Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Enduring Beauty, Elegance, Power, and Genius of Venus and Serena Williams

Damon Winter/The New York Times

For last week’s cover story on Venus and Serena Williams, we sent the New York Times staff photographer Damon Winter to Key Biscayne in mid-July to shoot the sisters on the stadium court at the Crandon Tennis Center. The sweltering heat and harsh midday sun made for less than ideal picture-making conditions, but Winter found a spot with nice, diffused light under an overhang at one of the court’s entrances and managed to capture some affectionate moments between Serena and Venus there. You can see a behind-the-scenes video from his shoot here.


I'm shocked and simultaneously deeply appreciative of just how good, how ACCURATE, fair, just, HONEST, well written, and truly insightful this article is. Frankly, I'm even a little bit in awe. I've been diligently following and writing about the careers of Venus and Serena for 15 years now and have always felt without an iota of false modesty that what I wrote and thought about the sisters was FAR BETTER than anything 99.9% of sports journalists and the general media wrote and thought about the sisters and their truly revolutionary contributions to the game of tennis. In fact I KNEW what I wrote and thought about Venus and Serena was far more intellectually and emotionally honest, just, fair, sincere, knowledgeable, and critically insightful than what these writers (95% of whom were relentlessly arrogant, condescending, and absurdly racist and sexist white men) asserted in their incredibly dismissive and often clueless "assessment" of who and what the sisters were as both athletes and human beings. To say I never ever trusted, respected, or gave any real credence to what they said (or how they said it) is a gigantic understatement. From the very beginning of the sisters' professional careers I was (and still remain over a decade and a half later) basically contemptuous and derisive of what these reactionary morons have to say about who and what Venus and Serena are and represent--especially in the larger context of the actual tennis world of often hostile, petty, and indifferent white American fans (my wife and I both know about this from our personal experience of attending various matches of the sisters over the years) coupled with the jealousy, derision, fear, and patronizing attitudes of large parts of the tennis media, some of the other players, and some of the corporate and advertising sponsors who support the game. Despite their sustained and undiminished brilliance as well as their now well deserved legendary status in the game, the sisters remain for all their considerable fame and fortune more than a little wary of how they are perceived and treated when it comes to a genuine understanding and appreciation of their gifts and extraordinary success.

Which is all the more reason why I was so pleased to read this particular article by Brian Phillips that really gets at the heart of what makes Venus and Serena such important professional athletes and profound cultural representatives whose range of influence and inspiration extends well beyond the merely symbolic level. By focusing like a laser on what's most distinctive, and thus truly compelling about the sisters as both tennis players and young women Phillips is able in his writing to go well beyond the pathological hangups and unexamined resentment, fears, and limitations of the reductive and delusional mythologies of "whiteness" and "maleness" to enter a zone of consciousness that speaks to how the creative representation and critical analysis of sports within the larger structural contexts of modern society, political and cultural history, and "psychological identities" reveals something of lasting value and use. It thereby manages to also tell us something important and interesting about tennis itself and two of the most interesting and fascinating individuals ever to play the game...So enjoy...



The Favorite

Learning to appreciate Serena the Conqueror

By Brian Phillips
September 6, 2012

I liked Venus better. Not that you had to pick one, in a John vs. Paul sort of way. The real question, back when they first appeared on the semi-serious tennis fan's radar screen in the mid- to late '90s, was whether you liked them, period — whether you thought "the Williams sisters," that strange collective being, were something worth rooting for. They were going to overthrow women's tennis; that was clear from the very beginning. They were too big, too powerful, too fast, and too fierce for everyone else. The entire established order of the Hingis-Davenport era was under threat from the moment they arrived. After the 17-year-old Venus reached the final of the U.S. Open on her first try in 1997, the old guard subtly reconfigured itself, became a concerted, doomed effort to stop them from breaking through. It's hard, now that they've been so dominant for so long, to remember the kind of low-grade panic they caused, so let's put it this way: The day before Venus and Serena arrived, the game was a fully functioning system complete with plots and subplots and rivalries. The day after Venus and Serena arrived, all that seemed about as relevant as political squabbles in Constantinople right after the Turks showed up.1

And they were controversial. I mean, John Rocker was "controversial"; the Williams sisters were divisive in ways that almost defy analysis. Simply by virtue of being black, confident, from Compton, and physically on a different plane from their competitors, they raised a swarm of issues — about race, class, gender, who was inside, who was outside, what we were supposed to identify with in sports — that society, much less the WTA Tour, barely had the vocabulary to address. Tennis, in its unimportant way, had long since become one of those numb zones in which everyone more or less means well but also tacitly agrees that certain things are nicer not to discuss. Semi-serious tennis fans, as a class, were whiter, richer, and better educated than society overall.2 After the Williams sisters appeared, it was no longer possible for these fans to stay pleasantly unconscious of the fact that their chosen sport trended almost ludicrously white and upper-class, and that most of them, without being in any way self-identifyingly racist, were actually pretty OK with that. A lot of white tennis fans, in other words, suddenly felt besieged by an enemy they hadn't even known they were against.

Cf., in 2003, Tony Hoagland's massively controversial3 poem "The Change," in which an implicitly white, male, middle-class speaker, not in any way a self-identifying racist, recounts his anxiety while watching a young black female tennis player beat a white one:

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite —
We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,
putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,
and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn't help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
so unintimidated,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat,
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.

The Williams sisters, of course, had a father/coach who was mischievous and egomaniacal enough to provoke constant racial micro-controversies (my favorite: Richard Williams leaping over the NBC broadcast booth and shouting "Straight outta Compton!" when Venus won the 2000 Wimbledon title) while often having a legitimate point to make. And the sisters kept getting involved, generally through no fault of their own, in incidents that escalated the tension that seemed to follow from their mere presence at a tournament. In 1997, Irina Spirlea deliberately bumped Venus during a changeover at the U.S. Open; in 2001, the crowd booed Serena at the final at Indian Wells, and some fans allegedly yelled racial slurs.4 Everywhere they went, those first few years, the atmosphere was tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) confrontational.

A lot of people wanted them to fail. All of the worst and deepest assumptions of the sport they were in the process of conquering suggested that they shouldn't even exist. And yet there they were, conquering it,5 and not asking anyone's permission.

Anyway, back then, I liked Venus. Partly this was for reasons that could themselves be seen as problematic. She was prettier, less obviously overpowering, less baroquely muscled. She hit hard, but her game was elegant rather than punishing. She carried herself with a sense of whimsy, in contrast to Serena's sometimes surly relentlessness. She was packing that glorious sun lamp of a smile. It doesn't take a Gender Studies decoder ring to figure out that what all this builds to is that Venus was more conventionally feminine and played a game that was (slightly) more in line with the last-gen WTA tactical geometry of Hingis et al. Serena served and buildings fell over. Venus, at least in theory, seemed vulnerable.

