Richard Aoki: Snitch Jacketing 2.0?

 Richard Aoki is arrested on Telegraph avenue, Berkeley, 1969.

Kasama is urging a discussion of a New Cointelpro -- the use of police agents to gather information and create divisions among radical sections of the left.

Posting the following essay does not represent endorsement of all of its arguments. We are sharing it because there is value in understanding (and debating) what SKS raises.

by SKS

So we wake up on Monday, August 20 2012, to find out Richard Aoki is alleged to have been a long time informant of the FBI. A serious allegation, needless to say. Aoki's military training, access to weapons, ethnic origin, and charisma, where critical components in the development of the practice of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, its views on internationalism,  its views on armed struggle, and its approach to ethnic groups other than Black Americans.

To cast him in the light of a snitch shakes the very foundations of one of the most important, successful, and tragic examples of revolutionary organizing in the second half of the 20th century in the United States of America. It opens wounds of anti-Asian bigotry among Black revolutionaries, questions the internationalist instincts of the BPP, and in general pushes the ever present question of a security culture to the forefront. It also forces us to revisit COINTELPRO, and its current incantations as an existing force, rather than a painful memory of a long-gone era.

While there is much to be said, my intent in this brief note is to put forward some rather incomplete initial thoughts - while approaching what I feel and view as the most critical areas to evaluate.

Snitch Jacketing 2.0

"Snitch Jacketing" is a classic counter-intelligence practice, in which people who are not informants are named as informants either via "leaks" or via other actual informants, in order to de-stabilize the targetted individual or the targetted group. It is historically extremely effective, and hence has been used time and time again.

Black power advocate Kwame Ture (birth name Stokely Carmichael) was secretly targeted by FBI head J. Edgar Hoover for being a potential Black "Messiah." Evidence suggests that he was considered as a target of Cointelpro snitch-jacketing -- where he was to be neutralized by false rumors that he was a CIA agent.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples in the western world was the Provisional Irish Republican Army Supergrass Affairs, where a number of lesser figures were accused and sometimes even executed of being informants, while the actual informants remained free. It was an terribly effective tactic: it paralyzed entire units of the PIRA and other groups, while leading to large scale arrests of dozens of activists and Volunteers.

Snitch jacketing, however, has been losing effectiveness because of the information society and also because it generated a culture within certain corners of the revolutionary movement in which the fear of informants is such, that the State has no need to deploy it: then groups themselves perpetuate a paranoid style of politics that neutralizes them.

The contemporary State hence has modified the age-old technique into something we can call Snitch Jackecting 2.0. It utilizes the existing history to create a panoptical paranoia on the target, and this needs to be fed from time to time with fresh kills, to keep the tree of fear and uncertainty watered.

Sure, there is a need for a security culture - but those who make an unaccountable claim to posses this truth are in fact playing into the Snitch Jacketing 2.0 game: the idea is to envelop and paralyze movements, and this is best done when movements are much more preocuppied about security than politics.

The reality is, we do not know if Richard Aoki was an informant.

And the timing for this information to emerge now is highly suspect in the context of a global uprising, and the events in Anaheim. I can see a thread of critique from the right and from the State of what Aoki in the positive sense was a symbol of: uncompromising anti-imperialist internationalism. That is, a political line that remains as valid now as it was then, and remains equally dangerous to those in the State - and in the right and in the left - to whom anti-imperialism and internationalism are bad ideas. On the right, the defense of white supremacy and empire is of importance, and in the left, the identitarian self-ghettoization and the pacifist liberalism find an advantage in the pushing of this myth. Even on the left that is not identitarian or pacifist there are already sectarian rumbles, full of the wounds of another era, that take advatange of the uncertainty to promote sectarian explanations for Aoki's move from Trotskyism to a form of Third Worldism.

We do not know it to be true. That is the main point to make at this point. Those who give credence to this information to further political points, or those who assume a superficial agnosticism to do the same are playing precisely into this game. In a sense, so am I - but I will claim that thise self-conciousness becomes a direct attack on this emerging form of Snitch Jacketing, and I put it forward on the hopes it helps minimize the impact of the information at hand.

But what if it is true?

Tsarist agent Roman Malinovsky penetrated the Bolshevik Central Committee, and served as head of the Communist fraction in the Duma (parliament).

