Sunday, February 26, 2023

Remembering Kuwasi Balagoon and the Forgotten Legacy of Black Anarchism

 I know this has kind of become a virtue signaling cliche in this day and age, but Black History Month really does end way too goddamn soon. I thoroughly recognize that the entire month is largely a contrived ritual devoted to historical revisionism much like what the vanilla conquistadors of mainstream wokeness have reduced Pride Month too. But the obnoxious history geek in me just can't seem to help but jump at any opportunity to set the record straight when it comes to America's criminally whitewashed outlaw history.

I've been accused by people on both ends of this nation's hopelessly antiquated left-right paradigm of taking Black history way too personally, with some people on the left even going so far as to accuse me of appropriation. It's bullshit but I can see it. After all, what the fuck does some transgender Irish Catholic hillbilly know about the Black experience? Maybe not much but my lifelong fascination with the revolutionary end of Black history taught me everything that I desperately needed to know about being an outnumbered freak and living to tell about it. The rise and fall and rise of Black Power inspired my own vision of Queer Panarchy and no chapter of that history has taught me more than the lost one on the modern school of Black Anarchism that came out of that movement's collapse.

We have probably never come closer to a second American revolution, a real American revolution, than we did during the fiery maelstrom of the sixties and seventies. The American Empire pushed its luck just one inch too far both at home and abroad during this era and the new mandarins of Manifest Destiny finally appeared to be paying a steep price for their sins. What should have been a routine conquest in Indochina had spiraled out of control into a bottomless quagmire as a bunch of poorly armed and half-starved peasant rice farmers took the military industrial complex to the fucking woodshed and exposed it as little more than a trillion-dollar Gundam suit stuffed with squealing pigs and the tiny men who fuck them.

Meanwhile, pissed-off Black kids in the ghettos of Babylon seemed to be winning the same fight parallel to their comrades in the Cong. As the Tet Offensive raged like a rabid tiger with a chainsaw so did massive riots in Detroit, Newark, St. Louis, Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans. J Edgar Hoover's ritual sacrifices of Black Messiahs like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had only reaped the whirlwind and cities across the home front burned brighter than napalm while teenage snipers with zipguns held their own against entire platoons of the National Guard.

The Black Panther Party seized the moment and took the lead in a revolutionary vanguard that quickly metastasized into a growing coalition of disenchanted American outlaws of every conceivable stripe, the Young Lords, the American Indian Movement, the Youth International Party, the Gay Liberation Front, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Weather Underground, the Brown Berets, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the White Panther Party, the Symbionese Liberation Army, all declaring allegiance to their nation's enemies in the Third World and all devoted to smashing the empire that failed to contain them at any cost. It wasn't always pretty but this how you blow up a Deathstar with a stick of dynamite.

At its glorious zenith, this freak rebellion stretched across the ocean and infiltrated the ranks of America's own military machine with conscripted Black nationalists and disenchanted dope smoking longhairs taking over entire barracks and fragging their commanding officers like it was going out of style. The Pentagon and the State Department were convinced that they stood at the brink of an unprecedented imperial mutiny that threatened to collapse everything that their ancestors had built a continental Indian burial ground to achieve. The weird people were winning and ghetto warlords like Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver were leading the charge. Then somehow, seemingly overnight, it all just blew away like the exhaust fumes of an arsonist's fever dream in a stiff winter breeze.

What the hell happened? We were kicking ass, weren't we? The empire certainly thought so and they swallowed their pride to pull the plug before their asses could break. In a span of just a few years they canceled the war, the draft and even Nixon, thus robbing the movement of its momentum and convincing its more privileged partisans to hang up the rifle and go back to class. And as the war wound down abroad it ramped up into a killing spree at home. The FBI transformed their COINTELPRO campaign against the Civil Rights Movement into a full-blown jihad against the Black Panther Party and their remaining revolutionary allies.

Cadres were pit against each other by infiltrators and most of their leaders were locked up on phony charges, exiled by rumors of treachery or just straight-up fucking murdered. The top-down structure of these organizations made these tragedies downright devastating and the greed it fostered was even worse. The once mighty Panthers soon found themselves tearing each other apart in a government manufactured civil war that splintered the entire anti-imperialist movement into paranoid militant cells knocking over armored cars just to stay alive and one step ahead of the law. It looked like a tragic end to a beautiful dream but from these ashes a new dream slowly immerged like a phoenix in the night.

