by Carlos A. Rivera-Jones
Richard Aoki (1938-2009) was a Japanese-American revolutionary. He grew up in a WW2 internment camp, then became a street hoodlum and was forced to join the military to clear his criminal record. He later became connected with the Communist Party, the Socialist Worker’s Party, before ultimately becoming an influential leader in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Third World Liberation Front. These groups were critical components of the civil rights struggles in the late 1960s in the USA, and in particular the Bay Area of California, a hotbed of radicalism at the time.
Aoki’s military training, access to weapons, ethnic origin, and charisma, were critical components in the development of the practice of the Black Panthers, its views on internationalism, its views on armed struggle, and its approach to ethnic groups other than Black Americans. He helped shaped the Black Panthers into something more than just a black nationalist formation, but rather an anti-imperialist, internationalist formation.
Recently, he has been alleged to have been a long time informant of the FBI.
Aoki was a symbol of uncompromising anti-imperialist internationalism, a political line that remains as valid now as it was then, and remains equally dangerous to the State and to those that defend imperialism and oppose national liberation. On the right, the defense of white supremacy and empire is of importance, and in the left, self-ghettoization and the pacifist liberalism of identity politics find an advantage in the pushing of this myth of Aoki-as-agent. Even on the left that is not identitarian or pacifist there are already sectarian rumbles, full of the wounds of another era, that take advantage of the uncertainty to promote sectarian explanations for Aoki’s move from Trotskyism to a form of Third Worldism – a view that the revolutionary moment was focused on the peoples of the Third World.
To cast him in the light of a snitch shakes the very foundations of one of the most important, successful, and tragic examples of revolutionary organizing in the second half of the 20th century in the USA. It opens wounds of anti-Asian bigotry among Black revolutionaries, questions the internationalist instincts of the BPP, and in general pushes the ever present question of a security culture to the forefront. It also forces us to revisit COINTELPRO (a covert and often illegal program run by the FBI to disrupt radical movements), and its current incarnations as an existing force, rather than a painful memory of a long-gone era.
“Snitch Jacketing” is a classic counter-intelligence practice, in which people who are not informants are named as informants either via “leaks” or other actual informants, in order to de-stabilize the targeted individual or the targeted group. It is historically extremely effective, and hence has been used time and time again. Often the instincts of the movement are wrong: snitching is much less effective than the allergic reaction to its possibility as way to disrupt movements by causing them to self destruct. The presence of snitches is a normal part of revolutionary politics but it must not become the primary preoccupation of a movement over and above the political struggle.
Snitch jacketing, however, has been losing effectiveness because of the information society and also because it generated a culture within certain corners of the revolutionary movement in which the fear of informants is such that the State has no need to deploy it: groups perpetuate a paranoid style of politics and neutralize themselves.
The contemporary State hence has modified the age-old technique into something we can call Snitch Jackecting 2.0. It utilizes existing history to create a climate of panoptical paranoia, where people are scared into passive compliance by the state through the snitch jacketing of historical leaders. This climate of fear and self-isolation needs to be fed from time to time with fresh kills, to keep the tree of fear and uncertainty watered.
There is good reason to be skeptical of the claims against Aoki. The evidence against him is extremely thin and entirely from FBI sources, which are hardly credible on their own. Also, in spite of ample opportunity to do so, these allegations were never made public while he was alive to defend himself. That is highly suspect in itself – in the context of escalating mass resistances in the greater Bay Area of California, the political scene in which Aoki always stood out as an icon of a certain brand of cross-ethnic internationalism. As white supremacy suffers a demographic challenge with whites becoming a minority, this is of extreme historic importance: divide and conquer is a tool of power much older and powerful than snitch jacketing ever was.