Kuwasi Balagoon was a participant in the Black Liberation struggle from the 1960s until his death in prison in 1986. A member of the Black Panther Party and defendant in the infamous Panther 21 case, Balagoon went underground with the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Balagoon was unusual for his time in that he combined anarchism with Black nationalism, broke the rules of sexual and political conformity, took up arms against the white supremacist State—all the while never shying away from critiquing the movements's weaknesses. The first part of this book consists of contributions by those who knew or were touched by Balagoon; the second consists of court statements and essays by Balagoon himself, including several documents which have never been published before. The third section consists of excerpts from letters Balagoon wrote while in prison. A final section includes a historical essay by Akinyele Umoja and an extensive intergenerational roundtable discussion of the significance of Balagoon’s life and thoughts today.
About the Author
Kuwasi Balagoon was a defendant in the Panther 21 case in 1969 and a member of the Black Liberation Army. Captured and convicted of various crimes against the State, he spent much of the 1970s in prison, escaping twice. He died of an AIDS-related illness on December 13, 1986.
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Maroon: Kuwasi Balagoon and the Evolution of Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchism
On October 20, 1981, Black revolutionaries and their white radical allies engaged in an attempted "expropriation" of a Brink's armored truck in Rockland County, New York. That day Rockland police apprehended three white activists and one Black man. A manhunt ensued, and on January 20, 1982, Black revolutionary Kuwasi Balagoon was apprehended in New York City. The alliance of Black and white radicals captured were part of a radical formation called the Revolutionary Armed Task Force (RATF) under the leadership of the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Balagoon was the lone anarchist among the RATF defendants; others identified themselves as Muslims, revolutionary nationalists, and Marxist-Leninists. While Balagoon was closely aligned with and respected by his comrades in the BLA and RATF, his anarchist position set him apart ideologically.
Informants told the U.S. government investigators that his BLA and RATF comrades called Balagoon "Maroon." The term "Maroon" originates from enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere who escaped and formed rebel communities in remote areas away from slaveholding society. Balagoon earned this nickname due to his multiple escapes from incarceration. This article will explore how Balagoon was also an ideological and social "Maroon" in the context of the Black Liberation Movement and will examine his legacy in the contemporary struggle for self-determination and social justice.
From Donald Weems to Kuwasi Balagoon: The Development of a Revolutionary
Kuwasi Balagoon chronicles his early life and political development in the collective autobiography of New York Black Panther Party defendants titled Look for Me in the Whirlwind. He was born Donald Weems in the majority Black community of Lakeland in Prince George's County, Maryland, on December 22, 1946. Early experiences prepared young Donald Weems to become an activist who would militantly resist white supremacy and unjust authority.
He was also inspired by the militant movement led by Gloria Richardson in Cambridge in the Eastern Shore region of Maryland. Protests in Cambridge evolved into violence in 1963. Blacks organized sniper teams to defend nonviolent protesters from white supremacist violence. In June 1963, the National Guard was sent to Cambridge to quell the accelerating disturbance and was deployed there for a year. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the Justice Department were forced to intervene and negotiate a "treaty" between Richardson and the white power structure. Nation of Islam national spokesman Malcolm X Shabazz would mention the Cambridge movement as an example of developing "Black revolution" in his legendary speech "Message to the Grassroots." The militancy of the Cambridge Movement inspired and impressed the teenaged Weems.
Weems joined the U.S. Army after graduating from high school and was stationed in Germany after basic training. Like most Blacks in the army, he experienced racism and physical attacks from white officers and enlisted men. Weems believed Black soldiers were unjustly and disproportionately punished after altercations with whites. Black soldiers formed a clandestine association called "Da Legislators," in his words, "based on fucking up racists ... because we were going to make and enforce new laws that were fair." Donald prided himself in his ability to exact revenge on racist war soldiers. In London, he also connected with Africans and African descendants. He described the experience of socializing with African descendants from around the globe and other people of color in London as a "natural tonic," which motivated him to ground himself in Black consciousness and culture. He stopped "processing" his hair, wore a more natural hairstyle, and also "became more committed to Black Liberation." He was honorably discharged in 1967, after three years serving primarily in Germany.
