Louis Proyect: The Richard Aoki imbroglio

 Richard Aoki

Louis shared the link to his new essay in our discussions of recent charges against veteran revolutionary Richard Aoki. The essay first appeared on the blog Unrepentant Marxist.

Without embracing Louis' views, we are offering them here because of their value in the ongoing discussion.

by Louis Proyect

On August 20th an article by Seth Rosenfeld in the San Francisco Chronicle touched off a combination of soul-searching and finger-pointing on the left, particularly those segments that view Richard Aoki, a well-known activist who killed himself in 2009, as an icon. Rosenfeld claims that Aoki was an FBI informant who supplied the guns borne by the Black Panther Party in a famous photograph of the group on the steps of the state capitol building. Rosenfeld is on a publicity blitz for his new book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” that includes a chapter on Aoki’s alleged ties to the FBI.

For those who have a considerable stake in Aoki’s reputation, such as his biographer Diane Fujino, it became imperative to discredit Rosenfeld’s findings. It was also important for those who believe that the Panthers’ legacy is mostly positive to weigh in on Fujino and other Aoki supporters’ side. Rosenfeld became seen as a kind of gatekeeper for the 1960s who wanted to quarantine the Panthers in much the same manner as Chris Hedges was seen by black bloc supporters not only as an enemy of “diversity of tactics” but of the most effective group in the Occupy movement.

On August 23rd Rosenfeld and Fujino were the featured guests on Democracy Now where they aired out their differences. Rosenfeld stated that he has no way of knowing whether the FBI was involved in providing the guns or even if they knew Aoki was giving them to the Black Panthers. Fujino mainly urged the audience to not leap to any conclusions about Aoki based on the files obtained through FOIA since there was not enough to go on, including the incorrect reference to him having the middle name Matsui.

Fujino also raised the possibility that Aoki was the posthumous victim of “snitch jacketing”. If that was the case, one has to ask why retired FBI agent Wesley Swearingen, who reviewed the FBI files with Rosenfeld, would want to lend himself to this cause in light of what Rosenfeld reported:

"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."

I should mention that the FBI directed Aoki to join the CP and the SWP before he ever got involved with the Panthers. Years later when the SWP sued the FBI, Swearingen proved to be more principled than the average snoop. As a witness, he revealed that the FBI was lying when it claimed that it was committed to protecting the identity of its informants. Why he would turn around years after he had retired to tarnish the reputation of Richard Aoki is something of a mystery, unless you believe that a plot is afoot to deradicalize the Occupy movement or something like that. And to establish his credibility even further, Swearingen took the trouble to write a book titled “FBI Secrets” for South End Press, with a laudatory introduction by Ward Churchill. Whew!


Scott Kurashige, the Director of Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at University of Michigan, weighed in on Aoki’s behalf the day after Rosenfeld’s article had appeared in the S.F. Chronicle. Using Facebook, Kurashige claims that Aoki was exploited by Rosenfeld to serve a liberal political agenda by focusing on Aoki’s involvement with the TWLF (Third World Liberation Front) at Berkeley that was supposedly “violent” and turned off many white students. In contrast to the TWLF, Rosenfeld endorses the “good, wholesome” Free Speech Movement. This amounts to a “white liberal narrative of the 1960s that at least in part wants to blame violent activists of color (even if in this case they are steered by the FBI) for the demise of liberalism and the rise of neoconservativism.” Well, gee whiz, who wants to be part of a “white liberal narrative” so I guess it makes sense to defend Aoki against various and sundry charges.

According to Kurashige, Rosenfeld strongly suggests that Aoki working on behalf of the FBI sparked the TWLF’s “violent” turn. Diane Fujino’s version of Richard Aoki makes it even more unlikely that he would have acted to derail the student movement at Berkeley. He simply didn’t fit the profile of a “disruptive” element:

"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."

Hearing all these different versions of what Richard Aoki did or did not do motivated me to plunk down $43.55 for Seth Rosenfeld’s book and read the chapter on Aoki. Was he more like a Symbionese Liberation Front member or more like someone addressing a plenary session at a Modern Language Association conference? Maybe a bit of both?


Most of it was what I expected and what has been already reported but I stopped dead in my tracks when I read this:

"On March 14, the TWLF central committee debated whether to end the strike. Richard Aoki argued for escalating the violence. “I was willing to risk everything for keeping the struggle going,” he told the author. “We’d have taken on the National Guard. Then it would have gotten real violent. I figured we would have gotten more if we continued it just a bit, even though I he threat of massive escalation, because of bringing in of the National Guard, would’ve really resulted in some stuff. But we had plans. I had plans.”

