What Would They Play: Kuwasi Balagoon

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer, and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: The Gathering.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from Kuwasi Balagoon's A Soldier's Story: Revolutionary Writings by A New Afrikan Nationalist (Third Edition) from PM PRESS.

Who Was Kuwasi Balagoon?

Kuwasi Balagoon (1946-1986)1 was a New Afrikan bisexual member of the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army, a poet, activist, guerrilla, community organizer, political prisoner, and anarchist. New Afrikan refers to the Black liberation movement that gained a lot of momentum in the late 1960s through the 1980s in terms of concerted armed struggle.  To understand the New Afrikan movement, let's turn to what Kuwasi wrote in his statement during the Brink's trial in the 1980s:

"When i [sic throughout] say we New Afrikan people are colonized, i mean that our lives socially, economically and politically, with the exception of our war of liberation, are controlled by other people, by Imperialist euro-americans. Imperialist euro-americans tell us where to live and under what conditions, euro-american invaders, colonizers, decide what laws we should obey and what jobs we will get. It's no mystery why such a proportion of G.I.s, hospital workers, domestic workers, farm workers, or athletes are New Afrikans or why we are 10% of the population within the confines of the U.S. and 50% of the prison population. We suffer 50% unemployment. Likewise, there is no mystery why the Black Liberation Army (B.L.A.) was formed well over a decade ago and, despite captures and many instances of tortures and executions on the part of the U.S. government, has managed to continue to struggle and fill a lot of cops full of holes and continue to enjoy our people's support, in spite of raids and threats by the U.S. government and outright political and military blunders on our part. Despite claims that our backs have been broken or that we were out of existence, we of the B.L.A. have continued to fight. Repression breeds resistance. There is no mystery how the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (Armed Forces of National Liberation--F.A.L.N.) continues, or how the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) continues in Ireland or the African National Congress continues to oppose America's 51st State: South Africa. Or why, despite helicopters and bloodthirsty advisers, the guerillas in El Salvador continue to struggle and advance or why the Palestine Liberation Organization, despite the massive invasion of Lebanon, Israeli and American backed massacres and internal conflicts, struggle on. We have legitimate support from peoples who have been victimized and have a right to self-determination. We are human and nobody wants to live under or bring offspring into a confined atmosphere with an artificial sky." 2 

Much of Kuwasi's struggle took the form of secret war against the state, evading capture and escaping from the police. It seems likely he'd favor a Commander strategy that gains advantage by attacking and ignoring opponents' blockers altogether. With Satoru Umezawa as his commander, he can pair unblockable creatures and saboteur effects to evade his enemies while gaining a resource advantage.

Early Life and Tenant Organizing  

Kuwasi considered himself to have been a New Afrikan freedom fighter his whole life, before he ever heard of the Black Liberation Army or the Panthers, and his life story supports that. Kuwasi grew up in Maryland, a youngest son who entered the US military. He often served time in isolation or in "incorrigible" units--partly from his habit of banding together with other GIs of color and beating the piss out of racists in the ranks. This group was referred to as "De Legislators", and Kuwasi was especially skilled at avoiding capture or punishment by military police. He eventually returned stateside in the late 60s to New York City.

Balagoon writes of his time before formally joining the Black Panthers and later the Black Liberation Army:3

"Before becoming a clandestine revolutionary i was a tenant organizer and was arrested for menacing a 270 pound colonial building superintendent with a machete, who physically stopped the delivery of oil to a building i didn't live in, but had helped to organize. Being an organizer for the Community Council on Housing i took part in not only organizing rent strikes, but pressed slumlords to make repairs and maintain heat and hot water, killed rats, represented tenants in court, stopped illegal evictions, faced off City Marshals, helped turn rents into repair resources and collective ownership by tenants and demonstrated whenever the needs of tenants were at stake. In 1967 the U.S. Congress killed the rat bill which would have provided funding for killing rats. At that time it was estimated that there were at least 1 rat for every person in N.Y.C.

"So we decided to demonstrate at the U.S. House of Representatives. Once we got there we decided that instead of walking around with signs in the sun waiting for reporters, we would just go in and tell those creeps how we felt. Once we began to practice our First Amendment rights and refused to leave, Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill instructed the Capital Police to "Get those [n*****s] out of here," at which time the Boy and Girl Scouts and other spectators were ushered out and we and the Capital Police had a free-for-all, in the halls of Congress, down the front steps and all over the lawn. Five of us, including myself and my sister, were arrested for disorderly conduct, which my F.B.I. files advise me was lodged because of resulting publicity that court proceedings might have entailed. The U.S. Congress response to us was to have plexiglas installed between them and the Gallery where people affected by their actions and inactions would have to sit.

