Video: The man who armed the Panthers

The man who helped arm the Black Panthers in the 1960s turns out to have been an FBI informant, according to FBI files uncovered by journalist Seth Rosenfeld.

A mysterious character who sported sunglasses even at night, Richard Aoki was a militant leader of the Third World strike and an activist with the Asian American Political Alliance at UC Berkeley.

The revelation about Aoki's role as an informant emerged from FBI files and an interview with the agent who says he recruited Aoki. Rosenfeld spent the last 30 years researching the history of the FBI and radicals in Berkeley for his new book, “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” publishing tomorrow.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Reporter Seth Rosenfeld: Well, perhaps more than anything else, the Black Panthers stood for the right of black people to defend themselves against white violence, even if it meant carrying weapons and using them in self-defense. But it also brought violent conflict with police, and by 1969, at least 28 Panthers had been killed in violent shootouts with police.

Not many people know that the Panthers got some of their first weapons from a man named Richard Aoki. And nobody knew that Aoki was an informant for the FBI. 

[On-screen text: In 1981, while he was a journalism student, Seth Rosenfeld began investigating the FBI’s activities in Berkeley during the 1960s.]

Reporter: A former FBI agent had heard that I was doing research, and he contacted me. His name was Burney Threadgill.

[On-screen text: Agent Threadgill noticed a name in one of the FBI documents Rosenfeld had obtained.]

Reporter: And he says, “I know that guy! Aoki was my informant! I developed him!”

[On-screen text: Conversation with Agent Threadgill, 2002]

Burney Threadgill (in recording): Oh yeah, he was a character. He said, “I don’t have any interest in communism.” I said, “Well, why don’t you just go to some of the meetings and tell me who’s there and what they talked about.”

So one thing led to another, and he became a real good informant.

Reporter: Well, I had never heard of Richard Aoki before Burney Threadgill told me about him. So I started to research who was Richard Aoki.

Aoki was a prominent activist in the San Francisco Bay Area during the ’60s.

Harvey Dong (lecturer and close friend of Aoki’s): Definitely, Richard was someone who looked at things politically. The impression I got was, basically, if you become his friend, he’s basically your friend for life. And he was like that with most people.

Reporter: He had been very involved in the Third World Liberation Front strike at Berkeley in 1969. He was one of the most militant leaders of that strike.

Aoki had also been involved in a group called the Asian American Political Alliance, one of the first Asian activist groups in the country.

He had also had a connection with the Black Panthers. Aoki was head of the Berkeley chapter of the Panthers and later became a field marshal in the Panthers, and it was known that he had given the Black Panthers guns.

[On-screen text: Curious to find out to what extent the FBI knew Aoki was arming the Black Panthers, Rosenfeld decided to talk to Aoki about it.]

Reporter: I knew from my research that he was a very smart and complex person. He had a fascinating history. His family was interned during World War II. He'd grown up in West Oakland in a very rough neighborhood, predominantly black and impoverished neighborhood. He was part of a gang; he was involved in a lot of petty crimes. He’d been co-valedictorian in his high school, and when he was in the Army, he had become a firearms expert.

So I was really curious to know about this other side of his life.

[On-screen text: Conversation with Richard Aoki, 2007]

Reporter (in recording): I'm wondering if you remember a guy named Burney Threadgill.

Richard Aoki (in recording): Burney Threadgill?

Reporter (in recording): Yeah.

Aoki (in recording): No, I don't think so.

Reporter (in recording): What I, I was told in my research, that during this period of time, you actually worked for the FBI.

Aoki (in recording): They tell you that?

Reporter (in recording): Burney told me that.

Aoki (in recording): He did?

Reporter (in recording): He did.

Aoki (in recording): Oh. That's interesting. (laughing)

Wes Swearingen (former FBI agent): Informants were used when I was in the FBI. An informant would report on the inner workings of an organization. They can keep you up to date of the thinking of the leadership of the organization, whether it is going this way or that way.

Someone like Aoki is perfect to be in a Black Panther Party, ’cause I understand he is Japanese. Hey, nobody is going to guess – he's in the Black Panther Party; nobody is going to guess that he might be an informant.

[On-screen text: According to Threadgill, Aoki began reporting on socialist groups around the time he graduated from high school.]

Reporter: Through his involvement in the socialist groups, Aoki established his political credentials and became known to other activists in the Bay Area.

Aoki was a student at Merritt College, and that’s where he met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who would go on to found the Black Panther Party.