This recalls the Malinovsky Affair from Bolshevik times. Roman Malinovsky was a leader of the Bolsheviks - a member of the Central Committee and leader of the Bolshevik group in the Duma, as well as a protege of V.I. Lenin. He was also an informant of the Czar's secret service - and responsible for the exile and jailing, one by one, of all of the Bolshevik leadership between 1910-1914. Lenin, when confronted with this information, took it in stride:  "If he is a provocateur, the police gained less from it than our Party did."

He finally met his demise at the orders of Zinoviev, when he tried to rejoin the victorious Petrograd Soviet in 1918.

Aoki is dead. He can neither confirm nor deny this information - nor can we evaluate him as a living participant in the revolutionary movement, and much less provide some sort of justice.

We can, however, at the very least, judge as Lenin did, if the movement or the State gained more in this situation. I offer that the balance lies with the movement. His contributions - in practice and as a symbol, are much more important and central than any snitching he might or might not have done. This is an extremely important point to raise in breaking the encirclement of the counter-intelligence effort.

We do not know it to be true.

Richard Aoki during Panther days.

And we can also see - in a movement destroyed to a large extent by paranoia, snitch jacketing, and self-consuming inner-struggles in which accusing of snitching was a prime weapon, that often the instincts of the movement are wrong: snitching is much less effective than the allergic reaction to its possibility as way to disrupt movements. Thus, countless of innoncent people were branded as snitches - some of them in violent ways - who weren't. The emergence of the Great Rectification in the Communist Party of the Philippines comes to mind as an example of what goes wrong when this snitch jacketing gains a foothold: it nearly killed the movement from within. The CPP understood this before the fatal blow was delivered, but only did so after one of the most painful and self-destructive periods of its history. There are too many lessons there to illustrate - but it is a prime example of what is wrong in letting a normal part of revolutionary politics, which is the presence of snitches, become the primary preocupation of a movement over the political struggle.

It remains to be seen if these allegations are true or not. But what we can do now is reflect upon the historic effect of snitch jacketing, and put this allegation on that light. And if we take it to be true, to also but this in the context of the larger historic role. This is not a time for a simplistic perspective, but rather one informed by a nuanced and historical perspective on what in means to be a revolutionary in the USA today, and what it meant then.

Put simply, Richard Aoki is much more than a snitch, if he was one.  

And thus, even if true, the allegations should be a footnote in his history. Not to mention, that in spite of ample opportunity to do so, these allegations were never made public while he was alive. That is highly suspect in itself - in the context of Anaheim, the Oakland Commune, and other mass resistances in the greater Bay Area of California, the political scene in which Aoiki always stood out as an icon of a certain brand of cross-ethnic internationalism. As white supremacy suffers a demographic challenge, as whites become a minority themselves, this is of extreme historic importance: divide and conquer is a tool of power much older and powerful than snitch jacketing ever was.

Lets not lose ourselves in the footnote, and forget the main text.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - Isaiah

    "Straighter Talk"

    One of the great problems with discussing "snitching" and "Conintelpro" in the 1960s and 1970s on the Left is the vast majority of the Left is not against the state and ruling class. A similar problem exists in evaluating McCarthyism in the 1940s and 1950s when Communists really were in the State Department and DID join the government during World War II. Today books come out every year reminding how Communists were patriotic Americans -- who are the collaborators the subjects of history of the authors of history? It is hard to tell sometimes. How do you think the UN and World Bank was created -- Communists were central to these institutions of imperialism. Of course the Left says the UN is basically good (and the World Bank is bad). This is a symptom of a pervasive problem.

    It is ok to get out the vote for the mayor or president. OK well, if it is ok to define a united front with one's own ethnic capitalist politicians, than how hard is it really to find the so-called snitch or collaborate with the government IF it is right out there in the open all the time and nobody cares?

    Similarly how many "anti-imperialists" consistently write as if the State Department is following the wrong foreign policy? Why propose to advise what the "right" foreign policy of imperialist governments should be? The Left is consistently critical of the CIA (but not the State Department), the Republicans (but not the Democrats), the police chief (but not the mayor), the FBI (but not the President). And these contradictions are deeply embedded in most forms of "Marxism." Of course socialists are always on the look out for "provocateurs" -- this has some merit especially within direct action affinity groups when someone is not well known and may wish to entrap us.

