Old folks used to say beware of those who cry the longest and loudest at the funeral. There was also a rather unwritten law among radicals to be wary of the most militant of members.
The latter warning should have been heeded by the Black Panther Party. A recent investigative report disclosed that Richard Aoki, a Japanese American, noted for his fierce militancy in the BPP, was in fact an undercover FBI informant.
According to an article by Seth Rosenfeld on the Center for Investigative Reporting website, Aoki supplied the Panthers with arms at the same time he was informing on the group’s activities to the FBI.
Aoki was recruited by FBI Agent Burney Threadgill, Jr. in the late fifties when Aoki was graduating from Berkeley High School in California.
“He was my informant,” Threadgill said in an interview. “I developed him. He was one of the best sources we had.”
In FBI reports, Aoki was listed as an “informant” with “T-2” as his code number.
When Bobby Seale and Huey Newton was formulating their blueprint for struggle that would become the Party’s “ten point program,” three things were key in their design to patrol the police—a law book, a tape recorder, and a gun.
“It definitely had to be an armed situation, patrolling the police,” Seale wrote in his memoir The Lonely Rage (1978).
“We discovered Richard Ioke had some guns,” Seale continued, misspelling Aoki’s name. “Huey discussed the situation very objectively with Richard, who finally gave us a shotgun and a forty-five pistol. I took the pistol and Huey took the shotgun.”
Aoki was a consistent source of weapons and the late Hugh Pearson in his book The Shadow of the Panther (1994) notes that Aoki gave the Panthers a M-1 rifle and a 9mm pistol, “free of charge, after they convinced him that this is what a ‘real revolutionary’ would do.” Later he would provide them with more guns, Pearson added, giving them a .357 magnum and two more pistols.
There is no mention of Aoki in Newton’s memoir Revolutionary Suicide (1973-75). But there are long sections where he discusses the importance of maintaining thorough weapons care, possibly training received from Aoki and the success of the patrols. “With weapons in our hands, we were no longer their subjects but their equals,” Newton wrote of the police.
Aoki supplied the guns and the training of the Panthers that led to many of the deadly shootouts between the Panthers and the police in which the Panthers usually had the most casualties.
None of Aoki’s work with the FBI has, up to this time, been reported and much of it needs to be fully substantiated. A step in this direction will probably come with the publication of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, slated to hit the shelves in a few days.
Even so, Aoki never admitted to being an informant, and when asked if he was his only reply to an interviewer was “Oh.”
Whatever comes forth from the book, Aoki cannot confirm or deny since he committed suicide in 2009, the same year a feature-length documentary was released with him as the subject.
At the memorial service for him, Seale hailed Aoki as a “fearless leader and servant of the people.” But when told of Aoki’s days as an informant, Seale expressed surprise but had no further comment.