot let incoherent claims damage the work Aoki has done for social justice and equality. We, as a community, will not allow a simple story to take away the legacy, history, and pride of the Asian American identity that Aoki helped to create. This controversy has riled a lot of attention, but we can take power in that. We can use this to shine light on the good that Aoki has done, all the contributions he made for our community, especially on the UC Berkeley campus.
In an interview I conducted with Harvey Dong, professor of Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley, he shared his personal experiences and memories of Aoki, his longtime friend since they met in their undergraduate days at Cal. Dong said, “If Richard Aoki was an informant, [the FBI] did a lousy job. Richard did exactly the opposite [of what the FBI wanted]. Richard brought unity. He didn’t do things that would sabotage the university, but it changed the institution of the university for the better…With Richard’s involvement, he bridged solidarity between Asians and Blacks.”
Aoki walked through the same paths we are walking today, he fought for some of the classes we have here today, he fought for education, opportunity, and understanding. He brought attention to the Asian Pacific Islander community; he showed society that we are not just the “model minority.” He showed everyone that we have a voice and that we must be heard. Most importantly, he fought for us—the future. Aoki was an activist who wanted a better society, a more inclusive community; he wanted a positive change.
Dong shared, “Richard’s motivation was to inspire others to continue the struggle… Coming together as a community, people being involved and using knowledge and using it for the community. Revolution of the mind.” After so many years of his continued fight for us, how can we turn our backs on him now?
We may never know if Richard Aoki was truly a FBI informant, but his actions in history never betrayed us. Throughout history, the API community has faced racism in the eye: we have been oppressed, we have been worked, stripped and exploited, and yet we have remained quietly resilient. Aoki may have been only one of few who have gained attention as an API American leader, but we will not be silenced anymore. As an Asian Pacific Islander American community, we must stand by Aoki’s history and image. We will not let anyone take Richard Aoki away from us.