Last week, when I read Peter Richardson’s review of Seth Rosenfeld’s book on the FBI and Ronald Regan I was shocked to learn that Richard Aoki–a legend in Bay Area activist circles–may have been an FBI informant. I teach about Aoki and much of the history he participated in as part of my class, “All Power to the People.” I had the pleasure of meeting the man, who was both entertaining, compassionate, and a grand storyteller. It was shocking, to say the least.
This morning, as Rosenfeld’s own account of this story appears in the San Francisco Chronicle and, as a consequence, in multiple places all over my Facebook feed, I get to see a host of my friends go through the same shock. Some are defensive, some in denial, and others just shocked and confused.
Rosenfeld’s book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, is not about Aoki. As I understand it, the book is about the FBI’s counterinsurgency history in California and, most importantly, how Ronald Regan cooperated with and benefited from the FBI. Aoki is featured in the book because of his long Bay Area history inside of multiple organizations which were targeted and infiltrated by the Bureau.
Some in my circles are already questioning Rosenfeld’s research without having read his book or without considering his evidence. Others I know are questioning his motivations, made suspect by his selling of his book in the above article. That says a lot about Aoki’s memory, and his many fans in the world of comparative race & ethnic studies. Some small part of it also reveals some of the reflexive elitism inside of academia–doubt the journalist because he is not an academic. (As if academics do not have biases.) Most of it is really about coming to terms with the death of our movement heroes, especially when they represent communities not often represented in our mainstream understandings of these times.
Doubting the evidence will be, I suspect, a fruitless task. You can never know the “real truth” when it comes to these matters. Aoki is dead, and can not defend or clarify his own truth. At the same time, FBI records are about as good as it gets for this. While they can be misleading, too, maybe even wrong, they were not created to be sources of misinformation. The fact is, the FBI does not reveal these truths willingly or with any kind of openness.
Richardson’s review helps shed light. Rosenfeld is the first to use the only real evidence we have to accurately tell the story of the FBI, youth political movements, and Ronald Reagan–the FBI files themselves. He got access to these over many years and fleshed out the story with interviews and other evidence. His approach as a journalist (standards of evidence and raw tenacity in securing sources) seems more useful here than if he had been an academic.
But, of course, we should read it and then evaluate these questions.
What I really wanted to say has little to do with this burden of proof. It’s really about heroes. Last week, after my initial reaction of shock, I came to terms with the Aoki news for the benefit of my teaching. After all, it is a profoundly important “teachable moment.” The lesson, I think, is one I emphasize time and time again in my class–these times were complex and always defy easy categorization. On top of that, it is a powerful reminder of the human imperfection marking all of our pasts. We are messy, contradictory, imperfect beings. Our history is this, too. That isn’t bad, it just is.
Heroes can be useful to history because they inspire us to be better than we are. Figures like Aoki help us question our own times, our own lives, and (maybe) realign them for the better. Revelations of their contradictions and frailties don’t end this potential. For those ready to make a real change in their lives, reminders of the humanness of our heroes is necessary. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infidelity and sexism, Cesar Chavez’ dictatorial style and poor decision making, or whatever we discover about whoever, are necessary understandings for us to possess to put our hero worship in a real-world context.
What I mean to say is–perfection and purity are not prerequisites for change. If we make the standard of progress dependent on our romanticized memories of these real figures rather than on the historical realities they contained then we are doing “the movement” an injustice. We make it far less likely that we will ever make a better world through our own efforts because we will take ourselves out of the fight before we even begin.
Richard Aoki may have been an FBI informant. Richard Aoki may have also been a man who made meaningful change throughout his life and served as an inspiration to thousands. Deal with it.
EDIT: Below is a short video made on the story by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), for whom Rosenfeld works.
2 thoughts on “Hero Worship & Human History”
I’ve been following this story with interest, Tomas, especially since the CIR story was released. My takeaway is very much like yours at this point. We’ll see where it goes from here.
