Former Black Panther leaves legacy of activism and Third World solidarity
By Momo Chang
BERKELEY Richard Masato Aoki, a former member of the Black Panther
Party, died Sunday morning at his home in Berkeley from complications
from dialysis. He was 70.
Aoki is a legend in activist circles because of his role in the Black
Panthers as one of its first members and field marshal.
Born Richard Masato Aoki in 1938 in San Leandro, Aoki was uprooted
when his family was interned in a "concentration" camp in Topaz,
Utah, during World War II. The family resettled in West Oakland, by
then a mostly black neighborhood. He befriended Huey Newton and Bobby
Seale at Merritt College. When Newton and Seale founded the Black
Panther Party in October 1966 they created the Ten Point program and
showed their plans to Aoki, who transferred to UC Berkeley around that time.
"He was one consistent, principled person, who stood up and
understood the international necessity for human and community unity
in opposition to oppressors and exploiters," Seale said.
Aoki helped organize some of the Party's first rallies against police
brutality and gave them guns from his personal collection, used to
patrol the police in the party's early days, Seale said.
At UC Berkeley, he became a leader in the Third World Liberation
Front Strike in 1969, representing Asian Americans as a part of the
Asian American Political Alliance.
Lifelong friend Harvey Dong met Aoki in the '60s as students at Berkeley.
"He gave a very important dimension to the Asian-American movement in
terms of linking the struggles of the African-American community with
the Asian-American community," Dong said. Aoki later became one of
the first coordinators of Asian-American studies at UC Berkeley and
taught some of the early classes.
Before the Black Panthers, TWLF and AAPA, Aoki had begun his
political involvement as a member of the Socialist Workers Party and
the Vietnam Day Committee, an anti-war group, said Diane Fujino,
chair and associate professor of Asian-American studies at UC Santa
Barbara, who is writing a book on Aoki.
He is also remembered as a devoted son and caring friend. Aoki was
ill when he checked himself out of a hospital earlier this year to
take care of his mother, Toshiko Kaniye, who had a heart attack and
passed away on Jan. 20. His devotion to his mother stems from his
upbringing. His parents divorced when Aoki was young and he lived
with his father for a period. Kaniye later raised Richard Aoki and
brother David, who has since passed away, as a single mother working
in the laundry business for many years.
"Richard was very unique and marched to his own drummer," said Alze
Roberts, a friend and colleague who met Aoki in 1968 when they
started the Masters in Social Welfare program together, then worked
together as counselors at the Peralta colleges. "His personality was
a blend of the Asian and African-American cultures."
When the Ethnic Studies department was threatened with cuts in 1999
and students held a strike on campus, Aoki came back as one of the
speakers and supporters, 30 years after the original strike.
"His very presence animated the spirit of the strike and it brought
the important connection to the '69 strike itself," said Roberto
Hernandez, who was involved with the 1999 strike.
Last week, UC Berkeley held a commemoration of the 40th anniversary
of the 1969 strike, days before his death. During the events, which
Aoki was too ill to attend, his name was brought up many times,
according to Hernandez.
Ben Wang and Mike Cheng recall meeting him in 2002 as students at UC
Davis, eager to learn from the revolutionary leader.
"At the time, we were just a couple of young college punks and he
didn't have to give us the time of day," Wang said. The two
interviewed him for a student newspaper, where they talked for hours
and joked about making a documentary about Aoki.
Wang and Cheng did embark on the journey of making a documentary on
Aoki, and showed a rough cut of the film at the EastSide Cultural
Center in May 2008 to a packed house.
"We're on his shoulders now," Cheng said. "It's his time to rest and
it's time for us to keep it moving," referring to Aoki's struggle for justice.
According to friends, colleagues, and relatives, Aoki had a way of
staying connected to people. He would often copy news articles and
send them to friends, or bring up current events during dinner. If
there was a book he liked, he would buy multiple copies and give them
away, Cheng said. He said he has more than a dozen books that Aoki
gave to him over the last seven years.
Close friend Shoshana Arai said Aoki was able to maintain friendships
with many people even during times when groups disagreed or became
fractioned. "Richard is probably one of the most amazingly loyal
people I've ever met in my life," she said.
Aoki never married nor had children, in part because of his own
parents' divorce, according to cousin James Aoki, who reconnected
with his cousin in the last 8 years after moving back to Oakland.
Aoki is survived by cousins and extended family.
Activist and friend Yuri Kochiyama puts it most succinctly: "We're
all so saddened (by his death)."
Berkeley High school friend Oliver Petry, with wife Barbara, became
one of Aoki's caregivers in the last few years. Oliver remembers they
would go swimming at the Albany High School pool, which Aoki used as
physical therapy to recover from a stroke he had in 2005.
"He was a sweet guy, I absolutely loved him and I miss him
tremendously," Petry said.
Aoki was also devoted to the younger generation. After leaving UC
Berkeley, he worked in the Peralta College system for 25 years, as a
counselor, instructor and administrator, before retiring in 1994. He
was a counselor at Merritt College and College of Alameda.
A memorial and reception has been planned for Saturday, May 2 at a
location to be announced. In addition, there will be a ceremony and
car caravan on Sunday, May 3, leaving Lil Bobby Hutton Memorial Park
(Defremery Park, 1651 Adeline St. in Oakland). Final services will be
held at Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Ave. in Oakland.
Richard Aoki, 1938-2009
March 16, 2009
I just heard the news that Richard Aoki passed away Sunday at age
70*. Richard Aoki was one of the first members of the Black Panther
Party and a field marshal of the revolutionary group.
Aoki was born in San Leandro, CA. He and his family were interned
during WWII, and afterwards, resettled in West Oakland. Aoki
befriended Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale
at Merritt College in Oakland, where they all went to school. Richard
was also a student leader in the Third World Student Strike at UC
Berkeley in 1968 and a member of the Asian American Political Alliance.
I'm sure Richard will be missed by many friends and people in the
community. Feel free to post a message here. I am writing a full
obituary on him for the local paper, which I will link to later.
Here's an article I wrote about him on the 40th* anniversary of the
Black Panther Party. Here's an article that Neela Banerjee, also a
Hyphen editor, wrote about him in AsianWeek in 2001.