Like many people I read shocking news today: Richard Aoki is alleged to have been an FBI informant. For many people who heard this news it was likely the first time they’d ever heard of Aoki and the story resonates more as yet another example of the degree to which counter insurgency, repression and every day surveillance was a normalized part of law enforcements reaction to the social movement of the 1960s and ’70s. (As many have pointed out, there are good reasons to doubt the accusations at this time)
But for me the news was different. It cut deep. I never met Aoki before his passing and I am far too young, too Canadian and too far east to have been active in the same circles as him. But Richard Aoki, along with Yuri Kochiyama, redefined the last three years of my life.
I research and write about Third World Marxism, the Asian American Movement and about the Asian American wing of the New Communist movement as the basis of my academic work. I’ve spent the last few years staring at microfilm of movement newspapers that featured interviews with Aoki. I’ve seen the film about his life. I’ve read the biography of him. I’ve lived among stacks of photocopies of pamphlets and journals that told the tale of kids with Mao’s writing in their hands and revolution on their minds. And these kids looked like me.
More so than any of my academic interest in people like Richard Aoki the fact that he looked like me is what mattered. Discovering Aoki, Kochiyama and Fred Ho and I Wor Kuen, the Red Guard, Wei Min She and Getting Together and Gidra changed my life. Not because it’s helped me spend three years not finishing a graduate degree but because it let me imagine myself and the collective history I share with people who look like me.
I needed Richard Aoki.
You see, I was left before I was yellow. I identified with the left (first as a naive social democrat and now with more realistic, more revolutionary politics) before I ever thought about my own position as the grandson of poor immigrants from a small village in mainland China. I thought about race and racial injustice, but I never really conceived of how my slanted eyes and my family history were at all connected with the radical tradition that I admired and so very much wanted to be a part of.
White folks have their Lenins and Trotskys and Luxemburgs, their Savios and Joe Hills and their thousands of kids tabling punk shows and university hallways. African Americans and Canadians had Fredrick Douglas, Du Bois, the Panthers and Malcolm X and the obscured history of Martin Luther King’s turn to socialism and anti-war politics. But to be 20, Asian and on the left meant to see no one who looked like me or who shared my experiences. Certainly no one in Halifax where I went to a high school with three other Asian kids and attended a university where there were two other Asian-Canadian kids in my 350 person freshman class.
Richard Aoki, I Wor Kuen and Yuri Kochiyama changed that for me. Aoki was an Asian American bad ass. He had guns. He wore sunglasses in every photo. He talked about revolution and street fights and he stood shoulder to shoulder with the Panthers. He dedicated his life to a set of causes that mean the world to me. All of this meant that I looked at Aoki – a man who made his name 40 years and thousands of kilometers distant from me – as a source of inspiration and imagination. For the first time I saw a politics that really struggled (and though ultimately failed) to reconcile questions of class with questions of race, but more importantly I saw someone who looked like me staring down cops and trying to help run survival programs in inner city slums.
The politics were important but so too were the aesthetics. The pictures I saw of Aoki and his comrades were some of the first pictures I had ever seen of really cool looking Asian-American young adults. No bowl cuts, no gangly awkwardness, no shirts with anime characters on them, no calculators. Sunglasses, horn-rimmed glasses, leather jackets, picket signs and hard as fuck facial expressions.
Up until then I had internalized the myth of the model minority – that Japanese, Korean and Chinese kids were compliant, striving for assimilation, passive, a-political at best and just looking to put our heads down to try to grind out a better future without making waves. I think I imagined that being a radical and being Chinese-Canadian were mutually exclusive. Discovering the radical elements of the Asian American movements destroyed that myth and that dualism for me. (The allegations that the bad-ass Asian American street fighter might have actually been a snitch is what makes this all so emotionally difficult: the most extreme version of the allegations portray Aoki as compliant with the state and willing to betrayed African American radicals. It’s a nightmare.)
Finally I could imagine myself as part of a rich history of the left in North America and that’s why I needed Richard Aoki and why I still do. I never felt welcome in the history of radicalism until I found him and his comrades.
Now that I know that his involvement in these movements is far more complicated than I (or anyone else) had initially thought I find myself trying to figure out what it means. Not what it means for the history of the movement (although it means I may have to revise the thesis that won’t die) or of the left, but what it means for me. Aoki has occupied such a central place in my imagination in recent years that even without knowing any details of what happened in the 1960s I want to simultaneously defend and disown Aoki.
And therein lies the interesting problem for me: I feel like I own his history and I feel like I need to defend him. But at least I feel like I have a history worth defending and worth owning. So regardless of whether or not Richard Aoki was working for the FBI he at least gave me a sense of ownership over a tiny sliver of the history of radicalism on this continent and he created ways in which I could imagine myself as being Asian American (or Canadian) within future struggles.
I still don’t know what to think about today’s news, but I know this: if the FBI hired Richard Aoki as part of their larger plan to make sure that the insurgency of the 1960s didn’t survive beyond that decade then we can at least rest assured that their plan blew up in their faces. If the allegations are true then they hired a man who inspired generations of activists to see the struggle of Asian Americans as linked to the struggle of their Black, Latino, Puerto Rican and poor white brothers and sisters. That inspiration and the inspiring history of a movement that Aoki was just one small part of live on, regardless of whether or not he ever worked for the FBI.
EDIT: While my thoughts are mostly personal, Scott Kushige breaks down the lack of real content in the allegations here. You need to read it.