"Although i was naive, i didn't think so, having been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army and seeing countless New Afrikan and Mexican G.l.s dishonorably discharged after serving 34 months of a 36-month enlistment. Being stigmatized for life and denied employment and the right to vote for what white G.I.s were reprimanded for. Being told by a Company Commander that he was told he would have to pay graft before our combat test scores would be correctly calculated. i thought i knew the U.S. government.

"We found it unacceptable that the same government who drafted New Afrikans and demanded that we fight the Vietnamese who had forced the French to surrender at Dien Bien Phu and leave Indochina, and who had mauled the 1st Cavalry Division in hand-to-hand combat in the jungles as well as Hamburger Hill at least 4 times, could not allocate a little money for killing rats, who were attacking countless infants and children, causing nervous disorders as well as poisoning, and traumatizing, mauling mothers nursing their infants. Members of Congress laughed straight out when the bill was brought before it and promptly voted it down.

"There were people in the Community Council on Housing who worked at other jobs during the day and organized and conducted meetings at night until all matters were decided and business conducted; there were people who got up early in the morning to go with tenants to 'tenants and landlords' court to argue out specific injustices, with pictures, inspection data and building and apartment histories, and then walked all over West Harlem to organize meetings because we couldn't afford our fare back and forth across town. We would stop illegal evictions at the door with court orders, arranged repairs, got heat and hot water for tenants and outright threatened and stood off City Marshals who received hundreds of dollars for each eviction. i had gone to apartments and waited with my carbine, a few times.

"Then i began to realize that with all this effort, we couldn't put a dent in the problem..."

In a Commander game, Kuwasi can bypass Congress altogether and take the matter of inequitable distribution of resources into his own hands. Opponents are holding more cards in hand? Catch up with Slithermuse or Tales of the Ancestors. Falling behind on life? Agent of the Shadow Thieves or Sword Coast Sailor will help push through some damage. Or if his opponents are just drawing too many extra cards, Faerie Mastermind and Even the Score make sure he can keep pace.

Joining the Black Panthers

Kuwasi decided to join the Black Panthers in the late '60s and was swiftly caught up in the Trial of the Panther 21. The short version of this was that 21 members of the Black Panther party were arrested and accused of planning to bomb and shoot up three separate police stations in NYC. However, it came out in the trial (with the redoubtable Assata Shakur performing cross-examinations of witnesses, no less!) that three police informants had been the key organizers of the planned attack and had provided arms and training and incited people who otherwise might not have considered this tactic to do so.4

This revelation resulted in the universal acquittal of all 21 defendants in 1971. Sorry, did I say all 21? I meant "all except Kuwasi Balagoon." Balagoon was retried for the robbery of a bank in New Jersey and received a sentence of 23 years. 

However, it is worth noting that in 1970, while in prison awaiting trial, Balagoon was instrumental in a prison riot. The prisoners managed to take seven hostages, all of whom were ultimately released. Kuwasi deliberately held himself aloof from meetings deciding the hostages' fates, trusting that the assemblies would have a good result through directly democratic means. While the strike and riot were ultimately defeated, Kuwasi found his faith in democratic and horizontal processes confirmed: ordinary people could and would defy the power of their oppressors. This was a major theme in Kuwasi's philosophy of anarchism: trust in the autonomy of others. 

This trust manifests in Kuwasi's deck with cards that allow his opponents to make some choices. For example, with Bladegriff Prototype, Kuwasi gives another player an opportunity to remove a permanent that is a threat to both. Infernal Offering can make an ally by letting a player return their best dead creature to the battlefield. And a variety of Fact or Fiction effects, including Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths (who is fun to bounce and replay with ninjutsu) and the new Intrude on the Mind, can really show Kuwasi which players he can trust to make the right decisions.

Jail Break(s)!

The brief time that Kuwasi Balagoon was in prison he spent in reflection. Kuwasi noted that there were some major problems with the Panthers' response to increasing state repression, namely, divesting from community organizing when members were arrested and encouraging strict, hierarchical structures that left no room for adjusting tactics or reprisals against police assassinations of activists. This was a structural problem that allowed the leaders of the Panthers to consolidate power and use that hierarchy to stifle any alternate approach to liberation.

