In high school, and in some cases in college, the majority of students in the United States learned about the civil rights movement from a legalistic perspective where the majority of the instruction centered on the efforts of African-Americans to gain an end to de facto segregation, increased voting rights, and protection against legal and institutionalized discrimination. The victories achieved by the civil rights movement in this respect were immense, but the notion that this is all the African-American movement struggled for in this country is a betrayal, and in many cases a conscious betrayal, of history. From the civil rights movements groups such as the Black Panther Party emerged that wanted a complete transformation of society and what was termed “black liberation.” To this end, the Black Panther Party organized along the simple idea that it was important to “serve the people” and they did so by setting up free breakfast programs, clinics, alternative educational institutions, their own newspaper, and even organizing armed patrols of their neighborhoods to prevent police aggression. It was out of this context of working for the total liberation of African-Americans that Kuwasi Balagoon, a member of the Black Panther Party and a community organizer, became involved in the faction of the Black Panther Party that formed the Black Liberation Army (BLA), an underground organization dedicated to fighting for the liberation of the New Afrikan population in the United States.
While the Black Panther Party’s legacy has suffered from a lack of attention, the history of the Black Liberation Army has received even less attention, with incredibly little having been published on the BLA despite its ten years of armed struggle. During that time, the BLA engaged in a number of actions ranging from armed expropriations of capitalist banks and businesses to finance the struggle for black liberation to forcibly freeing their comrades from prison. Unfortunately, piecing together the history of the BLA is a difficult task as there is no single book that provides an adequate history of the movement. This collection of Balagoon’s writings is an important contribution to the literature on the BLA, but it unfortunately suffers from a lack of contextual information about the BLA and its history. Throughout the book the reader is able to discern a considerable amount about the philosophy of the movement, with Balagoon’s opening statement in the Brink’s expropriation trial providing a theoretical basis for his actions—with the opening statement providing a scathing critique of United States history and making a compelling argument that slavery was an act of imperialism and that to this day, African-Americans remain a colonial population within the United States.
Some of the lack of attention given to the BLA and its members has no doubt due been to its advocacy of armed struggle and questions about the efficacy of some of its actions, in addition to the fact that its legacy has been almost entirely controlled by the corporate media and the government who have portrayed the BLA and members such as Kuwasi Balagoon as nothing more than terrorists that did nothing more than engage in random acts of violence. While this may explain why the group has not received much attention from more “mainstream” sources, it does not explain the lack of attention the BLA has received from the left. When reading Kuwasi Balagoon’s writings, it should be abundantly clear that the BLA had a developed theory and greatly contributed to the anti-imperialist movement in the United States and North America. In <A Soldier’s Story: Writings By A Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchist, Balagoon makes several important insights into both anarchist organizing and left movements in general within the United States. Balagoon calls on anarchists to abandon their “elitism” and to work to build grassroots movements for liberation, repeatedly stating that it is important for broad movements to be organized along anarchist lines that will the needs of the people if there is any hope of a revolution succeeding in the United States. After being imprisoned for an armed expropriation, Balagoon wrote extensively—with some of his letters excerpted in A Soldier’s Story—discussing the state of the left in the United States and his belief that we need to build a movement that addresses people who are not already “committed” to the revolution and that organizing needs to overcome the reality that “the so-called left doesn’t really represent a lot of people” in the United States. Anti-imperialism was also a focus of Balagoon’s writings—and the BLA as a whole—with Balagoon calling on anarchists and the left to provide both more assistance to oppressed groups struggling against imperialism inside the United States and around the world. Of particular importance to Balagoon was the idea that anarchists and the left recognize that Native Americans have been engaged in a struggle against imperialism for more than five-hundred years. Interestingly, Balagoon also talks about how anti-imperialism in the United States must involve working against the idea of borders and fighting against the right-wing backlash that he observed in the 1970s and 1980s against immigrants from Mexico. Balagoon’s writings on history also make it clear that all movements for liberation must be grounded in history and that in the current historical context that it is important to understand that the BLA formed out of the legacy of struggle by Africans against slavery.
Balagoon’s writings are important for the left, as they offer considerable insight into a struggle that has been largely forgotten or, when it has been remembered, often misunderstood. With so little having been published on the BLA and indeed Kuwsai Balagoon himself, A Soldier’s Story is an incredibly valuable book that is rich with insight into anarchism, black liberation, and the role that armed struggle can play in social movements, as well as the connections between underground and aboveground movements. For many, both within and outside of the contemporary anarchist movement, anarchism has traditionally been a very white movement, and while this has changed over the past twenty years with various groups such as Love and Rage, Anarchist People of Color, and Colours of Resistance working to make the issue of race central to contemporary anarchism, the traditional “anarchist canon” has remained overwhelmingly white. While many have read the writings of Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, and Michael Bakunin; the writings of anarchist people of color, such as Kuwasi Balagoon, have been largely ignored. For this reason, along with the aforementioned importance of the book as a historical document, A Soldier’s Story is an essential read for those considering themselves anarchist or of “the left.”
Kuwasi Balagoon, A Soldier’s Story: Writings By A Revolutionary New Afrikan Anarchist, (Kresplbedeb, 2003).