There was another aspect to my Venus love, however: the family-psychology trap. When the sisters started playing each other in majors — they met in four straight Grand Slam finals between 2002 and 2003, the only time two women have done that in the Open Era — the Williamses gave a lot of weirdly unselfconscious interviews in which they talked openly about how Serena, as the youngest, had always been the princess of the family, and how, growing up, it had always been Venus's job to make sure Serena was OK. (Venus is 15 months older.) The now-adult Williamses all somehow seemed to broadcast that not only was this still the case, it was, moreover, totally aboveboard and natural. And you could see it, I thought, in the awkward, occasionally unnerving matches the sisters played against each other. Serena spent those matches looking like she uncomplicatedly wanted to win. Venus spent them looking trapped in some excruciating psycho-emotional cross-current between wanting to win and wanting Serena to be happy. When Serena won, she would celebrate. When Venus won, she would kind of half-celebrate and half-console Serena. This middle-child plight of Venus's, so ingrained that she wasn't even fully aware of it, struck me as wickedly unjust. I wanted her to break out of the trap, crush Serena 6-1 6-2, and smile so wide the seasons changed.

Who knows how anything happens, whether everyone saw the sisters the same way I did or whether the media just invented a narrative that stuck. But throughout Venus's and Serena's primes, from, say, 2003 to 2010, the tennis culture gradually embraced Venus — she was so gracious, and she jumped up and down so sweetly when she won Wimbledon — while Serena remained a flashpoint, criticized for her temper and her supposed lack of focus,6 as well as for a lot of other more sinisterly conceived stuff like "having no class" and "destroying sportsmanship in tennis," which, talk about not needing a decoder ring. (And I'm sorry, white dudes who tweet at me during every single tennis tournament, but you can't accuse Serena of destroying the genteel good manners of tennis while simultaneously chuckling at every dumb commercial in which John McEnroe pops up to squawk "You cannot be serious" at Mayor McCheese or whatever. White dude par excellence Jimmy Connors called a U.S. Open official "an abortion," right there on TV. This ship has sailed, and with warp speed.)

Venus took over tennis to the point that she seemed to be of tennis, to belong to its codes and traditions. Serena took over tennis while, in some sense, always remaining an outsider.


Is it strange to say that this is why I've come to love Serena more than all but maybe three or four active athletes? Love is probably the wrong word here; love implies a kind of sympathy or protectiveness that I only feel toward Serena in flashes, and never because she seems to need it. Serena took over tennis and then … just kept on taking it over. She never stopped being a conqueror. I followed her around at Wimbledon this year, and let me tell you. Have you seen her play in person? The difference between Serena live and Serena on TV is greater than the difference between Roger Federer live and Roger Federer on TV; I'm not kidding. She is just — and I mean, you can spot this with one eye closed from the top row of a stadium — playing a different sport from her opponents. This is true to the point that I kept taking that famous Bobby Jones quote about Jack Nicklaus ("[He] plays a game with which I am not familiar") and applying it to her in more and more general ways, trying to find the right level ("She occupies an order of being with which I am [explodes]").

You know, I'm guessing, what's going on with her right now. How she came back from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism to win Wimbledon at age 30, and not just win it, but run away with it (24 aces in two sets in the semis vs. Victoria Azarenka). How she did the same thing at the Olympics. How she has romped through the U.S. Open so far, beating Andrea Hlavackova 6-0, 6-0 in the fourth round. Serena turns 31 this month, and she is winning more forcefully, more ruthlessly, than she ever has. She's playing tennis the way some people salt the earth.

None of this is to say that Serena doesn't have the normal complement of human feelings and fears. But the thing I love, or admire, or am in awe of about her, though it took me years to appreciate this, is that on the court, she makes everything except tennis appear not to matter. The sport is full of subtly prejudiced upper-class white people? Well, here is an F5 tornado. Katharine Hepburn said at Humphrey Bogart's funeral that he liked to drink, so he drank; Serena likes to win tennis matches, so she wins tennis matches. It isn't to make you like her, or prove you wrong, or sell you a sandwich. It isn't to overcome the global history of race. It isn't to expand our sense of the meaning of Americanness. It's to do a thing she wants to do. And miraculously, she is herself such a force that all that other stuff scatters like paper.

And yes, here is where totally impartial fans on the Internet are going to come after me with her legendary U.S. Open meltdown, the time when she physically threatened a lineswoman who slapped her with a (probably incorrect, and pretty spectacularly non-standard in any case) foot-fault call in 2009. And yes, it was scary, and Serena showed some cosmically bad form. And OK! For fans who need their athletes to have safe personalities, or to be unswerving role models, then maybe Serena Williams is never going to click.7 Personally, I sometimes crack under stress while packing the car for a road trip, or reading a book review; I can barely understand how the Williams sisters haven't lashed out under pressure a hundred times more than they have. And unswerving role models bore me. The point is: It doesn't matter, because Serena isn't playing for your approval, doesn't need your approval, and kind of turns the whole question of your approval into wasted breath.

And I love this, or anyway I admire it and am definitely in awe of it. At some point, if you care about seeing things done well, you have to sit down and applaud the aristocracy of talent, which makes the aristocracy of tennis fans irrelevant. After all, that's what makes any change an athlete can bring about possible. Years from now, if the Williams sisters appear to have changed tennis at all, I am almost sure that Serena will seem to have been more central to that change than Venus.8 That racist, anti-racist Tony Hoagland poem from 2003 ends after "the black girl" has beaten her opponent, "then kicked her ass good / then thumped her once more for good measure," as the speaker ambiguously mourns the end of the 20th century. I love that Serena is still out there kicking the 20th century's ass — just incidentally, not even meaning to do it, not making a point of it, just kicking its ass over and over again.


  1. A metaphor that also unfortunately says something about how the sisters were viewed within tennis.
  2. A 2008 study found that Americans with postgraduate degrees were 68 percent more likely to be men's tennis fans, and 56 percent more likely to be women's tennis fans, than the population as a whole.
  3. Like, there is intense disagreement within the poetry community about whether the poem is (a) racist, (b) a satire of racism, (c) a bracingly honest exploration of fleeting semi-racist emotions, or (d) an attempt to explore such emotions, but one that is hopelessly compromised by the poet's position as a privileged white man. I suspect it's a little of all these things, or that it occupies a space in which they aren't entirely distinguishable.
  4. Serena won the match.
  5. Ladies' Wimbledon champions since 2000: Venus Williams, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo, Venus Williams, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, Serena Williams.
  6. Venus also got some flak for being distracted by her fashion-label sideline. But Serena got way more. And it was Serena who showed up to play in more outrageous outfits, had a more confrontational relationship with the press, more often played her way into shape during tournaments, pulled out of more matches with weird injuries, etc.
  7. Although you had better make sure you are right with 1970s white-guy tennis freakouts, and you should ask yourself pretty seriously what you think a role model is supposed to represent.
  8. For what it's worth, I love Venus as much as I ever did, especially since the Sjögren's syndrome diagnosis last year, but there's something to be said for uncomplicatedly wanting to win.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Iconic Asian American Activist and Former Black Panther Member Richard Aoki (1938-2009) Alleged To Be FBI Informant: A Critical Assessment

Richard Aoki as Black Panther Party member in 1968

Richard Aoki, Photo: Harvey C. Dong, Richard Aoki Archives / SF


On August 20, 2012 I as well as many other people throughout the country were shocked and deeply disturbed by the explosive and highly questionable allegations made by veteran San Francisco Bay area investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld in a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article. In the following piece Rosenfeld on behalf of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) alleges that the late SF Bay Area based radical activist, teacher, and legendary early Asian American member of the Black Panther Party Richard Aoki (1938-2009) was an undercover FBI informant who spied on and betrayed his many friends and colleagues in the various revolutionary political and social movements of the 1960s and '70s era, and that for nearly 20 years he provided secret information via illegal surveillance methods to his superiors in the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a number of radical organizations including his own personal longterm membership in and fervent supporter of the Black Panther Party.

