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AOKI - Personal Highlight at ECAASU 2011

Looking at the Film Screening of “AOKI” at ECAASU 2011

One of my favorite experiences at the ECAASU conference was viewing the documentary film Aoki, which covered the life of political activist Richard Aoki in the last five years of his life.

Despite being Japanese, he was heavily involved in the Black Panther party from the first stages of organizing in 1966. He was invited to join the party by Huey P. Newton himself because according to Newton, “the struggle for freedom, justice and equality transcends racial and ethnic boundaries.”

To understand how he became a part of this movement, the film went back further into his past. As a young boy Aoki was sent, along with his family, into a Japanese concentration camp in Utah near the Topaz Mountains. According to Diana Fujino, Aoki's biographer, there is an unspoken myth that the Japanese were quiet and compliant when sent to these camps but that was far from the case. In fact in the film Fujino also said that Aoki's view towards the United States government, and white people in general, was shaped in the concentration camp he was in.

Aoki's family went from the concentration camp in Topaz Utah to the streets of West Oakland. As “the baddest oriental to come out to West Oakland”, Aoki said that living there gave him the opportunity to be immersed in the culture, the good and the bad. He talked about the race and class struggle that plagued the town saying that, “class struggle had always been a part of Oakland's history”.

The story of this struggle would not have been fully told had he not talked about the police brutality and corruption that ran rampant on the streets of Oakland. Aoki even mentioned that there were rumors that Oakland police department recruited men from the deep South to come to Oakland to beat black people in the town whenever they could.

The film also talked about another critical influence on Aoki's path to political activism, the US Army. At 17, he followed the trend back then and enlisted. Although he was a very good soldier, hearing about the injustice in the Vietnam War from other soldiers questioned his ethics. When he decided to leave he was offered $3,500 in cash to stay in the military for 8 more years but he declined.

Aoki said “It was the best decision I ever made.”

After his brief stint in the military, Aoki became inspired by national liberation movements throughout the world, becoming more radical in thought. He went on to attend Merritt College in 1964, where he met Huey P Newton, Bobby Seale, Marvin X and other future members of the Black Panther party.

Seale provided a great insight into the environment that the party stemmed from. Once it was discovered that police were beating peaceful anti-war protestors the party was motivated to add a clause in their 10 point program that says “ people have the right to self defense.”

In fact when they first started they had a “police alert patrol” where they followed people that were brutalized by the police with their own guns and bailed them out. Seale said that people who wanted to be involved had to learn how to fight and were primarily taught by Aoki who was the most experienced. He also was the main source of donated weapons but no one knew where they came from

In addition to self defense, Kathleen Cleaver said in the film that one of the key beliefs of the party was about self determination, the right to control your own life. It was so important to the party that it was the first point in their ten-point program.

From the Black Panther party, Aoki became involved in the birth of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) and the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) in the fight for ethnic studies at the University of continued to fight in more indirect ways. This was by helping out low-income minority students in the college process and supporting their alternate forms of protest.

It was clear to see that throughout Aoki's life there was a great sense of self determination and the drive to help others achieve the same thing. He was one of many who paved the way for future leaders and revolutionaries to take a stand and make change in contemporary society. As he said in the film, “We didn't fail in the sixties; we just didn't finish the job.”