Each Generation Must Discover Its Own History: Some Thoughts on the Richard Aoki Debate (Part 2)

Click here to read Part 1 of Scott Kurashige’s piece on Richard Aoki.

By Scott Kurashige


“Man who armed Black Panthers was FBI informant.” That’s the headline from Rosenfeld’s article on Aoki.

Now Rosenfeld is very careful to say that there’s no clear-cut evidence that Aoki did any of his work for the Panthers at the direction of the FBI and that he’s never found any document saying Aoki told the FBI he gave the Panthers guns. So he’s covered his ass in this regard. But that headline is clearly nudging readers (especially casual and lazy readers) to think that Aoki was actively working to undermine the Panthers when he armed them—and certainly all the initial chatter flying around the web centered on just that thought.

The mainstream media has been shocked by Rosenfeld’s would-be “discovery” that Richard Aoki supplied the Panthers with guns, as if he’s uncovered some previously mysterious figure who forces us to rethink the whole origin and history of the Panthers. But we have openly known for decades that Aoki supplied the Panthers with an initial stash of guns. The Panthers advocated armed self-defense in the age of intense police brutality and a time when most in the black community saw the cops as an occupying army. The Panthers inspired wide support from the community for their militant opposition to white supremacy AND their survival programs. Aoki was a militant and yes, armed, revolutionary activist, but the Panther leaders asked him to give them guns—not the other way around.

We also already knew that the FBI infiltrated and disrupted many civil rights, Black Power, and left wing groups in the era of J. Edgar Hoover. One tactic used was to have agent provocateurs spur radical groups to violence to justify the state using repression against it. The Panthers were heavily infiltrated and got into many violent clashes with the state that devastated their ranks and led to increased internal dissension. While that makes many activists inclined to believe reports exposing yet another informant, we should not let that bias our view of Rosenfeld’s specific claim about Aoki’s relationship to the Panthers.

Now, we need to continue to debate the effectiveness and consequences of the Panther’s initiation of armed self-defense patrols and their decision to confront the state—both done under the auspices of the Constitution—as well as the way they handled incredibly heightened contradictions when the state targeted them. But Rosenfeld has already concluded that arming themselves was a disastrous move for the Panthers and set back the entire movement for social justice. Thus, in his view, Aoki’s supplying the Panthers with guns—something that has, rightly or wrongly, made him a militant folk hero among radicals—makes him immediately suspicious as a potential saboteur. He’s nudging us to connect the dots in order to strengthen his conspiracy theory.

However, the insinuation that Aoki gave Huey Newton and Bobby Seale guns at the direction of the FBI does not make sense—at least not based on the evidence provided at this point. Aoki met Huey and Bobby at Merritt College before the Panthers were founded and helped lead them in study of revolutionary theory. Are we to believe that Aoki helped raise the political consciousness of Newton and Seale, so they would then found a revolutionary party, so he could then arm the party, so that the party could then become a target of COINTELPRO, so that Reagan could benefit by making “silent majority” appeals for law and order AND that Richard Aoki would make sure he kept up the charade by posing as a dedicated and committed activist for the rest of his life?  Someone should ask Rosenfeld if he thinks this Manchurian Candidate scenario is plausible—otherwise the misleading aspect of the headline should be corrected and Rosenfeld needs to admit that the circumstantial evidence goes almost entirely against his argument.

What Rosenfeld does conclude is that—regardless of whether Aoki did so at the FBI’s direction—Aoki’s militancy and distribution of arms influenced the Panthers and helped lead to their downfall. He takes Aoki’s role within the Panthers out of context and takes the Panthers advocacy of armed self-defense out the historical context of the late 1960s. Why does he do this? Primarily out of ignorance, but it’s a willful form of ignorance.