In direct response to these allegations a number of prominent activists, grassroots organizers, and academic scholars of the 1960s and '70s era as well as lifelong friends, students, and associates of Aoki have raised very important critical questions about Rosenfeld's clearly shoddy and suspect journalism. Among these articles one of the most significant and insightful is
"Where is the Evidence Aoki was a FBI informant?"
by Diane Fujino, UC Santa Barbara professor and author of an important and well researched new biography on Aoki published in May of this year entitled Samarai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki On Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) that raises some very serious and critical questions about Rosenfeld's piece and which also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 22, 2012. Further, enclosed below there is a video of a public debate between Professor Fujino and Rosenfeld on the independent television news program 'Democracy Now!' hosted by Amy Goodman, in addition to many other articles by a number of others in the general print media from both on and offline sources.

So in the revolutionary spirit of Afro-Asian solidarity in the United States and in light of the ongoing search for truth about these disturbing allegations by many people both in the SF Bay area community and throughout the country who admired, worked with, loved, respected, and supported Richard Aoki during his lifetime as an activist, scholar, grassroots community organizer, educator, and political/personal comrade, I have taken the liberty of posting material from many different sources as we all continue to do the very necessary research and critical investigation and analysis of the "information" that has emerged from heavily redacted and censored FBI files that Rosenfeld acquired from the FBI via a long series of lawsuits of the Bureau for the purposes of acquiring Freedom of Information material--some of which Rosenfeld now publicly and very oddly insists (without providing any hard, verifiable or clearly reliable corroborating evidence) conclusively indict Aoki as an informant for the FBI. While this important and ongoing search for the truth goes on in many quarters it is crucial that we not lose sight of our own collective responsibility as activists, colleagues, scholars, and citizens for getting to the bottom of the larger meanings and implications of this "controversy" and finding out what forces are responsible for it...Stay tuned...



There's no way of knowing of course if any of this story is true or not but I have very serious doubts about the veracity of the two FBI agents that Rosenfeld talked to--to say the least. First, absolutely nothing is confirmed or corroborated in this article about the FBI agent's story about Aoki's alleged role as an informant one way or the other (perhaps Rosenfeld's book--see below following this email message--will tell us more when it comes out later today but based on what I've read here I'm equally skeptical that there will be any reliable information to be found there either). In any event until there is some real, hard, verifiable EVIDENCE that is clearly and honestly corroborated by someone who can decisively confirm that this story is actually true I ain't taking any FBI agent's "word" on a damn thing (and no sane person should)). What's particularly strange about this article is that the agent (Burney Threadgill) who says that Aoki worked for him as an informant reveals that he personally stopped seeing Aoki in mid 1965 and that he then "turned Aoki over to another agent." If that's true, WHO is he and why isn't there any testimony or information of any kind provided by that agent or the FBI in general after 1965 regarding Aoki's role? Again, there's nothing provided in this article by Rosenfeld regarding this question. In addition, since the Black Panther Party wasn't even founded by Huey and Bobby until October 1966, what was Aoki doing in the nearly 18 month interval between leaving the employ of agent Threadgill and allegedly continuing work as an informant with another agent, and why doesn't Rosenfeld tell us anything about this transition and how Aoki's role evolved with Huey, Bobby and the original founding group of eight individuals who constituted the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in late 1966?

So given these and many other questions what's in this article is simply not reliable--especially given that M. Wesley Swearingen, simply says that he "believes" Aoki was an informant. This is Swearingen's personal opinion and casual speculation about Aoki--not confirmed evidence. Swearingen's idiotic--and racist--suggestion that because Aoki was Japanese-American it would make it easier for him to infiltrate and become an informant because no Black Panther member would possibly suspect him because he wasn't black (or white or brown for that matter) is ludicrous and simpleminded on its face and adds even less credibility to what Rosenfeld's article actually says here. So until such time as Rosenfeld or someone else far more trustworthy in this situation than two former FBI agents who admittedly were an integral part of a thoroughly corrupt and notoriously unlawful organization under the perverse authority and well documented criminality of the late J. Edgar Hoover can come up with far more real hardcore evidence than what's stated here I'm certainly not going to lend any unearned credence to what this article says about Aoki and his role in the Black Panther Party or the larger social movments of the late '60s/early '70s period...Stay tuned...


Hardcover: 752 pages Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (August 21, 2012)

BTW: I have this book and ironically have been reading it over the past couple months. The book--by acclaimed Asian American studies scholar, author, and UC, Santa Barbara academic Diane Fujino--is very good and quite thorough--and says nothing about Aoki's now alleged role by others as an informant in the BPP. So here's another obvious red flag you should seriously consider in the critique of Rosenfeld's findings in his article and book ...

Richard Masato Aoki, an early member of the Black Panthers, takes part in a protest near the UC Berkeley campus in 1969. Photo: Lonnie Wilson, Oakland Tribune / SF

Activist Richard Aoki named as informant Seth Rosenfeld,
Center for Investigative Reporting

Monday, August 20, 2012
San Francisco Chronicle

The man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training - which preceded fatal shootouts with Oakland police in the turbulent 1960s - was an undercover FBI informer, according to a former bureau agent and an FBI report.

One of the Bay Area's most prominent radical activists of the era, Richard Masato Aoki was known as a fierce militant who touted his street-fighting abilities. He was a member of several radical groups before joining and arming the Panthers, whose members received international notoriety for brandishing weapons during patrols of the Oakland police and a protest at the state Capitol.

Aoki went on to work for 25 years as a teacher, counselor and administrator at the Peralta Community College District, and after his suicide in 2009, he was revered as a fearless radical.

But 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, according to the bureau agent who recruited him.

That agent, Burney Threadgill Jr., recalled that he approached Aoki in the late 1950s, about the time Aoki was graduating from Berkeley High School. He asked Aoki if he would join left-wing groups and report to the FBI.

"He was my informant. I developed him," Threadgill said in an interview. "He was one of the best sources we had."

The former agent said he asked Aoki how he felt about the Soviet Union, and the young man replied that he had no interest in communism.

"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?' Very pleasant little guy. He always wore dark glasses," Threadgill recalled.

Book details role

Aoki's work for the FBI, which has never been reported, was uncovered and verified during research for the book by this reporter, "Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power." The book, based on research spanning three decades, will be published Tuesday by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In 2007, two years before he committed suicide, Aoki was asked in a tape-recorded interview for the book if he had been an FBI informant. Aoki's first response was a long silence. He then replied, " 'Oh,' is all I can say."

Later during the same interview, Aoki contended the information wasn't true.

Asked if this reporter was mistaken that Aoki had been an informant, Aoki said, "I think you are," but added: "People change. It is complex. Layer upon layer."

FBI code number
The FBI later released records about Aoki in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request made by this reporter. A Nov. 16, 1967, intelligence report on the Black Panthers lists Aoki as an "informant" with the code number "T-2."

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on Aoki, citing litigation seeking additional records about him under the Freedom of Information Act.