"The plan was to steal guns from National Guard armories. “We’d have had their weapons,” he said. At that time, Aoki recalled, there were “National Guard armories all over this area, stocked with that stuff, and we knew where they were. My faction was willing to take the strike to a higher level.” At a meeting in Stiles Hall, however, weary strikers voted overwhelmingly to end the strike."

Frankly it did not matter to me at this point whether Aoki was urging the theft of guns from the National Guard to use against the National Guard in a firefight upon the instructions of his ostensible FBI handler or whether he was urging this course as a “sincere” genuine ultraleft numbskull. It is practically beside the point. The 1960s movement was largely destroyed because of such adventures, from Weatherman bombs to the kind of militarism that Aoki espoused. The left has to be grounded in reality, not fantasies drawn from “Battle of Algiers” or an NLF poster.


I should add that it was not just addled notions of guerrilla warfare that destroyed the left. Spared for a time from ultraleft self-immolation, the SWP also crashed and burned largely as a result of a self-deception of another sort. Instead of styling itself as urban guerrillas, the SWP bought into another fantasy, namely that the late 1970s—the time of cocaine, disco, capitalist expansion and general retreat from the 60s radicalization—marked the onset of a working-class radicalization that would culminate in a bid for power led by the party’s brilliant leader. The collapse of the SWP assumed a different dynamic than that of the SDS or the Panthers but fell into the same general category: political psychosis.

I have no idea whether Aoki was an FBI agent or not, although if I was a betting man I would put money on it. And if he was, I would not be surprised if he maintained connections with the bureau all the while he was convincing his comrades that he was on the level. The mind of such people, who get paid to infiltrate left groups, can be exceedingly complex. Ed Heisler was a national committee member of the SWP for a number of years, largely on the strength of his work in the railroad workers union. He was someone who had fully absorbed Marxist theory even if he never believed a word of it. His speeches at Oberlin conventions were always a hit with the membership. And all the while he was on the FBI payroll.

This is something that the great and late Walt Contreras Sheasby posted to Marxmail in June 2004:

"Hello Friends-

"Paranoia is one of the biggest problems facing the left. But occasionally we discover suspicious interventions, such as a former FBI informant who may have continuing links to the government. We need to set this former informant aside from our Green Party discussions without implying that this person is currently acting as a government informant.

"Apparently there is no doubt that the 61-year-old Ed Heisler who is on many Green lists is the same Ed Heisler who was an FBI informant in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was reluctant to reach such a conclusion without fairly conclusive evidence.

"Heisler himself provides sufficient circumstantial evidence in his Yahoo profile for the camejoforpresident list, which is appended below. Immediately above that I have pasted a copy of a blurb on Heisler’s book in 1976 on the dissidents in a Teamster affiliate that I discovered."

On the Black Panther Party


Finally I want to say a few words about the Black Panther Party. Again I have no idea whether the FBI was behind Aoki providing guns to them but it really doesn’t matter. The initial splash that was made when they appeared armed in public was very good for the Black liberation struggle in the same fashion that Robert F. Williams Black Armed Guard was a step forward in 1959. The idea of self-defense against racist terror was something that most people could understand to one degree or another even when the media tries to depict people like Williams or Malcolm X as promoting violence. When the Panthers marched on the California state house in 1967 carrying weapons in protest against a law that would prevent carrying them in public, they electrified the Black community and gave many young radicals, including me, the hope that revolution was on the agenda.

But by 1971 the Black Panthers were on the ropes, victims of FBI provocations and armed assaults as well as their own detachment from reality. The August 1971 issue of their newspaper should be seen by anybody who is inclined toward rosy-tinged nostalgia for a group that made terrible mistakes despite the best of intentions (of course, the same thing was true of Che Guevara in Bolivia.) There’s an article hailing “revolutionary suicide” as well as a cartoon of a Black Panther astride a dead cop with the words “The Lumpen Will Rise to Deal With the Oppressor”.

In many ways the orientation to the “lumpen” was what destroyed the Panthers. Instead of trying to figure out a way to build an organization of Black workers, including bus drivers, Con Ed utility people and sanitation workers, they oriented to petty thieves and drug dealers. In 1971 if you boarded a city bus, chances were good that the driver had an Afro out to here and a pick comb with the red-black-and-green nationalist colors. Were they for revolution? Damned right, even if most voted Democrat.

