Lamont Lilly is on the front lines for justice, personally, putting his feet, his head, his heart, and his words out there daily. This Durham based writer and thinker was the 2016 Workers World Party, Vice-Presidential Candidate. He is a journalist and a poet.
Lamont Lilly granted the Clarion Content’s publisher, Aaron Mandel, this exclusive interview.
AM: How are you?
LL: I have to say, Brother Aaron, I’m actually feeling quite inspired right about now. Grounded, hopeful, determined!
The movement is back in high gear. I’m also about to drop my first book in a few months. Exciting times! But at the same time, there are also major struggles going on, both locally and nationally. I’m pretty much in warrior mode everyday—at peace, but focused. Extremely!
AM: How is your community? Your friends, your family, those around you?
LL: Lol…well, that all depends on which demographic you want to hear about first. I’ll start with my family because that’s my foundation. Without my mom and dad, my grandmother and aunties, I wouldn’t even be doing this work. They were the ones who first planted the seeds of service and justice. They’re doing well and we just had a family reunion last month. Folks are getting older now, though. Time is becoming all the more precious.
My community? Hmmm…you know, the word “community” can mean so many different things. Personally, when I think of the word community, I think of the people who love and accept me for who I am—the village, my kinfolk, my elders and ancestors, a place of peace, love and comfort. For me, that means Blackness, Black people, Black culture, Black history and Black spaces. I’m actually in the process of moving from the West End back over into Old Hayti.
Old Hayti is the one Durham borough that I’ve spent most of my time in, going back to my days as a student at NCCU (North Carolina Central University). It’s also where I first began organizing. At this point in my life, I just want to be around people who genuinely love me, not people who ‘tolerate’ me because they want to seem civilized. That’s not community.
With that context in mind, I think a lot of folks in my community are really just trying to hold on and stay afloat, pay their bills, you know—raise their families and enjoy a little piece of life. I think you can apply that both locally here in Durham and within the broader Black community, from Jackson, Mississippi to Oakland, California…on up to Philadelphia and Harlem.
In reference to my friends and comrades, most of the people I roll with are fighting like hell right now. They’re fighting for justice and liberation. They’re fighting to end poverty, gentrification, and mass incarceration. They’re fighting to end capitalism, sexism, and homophobia. They’re fighting against racism and white supremacy. And they’re also fighting against bogus felony charges for toppling a statue and symbol of racism that should never have been erected in the first place.
I was so proud of them! Takiyah Thompson, Elena Everett, Dante Strobino, Peter Gilbert, Loan Tran, and Raul Jimenez, those are my comrades, my friends. These people are heroes, freedom fighters. Since the state of NC and our elected officials wouldn’t take it down, the people took it down themselves. Wow! What a show of courage and sacrifice! Absolutely beautiful!
AM: What can you say about the sentiments you have seen in Durham?
LL: Most people I’ve spoken to have been very supportive of that statue coming down. Black and Brown folk live racism every single day. Of course they were happy. I also think a lot of white folks, particularly white millennials, are beginning to realize that…no, we do NOT live in a “post-racial” society, especially after what happened in Charlottesville, VA.
When the Ku Klux Klan attempted to hold a rally here in Durham last week, people of all races and nationalities came together. The people of Durham collectively said “hell no,” not here you won’t. Over 1,000 people were in the streets last Friday, taking a stand against racism, the Klan and white supremacy. That’s your “public sentiment” right there. It was also good to see Duke University follow the community’s lead on this.
By the way, why would you place a confederate statue in front of a chapel anyway—a chapel that was designed by Julian F. Abele (a Black man)? Abele not only designed the Duke Chapel, he was the chief architect of Cameron Indoor Stadium, Perkins Library, the Allen Building, the Duke Medical School and basically the university’s entire West Campus. Where is his statue? Damn! This was the person who designed Duke University and gave it the now infamous, ‘gothic’ feel. Yet, most people right here in Durham don’t even know who Julian F. Abele is, because the university doesn’t want people to know, especially not the students.
It’s interesting how some people are now complaining about “not wanting their history to be erased.” Yet, this country has been erasing people’s history for centuries now. Don’t even get me started on the Native Americans. And please, let’s not forget how Europeans came into Africa shooting off the full lips and broad noses of ancient African statues, destroying pyramids and burning cultural artifacts. Is that not history, too? I think the question is, “Whose history are we really celebrating, here?”
AM: What are your hopes for what comes next in Durham?
LL: One word: Justice!