Since Aoki shot himself at his Berkeley home after a long illness, his legend has grown. In a 2009 feature-length documentary film, "Aoki," and a 2012 biography, "Samurai Among Panthers," he is portrayed as a militant radical leader. Neither mentions that he had worked with the FBI.

Harvey Dong, who was a fellow activist and close friend, said last week that he had never heard that Aoki was an informant.

"It's definitely something that is shocking to hear," said Dong, who was the executor of Aoki's estate. "I mean, that's a big surprise to me."

Finding the informant
Threadgill recalled that he first approached Aoki after a bureau wiretap on the home phone of Saul and Billie Wachter, local members of the Communist Party, picked up Aoki talking to Berkeley High classmate Doug Wachter.

At first, Aoki gathered information about the Communist Party, Threadgill said. But Aoki soon focused on the Socialist Workers Party and its youth affiliate, the Young Socialist Alliance, which also were targets of an intensive FBI domestic security investigation.

By spring 1962, Aoki had been elected to the Berkeley Young Socialist Alliance's executive council, FBI records show. That December, he became a member of the Oakland-Berkeley branch of the Socialist Workers Party, where he served as the representative to Bay Area civil rights groups. He also was on the steering committee of the Committee to Uphold the Right to Travel, which worked to give students the right to travel to Cuba. In 1965, Aoki joined the Vietnam Day Committee, an influential antiwar group based in Berkeley, and worked on its international committee as liaison to foreign antiwar activists.

All along, Aoki met regularly with his FBI handler. Aoki also filed reports by phone, Threadgill said.

"I'd call him and say, 'When do you want to get together?' " Threadgill recalled. "I'd say, 'I'll meet you on the street corner at so-and-so and so on.' I would park a couple of blocks away and get out and go and sit down and talk to him."

'He had guns'
Threadgill worked with Aoki through mid-1965, when he moved to another FBI office and turned Aoki over to a fellow agent.

Aoki gave the Panthers some of their first guns. As Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale recalled in his memoir, "Seize the Time," the group approached Aoki, "a Third World brother we knew, a Japanese radical cat. He had guns ... .357 Magnums, 22's, 9mm's, what have you."

In early 1967, Aoki joined the Black Panther Party and gave them more guns, Seale wrote. Aoki also gave Panther recruits weapons training, he said in the 2007 interview.

Although carrying weapons was legal at the time, there is little doubt their presence contributed to fatal confrontations between the Panthers and the police.

Deadly shootouts
On Oct. 28, 1967, Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton was in a shootout that wounded Oakland Officer Herbert Heanes and killed Officer John Frey. On April 6, 1968, Eldridge Cleaver and five other Panthers were involved in a firefight with Oakland police. Cleaver and two officers were wounded, and Panther Bobby Hutton was killed.

M. Wesley Swearingen, a retired FBI agent who has criticized unlawful bureau surveillance activities under Director J. Edgar Hoover, reviewed some of the FBI's records. He concluded in a sworn declaration that Aoki had been an informant.

"I believe that Aoki was an informant," said Swearingen, who served in the FBI from 1951 to 1977 and worked on a squad that investigated the Panthers.

"Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in a Black Panther Party, because I understand he is Japanese," he added. "Hey, nobody is going to guess - he's in the Black Panther Party; nobody is going to guess that he might be an informant."

This story was produced by the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting (, the nation's largest investigative reporting team. E-mail:

Where's the evidence Aoki was FBI informant?
by Diane C. Fujino
August 22, 2012
San Francisco Chronicle

Seth Rosenfeld's dramatic announcement that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant provoked an enormous response from Chronicle readers. Could it be true? Or was this a "snitch-jacketing," a classic FBI tactic used to cast suspicion on a legitimate activist by spreading rumors and manufacturing evidence?

As a scholar, I insist on seeing evidence before concluding any "truth." But as I read Rosenfeld's work and cross-checked sources from my biography on Aoki, I realized Rosenfeld had not met the burden of proof. He made definitive conclusions based on inconclusive evidence.

If Aoki was an informant, when was he informing? How did he help the FBI disrupt political movements? What were his motivations?

I also questioned Rosenfeld's motives. Rosenfeld's piece, published the day before the release of his own book, gained him widespread media and public attention that surely will augment sales.

Rosenfeld offers four pieces of evidence against Aoki.

First, Rosenfeld cites only one FBI document, a Nov. 16, 1967, report. It states: "A supplementary T symbol (SF T-2) was designated for" - but the name was deleted. Following the now-blank space was the name Richard Matsui Aoki in parenthesis, and then the phrase "for the limited purpose of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing [Aoki]."

In the FBI pages released to me, only brief background material on Aoki is linked to T-2. Moreover, T symbols are used to refer to informants or technical sources of information (microphones, wiretaps). So was Aoki the informer or the one being observed?

Second, FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr. said he recruited Aoki in the late 1950s, but we have no substantial evidence other than Rosenfeld's reports, and Threadgill has since died.

Third, FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen's statement, as quoted by Rosenfeld, is hardly compelling: "Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in a Black Panther Party, because I understand he is Japanese. Hey, nobody is going to guess - he's in the Black Panther Party; nobody is going to guess that he might be an informant." But more logically, Aoki's racial difference made him stand out and aroused suspicion. Are we asked to simply trust authority figures?

Fourth, Aoki's remarks, as seen in the video, are open to multiple interpretations, and Aoki denies the allegation. Anyone familiar with Aoki knows that he spoke with wit, humor, allusion and caution. Where's the conclusive evidence?

FBI reports notoriously get things wrong, unintentionally (misinformation, typos) and intentionally ("snitch-jacketing"). The FBI in its Cointelpro program created false letters and cartoons to foment conflict between the Black Panthers and another black nationalist organization, resulting in the 1969 murders of two Panthers at UCLA.

I have an FBI report, dated July 30, 1971, 105-189989-38, stating that Aoki had been "invited to become Minister of Defense of the Red Guard" and served as "the liaison link between the Red Guard and the Black Panther Party." But this seems wrong, based on archival documents and my interviews with Aoki and Red Guard leader Alex Hing.

Simply put, because of the FBI's political motives, FBI reports must be carefully cross-checked with non-FBI sources. But the entirety of Rosenfeld's evidence relies on FBI sources.

I was surprised that Aoki became the centerpiece of the chapter in Rosenfeld's book on the 1969 Third World strike. While Aoki was an important activist, he was largely unknown. Aoki and others agree that the Third World strike promoted collective leadership. They believed, as did African American civil rights activist Ella Baker, that the charismatic leadership model encouraged hero worship, reinforced individualism and narcissism, and diminished ordinary people's belief in their own power to effect change. Rosenfeld elevates Aoki to "one of the Bay Area's most prominent radical activists of the era," a point that amplifies the drama of his own discovery.

Rosenfeld is particularly critical of activists' use of violence without placing this violence in a larger context. He implies that Aoki's guns, given to the Black Panther Party, triggered the police's, FBI's and government's backlash. Yet he ignores the police brutality that inspired the Black Panther's police patrols, and the violence of racism and poverty that inspired the Panther's free breakfast programs. Instead, Aoki used the symbolic power of violence to stop the greater violence of the government's failing to actively counter poverty and institutionalized racism at home and in imposing war in Vietnam.