What was needed of course was a Black political party that could have drawn in such workers and given it the social weight to withstand police attacks, even if they were bound to come. In a very real sense, the political psychoses of most of the 60s left were a function of relative working-class quiescence. Blacks were ready to move but not on the terms of “revolutionary suicide”.

Now that we are 12 years into the 21st century and 4 years into a seemingly intractable financial crisis that has left perhaps up to 12 percent of the population without a job and millions with foreclosed homes, the conditions are ripening for a new left that is based on reality and not fantasy. Let’s not blow our opportunities since too much is riding on the outcome.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - louisproyect

    Mike, could you please "blockquote" the quotes? Thanks. And thanks for circulating.

    [moderator note: fixed.]

  • Guest - Christos

    There is an ongoing question whether FBI was or was not behind the provision of arms to the BPP.

    How much clearer could it be. Bobby Seale wrote in "Seize the time": “We went to a Third World brother we knew, a Japanese radical cat. He had guns. We told him that we wanted those guns to begin to institutionalize and let black people know that we have to defend ourselves, as Malcolm X said we must.”

    Isn't it obvious that the Panthers asked for the guns, that is, the decision were theirs and Aoki was just part of the application of the decision?

  • Guest - Pham Binh

    I agree Christos. Lou pointed to a quote from Aoki re: a student strike though. Who knows how much damage he did by pushing that kind of "let's escalate and go violent" line in internal or informal meetings even if we assume he was not a government agent?

  • Guest - X Y

    (Not meant to be a full response to Louis' entire article, just calling attention to a single point of information/dispute.)

    Louis states: "I should mention that the FBI directed Aoki to join the CP and the SWP before he ever got involved with the Panthers."

    Louis presenting an allegation as fact. The only "evidence" of this is the word of a now-deceased FBI agent. All subsequent conclusions about Aoki's alleged status, including the FBI document with the "T-2" designation, are speculative interpretations of non-definitive, highly-redacted materials.

  • Guest - X Y

    Louis also writes: "Why he would turn around years after he had retired to tarnish the reputation of Richard Aoki is something of a mystery, unless you believe that a plot is afoot to deradicalize the Occupy movement or something like that."

    No, it's not a mystery, and it doesn't require Swearingen to be malicious in intent. He simply seems ignorant of Aoki, and ignorant of how race relations actually play out in the USA, given that he preposterously also asserts that a Japanese-American would somehow be an inconspicuous Black Panther leader. (And thus Rosenfeld also must be similarly ignorant to be convinced by this crackpot theory.)

  • Guest - purple

    People sometimes have a tendency to inflate their own works, and the FBI 'handler' is probably such a case. It's possible he had some sort of limited initial relationship with Aoki that never amounted to anything.

    Given Aoki's increasing posthumous prominence, it's easy to see why the FBI would want to discredit him.

  • Guest - Sks

    As I replied here:


    To LP:

    Except, dear Louis, that is not what Diane Fujino said. She questions the document that supposedly identifies Aoki as an informant in a convincing fashion.

    Those on the left who accept prima facie the “Evidence” Rosenfeld presents as enough, as missing a key point of scientific inquiry: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Such burden is not met by Rosenfeld. Hence he is irresponsible in publishing incomplete information and evidence and passing it as such.

    That is Snitch Jacketing 2.0. Maybe not by the State, but by liberals seeking to discredit – by any means necessary – politics that are now under renewed scrutiny by a new generation of radicals.

  • Guest - ShawnT

    M. Wesley Swearingen claims on the video that a Japanese person would be less likely to be suspected as an informant is a lie. Aoki stands out because of his ethnicity. Aoki would be the number one suspect as an informant. So far, no one has ever come out with a claim that Aoki was an informant. Nor has there been any witnesses to Aoki's alleged "development" by Threadgill. There would have been witnesses seeing him talking to Threadgill. Wesley Swearingen is himself connected to the COINTELPRO operations when he was with the FBI, so his testimony should be considered suspect along with his lie about how an Asian person would be least likely to be noticed. There's is no solid evidence to show that Aoki was an informant. Louis Proyect is just muddying the waters of this fabricated controversy.

  • Guest - ShawnT

    "When interviewed by Roz Payne , FBI agent Swearingen discusses being a member of the San Fransisco FBI Racial Squad who helped put away black activist Geronimo Pratt in prison for 27 years. Pratt was later found to be innocent by a judge and released from prison."