Balagoon wrote: 

"The idea of collectives was alien to the Panther Party. We had different survival programs, and people were involved to be part of them, to donate time, afford to get things/stuff from businesses operating inside the community, to use the space of institutions such as churches. But the Party, being a hierarchy, simply could not initiate alternatives--it felt it had to lead them--it was to be, in its mind and words, not just the leading party but the sole representative of the Black colony. So there was not any organized effort to take space in the colony and actually produce (only to distribute) or to provide transport or a militia. It was miles away from all of that, because it was a hierarchy. To fully take on the power structure in a given area, you got to not only provide alternatives but institutions that render the old ones useless." (emphasis mine)

It was in prison that Kuwasi Balagoon turned formally to anarchism, having rejected the structure of the Black Panthers up to this point. Further cementing this choice was the traditional Marxist-Leninist line against non-straight sexual orientations/gender identities: Kuwasi was bisexual and didn't feel as if he should have to cut out an essential part of himself to follow the "correct" revolutionary line. Further, as Balagoon himself noted, anarchism was the only ideology that refused to honor the concept of borders.

He then escaped from prison (and not for the last time: he was something of an artist of breaking both himself and other people out of prison, including in 1979 liberation of Assata Shakur from prison). His escape talents are represented in his deck by a variety of unblockable creatures, which enable Satoru's ninjutu-granting ability. Some of this is just through cheap evasive creatures, like Slither Blade and Gudul Lurker, but repeatable abilities, like on Passwall Adept, Key to the City, and The Black Gate, allow stronger creatures to attack unimpeded too.

Brinks Robbery (1983)

After escaping from prison (again in 1978), Kuwasi joined the Black Liberation Army and waged a more or less non-stop guerrilla war against the police and other organs of the state, with a focus on expropriations (robbing banks, stores, and armored cars to fund revolutionary causes, much like Quico Sabaté and his brothers, who Balagoon cites as examples of revolutionary anarchists in his own work; for more on them, you can find our article on Quico Sabaté).

Like Sabaté, Kuwasi sought to fund his revolution through his attacks on capital and the state. His Commander deck also shares the theme with Sabaté's of gaining card and mana advantage through saboteur effects. Ancient Silver Dragon and Ancient Brass Dragon are some of the most exciting creatures to get with Satoru's ninjutsu discount. Gríma, Saruman's Footman and Shadowmage Infiltrator serve double duty as evasive ninjutsu-enablers and saboteurs themselves. Since it's the main source of card advantage in his deck, Kuwasi rounds out this section with several simple draw saboteurs, like Soulknife Spy and Jhessian Thief, and includes Reconnaissance Mission and Bident of Thassa to let all his creatures get in on the card-drawing action.

During this period, he lived underground. The thing that ultimately got Kuwasi a life sentence was the robbery of a Brink's armored car in 1981, getting away with about 1.5 million dollars (Wikipedia informs me that this is about $5.5 mil in today's money). Most of his comrades were caught swiftly afterwards, but Kuwasi managed to vanish for around three months before being caught in New York City in early 1982 and put on trial in the July of 1983. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, leading him to quip:  "As to the seventy-five years in prison, 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."5

A Vision of the Future

Kuwasi's vision of a world after a revolution was explicitly anarchist. He had read a lot of anarchist theory and had a lot of real-life practice in praxis--he knew from his time as a community organizer that the neighborhood organized could and should serve as the building block of the next society. Kuwasi Balagoon absolutely understood the anarchist principle of unity of means and ends.

He wrote in a short essay, Anarchy Can't Fight Alone:

"Of all ideologies, anarchy is the one that addresses liberty and equalitarian relations in a realistic and ultimate fashion. It is consistent with each individual having an opportunity to live a complete and total life. With anarchy, the society as a whole not only maintains itself at an equal expense to all, but progresses in a creative process unhindered by any class, caste or party. This is because the goals of anarchy don't include replacing one ruling class with another, neither in the guise of a fairer boss or as a party. This is key because this is what separates anarchist revolutionaries from Maoist, socialist and nationalist revolutionaries who from the onset do not embrace complete revolution. They cannot envision a truly free and equalitarian society and must to some extent embrace the socialization process that makes exploitation and oppression possible and prevalent in the first place."

He explicitly references the Spanish anarchist collectives that sprung up during the Spanish Civil War/Revolution, especially their confederal model of democratic organization. This model had several features that honored autonomy and self-determination and resisted centralization and unjust hierarchies. He outlines these traits in his work Where Do We Go from Here, writing:

"The collective process is more important than a large treasury, cache of arms, or throngs of people shouting your name, because to do anything in the social arena that determines the conditions for liberty and wealth, the spending and the investing of wealth must be organized."