After his discharge and return home to Lakeland, Weems ultimately moved to New York City, where his sister Diane lived. In New York, he involved himself in rent strikes and was eventually hired as a tenant organizer for the Community Council on Housing (CCH). The principal leader and spokesman of the CCH was Harlem rent strike organizer Jesse Gray. Gray used the rhetoric of militant Black nationalism to recruit lieutenants for his activist campaigns. He once told a Harlem audience that he needed "one hundred Black revolutionaries ready to die." Gray exhorted:
There is only one thing that can correct the situation and that's guerrilla warfare. ... [A]ll you Black people that have been in the armed services and know anything about guerrilla warfare should come to the aid of our people. If we must die, let us die scientifically!
Like many of his generation, Weems was ready to join an uncompromising movement for Black freedom and human rights. He joined Gray in protesting the conditions in New York housing, particularly the infestation of rats in public housing. In 1967, Gray, Weems, his sister Diane, and two other tenant activists were arrested for disorderly conduct in Washington, DC, where, unannounced and uninvited, they attended a session of Congress and brought a cage of rats to the assembly to highlight urban housing conditions. Due to the protests, the CCH lost its funding and Gray his ability to pay his organizers.
After Weems left CCH, he participated in the Central Harlem Committee for Self-Defense in solidarity with student protests at Columbia University. The Committee brought food and water to students who occupied buildings on the Columbia campus.
Weems would also associate himself with the Yoruba Temple in Harlem, organized by Nana Oserjiman Adefumi. The Detroit-born Adefumi was initiated in Cuba in the Lukumi rites of Yoruba origin. He saw the West African religious and cultural heritage as a means to cultural self-determination and peoplehood for African descendants in the United States. Explaining the nationalistic aims of the Yoruba Temple, Adefumi offered, "We must Africanize everything! Our names, our hats, our clothes, our clubs, our churches ... etc., etc., etc." Many of the youth of Weems's generation rejected their "slave" names and adopted African or Arabic names. Through his association with the Yoruba temple, Weems was renamed. He would be Donald Weems no more, adopting an Ewe day name, "Kuwasi," for a male born on Sunday, and the Yoruba name "Balagoon," meaning "warlord." He would later say that the name Kuwasi Balagoon "reflects what I am about and my origins."
Revolutionary Nationalism: Balagoon and the New York Black Panther Party
While Balagoon found his cultural bearing in the Yoruba Temple, he was attracted to the Black Power politics of revolutionary Black nationalism. The revolutionary Black nationalism of the Black Power movement was a political expression that argued that Black liberation would not be possible without the overthrow of the U.S. constitutional order and capitalist economic system. Revolutionary Black nationalism represented a confluence of ideological influences on the Black freedom movement. Significant numbers of Black militants of the 1960s Black Power movement did not see classical Marxism-Leninism as a framework they could identify with. Many were inspired by the influence of Marxism in the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions and other national liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, but were critical of the racism of the Old Left and sought a theoretical vehicle and self-definition that gave them ideological self-determination. A significant number of Black youth identified with the direct action of the Civil Rights Movement but were not committed to nonviolence as a way of life. Some Black radicals also identified with Black nationalism and rejected the integration and pro-assimilationist tendencies within the Civil Rights Movement. Young Black Power militants also sought a more insurgent political program than they observed from the Nation of Islam and fundamental Black nationalists. As a new ideological development in the Black freedom movement, the Revolutionary Black nationalism of the Black Power movement incorporated the Marxian critique of capitalism, the historic tradition of Black nationalism and self-determination, and the direct action approach that characterized the Civil Rights Movement.
In his own words, Balagoon "became a revolutionary and accepted the doctrine of nationalism as a response to the genocide practiced by the United States government." He began to read literature like the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams's book Negroes with Guns, and the newsletter The Crusader. SNCC leader and Black Power movement spokesman H. Rap Brown also inspired Balagoon. Brown was elevated to spokesman of SNCC in 1967. He became one of the most recognized voices of the Black Power movement and the rebellion of urban communities of the late 1960s. Balagoon also came to embrace the position that Black liberation would only come through "protracted guerrilla warfare."
