Richard Aoki: Are We Missing the Main Story?

Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power generated a great deal of controversy immediately upon publication a couple weeks ago (see, Chronicle of Higher Ed, the American Historical Association’s blog, activist Fred Ho in SF Bay View, and historian Scott Kurashige). The chief complaint is over Rosenfeld’s characterization of Richard Aoki, a key mentor to and member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as an FBI informant. Several historians, commentators, activists, and former Panthers argue that this claim is exaggerated, misleading, or false. Although this argument is important and welcome, it misses two issues that I wish to highlight, one smaller and one great. 

Just to get it out of the way, the smaller one is that even after the recent document dump, in which Rosenfeld has shared the 200+ pages the FBI gave him on Aoki, there is almost no substantive information available on what Aoki told the Feds. I have not combed fully through all the pages yet, but they are mostly blank due to redaction (but check this response). Anyone who has done archival research on the US National Security State or the FBI will recognize the frustration such documents provoke. My own reaction, thinking as a historian, has been trepidation when I encounter these type of documents. I do not think many conclusions can be drawn from them, other than about archival sources and the State’s power to control information about itself. Instead of reluctance, Rosenfeld’s reaction seems to have been the opposite: make a mountain out of a molehill. (The filmmakers behind a documentary on Aoki make the interesting argument that it is possible the redacted documents actually do not show anything said by Aoki but rather show what may have been said about Aoki by another person or persons.)

But beyond the absence of substance in the documents, and perhaps it is because I have watched too many mob movies in my life, I cannot help but feel that there is as yet no justification to assume Aoki gave the Feds much useful information for entirely different reasons. After all, they did not, as far as I understand it, have anything on him, particularly if they had enrolled him prior to his joining up with the Panthers. He was getting paid, but he was not a cooperator who was facing indictment if he refused. He didn't "flip." The pressure to produce viable information would, it seems to me, have been on the agents working with him less than on him directly. The claims visible in the redacted documents, about, for example, how “the informant has submitted a complete and thorough report,” tell us less about Aoki than they do about the chain of command at the FBI. The agents had their bosses watching over them because the Panthers were a concern at the highest levels of the agency (ie, due to Hoover’s obsessions) and within high levels of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Still, the FBI had relative autonomy here, as they say, and based on what I have seen in the LBJ Library, the Panthers emerged too late to merit the attention we might think they received from Johnson’s people given their notoriety today. Is it Aoki’s great information we see evidenced here or his handlers’ efforts to make it seem like he was providing fabulous information? 

A recent tumblr (!) post by archivists at the LBJ Library got me thinking a bit about the complicated relationship Hoover and Johnson had and the way the FBI used informants—and the way informants were part of the complication of that relationship. I am no Hoover expert, but listen to his voice and demeanor during this phone call with Johnson after the KKK’s murder of Viola Liuzzo, mere days after Johnson sent the Voting Rights Act to Congress, during the Selma March in support of voting rights. Does his sound like the voice of someone who is secretly manipulating everyone from behind the scenes, or does it sound like that of someone who is more or less scared of pissing off his boss because he’s paying thousands of dollars to some racist who was an accomplice to the murder of a civil rights activist? Hoover’s explanation of how the Bureau obtains informants who are not otherwise guilty of crimes, and the large payments they garner, seems that it would have been applicable to Aoki (as Rosenfeld suggests). Thus, it is useful to note that the FBI and the Johnson administration believed that they were confronting threats from both the right and the left. Hoover’s nonchalant parallelism here between the KKK and the Communist Party reflects Bureau policy and practice at the time.

It is true that the US State did and continues to play a (the?) major role in the perpetuation of white supremacy, but it is also true that the White House and the FBI in the 1960s viewed vigilante violence as a threat to State legitimacy, in the Weberian sense that the State is the sole legitimate holder of the means of violence. And yet it is the violence wielded by the State that generates its most fierce opposition. As Nikhil Pal Singh writes thinking of the Panthers in The Black Panther Party Reconsidered anthology, “violence is at once liminal to the state and at the same time, its most important form of discourse . . . Violence threatens to undo the state, but it is also its very condition of possibility.” The Panthers keenly understood this contradiction. Continues Singh, “The Panthers, then, were a threat to the state not simply because they were violent but because they abused the state’s own reality principle, including its monopoly on the legitimate uses of violence.” This argument brings me to the larger point I wish to make about what is at stake in the discussion over Rosenfeld’s research and how the unfolding controversy seems to skirt something key, namely the centrality of resistance to violence, both legal and extralegal, to the history of freedom struggles.

