Kuwasi Balagoon: On Lineage
There are blanks in spaces where one can find lineage within the margins of history. Not blood lineage, but historical lineage. Conveniently, people who have a limited scope, or who center white straight radical history, treat movements, struggle, and categories as static. It feels akin to withdrawal—like cranial pressure after a hangover, to think of a memory and a history as conversation that gets foggy when you try to keep track of details and events. Stopping, picking up, excusing oneself, silence, and unfortunately false memories, starts and ends. This is my attempt to build an altar in essay form in homage to an ancestor who has informed my own practice.
It’s late September and still summer in the city. Facing the fickleness of mortality in the midst of a cardinal heat wave, many are in search of designated cooling centers, water and shelter from the blistering sun. The temperatures lead me to forget about the “winter” that is the current political landscape. Gil Scott-Heron would call this the polarization of one season in America: Winter, politically, psychologically and philosophically, desolate. All of the feelers have been killed, betrayed or sent away. Everyone appears to embrace brutality, whether it’s the anthropocene, where poetry and theory are derived from others’ deaths, or for our enemies working with the state, rejoicing at the deaths of those deemed undesirable. It is at this time that I look at our revolutionary ancestors, and one comes to mind. As a Black queer communist, you are faced with multiple fights, among them: one with white leftists negotiating their own obsolescence and two, fighting with and through history to see yourself. It is like looking at the decaying wall of an Egyptian tomb, trying to make a sentence out of the missing forms present before you. An eroded nose, a sacred figure in stone. As a queer communist, I am reminded “Anarchy Can’t Fight Alone.”
There have been others before me that have provided biographical research about Kuwasi Balagoon, like the comrade Kazembe Balagun. I can’t help but guess that this too was an exercise to look for ancestors in a queer radical legacy. Kuwasi Balagoon was born on December 23, 1946 in Lakeland, Maryland. A Capricorn, already rooted in the earth, self-described “wild child,” he was the youngest of three, Balagun notes. The young Balagoon found himself growing in a world under the bitterness of segregation, the political reality of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., though he still found sweetness in maternal figures who surrounded him like his grandmother and elementary school teachers, Miss Reed and Miss Shepard. In his autobiography, Balagoon discusses his own political coming of age, stating:
I missed the march on Washington—by going to football practice—but later I read Malcolm’s comments on it and heard him rap twice on TV and his logic and stance took root in my mind. I had also heard Dr. King, but wasn’t particularly impressed. Pictures of Bull Connors, beating demonstrators, turned my stomach. And the events that took place at the rebellion in Cambridge, Maryland, showed a far better action for black people to take even then. A sure-enough riot jumped off at the then-new D.C. stadium on Thanksgiving Day. With a predominantly white high school football team playing Eastern, the brothers lost the game but didn’t lose the fight. The reports of the multiplicity of ass-whippings administered by black folks to white folks, for a change, turned me on. That to me was a moment for rejoicing. Many nights while walking home on the side of Route 1 or through the White community, College Park, a carload of crackers would ride past and throw bottles out of the window and shout, “Nigger!”
Balagoon’s radicalization continued further when an idol of his, Jimmy, his sister’s boyfriend, was accused of raping a white woman. For Balagoon, Jimmy was someone everyone dug, the epitome of cool, who taught him the joys of expropriation from the workplace. As Balagoon described him, “he played guitar, talked cool, and was like a big brother to me. And a beer partner of sorts.” After getting picked up for this accusation and placed into the infamous Marlboro County jail, Jimmy was eventually granted a trial. Balagoon describes the trial that bears a striking resemblance to how trials are still organized for Black and Brown people:
The jury went out for about fifteen minutes and came back with a guilty verdict, and Jimmy was sentenced to life. Jimmy had been living off tea and bread and spent the last four days at Marboro without anything to eat, and then was sent to Maryland State Pen in Baltimore. There’s only one good that came out of the whole thing: in November of ’68 he busted out that motherfucker and to this day, it’s my understanding that he’s still at large.
