Richard Aoki: The Panther who Pushed for Internationalism

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Richard Aoki

Who was Richard Aoki? 

The enigmatic revolutionary Richard Aoki (1938-2009) served as the Minister of Education for the Black Panther Party and as a member of the Asian-American Political Alliance (AAPA). He worked to achieve ‘internationalism,’ a unified community founded on freedom, justice, and equality for all. After his death, FBI intelligence reports revealed that Aoki had been an informant for 16 years, but his true allegiances will forever remain a mystery. 

We at the Zero Theft Movement are working to eliminate the rigged parts of the U.S. economy so that all Americans can thrive. Aoki pushed for political, social, and economic reforms that benefited the many ‘others’ that in part made, and make, the U.S. the proverbial melting pot. In this article, we will take a closer look at this oft-unheralded activist and see how his work applies to the current U.S. economy.

Forced into the Internment Camp

Born in San Leandro, California, Richard Aoki was Sansei (a third-generation Japanese American). His grandparents, Issei (first generation), likely traveled to the U.S. during the mid-to-late 19th century when the Japanese government sanctioned immigration. Furthermore, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 resulted in a lack of cheap Asian labor, a lack American employers looked to the Japanese people to fill. 

World War II, however, supercharged existing anti-Asian sentiments (e.g. California Alien Land Laws and Asian Exclusion Act of 1924). Hatred particularly towards the Japanese, due to the Attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and their alliance with the Axis powers. Xenophobia was common, expected, perhaps even patriotic, and this was reinforced from the leader of the nation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A California residence
A California residence around 1923

The Issei and Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) had little to do with Pearl Harbor, but that did not matter to many. Japanese Americans, in essence, were regarded as enemies of the state. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, thus mandating individuals of Japanese origin to be placed in internment camps. A four-year-old Aoki, along with his family, first went to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, and then got placed in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. They did not have indoor plumbing or heating whatsoever.

The Topaz Internment Camp
The Topaz Internment Camp

Artist Henry Sugimoto, for example, spoke about his experiences living in one of the concentration camps: “Sometime [the train] stop[ped], you know, fifteen to twenty minutes to take fresh air-suppertime and in the desert, in middle of state. Already before we get out of train, army machine guns lined up towards us-not toward other side to protect us, but like enemy, pointed machine guns toward us.”

Unsurprisingly, observing and personally suffering the abuse against Japanese Americans shaped Aoki. Due to his ethnicity alone, his ancestral ties, he was treated as an enemy. He would never forget his time living in the internment camp in Topaz, Utah. 

A Neighborhood Education

Richard Aoki, his father, brother, and some extended family eventually left the camp and established themselves in West Oakland, California. Many African Americans had moved to the neighborhood during the Second Great Migration, bringing along their few belongings and heavy personal accounts of racism and lynchings from their time in the South.

While Aoki learned of past horrors, he realized that the migration did not end up being an escape from hate and violence. Oakland had its own deep systemic issues with racial profiling and police brutality. He witnessed first hand African Americans being attacked by police officers and considered just how much worse Black people had it in the South. 

In an interview with radio station KPFA, Aoki said “I began putting two and two together and saw that people of color in this country really get unequal treatment and aren’t presented with many opportunities for gainful employment.”

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Richard Aoki’s Army Service

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. The machine guns that had once been trained at his people, he now used in training. Maybe he found some way to personally reconcile the conflict or contradiction in his service to the U.S., the country that had mistreated Japanese Americans (along with other Asian American communities) for decades. Or perhaps he saw it as an opportunity for him to proudly represent Japanese Americans and prove his allegiance to the U.S.

Richard Aoki’s Army Service

He did comment, in a 2009 documentary about the Black Panther Party, that he “wanted to be a career soldier…wanted to be the very first Japanese-American general in the United States Army and work [his] way up through the ranks.”

Aoki, however, abandoned his aspirations when the Vietnam War escalated. He could not find sufficient justification for killing Vietnamese civilians. He received an honorable discharge from the army after serving for eight years and enrolled in Oakland’s Merritt Community College, the place where he’d help form the foundations of the Black Panther Party. 

The Formation of the Black Panther Party

At Merritt, Richard Aoki began to study the writings of Marx, Engles, and Lenin. He found kindred spirits in Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the two individuals who would soon found the Black Panther Party. They discussed racism, radicalism, and social change. 

When Newton and Seale had drafted the Black Panther 10 Point Program, the manifesto that underpinned the whole organization, they asked Aoki to read over the document. Soon after, the new founders invited Aoki to join the Black Panthers as the Minister of Education. 

Black Panther PartyIn the documentary linked above, Aoki recalled the discussion: “And I said, ‘Say what? I know you two are crazy, but are you colorblind? You know I’m not black.’ [Newton] said, ‘I know you’re not black, Richard, but I’m asking you to join because the struggle for freedom, justice and equality transcends racial and ethnic barriers.’”

The trio started to circulate the Ten-Point Program around Oakland and surveyed citizens to find out their biggest concern. Police brutality topped the list. This sparked one of the Panthers’ first initiatives, which they called “shotgun patrols.” Members followed the police, recording any arrests in case any foul play or undue violence occurred.

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Activism for Asian-American and Other Minority Communities 

After serving a short time as an active member of the Black Panther Party, Richard Aoki moved away from Oakland. He started to focus on both supporting Asian American activism and linking it to other race-related social justice movements.

Asian-American Political Alliance (AAPA)

He transferred from Merritt to University of California Berkeley a bit after the release of the Ten-Point Program and helped form the AAPA in 1968.  The organization aimed to unite all Asian Americans to collectively champion social and political change. 