In Kuwasi's anarchist future, there would be no nations but federations of democratic neighborhoods that were run by the people who lived there:

"Who will lead these collectives? Who is the most qualified? Those are questions for the collectives to decide. All that can be decided on a one person, one vote basis should be decided that way. At the same time, at different points, on different matters, particular individuals will clearly be more knowledgeable than others, but this too should be decided collectively. Obviously, a mechanic in a collective garage would know more about what tools should be bought first, how to obtain the best at the best rates, and the approximate amount of time that may be required for certain work and would therefore practically be a leader. However, at the same time a collective shouldn't establish a garage if there's not at least enough mechanics to do a large portion of collective transportation work, and it is the collective who decides if, when, and where. Additionally, an auto repair collective would have other members, based in some aspects of auto repair and maintenance, such as changing tires, batteries, jump starts, etc. and would be required to learn more through on the job training.

"Besides this, there are other things attendant to operating a collective garage or any other collective project. The obtaining and stocking of supplies and parts, the allocation of funds for light and heat, propaganda, the national procuring of office supplies and lunch, maintenance of the building, scheduling of shifts, classes and meetings, so that members can attend both!"

Once these horizontal confederations were established, they could confederate with instantly recallable delegates (who got no special privileges) to create large, at-scale networks. For more on this system of confederalism, I recommend reading both more of Balagoon's writing and Peirat's work on the Spanish communes.

Again, respect for the autonomy of people was at the heart of this program: rather than trying to capture power and enforce it from above, this was a bottom-up revolutionary vision.

"A Maroon heart..."

Sadly, Kuwasi Balagoon died of complications from AIDS in 1986 while in prison, but he left an indelible mark on those who knew and loved him, as a talented poet, guerilla, writer, and friend. I think we'll close out with a poem dedicated to Kuwasi by his friend and fellow guerrilla and political prisoner (only just paroled in 2021) David Gilbert:

color. Maroon spirit. Laugh;

"Syncopated jazz
whistle; surreal art; poetry--
both sharp and touching

"Lion heart courage
but puppy dog loving heart
our freedom fighter"

Kuwasi Balagoon's full Commander deck is below!

Kuwasi Balagoon's EDH Deck

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Commander (1)
Lands (38)
Creatures (48)
Artifacts (2)
Enchantments (3)
Planeswalkers (3)
Sorceries (2)
Instants (3)

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  1. The name his country of birth gave him was Donald Weems, which he rejected upon becoming politically active. In his Brink's trial opening statement, Kuwasi said, in regards to his names: "The English translation of Kuwasi is 'born on a Sunday' and the translation of Balagoon [both words are Yoruba] is 'Warlord' and it suits me to have a name which reflects what I am about and my origins, I accept that name. Donald Weems, the name that the prosecutor likes to use, is an alien European name. Donald is a Christian name--and I am not a Christian and Weems is a Scottish name, and I am not Scottish. It's a name that some slaver decided to brand what he considered his property with, and it is the name the state likes to use to propagate a colonial relationship. The English translation of Weems is 'cave dweller'. I reject all that it means."
  2. A lot of prominent African-American authors from this time and going forward choose specifically not to capitalize words like "i", "english", etc. as a way of de-emphasizing the ego and attacking the sovereignty of the dominant ideology; it's not that Kuwasi Balagoon didn't know how to write, it's that his grammar reflects his attempt to change things.
  3. It is worth noting that the Black Liberation Army was pretty low on anarchist revolutionaries; most of their members were Marxist-Leninists, whose authoritarian and hierarchical ideology (to put it mildly) does not play well with anarchism's focus on decentralization and autonomy. However, in his letters, Balagoon makes it clear that, while his views about what a successful revolution would look like differed in every particular from his comrades, he agreed to work with his friends whom he loved and trusted despite their deep ideological differences about what the world would look like after the revolution.
  4. Not the first or the last time that the forces of the state will give guns, money, and training to people and then arrest them for the plans they themselves thought up. For a more recent example of this style of entrapment, consider the entrapment of Muslim-Americans after 9/11 in a desperate bid for the US government to look like they were "fighting terrorism".
  5. As it has been only forty-one years since 1983, the veracity of his prediction is yet to be determined. The State ain't looking too good...

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.