By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
The first woman to become a member of the original Black Panther Party says she doubts recent allegations that Party leader Richard Aoki was an FBI informant.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Oakland jazz musician and political activist Tarika Lewis said in a Post interview this week.
“I met some suspicious people over the years who were affiliated with the Panther Party, people who we later learned caused disruptions and even deaths of members, but Richard Aoki definitely wasn’t one of them. I had faith in him,” she said.
According to a new book by investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld of the Bay Area’s Center for Investigative Reporting, Aoki was approached by FBI agents in the late 1950’s, when he was still a student at Berkeley High School, and asked to infiltrate and report on various left-wing Bay Area organizations.
Among the organizations Aoki reportedly informed on was the Black Panther Party, which he was affiliated with from its beginnings in North Oakland in 1966.
Aoki committed suicide in 2009 after a long illness.
In an interview with Rosenfield for the recently published book “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,” Aoki denied the allegation that he informed for the FBI.
She said she met Aoki in the late 1960s when she was still a student at Oakland Technical High School and was trying to get a job at the North Oakland poverty program center where both Aoki and Panther co-founder Bobby Seale worked.
“I always considered Richard one of the founders of the Party,” Lewis said. “Bobby used to say that he [Aoki] was there when the discussions took place that developed the Party’s 10-Point Program,” the founding document and principles of the Black Panther Party.
Lewis, who is credited with being the first woman to become a member of the Black Panther Party, said she was very familiar with many of the tactics of the FBI’s anti-radical counter-intelligence program of the 1960’s and 1970’s (COINTELPRO), in which informants in radical groups were recruited to encourage or even initiate dangerous or illegal activities for the purpose of reporting it back to federal and local police officials.
She said that Aoki’s activities during the long years she knew him were just the opposite.
“He was always checking the youngsters in the Party,” Lewis said. “If he didn’t like something you were doing, he’d tell you to your face. He was very outspoken. It was always constructive criticism. He was always trying to keep us out of trouble, instead of getting us into trouble.”
Lewis will be one of the presenters at an Aug. 9 event at the East Side Cultural Center in Oakland on “Richard Aoki, Black Panther & Asian American Activist: COINTELPRO Attacks & Reclaiming The Legacy.”
Lewis said that the long-planned event was originally designed to promote the upcoming book of Aoki biographer Diane Fujino, but said she was “sure” that the Rosenthal allegations would come up. Besides Lewis and Fujino, other speakers at the event will be Bobby Seale and Black Panther artist Emory Douglas.
The Sept. 9 event is being sponsored by Freedom Archives. For information go to http://www.freedomarchives.org/