Since my arrest in Philadelphia during the RNC I have been trying to read more about people who have lived and endured incredible sacrifices in hopes of contributing to revolutionary social change. It has really allowed me to put my situation in perspective, and gain a lot of strength to keep pushing onward. I had begun to read both a biography on Durutti and Harriet Tubman when we received a copy of “A Soldier’s Story”. Having already anticipated it after reading some of Kuwasi Balagoon’s writings before I was excited to have a chance to read more. My thirst was not quenched & by the end I just wanted to read more.
Trying to uncover the history of the Black Liberation Army is not an easy task. Since there is no single book to my knowledge that attempts a history of the BLA, you have to piece together a collage of sources to get a good idea of who they were. Solidarity Publishing has provided us with an important part of that collage.
Kuwasi Balagoon: A Soldier’s Story. Writings by a revolutionary New Afrikan anarchist is an excellent compilation of his writings. In addition to his articles, statements, and poetry it also contains several writings about and in tribute to him, and excerpts from some of his letters.
Kuwasi Balagoon was “a staunch advocate of New Afrikan liberation and eradication of capitalism,” as well as an “anarchist and a participant in armed struggle.” He was also bisexual and refused to compromise despite pressure from others in the movement.
While in the US Army he formed “a clandestine direct action group called De Legislators, which set out to punish racist soldiers with beatings or worse.” When he came back to North America he became a tenant organizer in Harlem. Later he became “involved with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Balagoon was one of the Panther 21 whom the government attempted (unsuccessfully) to frame in 1969.”
When the Black Panther Party fell apart Kuwasi Balagoon joined the faction that became the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The Black Liberation Army was a formation dedicated to armed struggle for the liberation of New Afrika. New Afrika “is the name applied by one sector of the Black liberation movement to the colonized nation of Black people in the U.S., which they say has a rightful claim to the land of five states in the South”. The BLA engaged in expropriations from banks and armored cars to support community survival programs, attacked killer cops, and rescued freedom fighters from prison. The BLA unit Balagoon was a part of was responsible for the liberation of Assata Shakur from prison.
Kuwasi Balagoon escaped from prison twice, and was eventually captured after the 1981 Nyack Brinks expropriation attempt. During his trial he remained adamant that he was a prisoner of war and the U.S. had no jurisdiction to try him. In 1983 he was convicted of robbery and murder and sentenced to 75 years in jail. He died in prison as a result of AIDS in 1986.
A Soldier’s Story begins with a short introduction. The first section is written by other folks in remembrance of Kuwasi Balagoon. One of Balagoon’s codefendants,
David Gilbert, currently himself a political prisoner, writes:
“When one hears of such courage and sacrifice the stereotyped image is of a stern or fierce character, perhaps with an inclination toward 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 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.”
J. Sakai, author of Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat, contributes a short piece on the Brink’s trial. He ends his piece with some comments on Balagoon’s death:
“Of course being Kuwasi, he wouldn’t check out of life without a controversy. His death from AIDS in 1986 disrupted patriarchal stereotypes and hypocrisy. One political prisoner who knew him said after his death: “Some people might wish that Kuwasi died a more properly ‘revolutionary’ death… But AIDS is a scourge of the people, oppressed people… Did Kuwasi get AIDS from his transvestite lover, who he persisted to love and insisted on trusting despite pressures from the rest of us?… He didn’t live by the rules. Not society’s or christianity’s or islam’s or feminism’s or the New Afrikan Independence Movement’s. But he did have principles and integrity and honesty.””
Through the rest of the booklet you see plenty of evidence.
Many people may wonder why someone would take up arms and face decades in prison for social change. Kuwasi Balagoon’s statements in court should give an excellent explanation. Refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court he used his opening, closing, and sentencing statements to address larger issues – without regard for himself. He blends history and current events, and effortlessly connects race, class, gender, and nation in a practical and powerful way. By the end of his closing statement I was almost in tears.
“I am not going to tell you that the Black Liberation Army’s ranks are made up of saints; it is clear that there have been imposters among us who have sold out and are worse than the enemies history has pitted us against. And I am not going to tell you that there’s no virtue among money couriers or policemen. However, I will tell you now and forever that New Afrikan People have a right to self-determination and that that is more important than the lives of Paige, Brown, and O’Grady or Balagoon, Gilbert, and Clark. And it’s gonna cost more lives and be worth every life it costs, because the destiny of over thirty million people and coming generation’s rights to land and independence is priceless.”
A thread that runs through many of his articles and letters is the need for revolutionaries, especially anarchists, to break out of their elitist comfort zone. In “Anarchy Can’t Fight Alone” Balagoon describes his introduction and interest in nationalism and then anarchism. He then criticizes anarchists for not doing the necessary organizing to make anarchism a reality.
“We permit people of other ideologies to define Anarchy rather than bring our views to the masses and provide models to show the contrary. We permit corporations to not only lay off workers and to threaten the balance of workers while cutting their salaries, but to poison the air and water to boot. We permit the police, Klan and Nazis to terrorize whatever sector of the population they wish without repaying them back in kind. In short, by not engaging in mass organizing and delivering war to the oppressors we become anarchists in name only.”
“It is beside the point whether Black, Puerto Rican, Native America, and Chicano-Mexicano people endorse nationalism as a vehicle for self-determination or agree with anarchism as being the only road to self-determination. As revolutionaries we must support the will of the masses. It is not only racism but compliance with the enemy to stand outside of the social arena and permit America to continue to practice genocide against third world captive colonies because although they resist, they don’t agree with us. If we truly know that Anarchy is the best way of life for all people, we must promote it, defend it and know that people who are as smart as we are will accept it. To expect people to accept this, while they are being wiped out as a nation without allies ready to put out on the line what they already have on the line is crazy.”
The booklet also contains several of Kuwasi Balagoon’s poems and letters.
In a similar vein, Balagoon comments:
“all the rallies have got basically the same people showing up year after year. I ask do these activists talk to people outside of the movement, obviously they don’t talk to people about the movement – we got to build a movement of activists who… address people who are already committed as well as people who are into other things.”
Throughout all of A Soldier’s Story we see how Kuwasi Balagoon is motivated by his love for oppressed people. You also see everywhere how he was not an anarchist “in name only,” but puts his trust in the people. I recommend that anyone interested in revolutionary social change check this out, as I have only breached the surface.
In a letter written while he was locked up he wrote:
“As to the seventy five years, I am not really worried, not only 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.”
The best tribute we can pay the man is to bring this dream alive, to heed his advice, to learn from his mistakes, and draw strength from his courage and dedication.