    Being the racial squad means Swearingen was part of the COINTELPRO operations himself. How has he kept himself from being under attack by the very same elements that he has claimed to have make a break from? How do we know that Swearingen isn't actually still working for the FBI in an undercover capacity? Part of an undercover agent's cover is to have legitimate actions he can point to which legitimizes him under superficial examination.

  • Guest - X Y

    ShawnT - I don't think it is productive to speculate about Swearingen's allegiances. In my estimation, and that of others, his later opposition to his prior work in the FBI, and his assistance in helping with several lawsuits against the FBI/USGovt, has been valuable. And as Louis has reminded, he has written a book exposing the FBI, with accompanying praise by Ward Churchill. What we instead SHOULD question, is his purported value towards this PARTICULAR allegation against Aoki. Rosenfeld came to Swearingen already inculcated with the theory put in his head by Threadgill's claims. Their subsequent confirmation biases are what need to be challenged, including the truly crackpot idea that a Japanese-American could pass inconspicuously as a high-ranking member of the Panthers.

  • Guest - Zornar

    None of the comments speak to the really important political question: was violence - whether as symbolic display or acted out - a good tactic for 60s-70s left in the USA?

    Strategically, the panthers employed the whole range of tactics available to revolutionaries: independent services (breakfast, literacy), anti-state confrontation, electoral intervention, vast propaganda work, cultural work (art, music, parties), and even trade union work.

    Luis Proyect suggests that, to their detriment, the Panthers stressed the spectacle of displaying weapons and used violence to enforce their politics. A tactical emphasis on the political power that flows from the barrel of a gun was fused to the fact that the Panthers oriented the bulk of their activity toward the lumpenproletariat. The lumpen, in order to acquire means of subsistence are familiar with violence in a way that workers are generally not.

    Also, the lumpenproletariat is the main target of the police, not the employed and certainly not the stable worker who has a decent unionized job that allows them to operate purely in the formal, above-ground, legal economy. And what way is there to confront the police? The power of the gun is tactically appealing to the lumpen proletariat, because there is no other means by which to exert political power.

    Luis mentions the worker orientation of other black left groups, hinting that it wasn't really necessary to resort to organizing the lumpenproletariat because a more suitable revolutionary subject was available.

    In my opinion, we should start off our revolutionary projects with getting anyone we can, without regard to class background. But there comes a point at which its important to think strategically about where this is leading to, who do we need to prioritize? The basic rubric for that should be: who has the most latent power that could be harnessed to unleash the latent power of other groups? We need to start with the strong sectors of the proletariat, and move to others as we grow.

    According to that rubric, in the late 60s and early 70s, black workers do seem to have been the most potentially revolutionary sector. This is due to their historical contradiction as a proletariat internal to the US which had not been fully tapped by capital until The Great Migration and WWII. In the period of the panther's ascendency, Black workers had been recruited into the heart of most of the US's important productive and reproductive spheres, bringing with them the strength and consciousness of a generation of straight, uninterrupted struggle against every type of foe from every class niche. This should have been harnessed more, should have been made the kernel of all revolutionary parties, and from that sector of black workers, layers of other races could have been congealed, as well as other strata of the proletariat including the permanently unemployed. But the Panthers had a vision that was the reverse of this, and started with the black lumpenproletariat, in alliance with other non-worker sectors of other races including white students and some poor whites.

    In my opinion, the best stuff that the Panthers did was the service programs and the labor interventions. The best example of labor intervention I know of is the Black Panther Caucus in the UAW at the Fremont GM plant in the Bay Area.

    Most of the stuff involving guns beyond a couple of photo ops was really dangerous and premature. Aoki might have been a sabeteur, but he really just facilitated what was already a central component of the Black Panther program - armed self-defense. He gave them material support for what they wanted to do.

    Armed self defense is a no-brainer, of course we need it as our struggles achieve a mass scale and threaten revolutionary potential. Im no expert, but it doesnt seem to me that the Panthers were ever mass enough to merit the firing of a single bullet for any reason.

    And for the implication today, its obvious that the gun, the bomb, life-destroying weapons have no role. As a tactic for confronting the state, violence is not an option today. Build a movement that is millions strong and bringing capitalist relations to a halt, and the situation will have to be reassessed.

