richard aoki (1938-2009)

24Mar09

from:  insidebayarea

Former Black Panther leaves legacy of activism and Third World solidarity

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.

“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.

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