November 20, 1938|
San Leandro, California, United States
|Died||March 15, 2009
Berkeley, California, United States
|Cause of death||Self-inflicted gunshot wound|
University of California, Berkeley
|Occupation||Civil Rights Activist most known for his role in the Black Panther Party|
Richard Aoki (// or //; 20 November 1938 – 15 March 2009) was an American educator and college counselor, best known as a civil rights activist and early member of the Black Panther Party. He joined the early Black Panther Party and was eventually promoted to the position of Field Marshal. Although there were several Asian Americans in the Black Panther Party, Aoki was the only one to have a formal leadership position. FBI documents released in 2012 assert that Aoki was an FBI informant from 1961 to 1977, which is denied by his supporters.
Richard Aoki was born in San Leandro, California in 1938 to Japanese parents. He and his family were interned at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah from 1942 to 1945. They moved to Oakland, California, a predominantly black neighborhood, after World War II ended. In junior high Aoki joined a gang, later would brag that he was a great street fighter, and still managed to become co-valedictorian. While attending Berkeley High Aoki was approached to join the FBI after being heard on a FBI wiretap monitoring local members of the Communist Party. He was instructed to join left-wing groups and report what he found to the FBI. Later, in a deal to expunge his criminal record, Aoki spent one year in active duty serving in the United States Army, first as a medic and later in the infantry, and 7 years in the reserves. In this time he became proficient in firearms. During his time in the reserves he was elected to The Berkeley Young Socialist Alliance's executive council and was a member other socialist groups, reporting the information he gathered back to the FBI.
He attended Merritt College for two years, where he became close friends with his longtime acquaintances Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the founding members of the Black Panther Party; the organization was founded in October 1966, one month after Aoki transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1968 and a Master of Social Work degree in 1970.
It was originally reported that Aoki died at his home in Berkeley from complications from dialysis. Nearly a year later, it was publicly revealed that he had died of suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His life was chronicled in the 2009 documentary film, Aoki.
Role as an FBI informant
On August 20, 2012, a report by Center for Investigative Reporting journalist Seth Rosenfeld alleged Aoki was an FBI informant who had infiltrated chapters of the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers' Party and, nearly from its inception, the Black Panther Party. In response to a FOIA request by Rosenfeld, it was revealed that a November 16, 1967 FBI intelligence report listed Aoki as an informant with the code number "T-2". FBI agent Burney Threadgill Jr. also said that he worked with Aoki, stating, "He was my informant. I developed him."
In response, documentary makers Mike Cheng and Ben Wang, directors of the film Aoki, called into question the proof Aoki was an informant. "After reviewing Rosenfeld's article, video, and book, there is no solid evidence presented that Richard was as an FBI informant... it is unacceptable for Rosenfeld to discredit Richard's integrity based on the unsubstantiated word of a deceased FBI agent and a document with redacted and vague information."
On September 7, 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting published a second story about Aoki with new documents detailing his 221-page informant file. The file was released under court order after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The second story notes Aoki was designated the code name "Richard Ford." The file details 16 years of cooperation between Aoki and the FBI's San Francisco office. According to the story, the records show "that at various points, he provided information that was 'unique' and of 'extreme value.' " 
It is noteworthy, however, that the FBI had opposed the Japanese American internment, of which Aoki was a victim. Also of note is the fact that much of the information Aoki gave to the FBI could already be found in contemporary news reports and that he chose not to disclose his role in supplying guns to the Black Panthers. When asked about being an FBI informant, Aoki replied "It is complex, layer upon layer. People change."
- "Another shade of Black Panther...". It's About Time. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
- Neela Banerjee (2001-04-27). "Back in the Day...". AsianWeek. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
- View archival newsfilm from KRON-TV, featuring Aoki speaking at UC Berkeley in March 1969: https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/208092.
- Momo Chang (2009-03-18). "Richard Aoki, charter member of Black Panthers, dies in Berkeley". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved 2009-06-07.
- Puck Lo (2009-11-12). "Film on former Panther Richard Aoki debuts". Oakland North. Retrieved 2010-02-19.
- Seth Rosenfeld (August 20, 2012). "Activist Richard Aoki named as informant". San Francisco Chronicle.
- Diane C. Fujino, Samurai Among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
- Official website for Aoki, A Film Documentary (includes video clips from film)
- Was Bay Area Radical, Black Panther Arms Supplier Richard Aoki An Informant for the FBI? from Democracy Now! 23 August 2012