BY DIANE C. FUJINO
Associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara
It’s been three years since Richard Aoki passed away. I was in Berkeley, California, that weekend in March 2009 celebrating the 40th anniversaries of UC Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front strike and the formation of the Asian American Political Alliance. Richard was perhaps the most prominent Asian American organizer of the Third World strike that gained ethnic studies, a leader of the early Asian American Movement, and the highest ranking non-Black in the Black Panther Party (BPP). Richard’s presence filled the various rooms, with talk of his “bad ass” militancy and courage, of his exploits against the police, and of his Black oratory style. But I also remember Richard’s vulnerability. That weekend, he was a few miles away in a hospital, struggling with kidney failure, heart problems, and other complications. On March 15, 2009, I was sitting in the San Francisco airport awaiting my flight home when I received the phone call that Richard had died at the age of 70.
Richard was both bigger than life and embedded in life. In his book Seize the Time, Bobby Seale, co-founder of the BPP, wrote about Richard Aoki as the “Japanese radical cat” who gave the BPP its first two guns to enable their police patrols. Even before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton started the BPP in 1966, they had regular political exchanges with Richard while sipping wine and eating cheese. Richard’s masculinity was shaped in the milieu of Cold War militarism, with the United States buttressing its troops to defend against fears of nuclear blowback and challenges to its newly acquired position as world leader. Richard eagerly joined the US Army while still in high school. He was part of the generation of young men compelled to military service via the Universal Military Training Act of 1951. But he had long been enthralled with guns and jumped at the chance to flex his muscles while defending the nation against known and unknown enemies.
While in the military reserves, he began a series of blue-collar jobs and accidentally gained a class consciousness through encounters with labor and socialist organizers and the downside of capitalist production. He was soon raising critiques of US imperialism, capitalism, and racism as his new enemies. He joined the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960s and helped found a campus group, the Socialist Discussion Club, at Merritt College in Oakland. It was at Merritt College that he began political exchanges on socialism and Black nationalism with the future co-founders of the BPP. In the BPP, Richard served as Captain of the tiny Berkeley branch and became a Field Marshall at large. His was a masculine warrior practice.
But Richard also embodied other aspects of an organizer, community builder, teacher, and academic counselor for working-class students of color. After obtaining his master’s degree in social welfare at UC Berkeley, he worked for most of his life as an academic counselor and part-time instructor at East Bay community colleges. Through his professional work, Richard found ways to express a complex masculinity, one that allowed him to nurture students and to fight against race and class inequalities, to do the mundane work of checking units and to physically protect colleagues and students from potential violence and the rulings of elite courtrooms, and to provide frontline counseling services and to serve as Academic Senate president creating and implementing policy decisions.
The Richard I remember was tough. He was “packing” at any moment. One day a parking lot attendant mistreated us and Richard almost went off on him. He was witty, widely read, and had mastered the power of words to create a political analysis or tell a funny joke. He was a gentleman of his generation, taking me out to eat as we conducted 10-hour interview marathons, but never asking me where I wanted to eat. He was thoughtful and generous, sending annual Christmas cards and giving away books to many and a cherished stuffed bear to my sons. He became the main familial caregiver to his elderly mother. He stuck to his working-class roots, living in a Spartanly furnished apartment and desiring to eat bacon, eggs oozing yellow yolk, and muffins overflowing with melted butter at his favorite University Café. Richard was disappointed when the diner closed, but I must confess to being relieved not to eat there every single day throughout our interviews. He loved to smoke, but quit when his health required it. He wasn’t so successful at ending his daily habit of downing 10 to 12 cans of Dr. Pepper, despite having diabetes.
I miss Richard—a man very human in his quirks and contradictions and very principled in his political commitments and vision for a radically transformed society.
Diane C. Fujino is associate professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is author of Samurai among Panthers: Richard Aoki on Race, Resistance, and a Paradoxical Life, out this month from U of MN Press.
“This book is a necessary kind of reading that illuminates my friend’s political revolutionary life’s meaning: Richard Aoki’s reverence.”
—Bobby Seale, founding Chairman and National Organizer of the Black Panther Party
“Richard Aoki straddled the worlds of ethnicity by the radical bridge he built through his engagement with an authentic, even saucy American radicalism. Diane C. Fujino unearths Richard’s story with sympathy and warmth, and in the process redeems the legacy of a remarkable American radical.”
—Vijay Prashad, author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History Of The Third World
UC Berkeley is hosting a launch event for Samurai among Panthers at 7PM on Saturday, April 21, 2012. Click here for more info.