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Biography of Richard Aoki, the Asian-American Black Panther

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Biography of Richard Aoki, the Asian-American Black Panther

Richard Aoki Documentary

Nick James Music/Flickr.com

But the BPP wasn’t the only group Aoki joined. After transferring from Merritt College to UC Berkeley in 1966, Aoki played a key role in the Asian American Political Alliance. The organization supported the Black Panthers and opposed the war in Vietnam.

Aoki “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,” friend Harvey Dong told the Contra Costa Times.

In addition, the AAPA participated in local labor struggles on behalf of groups such as the Filipino Americans who worked in the agricultural fields. The group also reached out to other radical student groups on campus, including those that were Latino- and Native American-based such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), the Brown Berets and the Native American Student Association. The groups eventually united in the collective organization known as the Third World Council. The council wanted to create a Third World College, “an autonomous academic component of (UC Berkeley), whereby we could have classes that were relevant to our communities,” Aoki said, “whereby we could hire our own faculty, determine our own curriculum." In winter 1969, the council started the Third World Liberation Front Strike, which lasted an entire academic quarter—three months. Aoki estimated that 147 strikers were arrested. He himself spent time at the Berkeley City Jail for protesting. The strike ended when UC Berkeley agreed to create an Ethnic Studies Department. Aoki, who had recently completed enough graduates courses in social work to obtain a master’s degree, was among the first to teach Ethnic Studies courses at Berkeley.

Lifelong Teacher

In 1971, Aoki returned to Merritt College, a part of the Peralta Community College district, to teach. For 25 years, he served as a counselor, instructor and administrator in the Peralta district. His activity in the Black Panther Party waned as members were imprisoned, assassinated, forced into exile or expelled from the group. By the end of the 1970s, the party met its demise due to successful attempts by the FBI and other government agencies to neutralize revolutionary groups in the United States.

Although the Black Panther Party fell apart, Aoki remained politically active. When budget cuts at UC Berkeley placed the future of the Ethnic Studies department in jeopardy in 1999, Aoki returned to campus 30 years after he participated in the original strike to support student demonstrators who demanded that the program continue.

Inspired by his lifelong activism, two students named Ben Wang and Mike Cheng decided to make a documentary about the onetime Panther named “Aoki.” It debuted in 2009. Before his death on March 15 of that year, Aoki saw a rough cut of the film. Sadly, after suffering several health problems, including a stroke, a heart attack and failing kidneys, Aoki ended his life in 2009. He was 70.

Following his tragic death, fellow Panther Bobby Seale remembered Aoki fondly. Seale told the Contra Costa Times, Aoki “was one consistent, principled person, who stood up and understood the international necessity for human and community unity in opposition to oppressors and exploiters.”

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