A handful of committed Black revolutionaries took a long sobering look at what had become of the revolution in the cracked mirrors of their cramped prison cells and embraced a new school of stateless resistance that both built on their movement's triumphs and learned from its mistakes. What they came up with would become known collectively as Black Anarchism. 

While this new movement was built out of a diverse array of concepts and schools of thought, it was congealed by its uniquely anti-colonialist critique of traditional Eurocentric left-wing authoritarianism and its celebration of a distinctly tribal third world cultural identity. It had no leaders but the thinkers who would come to define its mission weren't professors or activists but imprisoned revolutionaries like Ashanti Alston, Kuwasi Balagoon, Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin and Martin Sostre. Men who had already given everything to the cause of Black liberation and weren't willing to give up the struggle without at least one more fight.

The man whose message has always spoke the loudest to me is that of the Black Anarchist Movement's tragic martyr, Kuwasi Balagoon. Partially because as an open bisexual polyamorist he was a member of my own stateless tribe as well but also because so much of his ideological evolution resembles my own. Kuwasi was born Donald Weems in the poor Black community of Lakeland, Maryland. His first taste of Black Power came at a young age when Donald got a front row seat to the militant civil rights movement lead by Gloria Richardson in nearby Cambridge which ultimately cumulated into an explosive riot in 1963 that required a year-long occupation by the National Guard and a peace treaty inked by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

With few prospects at home, Weems joined the Army out of high school where he experienced a pervasive climate of racial violence at the hands of white GIs. After recognizing that any Black soldier who dared to fight back got the brunt of the reprimands just for defending themselves, Weems decided to settle the score on his own terms by forming a clandestine gang of vigilantes of color dubbed "Da Legislators." However, the military also offered Weems an opportunity to come into contact with other members of the African diaspora in Europe which provoked a lifelong thirst for a higher Black consciousness that would ultimately lead him to embrace revolution. 

Upon leaving the military, Weems moved in with his sister in Harlem and began working as a radical tenant organizer in order to give a voice to the poorest members of his community. He made waves by crashing a session of Congress armed with a cage full of tenement rats in order to confront the powerful with the ravenous results of the poverty they trafficked in and got locked up for disorderly conduct for his trouble. 

Weems also dove deeper into his heritage with his studies in African paganism under the Yoruba Temple where he was reborn as Kuwasi Balagoon, a Yoruba name roughly translating to warlord. This journey accelerated when the born-again African soldier seemed to finally find his calling with the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party where he cranked up the heat on his engagement in grassroots ghetto organizing with increasingly brazen direct actions like the community take-over of the derelict Lincoln Hospital. But like many of his comrades in the struggle, Balagoon's refusal to compromise with the system increasingly put him on the wrong end of the law in order to survive.

Kuwasi was arrested on bank robbery charges in 1969 before being indicted as a part of the infamous Panther 21 case, a massive FBI coordinated conspiracy against the New York leadership of the party in which police informants encouraged embattled Panther's to strike back at the police state with a planned series of bombings and ambushes. The case would ultimately end in the acquittal of every single defendant except Balagoon who proudly pled guilty of self-defense, largely out of principle alone. 

It was during these days of hot lead that Kuwasi and many other New York Panthers became increasingly disenchanted with their own party's leadership which was run out of a central committee in California modeled after the Chinese Communist Party. An arrangement which left little room for indigenous dissent. The Central Committe used the largely trumped-up Panther 21 case as an excuse to clean house in New York and put their own leadership in charge who seemed to be more concerned with national politics than local community organizing and took a hostile stance towards the New York chapter's less secular Afrocentric cultural identity.

Naturally, the FBI took full advantage of this rift with a spree of disinformation and poison pen letters, widening the divide between the two coasts of the party. A divide which would ultimately climax in the Central Committee expelling Balagoon and the rest of the Panther 21 for their insubordination and declaring them to be "Enemies of the People" in their national paper. 

To Kuwasi it had become painfully clear that the party's central leadership had become completely detached from the rank and file on the streets and that it was the size of the party itself that was to blame. Even behind bars, Balagoon quickly became one of the movement's loudest advocates for increased local autonomy, but it was his involvement in the 1970 uprising at the Queens House of Detention that proved most prophetic. The riot itself was a bust, a hostage situation that ended in brutal reprisals against the prisoners involved, but the multi-racial consensus-based leadership of the uprising inspired Balagoon's drift towards increasingly anti-authoritarian waters.