We want justice for Takiyah Thompson, and for all of the monument arrestees. That means dropping those two felonies charges and three misdemeanors. That means stop raiding people’s homes like the Durham County Sheriff’s Department raided me and my roommates’ home last week.
Justice for the poor who are standing at intersections all over the city with orange vests on, asking for spare change – justice for the homeless who are literally sleeping under bridges right here in Durham. Justice for Black and Brown communities, like Southside, who are being displaced by expensive condominiums and gentrification. Justice for Frank Clark, Jose Ocampo and Carlos Riley, Jr.
AM: And nationally?
LL: Statues and symbols are just the beginning. We want a complete end to the entire “system” of white supremacy. We want an end to white supremacist laws and public policies, white supremacist politicians, white supremacist schools and white-washed curriculums that only produce more racism. We want an end to structural racism like the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the “Stop and Frisk” policy that allows the police to strip search Black folk just for walking down the street.
We want an end to the private prison industry, which is nothing but a reincarnation of the Convict Lease System of the late 1800’s (profiling and locking folks up to exploit their labor). We also want an end to capitalism, which actually fuels all of this bullshit – the greed, violence and perpetuation of war, the exploitation, the 1,000 military bases the United States has spread out around the globe, the valuing of profit over people.
You see, Donald Trump didn’t just appear out of thin air, Brother Aaron. Trump is the symptom, not the cause. He was created by the intersection of two systems: social “caste” and social “class.” He was given that platform by the corporations, the elite and their power structures. His presence serves a purpose, but for whom? It’s so important that folks understand that, and question that. That’s what ‘Make America Great Again’ was all about.
AM: Have you heard from other leaders of the movement in the South?
LL: Yes, certainly! I communicate with a lot of different organizers from the South—that means from Baltimore, Maryland all the way down to Jackson, Mississippi–Ferguson as well, although most people don’t really consider Missouri to be the South.
I was just down in Atlanta, Georgia a few weeks ago for four days of “Black August” activities. I was in Roanoke, Virginia earlier this year, speaking and organizing around Black History Month. Our oppressors are most definitely organized across state lines. As freedom fighters, we have to do the same thing.
I also have some good people down in Charleston, South Carolina. Definitely can’t forget Charleston.
AM: Do you feel there is a cohesive movement?
LL: Relatively speaking, yes. Most of the grassroots organizers throughout the Southeast all work together to uplift and support each other. Do we always agree on best methods, strategies or ideology? No, of course not!
But I think most activists and organizers do realize, regardless of your specific tendency or organization, we‘re all fighting for the same justice, the same liberation, the same dignity. We may be driving in different lanes, but it’s the same highway, the same road to freedom. I think most people are finally realizing that solidarity is the only way we’re actually going to get free.
To be completely honest with you, Aaron, I think the only major difference within ‘the movement’ itself, is that some people are fighting to reform the system, while others are like, “Yo, stop playing! This system isn’t working and it never has worked.” Those are the folk fighting to completely dismantle the system and create something new.
AM: I (unashamedly) want to frame this in positive terms, as much as possible. I believe in the power of love.
LL: Lol…yes, so do I. That’s what being a revolutionary is all about…love. When you fall in love with the people, you’ll serve the people, you’ll struggle with the people and put your life, time and energy on the line. We have to love the people like you love your own child. If any one of your children were in immediate danger, you wouldn’t even second guess yourself. You would put your own life on the line to save them, to feed them, to help them survive and grow up strong—because that’s your offspring, the next generation that must continue when we’re long gone. It’s the same thing with serving the people.
I agree with you, Brother Aaron. Love is the best way to do that because love makes you listen. Love makes you speak truth to power. Love makes you patient. Love will also make you fearless. Love means keeping your culture and history alive. Love means defending yourself and your people, by any means necessary.
You see, real love does not pacify; real love is empowering! Love is light! Real love makes you feel alive, not dead. Real love is freedom, not chains. And anywhere that real love finds chains, “real love” has a responsibility to break those chains. That’s why love is so powerful. It breaks yokes and climbs mountains. Love does not beat people, enslave people or lock them in cages. Real love liberates people. That’s probably why the old slave masters never wanted my ancestors to love themselves. The moment you start loving yourself and loving your people, you walk different and talk different. That’s the moment you’ll unashamedly, start fighting back.
AM: What are some of the generative steps people who want to participate can take?
