In a major story with repercussions throughout the left and beyond, investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld broke the bombshell story that Richard Aoki, the only Asian-American to have a leadership role in the Black Panther Party, was an FBI informant.
The man who gave the Black Panther Party some of its first firearms and weapons training – which preceded fatal shootouts with Oakland police in the turbulent 1960s – was an undercover FBI informer, according to a former bureau agent and an FBI report.
As can be imagined, this allegation has produced schisms on the hard left, where the Black Panther Party is still iconic. However, it also raises serious questions about government informants creating risky, dangerous, or illegal situations that the government then exploits. Stories like these also always ratchet up the paranoia level among those involved, and thus some say could be deliberate disinformation – or not.
Retired FBI agent Wesley Swearingen, who was instrumental in vacating the unjust murder conviction of Black Panther member Geronimo Pratt and who has criticized unlawful FBI activities, reviewed relevant records and said, “I believe that Aoki was an informant.”
Another FBI agent, Burney Theadgill Jr., says he recruited Aoki in the late 1950’s. Aoki then infiltrated the Communist Party of the US, Socialist Worker’s Party, Third World Liberation Front, and the Black Panthers.
Long-time respected leftist Louis Proyect analyzes the Aoki brouhaha in one of his trademark thoughtful, lengthy articles. He concludes that Aoki probably was an informant and that his behavior was unpardonably reckless. Specifically, Aoki urged the Third World Liberation Front to break into National Guard armories to get weapons.
Frankly, it did not matter to me at this point whether Aoki was urging the theft of guns from the armories 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.
As Saul Alinsky once remarked about the Black Panthers, it is just idiocy to say that all power grows out of the barrel of a gun when the other side has all the guns. But this becomes Orwellian when it is a government informant who is saying it.