Not convinced. I’ve read the book, examined the evidence that Rosenfeld presents, and find it lacking. Don’t get me wrong, if Aoki was an informer for the FBI, we do have to deal with it. However, for someone who is writing about many of the “dirty tricks” that the FBI engaged in during this period of time, it is irresponsible to make such an accusation without firmer, more convincing proof. I’m not saying that Rosenfeld is facilitating a post-mortem case of snitch-jacketing (there’s no evidence for that) but merely on a scholarly level, highly problematic. Your larger point about hero worship is very important, however. But by the same token it’s important not to ignore the fact that–just like putting people on a pedastal–there are those who look to tear people down too (especially when they may have an axe to grind). So “hero worship and human history,” indeed; but also let’s not forget that interwoven into that universal human history, of the intricacies and idiosyncracies of the individual (and as someone who knew Aoki, he had plenty…what did he say in that interview, “layer upon layer”) that you point to in your post are the complexities of power and social struggle amongst collectivities. History itself is a battleground and Rosenfeld needs to be more responsible in his work. Check out Harvey’s response on the matter of Rosenfeld’s professional ethics / “gotcha interview”:
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: H Dong
Date: Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 10:18 AM
Subject: Request to remove my interview
To: seth rosenfeld
Cc: Robert Rosenthal
Dear Seth Rosenfeld,
Because I was not given forewarning that you would drop your evidence
on me that Richard Aoki was an alleged FBI informant, I request that
you and the Center for Investigative Journalism remove my interview
from your documentary. I was quite surprised and requested a set of
the documents to read before I could pass judgement. Before I could
even read the documents thoroughly, you launched a video that had my
initial shocked response.
I did not sign a release to allow my interview to be used in such manner.
I was under the impression that the interview would be a general one
related to the student movement at UC Berkeley including the Third
World Liberation Front Strike for Ethnic Studies in 1969 and not one
that would be directed towards my surprised response to your charges
against Richard Aoki. In all fairness, the role of the interviewer is
to be above board in what he wants from the person being interviewed.
After the interview, I requested a set of the FBI documents from you
which you delivered to me days prior to the video documentary release
(right before your book launch). If you wanted to know my response,
shouldn’t you have awaited a more informed response from me before the
release of this documentary? This sets an extremely horrible example
of journalistic practice and I believe that it is harmful to the
reputation of a progressive organization such as the Center for
Investigative Journalism and the journalist profession in general.
Prior to the launch of the video, you know that I had sent you an
email seriously questioning your reading that SF T2 was Richard Aoki
when in fact the document itself can be read otherwise. That the name
for SF T2 was redacted and “(Richard Matsui Aoki) is placed adjacent
to the redacted space. And that under the informant column, SF T-2’s
name was again redacted and the corresponding file name was
“Characterization of RICHARD M. AOKI”. To me this was not clear
evidence that SF T2 was Richard Aoki. The only two areas where SF T2
provided information was information “about” Richard Aoki–his
position in Black Panther Party leadership and the revolutionary books
he read; and that he quit the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) in 1967.
I had also made a request for transcripts from the interviews you had
with retired FBI agent Burney Threadgill who passed away in 2005 and
can not longer be interviewed. I have not received the transcripts but
only heard a few lines in the video with Threadgill’s voice. The
second retired FBI agent Wes Swearingen only gave an opinion that Aoki
fits the profile of an informant. It rubbed me the wrong way when
Swearingen said Richard Aoki is Japanese who’s going to question that
he is an informant? I believe you can also look at it the other way
that he stands out more if he is Japanese and that informants would
want to blend in.
I too am interested in knowing the truth behind what occurred during
the period you write about but at the same time I feel that there were
serious problems in journalistic practices here. When you started your
book project I was under the impression that your practices would be
open and above board to your interview subjects but I guess that was
not the case.
I therefore request that you remove my interview from the above
mentioned documentary and all footage related to your work.
My August 18, 2012 email inquiry to Seth Rosenfeld.
I’m a bit perplexed by the use of term “characterization” on page
Aoki-1263. Based upon reading, I may have a different interpretation
of SF T-2.
It states: “A supplementary T symbol (SF T-2) was designated for
(RICHARD MATSUI AOKI) for the limited purpose of describing his
connections with the organization and characterizing him.”
On left side of sheet is column heading INFORMANTS: Identity of Sources.
Underneath that it states: “SF T-2 is (blank)
To the right side, is the corresponding column heading titled “File
To the right of informant “SF T-2”, on the “File Where Located” side,
is typed: “Characterization of RICHARD M. AOKI”
On page Aoki-1264, there is INFORMANT SF T-14 and the corresponding
“File Where Located” side is typed: “Characterizing of (blank) and
The question I have is that could it be possible that SF T-2 is
another person who is reporting on Richard Aoki under the file
“Characterization of RICHARD M. AOKI”?
I raise this because how the term “characterizing” was used for SF
T-14. It looks like SF T-14 was in charge of persons “(blank) and
More related questions: Can I get transcripts of the interviews with
Burney Threadgill and Richard Aoki? Could I get a recording? Also,
was Wes Swearingen interviewed or did he only sign a support
declaration for your FOIA lawsuit on (12/1/2011)?