As I’ll explain below, most of the book does not concern Aoki or the Panthers—other aspects of the book are discussed and researched to a far greater degree. So Rosenfeld drew media attention to the Aoki narrative not because it’s central to his book but because it was the most sensational sound bite he could use to draw attention to himself ahead of the book release. Of course, this is standard marketing practice for a corporate book publisher trying to maximize profits. But let’s be clear that the mainstream has never heard of Aoki before and doesn’t really care—except perhaps on a local level in the Bay Area—about him as an individual or icon. The story is circulating because of the specific (and largely negative) role the image of the “Black Panthers” plays in mainstream America.

Whenever you hear the “Black Panthers” discussed in the mainstream media, you should be suspicious right away. The Panthers are a fascinating, complex, and contradictory historical entity. But in the mainstream media and mainstream politics, they are almost always a simplified symbol of Black Power—and to most white middle-class people (liberal and conservative) Black Power recalls a terrible time of urban rebellions, when black militants were burning down cities and forcing whites to flee to the suburbs. It’s all part of racist fantasy history: the reality is that whites were fleeing cities for decades, even when whites held urban political power, because capitalists were moving jobs to the suburbs and it was easier to build all-white neighborhoods in newly established suburban tracts. Then, of course, urban rebellions and Black Power militancy only erupted after years of nonviolent resistance and legislative lobbying proved inadequate to overcome white hostility, capitalist maneuvering, and liberal arrogance in the quest for equality.

Whenever certain Americans want to revel in their backwardness and ignorance, they bring to mind the bogeyman of Black Power to remind themselves that they need brutally racist cops, racial segregation, and gated communities to maintain law and order. Whereas movement organizers use history to expose patterns of oppression, these white populists use a warped sense of history to promote this notion of white victimhood. They remind us that America was seriously threatened by “Black Panthers” and that this legacy is still with us.

So whenever a black activist gets into trouble with the cops and the behavior of law enforcement comes under scrutiny—e.g. Mumia Abu-Jamal or Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, (the former H. Rap Brown)—the media will identify them as “Black Panthers,” even if in the case of these individuals (and Angela Davis), the Panthers are only a very small piece of their histories and far overshadowed by other involvements. That’s why CNN’s 2002 story on Rap Brown was headlined “Ex-Black Panther convicted of murder.” Because calling him the “ex-Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer”—even if that’s what he’s most historically known for—just wouldn’t have the desired effect.

And the big thing is that the Panther bogeyman never goes away. The Tea Party is up in arms today about Eric Holder because they say he won’t prosecute bogus charges of voter intimidation of whites committed in 2008 by—you guessed it—the Black Panther Party. Yes, folks, they want us to believe the (new) Panthers swung the 2008 election to make sure we have an evil Muslim as president. Of course, if that’s true then it makes sense for the right wing to pass Voter ID laws to disenfranchise poor people and people of color, right? As Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha!”

Whatever Rosenfeld’s own political sympathies, the marketing strategy he adopted for the book is to present a sensational story linked to the Panthers, when in fact most of his own research and strongest claims are on things not directly connected to the Panthers. Again, that’s par for the course for corporate media and publishing. But it shouldn’t be standard practice for the nonprofit and ostensibly social justice-minded Committee for Investigative Reporting that gave Rosenfeld a platform. And though he doesn’t really claim to be a movement historian, folks should be very clear not to mistake Rosenfeld for one.

Rosenfeld’s Aoki story fuels the idea that the Panthers were not a serious group—that their core identity and program from its origin were shaped by an FBI informant. But the Panthers were deadly serious and deserve serious attention—they were neither a simplistic bogeyman nor idealized revolutionaries. They were part and parcel of a history that must be studied and understood in ways that Rosenfield has no desire to do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scott Kurashige has been a campus and community activist since the late 1980s, was based in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and has been primarily based in Detroit since 2000. He is the author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles and co-author with Grace Lee Boggs of The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. He is also director of the Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies Program and a professor of American Culture and History at the University of Michigan.

Check back tomorrow for Scott’s third and final part on the Richard Aoki debate.

[Photo courtesy of here.]

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