On July 28, 1968, Aoki delivered the following speech outlining the organization’s mission at an AAPA rally in Berkeley:

“We Asian-Americans believe that American society has been, and still is, fundamentally a racist society, and that historically we have accommodated ourselves to this society in order to survive…We Asian-Americans support all non-white liberation movements and believe that all minorities in order to be truly liberated must have complete control over the political, economic, and social institutions within their respective communities. We unconditionally, support the struggles of the Afro-American people, the Chicanos, and the American Indians to attain freedom, justice, and equality…We are unconditionally against the war in Vietnam… In conclusion, I would like to add that the Asian American Political Alliance is not just another Sunday social club. We are an action-oriented group, and we will not just restrict our activities to merely ethnic issues, but to all issues that are of fundamental importance pertaining to the building of a new and a better world.”

Aoki often advocated for internationalism, the union of people from all cultures around the globe, and brought this approach to the AAPA. Rather than prioritizing justice for Asian Americans first, he pushed for universal freedom, justice, and equality. 

Third World Council

Richard Aoki brought together various resistance groups, including the AAPA, the Afro-American Student Union, the Mexican American Students Confederation, and the Native American Student Union, to create a collective organization known as the Third World Council. One of the collective’s major efforts centered around getting UC Berkeley to establish a ‘Third World College.’ Minority students would have unprecedented control over the faculty, director, or administrator and the curriculum.

Richard Aoki, Charles Brown, and Manuel Delgado,
Richard Aoki, Charles Brown, and Manuel Delgado, UC Berkeley circa 1968. Third World Liberation Front

To no surprise, UC Berkeley rejected the idea outright. This led the council to start a quarter-long, or three-month, protest referred to as the Third World Liberation Front Strike. Richard Aoki was reportedly arrested and jailed for protesting. 

UC Berkeley eventually found a compromise, establishing an ethnic studies department. Aoki had continued his education through graduate school and by this point had earned enough graduate courses in social work to achieve a master’s degree. He became one of the first professors to teach an ethnic studies courses at Berkeley. 

An Activist to the End

Perhaps when teaching ethnic studies courses at Berkeley, Richard Aoki realized that he had a passion for education. The president of Merritt College actually recruited Aoki in the early 1970s and persuaded the militant revolutionary to take up a textbook and chalk. 

He worked as a counselor, instructor, and administrator in the Peralta District for 25 years. The move brought him back in touch with the Black Panther Party, especially as the transition came right after the “Free Huey!” Movement. The organization was on its last legs, however, as members were stuck in prison, murdered, exiled, or expelled. The FBI, along with other government agencies, managed to snuff out revolutionary groups by the end of the decade.

Aoki soldiered on, still pushing for equality for minority groups. Perhaps his last crowning achievement was when he returned to Berkeley in 1999 to successfully prevent the end of the ethnic studies department due to budget cuts. 

After long battles with illness, Aoki eventually passed due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2009. NPR reports, “But before shooting himself, Aoki neatly laid out two sets of clothing: his freshly pressed Army uniform, and a black leather jacket, black trousers and beret — his uniform as a Black Panther.”

Who was Richard Aoki Really?

Three years after Aoki’s passing, journalist Seth Rosenfeld claimed the revolutionary was an FBI informant who had collected intel on the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Black Panther Party, the AAPA, along with countless other revolutionary groups. 

FBI intelligence reports show Aoki worked with the agency for 16 years, with various code numbers and code names. According to Rosenfeld in an article for Reveal, Aoki “named dozens of people as being members, attending political meetings, giving talks or writing unsigned articles. As a result, many were indexed in FBI files for future investigation. Some of the information he provided appears to have come from public sources, such as newspapers, leaflets or rallies. Other information seems innocuous. If his friends’ theory about his being radicalized is correct, Aoki could have been feeding the bureau relatively harmless information with more private information mixed in.”

Existing only in photographs and videos, eyes hidden behind dark shades, Aoki remains something of an enigma. Was he a revolutionary double bluffing the FBI? Or was he a man of the government, hiding khaki camo under his black leather jacket and trousers? 

Where Richard Aoki and the Zero Theft Movement Intersect

Richard Aoki, as well as the Black Panther Party, recognized that a lack of economic opportunities played a major part in holding back all minority groups. As you can see from slavery and the use of Asians for cheap labor, corrupt employers took advantage of minority workers to ultimately boost their profits. 

Economists Harriet Orcutt Duleep and Seth Sanders published a 2012 research paper, investigating what had caused the 1960 wage gap: “Our findings suggest that anti-Asian labor market discrimination was the predominate cause of the 1960 wage gap and that most of the 1960 to 1980 improvement in the relative wages of U.S.-born Asian men stemmed from a decline in anti-Asian discrimination. Although much of the policy focus of the civil rights era was directed at reducing discrimination against blacks, our findings suggest a prominent post-Civil Rights Act labor market effect for Asians.”

Perhaps in more ways than we realize, justice in all our communities is interconnected. When one succeeds, we can succeed as well. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. pushed for in his call for economic justice. Unfortunately, major parts of the U.S. economy could still be rigged by the corrupt among the wealthy. But it’s up to us to band together and fight back. 

That’s where the Zero Theft Movement enters the picture. 

We have created an independent voting platform where you and your fellow citizens work together to calculate the most accurate estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the United States. 

The public investigates potential problem areas, and everyone votes on whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas exist and start working on addressing them systematically. 

Only through hard evidence can we prove where the rigged parts of the economy exist and force Congress to hold all the bad actors accountable.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you…

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Beyond Richard Aoki…

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