After launching his first prison break in 1973, Kuwasi joined up with a group of outlaw Panthers known as the Black Liberation Army. Once it had become brutally clear that the FBI was waging open war on Black Power and that the central leadership of the Panthers couldn't be relied upon for solidarity, members of the New York chapter of the party organized the BLA to serve as an underground railroad for marked men and women to fight back. Most of their attention was directed towards the liberation of wrongfully convicted Panthers abandoned by the movement. Balagoon himself was arrested just 8 months after his own escape during an attempt to liberate another one of his comrades. It wouldn't be the last grenade he would throw himself on.

It was during Balagoon's second stint behind bars that he began working with the prison abolitionists in the Anarchist Black Cross and devouring the works of Wilhelm Reich and Emma Goldman who inspired Kuwasi to embrace both anarchism and free love. During a time when homophobia was still rampant in the Black Power Movement, Kuwasi Balagoon came out of the closet swinging as an openly Queer revolutionary. He also took this time to embrace a movement to create a Black separatist homeland in the Deep South known as the Republic of New Afrika and by the time he had escaped for a second time, Balagoon rejoined the revolution as a self-proclaimed New Afrikan Anarchist.

Balagoon's uniquely idiosyncratic ideology may have initially miffed many of his old comrades, but it would ultimately become a defining feature of Black Anarchism. While embracing statelessness Kuwasi also refused to abandon Black Nationalism. He rightly observed that traditional African nationalism had nothing to do with states and borders. It was about a collective tribal consciousness which observed the consensus of the village above any form of hierarchy. Balagoon may have embraced the tactics of 19th century European anarchism, but he rejected the phony color-blind universalism that made it come across as more white virtue signaling bullshit to colonized people who didn't need some government to be a nation or some honky liberal to tell them how to be free.

This is the message that spoke to me as a genderqueer born-again heathen. I take great pride in the ancient pagan roots of my third gender, a tradition that was stolen from peasants like my Celtic ancestors by the same churches and kings who colonized the New World and put Africa in chains. I also take great pride in the unique cultural identity that the modern primitivists of my Queer tribe constructed in resistance to White Anglo Saxon Protestant civilization and I don't appreciate attempts by this society's bratty offspring to assimilate these traditions into some beige melting pot of international inclusion. 

I've been called a Queer separatist and sometimes I am, but my school of thought could much more accurately be described as Post-Colonial Queer Nationalism and it's not lost on me that my Black and brown comrades seem to be the only other anarchists who really get this.

Kuwasi Balagoon influenced this evolution when I first came out of the closet. I had spent my youth as a devoted third world influenced Marxist in the tradition of Che Guevara and Muammar Gaddafi but my rebirth as a uniquely pagan Queer revolutionary made internationalism feel like an ill-fitting sports bra while modern Queer anarchism seemed to lack the commitment to anti-imperialism that still felt existential to my mission. Kuwasi Balagoon was the first revolutionary to provide a school of thought that made sense, but he wasn't the last.

In many ways his message predates that of other stateless refugees of the New Left like Abdullah Ocalan and the EZLN. Kuwasi's tireless struggle for revolutionary bottom unity also served as a major inspiration for my own post-left recipe for panarchist solidarity with his willingness to rejoin his comrades in a diverse coalition united against the state. Kuwasi's last run before being thrown away for life was with the Revolutionary Armed Task Force, a ragtag coalition of Black nationalists and white communists who came together to achieve the last great victory of the Second American Revolution with the daring daylight prison break of the wrongfully convicted revolutionary Assata Shakur in 1979.

For this sacred sin and many others Kuwasi Balagoon died a young man of AIDS behind bars in 1986 but he didn't die in vain. Assata remains free to this day and thanks to Kuwasi's legacy and the legacy of Black Anarchism, I do too. And I just needed one more fucking week of February to thank him. Oh, well. Maybe next year. For now, I guess this belated tribute will have to do.

Peace, Love & Empathy- Nicky/CH

Soundtrack: songs that influenced this post

* Kick Out the Jams by the MC5

* Queen Bitch by David Bowie

* I Against I by Bad Brains

* The Big Payback by James Brown

* Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley

* Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack

* Waiting Room by Phoebe Bridgers

* Lean On Me by Bill Withers

* I'm a African by Dead Prez

* You Can Have It Back by Wild Pink

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