In my book on Aoki, I write that instead of being the trigger, Aoki acted as the "safety on the gun." He was careful to teach gun safety. Neither the Panthers nor Aoki expected to win a military battle with the government. Firing the gun wasn't their intended goal. Instead, Aoki used the symbolic power of violence to stop the greater violence of the state.

So why did Rosenfeld magnify Aoki when his book focuses more on Mario Savio, Clark Kerr and the Free Speech Movement? What responsibility does an author have to provide evidence beyond reasonable doubt before broadcasting disparaging accusations? Rosenfeld's article, video and book raise many questions, but fail to meet the burden of proof.

Diane C. Fujino is a professor and chair of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara and author of "Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life" (University of Minnesota Press, April 201


Where's the evidence Aoki was FBI informant?
by Diane C. Fujino (via SF Gate)

Seth Rosenfeld’s dramatic announcement that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant provoked an enormous response from Chronicle readers. Could it be true? Or was this a “snitch-jacketing,” a classic FBI tactic used to cast suspicion on a legitimate activist by spreading rumors and manufacturing evidence?

As a scholar, I insist on seeing evidence before concluding any “truth.” But as I read Rosenfeld’s work and cross-checked sources from my biography on Aoki, I realized Rosenfeld had not met the burden of proof. He made definitive conclusions based on inconclusive evidence.

If Aoki was an informant, when was he informing? How did he help the FBI disrupt political movements? What were his motivations?

I also questioned Rosenfeld’s motives. Rosenfeld’s piece, published the day before the release of his own book, gained him widespread media and public attention that surely will augment sales.



This interview with Richard Aoki's biographer Diane Fujino ("Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki On Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life", University of California Press 2012) completely confirms my initial suspicion (see copy of email I sent yesterday below* following the Democracy Now interviews) that Seth Rosenfeld's article in the San Francisco Chronicle on tuesday has absolutely NO evidence of the allegation that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant. NONE WHATSOEVER. Furthermore what Rosenfeld says here on 'Democracy Now' in response to Fujino (as Fujino adroitly points out) MAKES NO LOGICAL SENSE for all the reasons that she shares in the interview. Fujino's comments are exactly 100% consistent with mine and many, many other people across the country who have read Rosenfeld's article and have wondered WHY Rosenfeld is putting forward this completely unverifiable report that clearly has no corroborating evidence for these unsubstantiated comments by two former FBI agents who by their very nefarious involvement alone are completely untrustworthy as witnesses or conveyors of any material evidence. Aoki's name in an FBI report proves nothing because we have no idea what it refers to (and neither does Rosenfeld!) or even it is a reliable document in its own right and as I and Fujino both pointed out it makes no sense whatsoever to suggest as one FBI agent did that Aoki's nationality as a Japanese-American automatically made him "ideal informant" because no one in the Black Panther Party or elsewhere would suspect him because he wasn't black(!). As both I and Fujino said that is not only absurd/ridiculous/senseless but racist, and certainly doesn't tell us anything of interest or value about Aoki, the FBI. or the Black Panther Party.

One more thing: This entire very strange episode, the sheer lack of any real evidence by Rosenfeld and and its timing with Rosenfeld's new book coming out the very next day after his article appeared on tuesday has made me (and I'm sure Fujino and many other people across the country) DEEPLY SUSPICIOUS OF ROSENFELD HIMSELF AND HIS MOTIVES FOR MAKING THESE BASELESS ALLEGATIONS. As Fujino also importantly points out (and as I told my wife the very minute after I read Rosenfeld's piece in the SF Chronicle) this entire episode sounds like a classic case of FBI "snitchjacketing" an infamous tactic that the FBI used routinely against many different radical political groups throughout the 1960s and earlier to make it appear that an innocent target was engaging in informing or spying on his friends and colleagues within these organizations so as to cause an acrimonious rift and division between comrades and fellow activists in these social movements. Remember COINTELPRO and the massive havoc it caused? I rest my case...

In the meantime please read this interview and the other information I sent carefully and spread the word about Seth Rosenfeld and his book (which came out today across the country (see below). Aoki's life and legacy is being assaulted and deeply distorted here and I don't believe him for a second. Like I said before unless and until some real evidence is actually produced that what Rosenfeld is telling us is the truth I remain deeply suspicious of him and his motives in addition to my very longterm and ongoing very deep distrust of the notorious FBI who as we all know conclusively have historically set up and framed many innocent people both when they were alive and after they died...Stay tuned...



Was Bay Area Radical, Black Panther Arms Supplier Richard Aoki an Informant for the FBI?
Explosive new allegations have emerged that the man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training was an undercover FBI informant in California. Richard Aoki, who died in 2009, was an early member of the Panthers and the only Asian American to have a formal position in the group. The claim that Aoki informed on his colleagues is based on statements made by a former bureau agent and an FBI report obtained by investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book, "Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power." But Aoki’s friends and colleagues, as well as scholars, have challenged the book’s findings. We speak to Rosenfeld, an award-winning journalist and author of the article, "Man Who Armed Black Panthers was FBI Informant, Records Show," published by the Center for Investigative Reporting, and to Diana Fujino, Aoki’s biographer and a professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. [includes rush transcript]


Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Rosenfeld was an award-winning a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for almost 25 years.

Diane Fujino, professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her most recent book is Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life.

“Man who armed Black Panthers was FBI informant, records show.” By Seth Rosenfeld. (Center for Investigative Reporting, August 2
“Where's the evidence Aoki was FBI informant?” By Diane Fujino. (San Francisco Chronicle, August 23, 2012)
"Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life." By Diane Fujino. (University of Minnesota Pr
"Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals,and Reagan's Rise to Power." By Seth Rosenfeld. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Read an Excerpt of Chapter 1 from “Subversives”
Seth Rosenfeld’s Website
Diane Fujino, Professor at University of California at Santa Barbara
Timeline: An informant’s history (Center for Investigative Reporting)
Historical Footage in Case of Richard Aoki (Center for Investigative Reporting)

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with explosive new allegations that the man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training was an undercover FBI informant in California. Richard Aoki was an early member of the Panthers and the only Asian American to have a formal position in the party. He was also a member of the Asian American Political Alliance that was involved in the Third World Liberation Front student strike.

The claim that Aoki informed on his colleagues is based on statments made by a former agent of the FBI in a report obtained by investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld, author of the new book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Over the last 30 years, Rosenfeld sued the FBI five times to obtain confidential records. He eventually compelled the agency to release more than 250,000 pages from their files.

In this video produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Rosenfeld explains how he first stumbled across information about Richard Aoki.

SETH ROSENFELD: A former FBI agent had heard that I was doing research, and he contacted me. His name was Burney Threadgill. And he says, "Hey, I know that guy." And he said, "Aoki was my informant. I developed him."

BURNEY THREADGILL JR.: 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?" So, one thing led to another, and he became a real good informant.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Seth Rosenfeld reports that Aoki may have been covertly filing reports on a wide range of Bay Area political groups, according to the bureau agent who recruited him. He interviewed Aoki twice in 2007 about those allegations. Here’s a clip from their phone conversations, which was recorded with Aoki’s permission. After you hear Rosenfeld and Aoki, you will hear a comment from former FBI agent, Wesley Swearingen.