Given this stark contrast of what it means to grow up as a Black child, into a teen, and finally an adult, in a world where the odds are stacked against them, one has to wonder if moments of merciful love are the ones that galvanize us towards wanting to experience those of sweetness and compassion a little longer. I can’t help but hypothesize that Balagoon’s resistance towards structural and metaphysical bondage was formed by this tension and events that happened in his formative years.
Eventually, Balagoon found himself in the US Army, stationed in Germany. Balagoon witnessed the psychological terror that the US military inflicts on its own personnel. The stress of the terror caused “headaches from suppressing my anger, in order not to get a 208 [A 208 is discharge as an ‘undesirable’].” Coming from the Mason-Dixon line, into the belly of US empire, Balagoon found himself again, now as an adult. How do you defend yourself against racists who have a whole machine that backs them? Balagoon’s remedy for this was to create a self-defense group within his ranks. As he describes his group dubbed “De Legislators”:
We blacks who felt we were marked men, on whom designs had been made to take care of 208-style, looked at the injustices on the post, had a secret meeting, and formed an organization based on fucking up racists. We called ourselves De Legislators, because we were going to make and enforce new laws that were fair. We were De Judge, De Prosecutor, De Executioner, Hannibal, and De Prophet. We said we would go to jail for a reason and not the season. We would get 208, but would make the brass go gray and bawl and stay up a whole lot of nights giving it to us.
From then on, every time a racial situation appeared, we did. Every time white G.I.s ganged a black G.I., we moved to more than even the score. One at a time we would catch up with them and beat and stomp them so bad that helicopters would have to be used to take them to better hospitals than the ones in the area. We were not playing. We would plan things so that we could kick something off inside a club that would instantly turn into a riotous condition—once everything was in chaos it was impossible to pick us out. We then broke faces and bodies of whoever we planned to get, and made our escape. Afterward we would have critiques, just like in the end of war games; get our alibis together; and keep the whole thing under our hats.
Balagoon’s experience in the army introduces an interesting prospect not just to Balagoon, but to Black people globally. After the war, many Black soldiers gained a new skill that produced a problem for the post-WWII world: Black ex-armed forces had the knowledge of operating modern artillery and firearms. To compound this newfound knowledge and material skill, many ex-soldiers returned with a broader sense of what it means to be Black on a global scale, and after fighting a white man’s war, coming home realizing that you are to continue to be viewed as undesirable and grateful for crumbs. Or as Balagoon described it: “Relaxing, partying, learning and teaching and talking about what was happening with black people all over the world, was a natural tonic. Yeah baby, Revolutionary Cultural Exchange.” Many of Balagoon’s contemporaries, like Robert F. Williams, understood that matters of white supremacist violence from the state or the Klan had to be fought on their terms via self-defense, by any means necessary.
Balagoon returned to the US and lived with his sister, Dianne, in New York City. When Balagoon arrived there he quickly got involved in rent strikes, joined community councils on housing, volunteered at Project Rescue and the Central Harlem Committee for Self-Defense, which warned the community of “the monster on the hill”: Columbia University. At this time, Balagoon begins to notice themes of how capitalism and racism work together to oppress people. Balagoon discusses the journey of his political education, stating: “Rap Brown influenced me more than anybody except for Malcolm. And by that time I’d read Robert Williams’ book, Negroes with Guns, and The Crusaders, which I studied, along with Mao’s Red Book.” Balagoon continues to develop his political praxis inspired by figures like Huey P. Newton and the ten-point program produced by the Black Panther Party. Thus began Kuwasi Balagoon’s enrollment.
