A lot of people have already done this, but I had to give a shout out to the brother Richard Aoki, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. I got a chance to meet Richard a couple of years ago at a meeting for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, and he was still as fiery then as it appears he was back in the sixties. Rest in power, brother. All power to the people.
Steve Yip wrote a great piece commemorating Richard’s life, work and politics, that I’ve posted below (thanks, Kyle):
Richard Aoki – A Personal Remembrance.
It was with a stunning jolt that I received news of Richard Aoki’s passing last week when my daughter called to inform me of the news. Richard was an icon of the Asian American radical movement and played a role bringing forth many to confront the imperialist system. The following is a brief memorial of this brother who never compromised with this system.
Richard Aoki, a founder with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and a Field Marshal, of the Black Panther Party – and an OG of the Asian American radical movement, a leader the Asian American Political Alliance and of the 1969 Third World Liberation Front student strike at UC Berkeley – passed away on Sunday, March 15, 2009 after a period of ill health.
I first heard of Richard Aoki while in high school in Oakland, California just as the TWLF strike was breaking out. Heavily influenced by the boiling political cauldron brought forth by the rising anti-Vietnam war movement and the Black liberation movement – personified by the Black Panther Party – a group of Chinese-American and Japanese-American high school juniors from Oakland High School and Oakland Technical High School met to plan the first Asian-American student organization at Oakland High in 1968. Another fellow student’s older brother, also an Oakland High graduate, was active with AAPA at Berkeley, and through this student AAPA’s inspiring newspaper full of Asian Power and message of anti-imperialist struggle and solidarity resonated deeply with us.
We were radical and looking to change the world. We lived in Oakland, California – the heartbeat that gave rise to the Black Panther Party; and high schools and high school student like us were greatly influenced by the thrilling day-to-day events unfolding during this turbulent period of this country. Our first step was to assert our newly found, militant Asian American cultural and political identity. We had convinced Jim Vann, an African American science teacher, to be our faculty sponsor and advisor. Quite appreciative of our deep solidarity, and need to commune with the emerging movements at Berkeley, Mr. Vann rightly advised us to seek out a certain Richard Aoki in our travels to Berkeley. Richard, Mr. Vann assured us, would see to it that we would be set up. And off we went… And we weren’t disappointed.
Fast forward to the University of California, Berkeley campus – Spring 1970. In the throes of the campus turmoil resulting from the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, which greatly expanded the Vietnam war into an Indochina war, and having been plucked from the community-based organizing AAPA members had initiated in Chinatown-Manilatown in San Francisco, I am deep within an important debate taking place within the Asian Studies Council, the ad hoc, anointed “leadership” body of the nascent Asian Studies Division of the Ethnic Studies Department at UC Berkeley (and by extension of the logic of the time, we were considered the representatives of the Asian movement and the campus Asian community), concessions by the state to the TWLF strike. We are debating the impending strike by predominately white clerical and support staff at the Berkeley campus. I am probably one of the younger members of the body and we are raising objections and resistance to this “white people’s strike.” Arguments are brought forth – well, these white people didn’t support the TWLF strike; so why support them. Others say, we won’t support any white people at all. They’re the enemy. One Trotskyist argued for “class” solidarity, which the majority of us reject immediately.
Things are looking like the Council is about to reject any support to the labor strike based on narrow, backward bourgeois nationalism. Richard gets up and and makes an argument. I can’t recall the exact way he argued it, but this I remember. He raises that we had an obligation to support the strike of the UC clerical and support staff, and that despite (narrow-minded) misgivings, the basis in which we had to support them was on the basis of striking against the empire, of “proletarian internationalism.”
Proletarian internationalism? I had heard of it uttered many times before. Coming from a progressive Chinese family who supported the People’s Republic of China and Mao’s revolution, I had resisted and rejected of what I had perceived to be my father’s tired stereotypical dogma of that day. I had heard my father lecturing Panthers who came through our little grocery store in West Oakland about Lenin, and was skeptical about all that. It wasn’t relevant to me. Rocking the house in the late 60’s was what I thought where things should be at. We were in a new day, shedding off the tired trends and retreads of yesterday, and in the throes of rocking the house – and it was Richard Aoki who stands up and argues for proletarian internationalism.
Let’s be very clear: In those days, internationalism in the revolutionary struggle was understood to be something akin to solidarity doled outwards. Internationalism – as conceived then – was something that you “extended” to other peoples and countries. Today I am a proletarian internationalist, a revolutionary communist – and the conception I have since arrived at differs greatly from the conception and understanding of proletarian internationalism then. Today, my understanding is informed by Bob Avakian’s theoretical framework that the whole world has to be your point of departure. You have to come at revolution in “your” country as your share of the world communist revolution.
But what Richard did on that day, in that meeting, will forever remain in my memory throughout the rest of my life. Then I was only a 19 year old who had been plucked off the UC Berkeley campus in his first quarter and thrown into an incredible experience as a radical community and youth organizer in the ghetto of Chinatown-Manilatown, and then thrust back into the dizzying, practical and theoretical, struggles on campus. I had been infected by the optimism and revolutionary hopes of the 60’s – fueled by the anti-war and youth movement, and infused by the militancy of the Black liberation struggle; and informed by the Red Guard movement of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Richard’s steadfast declaration there had to be solidarity across ethnic and national lines because we wanted to make revolution was an eye opener and forced me to consciously gravitate towards a more scientific understanding of revolution and communism.
My wife Janet and I have lived away from the Bay Area for several decades. In 1998 Richard attended my father’s memorial, and we welcomed him to our family’s memorial dinner. And whenever we return to the Bay Area to visit family, in addition to visits with Yuri Kochiyama, I always looked forward to having lunch or coffee with Richard. In the past two years, it increasingly became harder to hook up with Richard because of his illness, and I had to rely on third party information about what was going on with his health.
The turbulent 60’s were critical times for many of us seeking to make radical social change, and for this country. This era of political and cultural implosions helped bring forward someone like Richard Aoki who made a huge contribution in changing ideas and in changing the world. Richard Aoki was a seminal and revolutionary force in the Asian American political community, a bridge with the Black political movements, and someone who made an indelible mark on the struggle against oppression and exploitation. Even during the Sixties when people were in the trenches fighting for social justice and against imperialism, like for reparations for the Japanese American internment during WW2, Richard always fought against illusions when it came to reconciling with the system. Richard was the Man you talked to about new developments and to find out what was going on. When Bob Avakian’s memoir was published, Richard added his name to the Revolution Books Berkeley’s release party. And to the end he maintained his activity to support Mumia Abu-Jamal and other political prisoners.
Richard Mato Aoki inspired many to change the world and to emancipate humanity; and he never made peace with the system. His force and inspiration will never leave us.