David Gilbert, December 15th 1986
When i think of Kuwasi i think of the word “heart”. No, i got that backwards. When the term “heart” comes up i think of Kuwasi because he epitomized it so beautifully – but of course he also lived and expressed many other fine qualities. “Heart” has two distinct meanings: one is great courage; the other is great generosity. Kuwasi was an outstanding example of both.
People at this commemoration are aware of Kuwasi’s core identity as a New Afrikan Freedom Fighter. His political activity began as a tenant organizer in Harlem. (He was, incidentally, also part of the Harlem contingent who, bringing food and water, broke the right-wing blockade around we students who were holding buildings during the Columbia Strike of 1968.) Kuwasi was part of the landmark Panther 21 case of 1969. In the same period he was imprisoned for expropriations in New Jersey; he escaped a few years later.
It takes both daring and creativity to escape from prison. Kuwasi did that and a whole lot more: 3½ months later, and on very short notice, he went to free a comrade being taken to a funeral under armed guard. Kuwasi was hit by a bullet, yet kept moving, and he almost made it too. With a little more time for planning and preparation, he would have been successful. His second escape, about five years later, from a maximum security prison was even more impressive. That time he stayed free and active until his capture subsequent to the Nyack expropriation of October 20th, 1981.
After each of these prison escapes in the ’70s, he was able to quickly establish himself in a secure and comfortable personal situation. He didn’t go back for his comrade or reconnect with that unit of the B.L.A. out of any personal desperation. It was purely a commitment to the struggle, to New Afrikan liberation, to freedom for all oppressed people.
When one hears of such courage and sacrifice (and here we have mentioned only a small portion of his deeds) the stereotyped image is of a stern or fierce character, perhaps with an inclination for martyrdom. But nothing could be further from Kuwasi Balagoon the person. Actually, he had an affecting ebullience, a zest for the pleasures of life, a keen appreciation for the culture and creativity of the people who lived in the ghettos and barrios. Politically he placed great stress on the need for his movement (and other revolutionary movements as well) to respond directly to the concrete needs of the people in the communities: he opposed anything he saw as hierarchy that stifled initiative from below.
Kuwasi was a poet; or, to put it better, he was a revolutionary who wrote fine poetry. He had read his poetry in the same clubs as the “Last Poets” way back when they were forming, and he continued to write poems in prison. Here at Auburn, he worked on drawings late at night, and listened to tapes of both punk rock and jazz with great enthusiasm.
Being in prison population with Kuwasi for this past year, i got to see an additional dimension of his humanity. Prison can be depressing, especially in a period of low political consciousness. Kuwasi had a truly unique ability to make people laugh and to create a sense of community. Most jailhouse humor is either bleak or sexist. Kuwasi was able to create a healthier community humor where we’d be laughing at the authorities, or at our own foibles and pretensions. Sometimes in the yard, i could hear his whole work-out crew in uproarious laughter from 50 yards away. His great spirit is not just my personal observation. Something like 100 guys have come up to tell me about it in the two days since Kuwasi died.
When a guy comes into prison with such a high-powered case and reputation – well, often the terms are what favors other prisoners can do for him. With Kuwasi it was just the opposite. i’ve never seen anybody do so much for other people. i actually felt that he was accommodating to a fault. We couldn’t have a half hour political discussion in the yard without about 10 or 15 guys coming up to him to ask him for some help or favor. He always used his day off from work – even when he should have been catching up on rest – to do “personal baking” which he gave away to innumerable persons over the many weeks; he shared his commissary purchase with whomever asked. Kuwasi ran a very substantial and worthwhile political education class for several months.
Kuwasi Balagoon, a bold New Afrikan Warrior with a giant heart: While we all mourn together there is something particular about the situation here at Auburn prison that puts the meaning of his life in sharp relief. The prison guards, who never had the courage to face him straight up in his life, have been obviously gloating over his death. Meanwhile, literally hundreds of prisoners are mourning him (particularly prisoners of his nation, but also a wide range of prisoners who are stand-up against state authority). Both sets of reactions, in their opposite ways, are tributes to Kuwasi and how he led his life. The loss is immeasurable; what he gave us is even more.