    But otherwise 90% of the Left collaborates openly with the state -- who needs to be "snitch-jacketed?" We might ask an entirely different question -- which Leftist will be the LAST one to collaborate with the government? THAT should be the main text for reflection not what Mr. Aoki did or did not do. Mr. Aoki's contribution to revolutionary politics, whatever they may be, was not that of a symbol. How degrading and shortsighted -- even if the author is a person of color or a member of Aoki's own ethnic group. Revolutions don't happen by symbolic alliances -- academic books distort revolutionary history into that. They have something to do with seizing, retaining or abolish state power (depending on one's outlook) and overthrowing the capitalists (and of course the white supremacists, imperialists and patriarchs). Today, very scrubby radicals might think the word "overthrow" is somehow part of a provocative statement. I think I have argued concisely the great holes in radical traditions which lead to people thinking so, and why figuring out who is a collaborator with the capitalists or state is a silly question to ask in a movement culture where most do so explicitly and out in the open.

  • Guest - Dick Rei;;y dickreilly

    SKS writes:

    <blockquote>"We can, however, at the very least, judge as Lenin did, if the movement or the State gained more in this situation. I offer that the balance lies with the movement. His contributions – in practice and as a symbol, are much more important and central than any snitching he might or might not have done" This is an extremely important point to raise in breaking the encirclement of the counter-intelligence effort"</blockquote>

    - This assessment is premature. We have no realistic way of measuring the damage he may have done, or how long he continued to act as a.informant. Indeed, his credibility and reputation as a revolutionary leader in the Bay area may well have enhanced his long term value to the FBI. The recent revelations about senior figures in the Irish republican movement acting as informants for the British security services for literally decades underscores this point. We may never know the truth..

    But we know this. By 1970, 34 members of the Black Panther Party- including Oakland Panther Bobby Hutton and Chicagoans Fred Hampton and Marc Clark- died as a result of police raids and internal conflicts engineered by the FBI's COINTELPRO program -- using informers and agent provocateurs. A hard lesson.

  • Guest - Dr. Nick Medvecky

    As a former target (revolutionist and victim) of Cointelpro/Chaos I welcome this discussion. The uses of provocateurs, false-flagging, etc., remains quite alive and well. Specific examples for the aborning political generation can only be useful...

  • Guest - PatrickSMcNally

    Among 911-truthers there is a frequent habit of repeating misquoted statements from texts which one has never bothered to read for oneself. Some commonly misquoted texts of this kind are Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard, as well as the paper "Rebuilding America's Defenses" which was put together by some neoconservatives. 911-truthers have a frequent habit of referencing such texts without ever reading what they say, and arguing very fervently nonetheless.

    The book by Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Regan's Rise to Power, can already be found for purchasing through a search on DealOz. Hopefully we won't see too much of a flaming argument around this until people have actually read the text. The potential here for something similar to a cat-fight among 911-truthers should make one pause.

  • Guest - Morning Window

    It seems like SKS is saying that even if Aoki was an informant, was also a sincere revolutionary at the same time. Is that what "we got more from him than they did" means?

    Why would someone who had consciousness (which Mike Ely said was "hard to fake") be an informant? Blackmail? Threats?

    Maybe if you inform once, as a youth, the police can threaten to reveal it unless you keep informing, and by then you're in too deep, so you continue.

    For a lot of people the process of developing consciousness involves a lot of cognitive dissonance, holding contradictory ideas and loyalties. FBI probably knows how to exploit this.

  • Guest - sks


    We cannot know this fully - he is dead. Which is my point.

    Already one can see attacks on what we knew to be Aoki's politics - some disguised - based on the possibility of him being a snitch. This is what I raise: we need to process this new information, but to automatically make it a defining issue is an error, and plays into the strategies of demoralization, fear, and uncertainty of the State.


    I raised the point of the Supergrass in the PIRA and other Republican groups in Ireland on purpose - because as bad as Snitch Jacketing was in the USA, in The Troubles it was an order of magnitude worse. The INLA, for example, had a period of years in which it killed more Republicans than loyalists, to a large extent because it developed a extreme paranoia that led it to eat its own children. The PIRA being larger and more diverse had less of a proportional issue, but many people died at the hands of their own comrades accused of being snitches who where innocent - in a few cases at the hands of actual snitches.

    A good example of this is Denis Donaldson, which was killed in 2006 by the Real IRA.

  • Guest - walterlx

    Today’s DEMOCRACY NOW features a debate between Seth Rosenfeld and Diance C. Fujino, who wrote the recently-published biography of Richard Aoki. Fujino rejects the allegation that Aoki was an FBI informant. Fujino, adding that she’s open to whatever the truth might be, says the documentation provided by Rosenfeld doesn’t convince her and is inconclusive at best.

    Here’s the link to their debate:

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