SETH ROSENFELD: I’m wondering if you remember a guy named Burney Threadgill.

RICHARD AOKI: Burney Threadgill?


RICHARD AOKI: No, I don’t think so.

SETH ROSENFELD: What I—I was told in my research that during this period of time you actually worked for the FBI.

RICHARD AOKI: They tell you that?

SETH ROSENFELD: Burney told me that.



RICHARD AOKI: Oh. That’s interesting.

WESLEY SWEARINGEN: Informants were used when I was in the FBI. An informant would report on the inner workings of an organization. They can keep you up to date on the thinking of the leadership of the organization, whether it’s going this way, that way. Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in the Black Panther Party, because they understand he’s Japanese. Hey, nobody’s going to guess—he’s in the Black Panther Party. Nobody’s going to guess that he might be an informant.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen speaking to reporter Seth Rosenfeld. Many of Richard Aoki’s friends and colleagues have expressed shock and disbelief about the claim. We’ll talk more about this debate in a minute, but first I want to play one more excerpt from Seth Rosenfeld’s interview with Aoki in 2007.


RICHARD AOKI: I think you are.

SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah. So, would you say it’s untrue that you ever worked with the FBI or got paid by the FBI?

RICHARD AOKI: I would say it.

SETH ROSENFELD: Yeah. And I’m trying to understand the complexities about it, and I—and I think—

RICHARD AOKI: It is complex.

SETH ROSENFELD: I believe it is. And—

RICHARD AOKI: Layer upon layer.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Aoki, speaking in 2007, two years before he committed suicide.

Well, for more about these revelations and what they may mean, we’re joined by two guests. In San Fransisco, Seth Rosenfeld is with us, author of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. The 734-page book was released Tuesday and took three decades to complete. Rosenfeld is a reporter—was a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for almost 25 years, a winner of the George Polk Award.

We’ll discuss the rest of his book later, but right now we’re also joined from Santa Barbara, California, by Diane Fujino, Aoki’s biographer and a professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s the author of the recent book, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. Her article, "Where’s the Evidence Aoki Was an FBI Informant?" appears in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Seth Rosenfeld, let’s begin with you. Where is the evidence?

SETH ROSENFELD: Good morning.

Well, the evidence takes—there’s basically four pieces of evidence, which I’ve detailed in my book. The first evidence came when I interviewed Burney Threadgill in around 2002, 2003. I had met Burney while I was doing research for my book. As you mentioned, I had obtained thousands of pages of documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. And as part of my research, I was contacting former FBI agents and reviewing the records with them—excuse me—and reviewing the records with them to make sure that I understood the records and to elicit further information. So I had met with Burney several times for over a period of several months and reviewed many documents with him. And then, one day we were looking at some documents, and Burney said something like, "Hey, I know that guy. He was my informant." Burney had recognized Richard Aoki’s name in an FBI document. So Burney proceeded to tell me how he met Richard Aoki and how he developed him as an FBI informant and how Richard Aoki became, according to Burney, one of the best political informants that the FBI had in Northern California in the early 1960s.

Well, I had never heard of Richard Aoki before. So, while I continued the research on my boat, I also began to research who was Richard Aoki, and I read everything I could find about him. I did public records research. I spoke with other people. And then, in 2007, I interviewed him on the telephone. With his permission, I tape-recorded it, and you’ve heard the comments he made. He denied being an FBI informant, but he also said, "It is complex, layer upon layer. People change." So, I interpreted that as, on the one hand, his denial, but on the other hand, an explanation, perhaps, of what I was asking him about.

I continued to work on the book, and I was also a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. But after Richard Aoki died in 2009, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any and all records concerning him. The FBI released approximately 1,500 or 2,000 pages. One of the documents that was released was a 1967 FBI report on the Black Panthers. And this report identified Richard Aoki as an informant. It assigned him the code number, T-2, for that report. But I still wanted to find out more about it, so I spoke with a former FBI agent named Wesley Swearingen. Mr. Swearingen had been in the FBI for over 25 years. He had retired honorably. He had later become a critic of the FBI’s political surveillance, and particularly he had helped vacate the murder conviction of a Black Panther named Geronimo Pratt. So, Mr. Swearingen was very familiar with the FBI. He examined this record and other records I had, and he came to the same conclusion I did, which was that Richard Aoki had been an FBI informant in the 1960s.

I should add that I did further research in FBI records looking for anything that would be inconsistent, that would challenge my conclusion. And I couldn’t find anything that was inconsistent with it. And that’s how I reached my conclusion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Seth Rosenfeld, you also mention that you—that despite the fact that Richard Aoki was a very well-known political activist in the Third World community in the Bay Area, that there were no FBI files or reports on him as a political activist.

SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, that’s one of the remarkable things about the FBI records that were released on Richard Aoki. Here was a person who had been a member of the Young Socialist Alliance and then an officer in the Young Socialist Alliance. He had been a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He had been a member of the Black Panthers. He had given guns to the Black Panthers. He had been a prominent leader in the Third World strike at Berkeley. And yet, the FBI took the position that it had no files on Richard Aoki himself. The records that were released instead were only about various other organizations that he had been in, such as the Young Socialist Alliance or the Black Panthers. Based on my experience in reviewing many thousands of pages of FBI records over the years, I found it extraordinary that the FBI would have no main file, as they call it, on Richard Aoki.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Diane Fujino, you have written a biography of Richard Aoki. And, of course, in the Bay Area and throughout California, he is known and revered by many in the progressive movement as a pioneering political activist and revolutionary in the Asian-American community. But your response to what—the revelations of Seth Rosenfeld?

DIANE FUJINO: I was very surprised. After I heard—read the San Francisco Chronicle article in Monday’s paper, I went—when the book was released on Tuesday, I went to the book. It’s a very thick book, 734 pages. There’s a tremendous amount of research. And I had expected to find a lot more information detailing this accusation that Aoki was an FBI informant. But when I read the book, I was very surprised that there was little more than what’s already been said, than what was said already just this morning on this show. And in my mind as a scholar, I remain open to whatever truth is there, but the evidence needs to be substantial, that needs to meet a certain burden of proof, and it did not in this case.

One of the things that Rosenfeld said he has is this one FBI document. I have the same document, also retrieved under the Freedom of Information Act, the 1967 document, and it is the only FBI document that Rosenfeld cites in, you know, multiple pages. I had 150-plus pages of documents released to me from the FBI. And in it, it says that "A supplementary T symbol (SF T-2) was designated for" — but the name was left blank. And after that, it is followed in parenthesis by Richard Matsui—which is not his middle name—Aoki. But it says after that, "for the limited purpose of describing his connections with the organization and characterizing him." And later on, that same page, it talks about character—for the "characterization of Richard M. Aoki." So it’s unclear whether Aoki is the informant in this case. T symbols are used to refer to informants and also to technical sources of information, like wiretaps and microphones. And it’s not clear in this case whether Aoki was the informant or whether he was the one being, you know, observed.


DIANE FUJINO: The second thing—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, go ahead.

DIANE FUJINO: —is that—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Diane.

DIANE FUJINO: The second thing—yeah, I wanted to go through the four pieces of information that Rosenfeld cites. And all of this is cited in a single footnote in the back. There’s no other elaboration beyond this.

