I remember them. Neka was always with James, and they were always with Kuwasi. The three of them occupied the brownstone where Lorde Street meets Langston Drive. It had a great big front yard, with a black iron gate racing around the perimeter. The yard and Lorde Street could be seen from the front porch. Langston Drive had to be monitored from a room window on the right side of the building. They turned that place into our headquarters. Those three were romantics, but having that space, a space of their own dedicated to their ideas, which became our ideas, made it all the real. The Beat Center is what we called it, and within a few weeks of them “owning” it, it became known as the place of Black radicals. Queer radicals depending on whom you asked, but nevertheless radicals. Kuwasi led political workshops, while James did the recruiting, and Neka trained us. The pigs patrolled the Beat, and we sat outside with Neka to let them know, let the world know, we would defend it.
For two years that space inspired the generations, my generation and the older ones. We operated quietly, but there was always something brewing. Black folks, and only Black folks were allowed in and we would come out feeling pissed off and rejuvenated. That had the pigs scared. They would knock on the door every now and again, despite Neka’s cold demeanor and pickaxe on the stoop. James would do the talking as Neka and Kuwasi stood around looking as Black and menacing as they could. No effort necessary on their part. James spoke since he was pretty that way and soft spoken enough to make masculinity rethink its orientation. I came to the Beat that way, he smiled and I felt compelled to follow. Kuwasi was too angry and smart to speak with any pigs. And despite Michelle in the big house, who was really going to hear a Black woman? So Neka carried her axe.
We blacked the windows out on the lower front of the house and painted a Black fist on the big red front door. The second floor windows had painting on them too. One had a picture of Malcolm, who everyone knew. And the other had a picture of a different Kuwasi, who everyone should have known, but didn’t. Our Kuwasi named himself after him, but always reminded us he lived in a different time, and he wasn’t trying to be that Kuwasi, just pay his respects. James would give the recruits a copy of Kuwasi Ballagoon’s book and have them read it and report back. It took me two weeks and two interviews to get “accepted.” The first time around Kuwasi told me I searched for the queer too much and lost track of its insights. James sat with me a few nights before my second interview and coached me up. The second time around Kuwasi and Neka smiled and welcomed me with a hug. That’s how Black folk gained admission to the house during “peace” time, by showing your dedication to the cause and to learning. Most of us never made it through on the first interview. It was a process; unless of course you were running from the pigs, or needed emergency shelter from some other type of state violence. Entrance was granted on a provisional basis, until the three of them could make sense of the circumstances.
One night, about a year into their operation, when the Beat Center was really gaining in its Black popularity and I had been a soldier for about four months, a Black woman came running into the yard screaming. The woman’s boyfriend had hit her in the face. A few kids jumped up and rushed to her side. She was known from around the neighborhood, but had not belonged to our group. Slowly Neka made her way through the group to examine the woman. She left her axe back on the porch, but I guess she didn’t want to scare the woman more than she already was. Kuwasi and James remained on the porch looking onto the scene. The boyfriend ran up and stood at the sidewalk, asking for his woman back. We all looked at him. He knew not to step foot on our yard. James raised his shotgun. I rested my bat on my shoulder. Neka turned to the woman, “what do you want to do?”
“I can’t go back. Can I stay here?”
“This isn’t a women’s shelter. What do you want to do about this?”
The man began yelling for his woman to come. By this time the neighborhood began forming a crowd. Neka singled for two men to step to the front of yard next to the screaming boyfriend. She motioned for the rest of us to step back away from the woman.
James trained his shotgun at the man. Kuwasi stood next to him and yelled, “Brotha, I suggest you stay right there, and let this woman think.”
Neka looked at the woman as she stood there crying and thinking.
One of the newer members and current watchman-on-duty, came out The Beat and yelled into the yard, “we got about eight minutes till the next patrol.” Kuwasi touched James’s shoulder signaling to him to lower his gun as the two began to walk down the porch. Neka waved her hand motioning for the two to stop where they were. Kuwasi yelled “seven minutes, Neka.” She nodded her head and turned her eyes back to the woman.
“Whatchu want to do? It’s up to you. This is about you right now, no one else.”
The man began to walk towards the group, James raised his shotgun again, but Neka locked eyes with him and shook her head no. Neka took two steps toward me, leaving a clear path for the man to walk toward the woman.
She took two steps back toward the porch as James cocked his shotgun. The man stopped, reached his arm out and lightly asked that his woman come with him. He pleaded and apologized, “I’m sorry, baby. Come on home.”
The woman turned back toward James, “Don’t kill him.”
Neka stuck her arm out toward me. I placed my bat in her hand, and with the swiftness she was training us to have, she struck the man in the back of the knee breaking his leg nearly in half. He fell to the floor knees first and she put her boot in his back knocking him all the way down.
“Whatcu want to do about this?” Neka asked. Kuwasi and James walked back toward the porch. Kuwasi motioned for everyone in the yard to go back in the The Beat. As we began walking up the porch he yelled out to the neighborhood, “Go on back home. Four minutes till the next patrol. Y’all ain’t seen nothing and don’t know nothing.”
The man was crying on the floor, Neka’s boot still in his back.
“Go on back home” Neka said to the woman, “You can either pack up your things and go on somewhere else, or stay put and live your life. He won’t hit you no more, that much I can guarantee” She poked her bat into the back of his neck as he wept more and more. By this time we had all gathered in the space, but I stayed by the door and looked on. I was curious and scared all at the same time.
The woman began to walk away, “what are y’all going to do with him?”
“Patch him up and send him back in the world. We’ll teach him a few things. But, like I said, he won’t be hitting you anymore. What you want to do with him from there is on you” Neka released the man from her stance and motioned to the house for some help. I came running out, two men followed me. “Get on out of here” she said to the woman. We carried the man into the Beat Center.
I think it was that day, that things got serious for me, and I knew we were doing some serious work. But it was also that day where things got serious for The Beat. The pigs showed up as we were dragging the crying man up the stairs.