Countering Subversion: Black Panther Scholarship, Popular History, and the Richard Aoki Controversy

Donna Jean Murch, October 2012

Editor’s Note: The essay below heralds the launch of “Perspectives on Books,” a new Perspectives on History column devoted to the discussion of recent books of interest to historians. This column, which will appear in Perspectives Online as well, will focus on books that are not likely to be reviewed in the American Historical Review and will offer historians’ readings of works—historical or of interest to the history field—that are currently being debated, discussed, or have implications for the profession (read the detailed guidelines for this column).

We are launching this series with an essay by a historian on a book by an investigative journalist that has generated a number of headlines and controversies. Given the timely nature of this piece, we are publishing it first in Perspectives Online as a digital preprint.

Starting early Monday morning, August 20, with a barrage of texts, emails, and Facebook postings, friends and colleagues invited me into the growing storm over Seth Rosenfeld’s book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. The book debuted with an accusation that Richard Aoki, one of the most trusted soldiers of the Asian American, Third World, and Black Power movements, was an FBI informant. To me this debate was deeply meaningful because I, like Rosenfeld, had interviewed Aoki and knew him informally over the years I spent at the University of California, Berkeley, researching what ultimately became my book, Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party.

Rosenfeld’s claim, which he bases on a single FOIA document and his interviews of two people who are now deceased, has immense implications because of Richard Aoki’s central role in the Panthers’ program of armed self-defense. Shortly after founding the Black Panther Party (BPP), Bobby Seale and Huey Newton consulted Aoki, who supplied them with their first guns, including.357 Magnums, 22’s, and 9mm’s. If Rosenfeld’s claim is true, readers could logically infer that from its inception, the state guided the Black Panther Party’s hand as it embraced the gun and the broader principle of armed self-defense.

It would be premature to talk definitively about the truth or falsity of Rosenfeld’s allegations, and it is imperative that scholars, activists, journalists and historians organize to get the remaining documents declassified by the FBI. In order to substantively respond to these claims, we need more research and more declassification. Indeed, this is true far beyond the case of Richard Aoki and extends into the larger field of postwar U.S. history. Until researchers have greater access to the archival holdings of the FBI and other national security agencies, what we understand of our collective past remains provisional and fragmentary.

Thus Rosenfeld’s book is a poignant reminder that we simply do not know the full extent and scale of state surveillance and repression—not only of radical social movements of the 1960s, but of a much broader spectrum of groups, organizations, personalities, and institutions. As a historian of the Panthers, one of a whole generation of younger scholars documenting the history of the Black Power and Black Studies, I’ve seen multiple examples of how state infiltration and backlash profoundly shaped the course of radical social movements and became the dark chiaroscuro against which youth activism emerged and defined itself. This is true not only for the BPP and UC Berkeley, but also for a wide range of historic grassroots struggles from Kent State to Attica and from the American Indian Movement (AIM) to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The tremendously difficult, intricate, and expensive protocols of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, combined with the near impossibility of accessing state, local, and federal law-enforcement records, have made this work daunting and severely limited researchers’ ability to document the twilight worlds of repression and infiltration. These barriers are further complicated by the methodological problems of recovering the history of groups like the Panthers with aboveground institutions and underground wings engaged in clandestine activity. In this sense, I am very sympathetic to the particular dilemmas posed by this type of inquiry. The release of Subversives and the ensuing controversy provides a welcome occasion for public debate about the historical consequences of the domestic national security state.

That said, perhaps, what I find most unsettling about Rosenfeld’s book is its almost complete failure to engage most of the new research on the BPP. With the exception of a single monograph on violence and the Panthers, Rosenfeld employs little of the new scholarship in the Aoki section of the book, and instead relies heavily on an outdated journalistic account for background and two interviews and a single FOIA document for his most sensational finding. As a result, he makes sweeping claims that overreach his sources, like an exaggerated role for Aoki, who appears as the Asian Zauberer of East Bay radicalism, promoting violence at major historical junctures like the founding of the BPP and the Ethnic Studies Strike at Berkeley. Had Rosenfeld delved more carefully into the spate of recent books, dissertations, and edited collections on black radicalism, it would have been much harder to attribute the use of armed self-defense solely to his Svengali-like Aoki, who appears in the book replete with sunglasses at night, “slicked back hair,” “ghetto Patois,” and a menacing “swagger.” At the very least, pinning so much on Aoki is a big leap.

This is not a small point, or a mere turf battle between academic and popular history, because it has much larger implications for how Rosenfeld frames the role of Aoki as a decisive, corrupting influence. So how would incorporating more of the scholarly literature have changed his narrative? First, to truly assess how the state derailed these movements, we have to take the history of the groups and organizations seriously, and then explore how intervention changed their course. Ironically, had he followed this course, Rosenfeld might have found even more substantive evidence for exposing the role of state “subversion.” I argue, for example, in Living for the City, that it was precisely through the armed, military wing of the BPP that the state infiltrated the organization across different regions and time periods. However, to imply that the government invented or conjured armed self-defense, rather than using it to justify repression, is both historically inaccurate and misleading.

At a higher conceptual level, Rosenfeld’s reliance on outdated sources on the Panthers—which separate Black Power and the Panthers from the so-called white student movement and relegate the former to an unfortunate sideshow—prevents him from discussing precisely what federal law enforcement feared most besides the vaunted “red thread”: the convergence between the campus and the street; student protests and the urban rebellions; and perhaps most significantly, cross-racial alliances of black, white, Latino, and Asian youth. This history is a complex one, in which newfound access to higher education among a variety of groups, including people of color as well as working class whites like Mario Savio, transformed the university. It is surprising that a book on state subversion of UC Berkeley would not attend in greater detail to the Afro-American Association, Black Panther Party and Black/Ethnic Studies whose pre-histories stretch back into the early years of the decade. Despite Rosenfeld’s sensational claim about Aoki, his narrow focus on well known figures, like Clark Kerr and Mario Savio, is all the more puzzling given the FBI’s obsessive focus on black activists, who were integrally involved in campus politics.

As the recent controversy over Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X has demonstrated, history remains a profoundly ideological battleground. Too often, in popular history, academic scholarship is seen as irrelevant and, as a result, an individual figure like Aoki becomes a stand-in for more complex historical forces. This is not to say that there are not valuable lessons to be learned. I applaud Seth Rosenfeld for excavating the ties between Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover, and thereby delving into the role of counterintelligence not only in shaping the course of social movements, but also of national politics. Subversives offers an opportunity for researchers to push for greater transparency and access to FOIA and other law enforcement records. Indeed, much of the postwar history of American politics and society will remain incomplete without them. However, ignoring the history of the social movements and organizations themselves is as dubious as overlooking the state’s role in trying to subvert them.

Donna Murch is associate professor of history at Rutgers University, current director of the Black Atlantic, and former director of the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. She is the author of Living for the City: Migration, Race and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Currently, she is completing a book on crack cocaine in Los Angeles and is organizing, with Samuel K. Roberts (associate professor of history at Columbia University), a conference and symposium on the War on Drugs entitled “Challenging Punishment: Historicizing Race, Public Health, and the War on Drugs” in October 2013.