The Panthers, at that time, were very concerned about police brutality in Oakland. They wanted to end police brutality. And they had an idea that one way to do that would be community patrols of the police.

In these community patrols, members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, if they saw police interacting with citizens …

Dong: There would be a Black Panther present with a camera and also with an unloaded shotgun. The goal of that was to be an eyewitness to prevent any possibility of police brutality.

Reporter: But they needed guns in order to do these patrols. So they went to Richard Aoki. 

Reporter (quoting from Bobby Seale’s memoir, “Seize the Time”): “We went to a Third World brother we knew, a Japanese radical cat. He had guns. … We told him 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.” 

And Aoki did. He provided not only weapons, but weapons training.

[On-screen text: But Rosenfeld still had an unanswered question: Was Aoki still an FBI informant while he was arming the Black Panthers?]

Reporter: Threadgill had given me a detailed account of how he recruited Aoki as an informant, but I wanted to know more.

[On-screen text: A 1967 FBI report Rosenfeld obtained on the Black Panther Party revealed that while Aoki was arming the Panthers, he was also informing for the FBI.]

Reporter: In reviewing the records, there was a list of informants. Most of their names were blacked out, but for some reason, Richard Aoki's name had not been blacked out. And he was listed in the report as Informant T-2.

Why was he arming the Panthers, and was the FBI involved in it?

Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI had a secret operation called COINTELPRO, an acronym for counterintelligence program.

Swearingen: Hoover was very anxious to go after the Black Panther Party. The goal of the FBI was to neutralize them.

Reporter: Techniques ranged from sending false letters or planting negative news stories to trying to foment violence between the Panthers and other groups. The FBI also used informants as part of its COINTELPRO operation.

[On-screen text: In 2009, Richard Aoki committed suicide at his Berkeley home. Rosenfeld wrote his obituary for the San Francisco Chronicle.]

Dong: When Richard passed away, he had in his apartment two uniforms neatly pressed in his apartment. And one uniform was the Black Panther uniform. The other uniform he had laid out and was neatly pressed was his Army uniform.

[On-screen text: Rosenfeld set out to learn the specifics of what Aoki did for the FBI.]

Reporter: The FBI had released about 1,900 pages on various organizations that Aoki had been involved with, but it claimed it had no files on Richard Aoki himself. This was very strange because Aoki was a major political activist.

Swearingen: Aoki wouldn't even have to be a member of the party. If he just knew Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, if he went out to lunch with them every day, they would have a main file. But to say they don’t have a main file is ludicrous.

Reporter: In my opinion, the FBI has a responsibility to the community to give a full accounting of what its relationship with Richard Aoki was, especially because Aoki played such an important role in arming the Black Panthers in the mid-’60s.

[On-screen text: Rosenfeld sued the FBI, arguing that more files on Aoki must exist.]

[Former Agent Swearingen provided a sworn statement that he believed Aoki was an informant and that the FBI was withholding information.]

Reporter (off-screen): One of the things I learned in my research is that Richard had actually worked for the FBI.

Dong: Oh. How was, how was that?

Reporter (off-screen): He never mentioned this to you?

Dong: No, uh uh.

I mean, that’s a big surprise to me in terms of – I don’t think I was ever – heard any information, you know, as far as, you know, him even talking to the FBI. Yeah. So that’s kind of a shocking thing for me to hear.

He pretty much compartmentalizes all his different parts of his life. He has friends from this period, friends from that period and then the Asian American movement and Third World strike period.

[On-screen text: In response to Rosenfeld’s lawsuit, the court ordered the FBI to release all records on Aoki it had been withholding.]

[The FBI has yet to release about 4,000 pages of files.]

[Bobby Seale and the FBI have refused to comment for this story.]

[In August 2012, 30 years after he began his project, Rosenfeld's book was published.]

[Conversation with Richard Aoki, 2007]

Reporter (in recording): Yeah. Am I wrong?

Aoki (in recording): I think you are.

Reporter (in recording): Yeah. So, would you say it’s untrue that you ever worked with the FBI or got paid by the FBI?

Aoki (in recording): I would say it.

Reporter (in recording): And I'm trying to understand the complexities about it, and I, and I think –

Aoki (in recording): It is complex.

Reporter (in recording): I believe it is, and –

Aoki (in recording): Layer upon layer.

 

Credits:
Reported by Seth Rosenfeld
Produced and edited by Ariane Wu
Videography by Josiah Hooper, Ariane Wu
Production assistant: Kerri Connolly

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