Richard Aoki, Barry McGee, And That Berkeley SNITCH Graffiti

On the way to Haas today, I walked by the Berkeley Pacific Film Archive. On the side of the building’s drab gray wall, I saw the word “SNITCH” painted in bright red. “Gee,” I thought to myself. “The Berkeley community must really be taking this Richard Aoki thing hard.”

Richard Aoki is of course the famous Berkeley alum and civil rights activist who was also a prominent leader of the Black Panther Party. (I asked 20 of my classmates if they had ever heard of Aoki and all 20 of them said no.)

I guess Aoki’s not a household name for most Americans. If I hadn’t take classes in Asian American Studies minor at UCLA or written for Pacific Ties Newsmagazine, I doubt I’d recognize him either. Richard Aoki was one of those names that always surfaced when class discussions invariably shifted away from academics toward activism. Regardless of the topic or debate, Richard Aoki was always portrayed as an infallible and fearless organizer.

Militant leader, cherished teacher, possible FBI informant, French artist?

Last month, news broke that Aoki may have actually worked as an FBI informant during his time as a militant Black Panther leader. GASP! Let’s think about this for a minute. Aoki was responsible for arming and training the Black Panthers. This radical, whose loyalty was never in doubt, may have been an FBI informant? Wow.

The revelation created a lot of controversy regarding the FBI’s role in the creation and control of activist groups during the Civil Rights era. I’m less interested in that angle. Rather, I’d love to know Aoki’s motivations. If he really worked as an FBI informant, he must have been one conflicted mo-fo. At the very least, he was far more interesting and multi-dimensional than the existing literature portrays him. My inner history geek wishes it could interview Aoki or read his diaries to understand why he did what he did. More importantly, did Aoki ultimately come to believe in the cause? If so, when did he make the switch? Sadly, Aoki took his own life by gunshot in 2009.

(Some have argued that Aoki was not an informant and that the news is an elaborate ploy to create dissent among minority groups, create suspicion, and weaken activist solidarity. I don’t claim to know which perspective history will side with.)

Curiosity got the best of me on the way home I decided to find out why the word “SNITCH” had been painted on the side of the Pacific Film Archive. An exhibit dedicated to the complicated life of a controversial historical figure? Yeah, right.

As it turns out, the graffiti has absolutely nothing to do with Aoki. It’s just part of an urban art exhibit by Barry McGee. How very anti-climactic.

Wait a minute. This isn’t Richard Aoki.

Who’s Barry McGee? I had no idea. So I decided to search for his name on Google and read his Wikipedia article. Basically, McGee is a San Francisco native who’s sometimes known as Ray Fong and Twist. He’s famous for peppering big cities across the world with graffiti art and for popularizing a technique in which clashing images of various shapes sizes are clustered together (e.g. Windows 8 Metro UI). That’s an oversimplification, I suppose.

I’m just a little bummed out that the giant “SNITCH” graffiti is not an actual act of vandalism, but a somewhat misleading piece of advertising designed to generate interest and foot traffic for the Pacific Film Archive.

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