He says that the former FBI agent, Burney Threadgill, was the person who gave him this information. But the same bits of information from Threadgill are recited by Rosenfeld, and there’s nothing else elaborated upon this. And he—Threadgill says that he approached Aoki in the late '50s at a time when Aoki wasn't even political. And he approached Aoki because Aoki—he overheard Aoki’s conversation with a high-school classmate, and that classmate’s parents were in the Communist Party, apparently, and were under wiretapping surveillance. And it made me think, did this former agent interview or talk to or approach many of this classmate’s friends who talked to him on the phone, or was there something about this conversation? And there’s just a lot of questions not answered.

Swearingen, another former FBI agent, the only evidence—the only piece of information he has, besides saying Aoki might be an informant, is this idea that because Aoki was Japanese American in the Panthers, that was a perfect place to be an informant. And this makes no sense to me, and to many people, because being Japanese American in the Panthers made one stand out, and it aroused suspicion. And it seems the least likely person to be an informant within the Panthers. And that just isn’t something that makes sense to me.

And the final piece of evidence that Rosenfeld uses is Aoki’s own response in the interview. And I think that’s ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. And if you know Aoki, that was classic Aoki in terms of the way he speaks, with allusion, with caution, with—you didn’t see a lot of his wit and humor, but there’s a lot of that, as well. And I think that it’s inconclusive, and yet very definitive statements were drawn from this inconclusive evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Fujino, he said—Aoki said, in response to Seth Rosenfeld’s question about whether he worked for the FBI, Aoki responded, "It’s complex, layer upon layer." Is there a chance he started out with the FBI and changed? Or do you see this in a very different way?

DIANE FUJINO: Well, I mean, we—from what, you know, is out there on the FBI, it seems like there were many, many informants in the '60s. and anything is possible. But I don't know. The evidence isn’t there for me to be able to make any informed judgment on this. If he did start off as one, this is—this is what I would have liked to have seen before public charges made against somebody of this magnitude, is really specific evidence that goes beyond the things that have been said. What was said today, what was in the journal article—I mean, the San Francisco Chronicle article, is almost the sum total of what is in the book. There’s not much beyond that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring Seth Rosenfeld back in and respond to this—to Diane Fujino’s statement that this is really scant evidence. But I’d also like to ask you—because the interesting thing about police agents or FBI agents—and I’m familiar, having once been in the Young Lords Party, which was under much surveillance by the FBI—that agents tended to be the type of people who—or informants, informants tended to be the type of people who said very little but gathered information. And to that sense, Richard Aoki doesn’t fit that profile, because he was—he has—throughout his political career, was known as someone who advanced political theories, was actually very actively involved in shaping the political perspectives and views of the organizations that he was involved in. And to that degree, he doesn’t fit the profile of someone who’s basically gathering information.

DIANE FUJINO: Yes, and another way—

SETH ROSENFELD: Mm-hmm. Well, if I can respond to some points that Professor Fujino made, there were a couple misstatements there. What Burney had told me is that the FBI had a wiretap on the home of some people called the Wachters in the late ’50s. The Wachters were members of the Communist Party in the Bay Area at that time. And on that wiretap, they overheard a conversation between their son, Doug Wachter, and Richard Aoki. Doug Wachter and Richard Aoki had been classmates at Berkeley High. After hearing that information, the FBI agent, Burney Threadgill, approached Richard Aoki and asked him if he would be an informant.

Professor Fujino is correct in stating that, at that time in his life, Richard Aoki was not political. In fact, what Burney Threadgill told me was that Richard Aoki told him he had no interest in communism. And Burney further said that Richard Aoki became involved in political activities initially at the request of the FBI. Burney also said that he worked with Richard Aoki as his handler and met with him on a regular basis and received reports from him and paid him, that Richard Aoki provided information on specific groups, such as the socialist groups I mentioned, and that after Burney was transferred to another office in 1965, Richard Aoki was passed along as an informant to another agent.

And I should also clarify Wes Swearingen’s statement about Richard Aoki being accepted within radical circles perhaps partly because he was Japanese. That doesn’t seem particularly significant now, in modern times, but in the late '60s, somebody coming from a different ethnic background made them seem to be an outsider, and there would be less suspicion that an outsider like that would be working for the government, which in those days, certainly the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, was largely all white, almost totally white and male. So, I believe that's what Wes Swearingen was referring to.

In terms of Richard Aoki’s profile, as I mentioned, he starts out not being a political person. He starts attending these meetings. He becomes—he becomes gradually involved. And it’s only later in the ’60s that he begins to be more active in advocating different political things.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re speaking with Seth Rosenfeld. His book is published this week, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. And Professor Diane Fujino, author of, Samurai Among Panthers. And I want, when we come back, Professor Fujino, to ask you about this term you use called "snitch-jacketing," the government’s casting suspicion on the most active activists. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with our two guests today: Seth Rosenfeld, the reporter whose new book is out this week, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power; we’re also joined by Professor Diane Fujino, who has written a book about Richard Aoki, who Seth Rosenfeld says he has found through getting information through the Freedom of Information Act, that is an—was an agent for the FBI. Diane Fujino, can you talk about who Richard Aoki was? Give us a brief thumbnail sketch of his life story.

DIANE FUJINO: Yeah. Richard Aoki was born in 1938. As a young child, only three-and-a-half years old, he and his family, along with 110,000 other West Coast Japanese Americans, were placed into concentration camps. And for Richard, that was very formative, because—and created—this kind of hurts of history created a major personal injury, because his parents separated inside the camps. And in a very unusual situation, he and his younger brother went to live with their father, both inside the camp barracks as well as upon their return to the Aoki family’s home in West Oakland.

Richard grew up homeschooled, which is quite unusual, and was very well read. He claims to have been going to the library back and forth and read 600 books in a single year. And while I have no proof of that, I do have many people talking about him, as an adult, as one of the most well-read people that they know. This includes a university professor friend of Richard who was saying this, that Richard is the most well-read person he knows. And Richard was very advanced theoretically, politically and theoretically.

Richard was—adopted the Cold War standards for masculinity and the military in the '50s, was eager to become—to join the Army and become the first Japanese-American general in the U.S. Army—that was his dream—and a fighter pilot. But, according to what Richard Aoki has told me, is that he—while he was in the Army Reserves in the late ’50s, he began to connect, through a series of working-class jobs, to labor organizers and socialist organizers. And they started to change, slowly and in an uneven way, his ideas about politics. And he joined the Socialist Workers Party, the Young Socialist Alliance, and then, in the mid-'60s, ’63, returned to Merritt college full time where he began—and he and others began a socialist discussion club.

And it was at Merritt College, which we know today as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, that he met the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. And they began to have political discussions and exchanges before the start of the Panthers. And when the Panthers formed, he was one of the earliest members. He says, and Bobby Seale confirms, that they would talk to Richard in very political discussions and that when they wrote their 10-point platform, they ran it by Richard to see what he thought about it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from the documentary film Aoki, which chronicles the life of Richard Aoki. In this excerpt, his friends and comrades explain how he helped bring weapons into the Black Panthers movement.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: He had made guns available to Huey, very early on.

BOBBY SEALE: Huey says, "Look, Richard, you have to let us have some of those guns. You have a lot of guns here."

ELBERT "BIG MAN" HOWARD: Richard would come around and donate weapons to the organization, you know.