Rosenfeld writes that Aoki gave, “the Black Panthers some of their first guns and weapons training, encouraging them on a course that would contribute to shootouts with the police and the organization’s demise.” In response, Ward Churchill, Kathleen Cleaver, and Natsu Taylor Saito argue, “This is a classic example of how truth is mixed with falsehood to rewrite history and promote a more sweeping agenda.” I agree that this statement seems to mix historical fact with historical stretch. That Aoki would have been instrumental in the provision of guns to folks who would have been armed anyway, whether by having inherited guns from elders or by obtaining them in other legal or sub-legal ways, is hardly a strong claim. But the chief problem here is the causal argument about Aoki’s guns putting the Panthers on a course toward violent confrontration, as Churchill, Cleaver, and Saito point out: armed self-defense mitigated, rather than increased, the likelihood of the murder of unarmed black people. Violence against activists was already happening. It was the State’s, as well as armed white vigilantes’, killing of black people that had catalyzed the deep and extensive tradition of armed resistance to white supremacy, to which the Panthers were the heirs. Robert F. Williams, as documented by Timothy Tyson, and Rosa Parks, as documented by Danielle McGuire, among many others, must be understood in this light. It is especially rich that Rosenfeld, in arguing that Aoki worked for the FBI, would claim that it was the Black Panther Party’s tactics that led to its demise. No! A tightly orchestrated campaign of murder, infiltration, and imprisonment, overseen by the FBI, led to it demise. 

As Churchill, Cleaver, and Saito argue, Rosenfeld divorces Aoki from historical context. This argument is amplified in a recent article by historian of the Panthers Donna Murch, who shows how Rosenfeld fails to appreciate any of the insights of historical scholarship on 20th century black radicalism, a field that has been particularly innovative and vibrant in the past 15 years or so. (I consider my own research to be on the periphery of this field.) Thus, Robert F. Williams and other black radicals who have been examined in detail in recent years provide the context, but the violence of white supremacy and indigenous self-defense responses to it are more than simply the context. They are the story. For example, Angela Davis describes how white terrorists’ bomb explosions in Birmingham, America’s Johannesburg, rattled her house. Her father always had guns at the ready to protect his family. Murch, in her Living for the City, shows how the young men and women who became Panthers either themselves had migrated to the Bay Area from the South or were the children of those who had migrated (see also Daniel Crowe’s Prophets of Rage). In fact, more women than men, particularly in the early 20s age range, migrated after WWII, according to Murch. Huey Newton, David Hilliard, Bobby Seale, and Bobby Hutton had roots in Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas, respectively. The black radicalism of their parents’ generation was forged in the Jim Crow South (and earlier), and it was carried with them to the shipyards and neighborhoods of the Bay Area. There it was reconfigured, as industrial rhythms and their organizational requirements were different from those of the largely agricultural Black Belt. 

The variety of white supremacy encountered in California was different too. As Malcolm X said, racism is like a Cadillac. There’s a new model every year. In retrospect, the brilliance of Malcolm’s formulation is even deeper: those annual new model-years of cars that General Motors produced were a distinct emergent feature of the historical period we know as Fordism. It was the economic growth attendant to Fordism, spurred by the New Deal and the armament process that preceded entry in World War II, that brought so many black people from the South to northern industrial cities like Oakland. But it was their persistent exclusion from the increasing shares of wealth and opportunity experienced by white people, violently enforced in so many cases, that gave impetus for further elaborations of black radicalism, tied to the past but revised and reinvigorated. 

For Churchill, Cleaver, and Saito, Rosenfeld is either complicit in or duped by the FBI’s ongoing campaign to discredit the activists of the 1960s and to ward off younger generations of activists from following their lead. This argument may have some validity but it seems less important to me than what the whole kerfuffle has prevented us from focusing on: the use of violence, intimidation, imprisonment, and infiltration to prevent even minimal social change. The Panthers were one example. The experience of the Occupy movement over the past year is another. A different vintage but the same brand, I’d argue. Today’s activists do not need time with Rosenfeld’s book to become worried that their comrades are informants or they risk getting shot by the cops or arrested on trumped-up charges. Instead, they just need to be activists. Some don’t even need to be activists. They just need to be college students who are worried about increases in tuition—which can lead to a police baton jabbed in the gut. 

In addition to the crucial warning issued by Murch and others about how to interpret historical documents and contextualize historical “facts,” what we should take away from the Rosenfeld book is how deep, pervasive, overzealous, and diffuse—or, at least, more frequently off-target than “on-”—is the violent repression of social movements in a putatively free society. Perhaps part of Rosenfeld’s point in focusing on Reagan in the book, which has not made it into much of the hue and cry, is to remind us that before he was president, Ronnie had an illustrious career—in repression. It is a useful historical lesson, given the reverence for him that is de rigueur among even Democrats today. But the focus on Aoki’s supposed transgressions, even among his supporters, turns the spotlight on the side of the stage, when it should be on the FBI and on the state and municipal police. Shedding light on their nefarious activities is not the sole goal, particularly if Churchill et al are right that the process can be easily manipulated. Illumination is simply the starting point of figuring out what to do to create radical social change. Armed with the knowledge of how severe repression will be—whether from a book of history or from being in the streets of Oakland or New York with the Occupy movement—we can begin to comprehend how difficult, yet necessary, the task of transformative social change can be.

Upcoming Talks

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 - 4:00pm
Robinson Hall Lower Library, Harvard University
Sponsored by: Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History

© 2017 Stuart Schrader