As Kazembe Balagun describes it:
In New York, the BPP came as a previous incarnation, the Black Panther Party for Political Power, fell apart, primarily due to interference by law enforcement. The BPP served as a catalyst for a new generation of Blacks, many of whom moved to New York from the South and the Caribbean. This is an important point missed by many, because, while many scholars and activists focus on the West Coast-East Coast divide in the BPP, in was not only a matter of personality but geography. Whereas Oakland faces Asia and Mexico, producing a mestizo radical politic, New York faces the Caribbean and Africa. As such, many of the transplants who come to New York carry with them what Winston James called a “majority consciousness.” This could be seen in the activism of Marcus Garvey down to the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, while many of the West Coast Panthers were going by Huey, Bobby, Eldridge, and Kathleen, the New York Panthers were changing their names to reflect this majority consciousness: Assata, Afeni, Zayd, Sundiata, and Lumumba. It was in this period that the young Weems became Kuwasi Balagoon, a name derived from the Yoruba people: Kuwasi meaning “Born on Sunday” and Balagoon meaning “warrior.”
1969 is the year when the state began to use repression more heavily, following the formation of the BPP. This culminated in the Panther 21 case on conspiracy charges, including a plot to blow up the Botanical Gardens, subways, and police precincts. Each of the Panther 21 defendants were held on $100,000 bond while Bobby Hutton, Mark Clark, and Fred Hampton were murdered by the police.
Rather than Balagoon considering himself relegated to the “inside” of a jail, he was a prisoner of war. And the war was a protracted one that was waged against colonial capitalist white supremacy. A war that could only be won by recognizing that the power lies in the people, and is always against the state. And so the New Afrikan queer anarchist revolutionary joined the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Balagoon’s involvement was crucial to the beginning of the formation of the BLA, which included breaking out of the Brooklyn Detention Center, liberating funds, and (rumour has it) taking part in the group that freed Assata Shakur from her New Jersey jail cell.
Balagoon’s life and activities are analogous to an ancient epic, one that reads like a saga of grandeur, of escaping many times from the prison’s grasp. In 1981, members of the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground emerged after the preceding state repression of the 1970s to create the Revolutionary Armed Task Force (RATF). The purpose of the group was to expropriate capital from capitalists that amassed wealth from the poor and oppressed, and instead use the money to fund an army and nationalist programs for Black youth. This then led to the Brinks robbery, which became the Brinks case, then the Brinks trial. Along with David Gilbert, Judy Clark, Sekou Odinga, Kathy Boudin, and Mutulu Shakur, Kuwasi Balagoon was among the POWs involved in the Brinks trial.
Each POW of the Brinks case penned a statement about their own experience after being captured by the state. Balagoon’s statement reads:
When I say we New Afrikan people are colonized, I mean that our lives socially, economically and politically, with the exception of our war of liberation, are controlled by other people, by Imperialist euro-americans. Imp- erialist euro-americans tell us where to live and under what conditions, euro-american invaders, colonizers, decide what laws we should obey and what jobs we will get. It’s no mystery why such a proportion of G.I.s, hospital workers, domestic workers, farm workers, or athletes are New Afrikans or why we are 10% of the population within the confines of the U.S. and 50% of the prison population. We suffer 50% unemployment. Likewise, there is no mystery why the Black Liberation Army (B.L.A.) was formed well over a decade ago and, despite captures and many instances of tortures and executions on the part of the U.S. government, has managed to continue to struggle and fill a lot of cops full of holes and continue to enjoy our people’s support, in spite of raids and threats by the U.S. government and outright political and military blunders on our part. Despite claims that our backs have been broken or that we were out of existence, we of the B.L.A. have continued to fight. Repression breeds resistance. There is no mystery how the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation—F.A.L.N.) continues, or how the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) continues in Ireland or the African National Congress continues to oppose America’s 51st State: South Africa. Or why, despite helicopters and bloodthirsty advisers, the guerillas in El Salvador continue to struggle and advance or why the Palestine Liberation Organization, despite the massive invasion of Lebanon, Israeli and American backed massacres and internal conflicts, struggle on. We have legitimate support from peoples who have been victimized and have a right to self-determination. We are human and nobody wants to live under or bring offspring into a confined atmosphere with an artificial sky. That is what it is all about.
