December 22, 1946
|Died||13 December 1986(aged 39)|
|Organization||Black Panther Party|
Black Liberation Army
Kuwasi Balagoon (December 22, 1946 – December 13, 1986), born Donald Weems, was a New Afrikan anarchist and a member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1982 following his participation in the 1981 Brink's robbery, which left two police officers and a security officer dead.
Balagoon was born Donald Weems in the majority Black community of Lakeland in Prince George's County, Maryland on December 22, 1946. In the early 1960s the teenage Weems was influenced by Gloria Richardson and the Cambridge movement occurring in Maryland seeking civil rights for African-Americans. The Cambridge movement was noted for breaking away from "passive resistance" and becoming more militant, with Gloria Richardson defending active self-defence as a tactic. The Cambridge movement eventually led to race riots, and the National Guard was sent into Maryland for a year as a result.
After graduating high school, Weems joined the US Army and was deployed to Germany, where he experienced racism and physical attacks from white officers and enlisted men. In response, Weems and other Black soldiers formed a secret group with the Army called "Da Legislators" which carried out revenge attacks. It was during this period in Europe that Weems visited London, England where he met African immigrants, Black immigrants from the Caribbean and other Black British people. Weems found the experience of meeting Black people of other nationalities stimulating and began embracing a more Afrocentric lifestyle.
Activism in New York
After settling in New York City, Weems became an activist, and at first, was particularly active in rent strikes as part of the Community Council on Housing, a tenant's rights group. It was on behalf of the CCOH that in 1967, Weems, his sister Dianne, CCOH leader Jesse Gray and two other tenant activists were arrested for disorderly conduct in Washington, D.C. after they interrupted a session of Congress and brought a cage of rats to the assembly to highlight urban housing conditions. The action cost the CCOH what funding it had and Gray could no longer pay its mainstay activists.
Following this, Weems moved on from the CCOH and joined the Central Harlem Committee for Self-Defense, a group involved with providing food and water to students who occupied buildings as part of the Columbia University protests of 1968. It was around this same time period that Weems became interested and involved with the Yoruba Temple in Harlem run by Adefunmi, which promoted a form of West African traditional religion. Adefunmi promoted Black Nationalism and encouraged followers to "Africanise" everything about themselves. It was under this influence that Weems Africanized his name to Kuwasi Balagoon. “Kuwasi” is a Ghanaian name for a male born on Sunday, while the Yoruba name “Balagoon” translates as “Warlord".
As the 1960s progressed, Balagoon became more and more involved in the Black Power Movement as well as more ideologically inclined towards Black Nationalism. In his own words, Balagoon said "[I] became a revolutionary and accepted the doctrine of nationalism as a response to the genocide practised by the United States government". .” Balagoon began to read literature such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams’ book Negroes with Guns as well as Williams' newsletter The Crusader. Balagoon also became influenced by H. Rap Brown, who at the time was acting as a spokesperson for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Amalgamating all these influences, Balagoon became to believe that the only means to achieve "Black Liberation" was through "protracted guerilla warfare".
It was at this point Balagoon joined the Black Panther Party. Balagoon had first become aware of the BPP following the arrest of Huey Newton following a shoot out with local police in Oakland, California in October 1967. Around that same time, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Revolutionary Action Movement were involved in setting up a chapter of the Black Panthers in Harlem, New York City. Balagoon quickly joined the chapter, citing the Panthers' adoption of Maoism as a motivating factor.
Panther 21 trial
In February 1969, Balagoon and fellow New York BPP member Richard Harris were arrested on bank robbery charges in Newark, New Jersey. On 2 April 1969 21 Panther leaders and organizers (including Balagoon and Harris) were indicted, and another 12 arrested, on conspiracy charges in a 30-count indictment in what became known as the Panther 21 trial. Amongst the charges were conspiracy to bomb the New York Botanical Gardens and local police stations as well as to assassinate police officers. Following their arrest, most of the defendants were released on $100,000 bail, however, Balagoon was held without bail because of more serious charges levelled against him. Balagoon and fellow panther Sekou Odinga were accused of attempting to ambush and kill New York City police officers and stopped only by the intervention of more officers on the scene. Defence Attorneys counterargued that this accusation was based on the witness testimony of BPP member Joan Bird, who they alleged was beaten by police until she agreed to state that. After hearing of Bird's arrest and alleged beating, on the day he was charged Sekou Odinga escaped police custody and went on the run. He avoided an attempted arrest on 2 April and proceeded to flee the United States for Algeria, where Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver was now based.