BOBBY SEALE: So he gave a M1 carbine and a .45. And this was all about us—we was going to patrol the police. Richard helped us teach the other brothers—the new, young seven, eight, 10 brothers in there—how to break these weapons down, how to clean the weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: From the documentary Aoki. Shaka At-Thinnin of the Black August Organizing Committee speaks about Richard Aoki’s commitment to the cause.

SHAKA AT-THINNIN: If you have not won and you are still breathing, then that means you still have to fight. When I get to be 60 years old and like 70 years old and if I’m still breathing, I’m going to be still doing this. And I’m sure that’s the way Richard feels. I know he does, you know. I talk to him. It’s something that generates or emanates from him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Those were some of the tapes of various people who worked with Richard and members of the—former members of the Black Panther Party talking about him. Seth Rosenfeld, one of the things you raise in your book, that you question whether he was actually—whether Richard Aoki was actually donating weapons to the Panthers or helping to set them up.

SETH ROSENFELD: Yes. I’d like to first say, it’s important to be clear about what we know and what we don’t know. What we know is, according to former FBI agent Burney Threadgill and this FBI document, the opinion of Wesley Swearingen, as well, that Richard Aoki was an FBI informant during the same period that he was arming the Black Panthers and giving them weapons training. What we don’t know is whether the FBI was involved in any way with providing weapons or that it even knew that Richard Aoki was giving weapons to the Black Panthers. That’s the first thing I’d like to make clear.

The other thing I want to point out is that, in doing my reporting, I took extra efforts to be totally transparent about what my evidence was. Professor Fujino says there’s only one footnote in the book that addresses this. In fact, it’s a very lengthy footnote, and it lists each piece of evidence that I use. In the story that I did with of the Center for Investigative Reporting for the Chronicle, we were also very specific about what the evidence was. Not only did I say that I had interviewed FBI agent Burney Threadgill, but we played the tape, and we also played Richard’s comments, including his denial and also other statements which seem to be potentially suggestive explanations for his having been an informant.

DIANE FUJINO: I agree that Seth Rosenfeld’s book is well researched. If you look in the footnotes and the bibliography, there’s extensive research done, which is why I was so surprised that, after hearing the San Francisco [Chronicle] article, I expected to get more information in this thick book about evidence, and there wasn’t any. It was very slim. It’s the same things that are being said repeatedly.

I do want to say something that Juan González had mentioned about Richard not seeming to fit the profile because he was a more visible activist. And in another way, Richard Aoki does not fit the profile because many times, especially if they’re agent provocateurs or even infiltrators, they’re either low-key or they are people who try to get people to constantly engage in provocative and disruptive and risky behaviors. And Richard was a scholar. He’s known for giving—the things that he’s best known for—well, until this week—was giving the first guns to the Black Panther Party to support their police patrols to stop police brutality in the black neighborhoods. And Richard was a scholar also. He was advanced theoretically and could spar theoretically with anyone around him. And that is not a typical profile of an infiltrator.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Fujino, this term that you use, "snitch-jacketing," can you explain it?

DIANE FUJINO: Yeah, it’s a tactic used by the FBI to—through rumors, through manufacturing evidence and misinformation, to cast suspicions around legitimate activists so that people think that they might be informants. And so I question: is the evidence there, or might this be a snitch-jacket on Richard Aoki? I feel the evidence is not there and that more needs to be provided in order to have it meet the burden of proof.

AMY GOODMAN: Seth Rosenfeld, your response?

SETH ROSENFELD: Yes, snitch-jacketing was a technique that was used by the FBI against leftists and also sometimes in criminal cases. The purpose of it was to suggest that somebody was an informant and then leak that or make that known, and thereby cast suspicion on that person and discredit them. I don’t believe that that’s the case here. And there’s absolutely no evidence that that’s what was done here. There’s nothing in any FBI file that addresses that. That’s something that I thought about while I was doing the research. So I think that that supposition and allegation on the part of Professor Fujino is entirely unfounded.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to move on to talk about the rest of your book, Seth Rosenfeld, but I wanted to give Professor Diane Fujino one last final comment on this story that is coming out with the publication of Seth Rosenfeld’s book. Diane Fujino, again, wrote the book Samurai Among Panthers about Richard Aoki.

DIANE FUJINO: Yeah. People are saying, you know, if Richard — that’s a big "if" — if he was an informant, what did he inform on? When was he an informant? Seth Rosenfeld is claiming that he was in the late '60s based on this one 1967 document, which I argue is very unclear. It can be read in multiple ways. And, you know, so we want to know more information about this. But what people are saying is that Richard contributed so much to the movement. It's unclear if there was—if he was an informant, what kind of damage he did to undermine the movement is completely unclear. But what he did as a contribution to the movement is clear.

He was a leader of the Black Panther Party. He was one of the foremost architects of Afro-Asian unity. He was the second chair of the Asian American Political Alliance, which was one of the most influential youth groups of the Asian American movement and the group that’s credited with coining the very term "Asian Americans." He helped to start Asian American Studies at Berkeley, both as an activist and then, in late ’69, became one of the first instructors and an early coordinator of Asian American studies at Berkeley. And he went on to be a counselor and instructor at East Bay community colleges, where he supported ethnic studies and supported working-class students in their pursuits of higher education. And he made multiple contributions throughout his life, up through past his retirement, where he served as inspiration and a political mentor to many young people.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Diane Fujino, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor and chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her most recent book is called Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. We’ll come back to talk with Seth Rosenfeld about other angles of his book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Back in a minute.

Published on Aug 20, 2012 by theifilestv

The man who armed the Black Panthers turns out to have been an FBI informant. FBI files, uncovered by journalist Seth Rosenfeld, reveal that Richard Aoki, a prominent activist in the 1960s who was the first to supply the Black Panthers with guns and weapons training, was also an undercover FBI source. A mysterious character who always sported sunglasses, even at night, Aoki was a militant leader of the Third World Strike and an activist with the Asian American Political Alliance at UC Berkeley.

The revelation about Aoki's role as an informant emerged from FBI files obtained by Rosenfeld and an interview with the FBI agent who says he recruited Aoki. Rosenfeld has spent the last 30 years researching the history of the FBI and radicals in Berkeley for his new book, "Subversives," published August 21st.

Produced and edited by Ariane Wu
Reported by Seth Rosenfeld

Book's claims that Richard M. Aoki was an FBI informant rely on ambiguous sources, critics say.

By Peter Monaghan

Was Richard M. Aoki, an icon of the 1960s protest movement in the Bay Area, an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation?

That's the explosive claim made by Seth Rosenfeld, a journalist who has just published Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the product of 31 years of research.

The allegation has angered Asian-American community groups and Bay Area activists of that era, including veterans

UpFront - Richard Wolff, Diane Fujino on Richard Aoki, CCSF - September 11, 2012 at 7:00am

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UpFront - Richard Wolff, Diane Fujino on Richard Aoki, CCSF

Marxian economist Richard Wolff joins us for the first half of the show to dissect the Eurozone crisis, and describe how it could change dramatically in the coming days. Then Richard Aoki biographer Diane Fujino reacts to the latest release of 221 pages of FBI records that indicate Aoki was an informant for the FBI during his involvement with the Black Panthers and the Third World Liberation Front.