Even while facing a sentence of seventy-five years to life in prison, Balagoon was relentless in his belief in commitment to internationalist armed struggle. And on top of that Balagoon’s self-confidence was unwavering because “I am in the habit of not completing sentences or waiting on parole or any of that nonsense but also because the State simply isn’t going to last seventy five or even fifty years.” Balagoon’s internationalism was a defining characteristic of his anarchism. He truly believed in political education, to always be on the side of the people, and to hold faith within a state formation. In “Anarchy Can’t Fight Alone,” he discusses his distrust of “communist states” (state capitalism) on a broadly internationalist scale. Balagoon details:
This is not to say that the people of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Zimbabwe or Cuba aren’t better off because of the struggles they endured. It is to say that the only way to make a dictatorship of the proletariat is to elevate everyone to being proletariat and deflate all the advantages of power that translate into the wills of a few dictating to the majority the possibility must be prevented of any individual or group of individuals being able to enforce their wills over any other individual’s private life or to extract social consequences for behavior preferences or ideas. Only an anarchist revolution has on its agenda to deal with these goals. This would seem to galvanize the working class, déclassé intellectuals, colonized third world nations and some members of the petty bourgeois and alright bourgeoisie. But this is not the case.
That China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Mozambique would build round a Marxist ideology to drive out invaders and rebuild feudal economies in the midst of western imperialism’s designs and efforts to reinvade and recolonize is a point that can be argued in the light of the international situation. It is one thing that they don’t back the will of the people as much as they chose allies in the East-West wars fought on the ground of the non-white colonies. It is another thing that Anarchy ceases to inflame or take the lead in combating fascism and imperialism here in North America with the history of the Wobblies, the Western Federation of Miners and other groups who have made their mark on history. It is a denial of our historic task, the betrayal of Anarchists who died resisting tyranny in the past, malingering in the face of horrible conditions. It is the theft of an option to the next generation and forfeiture of our own lives through faint hearts.
Balagoon’s observations of state capitalism were very astute. Beyond Marxist formations and the experience of armed struggle, it is necessary to be critical of formations that reconsolidated state power, that place power in the hands of hand-picked intellectuals and party members, rather than placing revolutionary power in the hands of the proletariat.
Despite these actions, rarely are Balagoon’s bisexuality and non-cis partners discussed, nor his love of porn. Nor his death of an AIDS-related illness. This part of Balagoon becomes illuminated in Judy Clark’s “Judy Clark on Kuwasi Balagoon,” where she places his lust for life and desires for freedom side by side, as equals. Clark ruminates on Balagoon’s death:
Some people might wish that Kuwasi died a more properly “revolutionary” death, in combat against the enemy or at least from a more respectable disease than AIDS. But AIDS is a scourge of the people, oppressed people. Its endemic because those who suffer its wrath are mainly the dispossessed, the hated, the marginalized. So the system has refused to address it and has punished its victims. Many of our communities have disowned our own in the face of it.
It is refreshing to see this side of a militant such as Balagoon, on the side of life, both in how he wanted to live, act and make love. Clark on Balagoon is a love letter to a fallen comrade. Reading Clarke’s piece after reading A Soldier’s Story struck me in the gut. For myself, finding Balagoon was like finding a long-lost love. It felt dizzying, love-filled and comforted me in the way that sensuality and radicality are not exclusive from each other. I found it compelling reading about his own understanding about his ability to move towards revolutionary violence can stem from the same place where “making love could mean anything, could mean playing footsies, as long as it was fun and with love.” From Balagoon’s writings, it is evident that he was the ultimate romantic, dutifully dedicated to a revolutionary life that involved a freedom from the bondage of pigs, landlords, bosses. A life without restriction, and one with possibilities of deliciousness. A warrior born on a Sunday who died in the bowels of the state during the Reagan administration, Balagoon reminds us that if we must die, it must be in light to guide others out of fascist recuperation. That living under the current conditions given to us is not enough, and is not even a fraction of the sensuousness that can be afforded only in a world that has undergone liberatory revolution. Kuwasi Balagoon reminds us that queerness can’t fight alone, anarchy can’t fight alone, and so it is on the side of revolution where these ways of life unite us in the way we live, love, and die. ⊱