Balagoon's legal case was separated from 13 of those who had been arrested originally in the Panther 21 trial in order for Balagoon to face charges relating to the robbery in New Jersey. After two years of imprisonment, those 13 panthers were eventually acquitted. Meanwhile, Balagoon pled guilty to the charge that he attempted to shoot police officers during the Jersey robbery and he was sentenced to a term of between 23 and 29 years,
It was during this time that Balagoon became disillusioned with the BBP leadership. He was particularly disappointed by the expulsion from the party of former Army ranger Geronimo Pratt, who was thrown out of the party after his arrest in December 1970 for the 1968 murder of Caroline Olsen. Pratt was a popular figure amongst the New York members of the Panthers, and in 1997 his conviction for that murder was overturned. Other factors continued to divide the West Coast and East Coast Panthers, including disagreements over out-of-town leadership and whether to embrace pan-Africanism nationalism or Internationalism. Tensions climaxed when the Panther leadership in California expelled members of the New York leadership Dhoruba bin Wahad, Michael "Cetewayo" Tabor and Connie Matthews. This led to the New York chapter of the Panthers officially splitting from the "national" Panthers.
Although in prison, Balagoon was aware of these events and was demoralized by them. Balagoon, alongside many former Panthers imprisoned alongside himself, began to look ideologically towards anarchism in response. Balagoon came to believe the Black Panther Party had stopped being a party concerned with the daily struggle of Black people in America and instead one totally focused on defending its membership in court trials against the state. It was this new ideological view that also brought Balagoon towards a new radical Panther splinter group called the Black Liberation Army, which advocated fighting a "war" against the state by members who had gone "underground".
On 27 September 1973 Balagoon escaped imprisonment and went "underground" himself. He remained so for approximately eight months until he was re-arrested following an attempt by Balagoon to take Richard Harris on the run as Harris was on temporary leave from prison to attend a funeral. Balagoon and Harris were caught after being wounded in a gun battle with correctional and police officers.
Imprisoned once again, Balagoon committed further to Anarchism and began exploring the works of Wilhelm Reich, Emma Goldman, Errico Malatesta, Buenaventura Durruti and Severino Di Giovanni and trying to applying their thoughts to "Black Liberation". Balagoon also began to affiliate with the Republic of New Afrika, a group that advocated African-Americans identifying as "New Afrikans" and seeking a Black nation-state within North America. From this point onwards Balagoon identified as a "New Afrikan Anarchist".
Balagoon escaped from Rahway State Prison in New Jersey and went underground once again on 27 May 1978, this time going on the run with the Black Liberation Army. He was joined by the likes of Sekou Odinga who had returned from Africa. On November 2, 1979, Balagoon was amongst members of the BLA who broke Assata Shakur out of Clinton Correctional Facility for Women. Shakur had been imprisoned there following her conviction for the 1973 murder of police officer Werner Foerster.
1981 Brink's robbery
In January 1982, Balagoon was captured and charged alongside members of the BLA and the Weather Underground with participating in the 1981 robbery of a Brink's armored truck in West Nyack, New York on October 20, 1981. Two police officers, Waverly Brown and Edward O'Grady II, and money courier Peter Paige were killed.
Balagoon was convicted of murder and other charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. In an early 1980 television interview Balagoon endorsing killing Black Liberation Army members who had become police informers and gave evidence used to convict BLA members such as Balagoon, Balagoon deriding them as "traitors". In the same interview, Balagoon described the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings, in which two suicide bombers killed 307 people, mostly American and French peacekeeping forces, as "beautiful", "incredible" and that there was "a lot to learn" from it.
Balagoon authored several texts while in prison, writings that have become influential among Black and other anarchists since first being published and distributed by anarchist prisoner support networks in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2019, PM Press released Kuwasi Balagoon: A Soldier's Story. The collection of writings by and about Balagoon was edited by Matt Meyer and Karl Kersplebedeb and includes contributions from Sekou Odinga, David Gilbert, Meg Starr, Ashanti Alston, and other activists.
- Umoja, Akinyele (April 2015). "Maroon: Kuwasi Balagoon and the Evolution of Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchism". Science & Society. Guilford Press. 79 (2): 196–220. doi:10.1521/siso.2015.79.2.196. ISSN 0036-8237. OCLC 5798110341. ProQuest 1662047452. Retrieved 17 March 2021.
- "Black Liberation Army member Donald Weems, wanted on murder". United Press International. January 21, 1982.
- Associated Press (1984-10-24). "THE CITY; Defendant Guilty In 2d Brink's Case". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-08.
- "Kuwasi Balagoon interviewed on local news television, 1980s". WPIX. Archived from the original on 2021-12-22. Retrieved 17 March 2021.
- Perez Esquivel, Adolfo; Alston, Ashanti (2008), Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, PM Press, p. 364, ISBN 978-1-60486-035-1
- Loughery, Jessica (2006-12-13), "Freedom Song: Building an Icon Out of Kuwasi Balagoon", Philadelphia City Paper, retrieved March 9, 2021
- Balagoon, Kuwasi. "Letters from Prison". The Anarchist Library. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
- "A Soldier's Story: Revolutionary Writings by a New Afrikan Anarchist, Third Edition". pmpress.org. Retrieved 2021-03-09.