LL: Lol…there are so many answers to that question I can’t even give you one. It all depends. I always advise people to start with what you’re passionate about. As I stated earlier, there are so many different lanes that people can fit it. And you don’t have to choose just one. Within the field of social justice, one can do so many different things. The answer is to just start doing it, just a like child taking their first steps. Once you get past the fear, you can figure out the rest as you go along.
AM: Is there a “green” element to what is going on?
LL: If you mean in reference to the broader movement, hell yeah! More and more people are becoming aware of how this system is not only violent to humanity, but how it is also violent to the environment and to the Earth. You know, we live within a system, Brother Aaron, that has no connection or respect for the water we drink, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the very soil that we depend on to feed us.
Instead of respecting the environment, we live in a system that would rather dump its waste in our community rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. These corporations don’t care about the residents who live nearby. They also don’t care about all of the hormones they’re putting in our food. All this system cares about is profit, profit, and more profit.
You ever wonder why so many Americans are dying of cancer, now? Think about it. Almost everybody above the age of sixty in this country has some form of cancer—breast cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, skin cancer. It wasn’t like this fifty years ago, brother. My grandmother would tell you the same thing. But now, everybody’s buying “organic!” I wonder why? Because the system we’re living in is completely out of sync with the environment. We’re paying for that, you know, with our bodies. Smog has serious health effects. The water in Flint, Michigan has had serious effects. McDonald’s has serious health effects.
You know, these corporations will sell you anything, if you’re willing to buy it, even if it’s not real. By the way, most poor people can’t afford “organic.” They’re living off Ramen Noodles and the Dollar Menu. Now, combine that with toxic air and lead paint.
Me personally, I think the environment is just as important as addressing police brutality and mass incarceration. I don’t think we have a choice in the matter.
AM: There is so much coupling of economic and social injustice with environmental injustice. And I don’t just mean in the less developed parts of the globe. I know you know, right here in Durham, lower income housing is more likely to be in a food desert, under a power line, near a dump, a brown field, a dry cleaners spewing chemical pollutants.
LL: That’s right, because this is not only a race thing; it’s also a class thing. And you damn right, Aaron! Environmental racism is definitely happening right here in Durham. What about the Orange County Landfill and the Rogers-Eubanks struggle?
Here was a historically Black community just outside of Chapel Hill that got a landfill dumped right in their backyard. We’re talking about 80 acres of land that used to be the Black community. Now, it’s a landfill that continues to grow and push people out. Who in the hell wants to have a family picnic beside a goddamn landfill?! This is happening right down the street from us.
It’s always the poor who catch this kind of hell first…whether it’s Chapel Hill or Standing Rock, North Dakota.
AM: Do you feel that protestors, locally/nationally perceive the wider arc of injustice?
LL: Well, I think “people” are beginning to see the injustice for themselves—families, students, young people, workers, poor and marginalized people of all nationalities. When most people see injustice, it makes them want to do something about it. So we protest, we organize, we create art, we feed people, we do everything we can to raise consciousness and mobilize our communities. We’re not just protestors. We’re “people” who are trying to change the conditions we live in.
I think this notion of “professional protestors” can sometimes be a distraction from the actual issues. It’s kind of like the term “outside agitator.” Instead of acknowledging that there is a real problem that needs to be fixed, it’s much easier to just blame the victim and casually label them as “professional complainers” who are always whining about something. Never mind the actual injustice.
AM: I have seen some attacks on the individuals involved in fighting injustice because of their connection to the World Workers Party and/or socialism, communism.
LL: Lol…yeah, me too! Lol…I’m actually one of those individuals who get attacked every now and then, because of this same association. After all, I was the 2016 Workers World Party U.S. Vice-Presidential Candidate last year. ‘Red Scare’ is nothing new, Brother Aaron. But it’s actually a tag I wear quite proudly. Almost every person I look up to was a Socialist/Communist, or they were in the process of evolving to that point, that is, before they were assassinated by the U.S. government.
As a matter of fact, Fred Hampton was a revolutionary socialist. Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Kathleen Cleaver, the entire Black Panther Party were revolutionary socialists. They studied everybody from Karl Marx to Ho Chi Minh, Frantz Fanon, and Vladimir Lenin. If we go back a little further, you’ll also find that artists, scholars and thinkers like Max Roach, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson, and Claudia Jones identified as Communists as well. It was Lorraine Hansberry was teaching Nina Simone about Socialism. By the way, for those folk who think African Americans have never supported socialism, these people are all Black. These people are all legends, icons, major contributors to their people and American society.
