Thursday, April 30, 2009
Richard Aoki Remembered
Richard Aoki speaking at an Asian American Political Alliance reunion in 2008. Photo courtesy of Andre Nguyen.
Here is an obituary on activist and former Black Panther Richard Aoki, who passed away last Sunday at his home in Berkeley, CA. I learned a lot about Richard Aoki from writing this obituary though honestly it was very difficult, especially talking to his friends and colleagues who were grieving and still in shock.
There is little out there in the public sphere about Aoki, and perhaps that is why he is mostly known in activist circles. There are several articles, some excerpts from books, a radio interview, and video footage. The most popular image we have of him is of the stern Richard wearing a beret and shades. He was that -- the staunch revolutionary -- but so much more.
I was astonished to learn the many facets of Aoki. I knew he was fiercely loyal to his friends and to social justice causes. You could tell he loved his friends. For example, he spoke so highly of -- and defended -- Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. He was also wary of the media for the same reason, because of the way his friend was described in his later years before and after his death. Even though Aoki played a major role in many events, his most proud, according to close friends, was his role in the Black Panther Party.
Aoki was already sick when he checked himself out of the hospital to take care of his mom who had had a heart attack. And even though his own health wasn't good, he organized a funeral service for his mom and spoke at it upon her death. Just about a month after his mom's service, he passed.
Aoki remained politically active despite his ailments in recent years, including supporting Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to deploy to Iraq, and attending rallies with friends like activist Yuri Kochiyama. He also supported political prisoners. He made sure to attend Black Panther Party reunions and commemorative events, as well as events for the Asian American Political Alliance and other groups he had been involved in over the years.
He would speak with revolutionary fervor at some of these events. In the last several years, these speeches would wipe him out for several days afterwards but publicly, he never showed that his body was wearing down, according to friends.
His friends have put together a blog where people can share photos and memories. I was particularly struck by this entry by Kei Fischer. Here, she talks about how when Richard was in the hospital two weeks ago, he was worried about getting a letter of recommendation that he had written for her, even though he was so sick. "That small act alone truly characterized the giving, nurturing and self-less human being Richard was," she writes.