Balagoon would actualize his revolutionary nationalist politics as a member of the Black Panther Party. Originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) had distinguished itself in Oakland, California, by its armed patrols to monitor police abuse and its armed demonstration at the California State Legislature in Sacramento on May 2, 1967. Balagoon first heard of the BPP after the October 28, 1967, shootout between BPP founder Huey Newton and one of his comrades and members of the Oakland Police Department. The shooting left Officer John Frey fatally wounded and Newton and Officer Herbert Heanes injured; Newton's companion fled the scene. Newton became a national hero to urban Black youth after the shootout. While Newton was wounded in the exchange, the thought that a militant Black Power activist actually survived a gun battle with white police automatically propelled him to legendary heights. After he was charged with Frey's murder, the defense of Newton and the call to "Free Huey" became a popular cause in Black Power and left circles.
The BPP came to New York in the summer of 1968. An alliance between the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) had attempted to create a Black Panther Party in New York in June 1966, but this grouping became dysfunctional due to internal conflict. The Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self-Defense became a national organization after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. The organization grew from a regional organization with chapters in the California Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Seattle to a national movement with thousands of members and supporters throughout the United States. Building a chapter in New York was one of the most important events of this development. The same month as Dr. King's assassination, national BPP Central Committee members Bobby Seale and Kathleen Cleaver came to New York and appointed eighteen-year-old SNCC member Joudon Ford as acting captain of defense of the BPP on the East Coast. Ford was soon joined by forty-year-old David Brothers to found the New York chapter of the BPP in Brooklyn in the summer of 1968. The national leadership sent Ron Pennywell, a trusted member of its cadre, to give direction to the New York chapter. Pennywell had reached the rank of captain in the BPP ranks. Pennywell was described as "a very grass-root brother, who would always ask the cadre for suggestions."
Lumumba Shakur would found the Harlem branch of the New York chapter. Shakur was the son of a Malcolm X Shabazz associate Saladin Shakur. The elder Shakur also served as a mentor and surrogate father for many members of the New York BPP chapter. Lumumba Shakur and his friend Sekou Odinga traveled to Oakland in 1968 to learn about the BPP. Shakur and Odinga met in prison in the early 1960s and embraced Islam and revolutionary nationalism through the teachings of Malcolm X and under the tutelage of Saladin Shakur, a member of Shabazz's Muslim Mosque Incorporated and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. After the assassination of Malcolm X, both young men attempted to find a revolutionary organization to replace the fledgling Organization of Afro-American Unity. They returned to meet Pennywell and Brothers in April 1968. Shakur was the section leader of Harlem, and Odinga was assigned to organize the Bronx with Bilal Sunni-Ali, who had introduced them to Pennywell. The New York chapter of the BPP would grow to be among the largest, if not the largest, in the organization, with approximately five hundred members.
When Balagoon found out the BPP was organizing in New York, he located the organization and ultimately joined. He had affinity with the BPP's ten-point program, which he believed was "community based." He also identified with the organization's appropriation of Mao Zedong's axiom that political power "comes from the barrel of a gun." The assertion of the necessity of armed struggle was not the only principle the BPP borrowed from Mao. Mao and the Chinese Revolution profoundly influenced the BPP, as it did other radical movements of the 1960s. The Chinese Communist Party and its Leninist model of democratic centralism was the model of organization for the BPP. The BPP's National Central Committee (NCC) was the highest decisionmaking body of the organization. The first NCC was concentrated in Oakland, with the overwhelming majority of the body composed of associates of BPP founder Huey Newton. The BPP also functioned as a paramilitary organization, with Newton, as Minister of Defense, being the principal leader and with military positions (e.g., Captain, Field Marshal, etc.) integrated into the organization's chain of command. The BPP system and style of governance would become a factor in Balagoon's attraction to antiauthoritarian politics.
Balagoon was able to engage in militant, grassroots organizing, combined with revolutionary ideology, as a member of the BPP in Harlem. In the Party he found comrades ready to participate in working with poor and oppressed Black communities around basic issues and willing to challenge the system with insurgent action. The New York City BPP engaged in grassroots organizing. In September 1968, BPP members participated in a community takeover of Lincoln Hospital. Lincoln was a "dilapidated and disinvested public hospital in the [predominately Black and Latino] South Bronx." The BPP would ultimately align itself with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa to take over and reform the Detox Program at Lincoln Hospital. New York Panther branches were also involved in tenant organizing and in fights for community control of the school system and of the police. BPP leaders, along with the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild, filed a lawsuit calling for decentralization of the police in October 1968. While Balagoon's previous experience as a tenant organizer helped him become a key member of the organization, he was attracted to the military wing of the BPP.