As a matter of fact, before he was assassinated, even Malcolm X had become an anti-capitalist. It was Malcolm X who once said, “You can’t operate a capitalist system unless you are vulturistic…You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a blood sucker.” He was also an anti-imperialist, and we know he was an anti-racist. Malcolm X knew very well that “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” It sounds to me like he was evolving and traveling somewhere; except, he was assassinated before he got there.
We can also look also outside of the U.S. and find world leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, former President of Ghana, Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, or the now cult figure, Ernesto Ché Guevara (whose t-shirts you can now find on sale at your local Target and Wal-Mart).
You know, it’s also interesting how we live in a city that’s typically quite LGBTQ friendly. That’s Durham now, which is a good thing. But it took us a while to get there as a ‘city of acceptance’ that has learned to embrace people’s differences, particularly around one’s sexual preference or gender identity. But if you ask anyone within the LGBTQ community who Leslie Feinberg is, they would gladly tell you in like 3 seconds. Leslie was a pioneer in the LGBTQ community, long before that acronym even existed. We’re talking the Stonewall Rebellion days.
Leslie died in 2014, but literally, her last dying words were, “Remember me as Revolutionary Communist.” Leslie also just happened to be a member of Workers World Party. And it was Workers World Party that was one of the first national organizations to champion LGBTQ rights. This was back in the 1970’s when such a position wasn’t so popular.
Personally, I think we’re in pretty good company.
AM: Do you think this is a stigma that is ever present?
LL: Lol…stigma? What stigma? To the folks who have their eyes open out here, there is no stigma.
It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said himself, “Capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.” King wrote that in 1952 in a personal letter to Coretta Scott King before they were even married. Longtime Black Socialist, A. Philip Randolph was one of Dr. King’s mentors. This was the same Dr. King who said, “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”
They don’t give you that Dr. King, though. All they give the kids in school is the “I Have a Dream” version of Dr. King. People should know that by the time Dr. King was assassinated, he was clearly a Socialist. Clearly! Go back and check the FBI files. Better yet, pull up some of his YouTube speeches from 1967 and ’68. Dr. King was on absolute FIRE!! He was speaking direct truth to power. He was also speaking out against the Vietnam War. Capitalism, materialism, racism, colonialism, Dr. King was talking about all of these things.
So what are we really talking about here, “stigmas” or ignorance? Most people, unfortunately, don’t know this history. Besides, if I was the person who was oppressing you, why would I tell you how to get free? If I was smart, I would point you in the exact opposite direction. I sure as hell wouldn’t point you toward liberation, that’s for sure. And that’s exactly why most people here in the U.S. above the age of 35 to 40 don’t really know about Socialism.
Speaking of history, you know, Pauli Murray is on murals all over Durham, now. But in the 1970’s people were calling her a “freak” and a “weirdo.” Some people even said she had a stigma. Now, she’s a hero, a legend, an icon. You see how that works? We should always ask ourselves, “Who’s shaping the narrative, and why?
AM: Can the average person who sees the obvious racial injustice in America, the obvious double standard against women, the marginalization of the LGBTQ community, can the average person connect that to economic injustice?
LL: Of course people can, if they choose to see it.
AM: Do they?
LL: A lot people fail to make these types of connections, but Pauli Murray sure made these connections, and so did Huey P. Newton and James Baldwin and Takiyah Thompson. While some people may fail to make these connections, on the contrary, a lot of other people are making these connections, especially the young people today.
Millenials are definitely connecting these dots. They already know the system doesn’t work. They know that because they’re living the effects of it every day, which is why a lot of them are exploring Socialism and Communism again. The U.S. Left hasn’t seen this kind of spike in interest since the 1980’s. Slowly but surely, folks are definitely making these connections.
AM: Are there ways we can move away from a trajectory of fear?
LL: Well, as the great woman warrior Ramona Africa once stated, “Don’t be afraid to be a revolutionary. We have nothing to lose.”
Those who have nothing to lose, have nothing to fear. But we do have to get better organized. As freedom fighters, we also have to multiply. We need more people, more bodies, more minds, more skill sets. But at least people are having some real conversations, now. You know, I think ignorance is the largest purveyor of fear. Once we dismantle the ignorance, we can get some freedom, some justice, some liberation. But we have to be honest with each other and listen to each other. We have to be willing to have some tough conversations…kind of like this one. This was good.
Thank you so much, Brother Aaron, for allowing me to share a few thoughts with you.
All power to the people! ■