  • Guest - ShawnT

    XY, Swearingen is NOT ignorant about race relations here in the U.S. Swearingen worked for the FBI's racial unit which speclalizes in creating racial divides which destroys fragile alliances between ethnic groups. He is an expert. When he claims that Aoki can be the perfect undercover agent because of his ethnicity, that is an outright lie. A person who is not an expert in race relations can make that mistake, but not Swearingen. Swearingen IS an expert on race relations.

    This expertise on race relations by Swearingen and his lies about Aoki's ability as a perfect informant makes him the prime suspect for doing what he is accusing Aoki of doing. His background as an FBI agent working within the COINTELPRO program forever taints any expert witness testimony he may make. And not only did he work in the "racial squad", but Swearingen spent time living in the Jonestown commune which was an intelligence operation running a fake commune where over 900 people died, not from the popular media's version of them drinking the Kool-Aid, but from gunshots to the back and needle marks where poison was injected. Swearingen won't talk about that.

    So we're supposed to believe that Aoki was some sort super informant with the flimsiest of evidence when all the evidence points to Swearingen as one of the main players within the intelligence world? Don't you think that intelligence agents, the ones who are the real professionals, would give themselves a background that's legit? Of course he'd give up a little bit of info regarding COINTELPRO. That would give Swearingen enough plausible deniability in the minds of the average joe who will barely scratch the surface of the story. Most people will just read the headline and go with that. How exactly will an agent that's deeply involved in intelligence work leave with all the secrets? Do agents actually leave and become whistleblowers or do a few present a facade to cover their further work as an intelligence operative?

    I don't think anyone, including the articles debunking Rosenfeld has mentioned all the elements in and around the timing of this accusation. This centers in San Francisco where there are 2 Asian mayors. Ed Lee in SF and Jean Quan in Oakland which the left is in conflict with. This dovetails nicely with the suspicions of an "asian sell-out". Isn't that convenient? Then, we have the Occupy anniversary coming up and everyone is already suspicious of infiltrators and this just fans the flames. Again, isn't that convenient? And another race related issue with regards to the timing is how the black community in general is already suspicious of Asians because of their "model minority" status as a minority group that is priviledged in the same way that a house negro is. It drives a wedge between Asians and the black community which Aoki just happens to be the number one figure people can rally around for black/asian political unity. The black community will forever have in the backs of their minds that Asians might not be trustworthy.

    The fact that Aoki is Asian has everything to do with this accusation as Swearingen is himself part of the "racial squad" which specialized in creating divisions among race. That's what he did best and that's what him and his corporate cronies are doing right now.

  • Guest - X Y

    ShawnT - Ok, there certainly are some curious "coincidences" to ponder, all within the realm of possibility. But almost impossible to prove definitively, as with most conspiracy theories.

  • Guest - ShawnT

    This is called an investigation. It's not "conspiracy theory". Calling it "conspiracy theory" is a common tactic from the liars used to cast doubt on the evidence. Not calling you, X Y , liar, but you should not fall for that type of rhetoric designed to stop legitimate investigation. Considering the sources which are corporate media, FBI and the known misinformation surrounding this allegation towards Aoki, we should give Aoki a huge benefit of a doubt. If we can't defend a brother when he's being put down as part of a larger operation to discredit a successful movement, we're not worth a damn and any talk of revolution is nothing but hot air.

    Rosenfeld could've decided to keep this information under wraps until he has received more documents on Aoki from the FBI that he has already claims he requested. But Rosenfeld did not wait and decided to put forth his allegations with the flimsiest of evidence with a couple fabrications built-in to bolster his rickety construct. Why is that?

    When something is put out like this by elements of the FBI (alleged to be former FBI), it is political. That means the overall political landscape is taken in to account and how this allegation will affect a large swath of people. That's why people study sociology and politics and psychology and how that all interconnects with each other. People involved in and around the COINTELPRO of the 60s and 70s are still alive and they are still working to shift public opinion

    COINTELPRO is a conspiracy. COINTELPRO is NOT a theory. COINTELPRO is a fact. There were people behind that and they are still alive. What are they doing now? What have they learned since then? How have they polished up their skills and improved their ability to deceive? Have the "left" caught up with their game? All throughout recent history, the left has been put down with clandestine methods; that is, methods which require a bit of investigation to uncover because you are not supposed to find out. So the best way to counter that is to introduce the faulty idea of "conspiracy theory" which casts doubt on the investigation itself which prevents any investigation. Just don't go there because that's exactly where "they" want you.

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