So we wake up on Monday, August 20 2012, to find out Richard Aoki is alleged to have been a long time informant of the FBI. A serious allegation, needless to say. Aoki’s military training, access to weapons, ethnic origin, and charisma, were critical components in the development of the practice of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, its views on internationalism, its views on armed struggle, and its approach to ethnic groups other than Black Americans.
To cast him in the light of a snitch shakes the very foundations of one of the most important, successful, and tragic examples of revolutionary organizing in the second half of the 20th century in the United States of America. It opens wounds of anti-Asian bigotry among Black revolutionaries, questions the internationalist instincts of the BPP, and in general pushes the ever present question of a security culture to the forefront. It also forces us to revisit COINTELPRO, and its current incantations as an existing force, rather than a painful memory of a long-gone era.
While there is much to be said, my intent in this brief note is to put forward some rather incomplete initial thoughts – while approaching what I feel and view as the most critical areas to evaluate.
Snitch Jacketing 2.0
“Snitch Jacketing” is a classic counter-intelligence practice, in which people who are not informants are named as informants either via “leaks” or via other actual informants, in order to de-stabilize the targetted individual or the targetted group. It is historically extremely effective, and hence has been used time and time again.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples in the western world was the Provisional Irish Republican Army Supergrass Affairs, where a number of lesser figures were accused and sometimes even executed of being informants, while the actual informants remained free. It was an terribly effective tactic: it paralyzed entire units of the PIRA and other groups, while leading to large scale arrests of dozens of activists and Volunteers.
Snitch jacketing, however, has been losing effectiveness because of the information society and also because it generated a culture within certain corners of the revolutionary movement in which the fear of informants is such, that the State has no need to deploy it: then groups themselves perpetuate a paranoid style of politics that neutralizes them.
The contemporary State hence has modified the age-old technique into something we can call Snitch Jackecting 2.0. It utilizes the existing history to create a panoptical paranoia on the target, and this needs to be fed from time to time with fresh kills, to keep the tree of fear and uncertainty watered.
Sure, there is a need for a security culture – but those who make an unaccountable claim to posses this truth are in fact playing into the Snitch Jacketing 2.0 game: the idea is to envelop and paralyze movements, and this is best done when movements are much more preocuppied about security than politics.
The reality is, we do not know if Richard Aoki was an informant. And the timing for this information to emerge now is highly suspect in the context of a global uprising, and the events in Anaheim. I can see a thread of critique from the right and from the State of what Aoki in the positive sense was a symbol of: uncompromising anti-imperialist internationalism. That is, a political line that remains as valid now as it was then, and remains equally dangerous to those in the State – and in the right and in the left – to whom anti-imperialism and internationalism are bad ideas. On the right, the defense of white supremacy and empire is of importance, and in the left, the identitarian self-ghettoization and the pacifist liberalism find an advantage in the pushing of this myth. Even on the left that is not identitarian or pacifist there are already sectarian rumbles, full of the wounds of another era, that take advatange of the uncertainty to promote sectarian explanations for Aoki’s move from Trotskyism to a form of Third Worldism.
We do not know it to be true. That is the main point to make at this point. Those who give credence to this information to further political points, or those who assume a superficial agnosticism to do the same are playing precisely into this game. In a sense, so am I – but I will claim that thise self-conciousness becomes a direct attack on this emerging form of Snitch Jacketing, and I put it forward on the hopes it helps minimize the impact of the information at hand.
But what if it is true?
This recalls the Malinovsky Affair from Bolshevik times. Roman Malinovsky was a leader of the Bolsheviks – a member of the Central Committee and leader of the Bolshevik group in the Duma, as well as a protege of V.I. Lenin. He was also an informant of the Czar’s secret service – and responsible for the exile and jailing, one by one, of all of the Bolshevik leadership between 1910-1914. Lenin, when confronted with this information, took it in stride: “If he is a provocateur, the police gained less from it than our Party did.”
He finally met his demise at the orders of Zinoviev, when he tried to rejoin the victorious Petrograd Soviet in 1918.
Aoki is dead. He can neither confirm nor deny this information – nor can we evaluate him as a living participant in the revolutionary movement, and much less provide some sort of justice.
We can, however, at the very least, judge as Lenin did, if the movement or the State gained more in this situation. I offer that the balance lies with the movement. His contributions – in practice and as a symbol, are much more important and central than any snitching he might or might not have done. This is an extremely important point to raise in breaking the encirclement of the counter-intelligence effort.
We do not know it to be true.
And we can also see – in a movement destroyed to a large extent by paranoia, snitch jacketing, and self-consuming inner-struggles in which accusing of snitching was a prime weapon, that often the instincts of the movement are wrong: snitching is much less effective than the allergic reaction to its possibility as way to disrupt movements. Thus, countless of innoncent people were branded as snitches – some of them in violent ways – who weren’t.
The emergence of the Great Rectification in the Communist Party of the Philippines comes to mind as an example of what goes wrong when this snitch jacketing gains a foothold: it nearly killed the movement from within. The CPP understood this before the fatal blow was delivered, but only did so after one of the most painful and self-destructive periods of its history. There are too many lessons there to illustrate – but it is a prime example of what is wrong in letting a normal part of revolutionary politics, which is the presence of snitches, become the primary preocupation of a movement over the political struggle.
It remains to be seen if these allegations are true or not. But what we can do now is reflect upon the historic effect of snitch jacketing, and put this allegation on that light. And if we take it to be true, to also but this in the context of the larger historic role. This is not a time for a simplistic perspective, but rather one informed by a nuanced and historical perspective on what in means to be a revolutionary in the USA today, and what it meant then.
Put simply, Richard Aoki is much more than a snitch, if he was one.
And thus, even if true, the allegations should be a footnote in his history. Not to mention, that in spite of ample opportunity to do so, these allegations were never made public while he was alive. That is highly suspect in itself – in the context of Anaheim, the Oakland Commune, and other mass resistances in the greater Bay Area of California, the political scene in which Aoiki always stood out as an icon of a certain brand of cross-ethnic internationalism. As white supremacy suffers a demographic challenge, as whites become a minority themselves, this is of extreme historic importance: divide and conquer is a tool of power much older and powerful than snitch jacketing ever was.
Lets not lose ourselves in the footnote, and forget the main text.