On November 2, 1979, a group of three arrived at Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in Dannemore, New York sometime between one and four pm. Their IDs were checked at a nearby state school so they could visit an inmate in South Hall, a maximum security wing of the prison.
During the guard-sanctioned trip to South Hall, the three visitors took over the prison van transporting them to the unit. In a November 3, 1979 New York Times article, Captain Gordon Hector of the state police revealed, “They came in with guns at the guards’ heads. They got the drop on the guard inside the unit.”
Kuwasi Balagoon, a bisexual New Afrikan Anarchist and member of the Black Liberation Army, is alleged to have been among these three visitors, there to assist in the escape of prisoner Assata Shakur, the alleged “mother hen” of the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The revolutionaries who helped her escape were a sub-group of the BLA known as “The Family,” radicals committed to underground life, guerilla warfare, and bank robberies to bolster their cause for Black liberation. Their escape plan for Assata Shakur was successful.
As we live through another period of increased violence against Black and LGBTQ+ people – whether it be the recent NYC murder of gay dancer O’Shae Sibley, the murder of Black Atlanta trans woman Ashley Burton, or the rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation throughout the United States – Balagoon’s legacy lives on through the many queer, Black anarchists still fighting today.
For example, Black & Pink, an organization started in 2005 to abolish the prison system and mitigate its effects on LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV/AIDS, honors the community with the Kuwasi Balagoon Award. The award is designed to “ honor everyday people thriving with HIV/AIDS.”
To the revolutionaries closest to him, Balagoon represented many things. To Sekou Odinga (as quoted in A Solidier’s Story: Revolutionary Writings by Kuwasi Balagoon), Balagoon was a living “contradiction” in the best way – a hardened warrior for the Black Panther Party and BLA who also loved to help children and the elderly.
Becoming a queer, Black radical
Kuwasi Balagoon was born Donald Weems on December 22, 1946. During his Maryland upbringing, Balagoon was radicalized by the Cambridge civil rights movement of the early 1960s, as well as by his uncle’s escape from prison after being charged with sexual assault. While serving in the U.S. Army, Balagoon became a part of a radical anti-racist group, Da Legislators, and learned more about Afrocentrism while traveling in London.
“While standing on a corner one morning, rapping to some West Indian, African, Asian, and South American brothers, it occurred to me,” Balagoon wrote in his autobiography, Look For Me In The Whirlwind, “Like through the flow and substance of the conversation and their mannerisms, that we were really brothers. Among them and the beautiful Black sisters, I was home.”
Balagoon became a committed member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968 and within a year would be arrested alongside 20 other Black Panthers (the group became known as the Panther 21) on conspiracy charges related to alleged planned killings of police officers and bombings of police stations, as well as other buildings in New York City. Charges against all 21 people were ultimately dropped. Although acquitted, Balagoon would plead guilty to a separate case – one of bank robbery in New Jersey. While he was incarcerated, the tension between the East and West coast branches of the Black Panther Party escalated, eventually leading to ousted Black Panther Party members creating the Black Liberation Army sometime in 1970.
All of this led Balagoon to study anarchists like Emma Goldman while incarcerated and to eventually escape prison in September 1973. Just a year later, Balagoon was back in prison for a failed attempt to help another BLA member escape. After four more years of incarceration in Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, Balagoon escaped again, cementing his status as “the Maroon.”
New Afrikan Anarchism & Afrocentrism
One of the ways that Balagoon was most admired was his ardent commitment to guerilla politics, partially stemming from his affinity for Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who sought political exile numerous times in his life and escaped Italian prison in 1899. On a basic level, Balagoon savored Malatesta’s logic of a revolutionary life that “consists of more deeds than words.”
Like other New Afrikan Anarchists, Balagoon believed in a kind of Afrocentric nationalism that viewed Black Americans as a “subjugated nation” within the United States of America that deserved to resist the racist and economic conditions forced onto them.
In July 1983, Balagoon spoke about his political praxis while on trial for the 1981 attempted robbery charges of a Brinks armored truck, which resulted in the deaths of two police officers and one security guard:
We say the U.S. has no right to confine New Afrikan people to redlined reservations and that We have a right to live on our own terms on a common land area and to govern ourselves…
On December 16, 1986, Kuwasi Balagoon passed away at 39 from AIDS-related complications after four years in jail for robbery and murder. Many of the obituaries written on Balagoon by the groups he was involved in both omit his sexuality and the cause of his death; a consequence of the LGBTQ+ erasure that came with mainstream denial of the AIDS crisis’ impact on poor, Black, and LGBTQ+ communities, all of which Balagoon embodied.
Today, Balagoon’s legacy lives on. In 2005, The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement dedicated their Black August celebration to Kuwasi Balagoon. Since 2014, Cooperation Jackson, a collective of revolutionary co-operatives, has operated in Jackson, Mississippi, even aiding in the 2017 election of Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a New Afrikan Anarchist, as the city’s new mayor. The cooperative’s base is known as The Balagoon Center.
Balagoon continues to serve as a beacon for the queer Black revolutionaries fighting today.