The following was first posted on the Kasama blog. Richard Aoki, who passed away Sunday at the age of 70, was an Japanese American revolutionary, former Field Marshall of the Black Panther Party, and a leader of the historic Third World Liberation Front strike at San Francisco State. According to Diane C. Fujino’s article “The Black Liberation Movement and Japanese American Activisim: The Radical Activism of Richard Aoki and Yuri Kochiyama” (the article is in the book Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political & Cultural Connections Between African Americans & Asian Americans, edited by Fred Ho), Aoki was “in the first couple of years of the BPP…the party member most well versed in Marxist-Leninist thought.” The video is from the trailer of a documentary about his life.
From Asia Week in May 3, 2001.
Back in the Day…
By Neela Banerjee
Richard Aoki walks up the stairs at the historic Café Med in Berkeley. He is wearing a blue leather jacket. He shakes my hand revolutionary-style, and starts telling stories. The 62-year-old Aoki — field marshal for the Black Panther Party, Third World Liberation Front leader, professor — still has eyes that burn bright from the fires of activism.
Only 4 years old when World War II broke out, Aoki and his family were interned in the Topaz, Utah internment camp. Four years later Aoki moved to West Oakland, where he grew up immersed in African American culture. After high school, Aoki spent eight years in the U.S. Army before coming back to Oakland to attend school. After spending some time at Merrit College, Aoki transferred to U.C. Berkeley and landed right in the middle of two of the biggest social movements of the 20th century.
“For me, it was a time of hot lead, cold steel and explosives,” Aoki says. “Because I found myself on the front lines by accident.”
Aoki had come back to Oakland for an education, saying that he wanted to collect the knowledge held at the University, and bring it back to the community where he thought it belonged.
Aoki was involved with the Black Panther Party from its inception, and was the only Asian American member to attain a formal leadership position.
“That I was a field marshal is one of the biggest secrets of the last 50 years,” Aoki says.
At Berkeley, Aoki became a member of the Asian American Political Alliance, a student organization that led the fight for ethnic studies. From 1968, Aoki was one of the leaders of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), the group who led a strike that resulted in the development of Berkeley’s ethnic studies department.
“The Third World Liberation Front strike at Berkeley was the longest — at three months — ugliest — thousands of dollars of cost to the university — and bloodiest — 168 of us arrested — in the history of the U.C. system,” Aoki says.
At the time, according to Aoki, the leadership of student activism was all or nothing, a reflection of the chaotic ’60s. “We needed fighters,” he adds, “people who would stand up for what they believed and fight physically.”
For a moment, Aoki’s jovial face darkens.
“Things I saw as a leader in the 1960s movements were traumatic, even for a war veteran,” Aoki says.
In a January 29, 1969 San Francisco Examiner photograph, Aoki is shown in his signature leather jacket and sunglasses, blocking Berkeley’s Sather Gate with a large, wooden stick in his hands. This was the first day of the strike and Aoki ended up in jail, charged with assault for putting two police officers in the hospital.
“I don’t regret it,” Aoki says. “We did what we had to do.”
What makes Aoki more than just a historical legend is his continuing activism. Not only has he been an active and vocal presence in the East Bay for the last 30 years, but he was also involved in Berkeley’s 1999 Third World Liberation Front Strike. Aoki served as both an advisor and a negotiator in the 1999 strike, which called for a more autonomous ethnic studies department.
But Aoki still believes in radicalism. He looks to the protests such as last year’s WTO frenzy in Seattle, and even the recent uprising in Cincinnati, as necessary steps to make a difference.
“Can students alone take over state power? I think so, but it rarely happens,” Aoki says. “But they can raise a lot of hell. University students are the bellwether of society. They are the future.”