Repression and BPP Internal Contradictions: Catalyst Towards Antiauthoritarianism
Balagoon and New York BPP member Richard Harris were arrested in February 1969 on bank robbery charges in Newark, New Jersey. On April 2, 1969, less than one year after the founding of the New York chapter of the BPP, twenty-one Panther leaders and organizers (including Balagoon and Harris) were indicted, twelve arrested on conspiracy charges in a thirty-count indictment. This case became known as the case of the New York Panther 21. The charges included conspiracy to bomb the New York Botanical Gardens and police stations and to assassinate police officers. After their arrest, most of the defendants were released on a hundred thousand dollars bail. Balagoon was held without bail.
A central charge in the indictment was the accusation that on January 17, 1969, Balagoon and Odinga planned to ambush New York police but were interrupted by other officers coming on the scene. This charge was based on testimony from a nineteen-year-old BPP member Joan Bird, who, defense attorneys argued, had been beaten by police to elicit a statement to favor the prosecution. Bird's mother reported arriving at the police station and hearing her daughter screaming. She was startled when she was taken to her daughter, who had visibly been beaten, with a black eye, swollen lip, and bruises on her face.
Odinga escaped police and went underground on the day he was charged, after hearing of Bird's arrest and alleged torture. He escaped arrest on April 2, when his comrades were apprehended, fled the United States, and eventually received political asylum in Algeria. Balagoon was severed from the case of thirteen of those who had been arrested originally, to face charges in New Jersey. After over two years behind bars, the thirteen defendants were acquitted of all charges. It only took the jury one hour of deliberation to acquit. While this was a significant legal victory, the incarceration of key organizers and leaders of the New York BPP significantly crippled the organization's momentum and activities. After the acquittal of most of his comrades, Balagoon pleaded guilty to the charge that he and an unidentified person did attempt to shoot police officers, making him the only one of the twenty-one original defendants to be convicted. If these charges were true, Balagoon had committed himself to participate in offensive guerrilla warfare as early as 1969.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Soldier's Story"
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Table of Contents
Introduction to 2019 Edition 6
Introduction to the First Edition 8
B.L.A. Albert Nuh Washington 10
Kuwasi in the Twenty-First Century 11
Maroon: Kuwasi Balagoon and the Evolution of Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchism Akinyele Umoja 13
3 Haiku That Barely Suggest the Sparkle of Kuwasi Balagoon David Gilbert 46
Kuwasi: A Virtual Roundtable of Love and Reflection, Compiled and coordinated Matt Meyer Joan P. Gibbs Meg Starr featuring Sekou Odinga Bilal Sunni-Ali Kim Kit Holder Meg Starr Danielle Jasmine Amilcar Shabazz Ajamu Sankofa David Gilbert dequi kioni-sadiki Kai Lumumba Barrow Dhoruba Bin Wahad Ashanti Alston 47
Black Cats Named Kuwasi Kai Lumumba Barrow 62
Your honor 66
With no questions 67
Secretary watts 68
Spring comes 69
Big ben 70
I remember 73
Life is rough 74
The klan marched 75
Mother of pearl sky 76
Some solo piano or guitar 78
Filtered through the roof 79
We've got to 80
When the world is stale 82
Lock step 83
Kuwasi Speaks 89
In the Other Army 90
Statement at Preliminary Hearing 93
Brink's Trial Opening Statement 95
Brink's Trial Closing Statement 129
Brink's Trial Sentencing Statement 141
Destroy All Traitors 145
Statement to New Afrikan Freedom Fighters Day 148
Anarchy Can't Fight Alone 150
The Continuing Appeal of Anti-Imperialism 155
Why Isn't the Whole World Dancin'? 160
A Letter to Overthrow Newspaper 170
Letters from Prison 173
Kuwasi Remembered 199
In Memory of Kuwasi Balagoon, New Afrikan Freedom Fighter David Gilbert 201
New Afrikan People's Organization Memorial Statement 204
Statement Prisoners at Auburn 206
A Eulogy Sundiata Acoli 207
Born on Sunday David Gilbert 208
In Memory of Kuwasi Balagoon Marilyn Buck 210
Some Reflections on an Unpublished Poem Meg Starr 211
An Unpublished Poem Kuwasi Balagoon 213
Found and Shared 215
1 Where Do We Go From Here? 217
2 On Traitors 250
3 The Vocations of Warrior and Soldier 261
Kuwasi Balagoon Exercise Book 268