Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin is a veteran community and anti-racist, anti-colonialist, and anti-prison organizer. He was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, The Black Panther Party, and is a founding member of the Black Autonomy Federation. Lorenzo is the author of the underground classic, Anarchism and the Black Revolution as well as many other essays and articles about fighting capitalism and white supremacy. A former political prisoner and political refugee, he currently lives in Memphis Tennessee and is working to bring attention to and combat rampant police brutality in the area including the murder of 15 year old Justin Thompson.
Jessica Garraway: What is the Black Autonomy Federation and the Let’s Organize the Hood program?
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Let’s Organize the Hood started out as a training program. We were training people of color activists all over the U.S. and Canada over the course of about 15 years. Organize the Hood is kinda like something that you would organize in your own community. It won’t be the same in every community. Some places the issue might be unemployment in the black community. Here in Memphis we thought the issue was going to be massive unemployment and poverty because this is the poorest big city in the country. So far that has not proven to be the case though.
We trained people in Detroit who were interested in building a black led tenants movement. We trained people in Atlanta who had issues that they wanted to deal with around massive unemployment and police shootings ‘cause, you know, we have experience in grassroots organizing around all of these things. We don’t project ourselves as some sort of experts who are over and above the people but we’ve got practical experience. We’re not putting out any national plan or something that we haven’t done ourselves; that we haven’t actually got our hands dirty in doing. It’s a program that’s for the community to take up.
Organizers might bring it to the community but the plan is that the organizers would ultimately be removed and the community would run its own programs, ‘cause that’s the way I was taught in the 1960’s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. You had organizers who would be sent to a community and in the community they would find who the leaders were and they would train and develop that leadership then they would get out of the way and let the people do what they feel like they needed to do. Now they would be around if people had questions or wanted help or something but basically the community made all the major decisions.
So this is what we’re trying to develop in Memphis. This is something brand new here in Memphis in the sense that we’ve only been living here for a couple years ourselves and our program has only been in existence two months. And in two months time especially once we figured out that the community has had a long running history with the police department, we’ve become the main organization in the city dealing with police brutality. There’s no other groups doing anything. The so-called civil rights groups haven’t said anything. They’ve been neutralized completely.
I guess you could say that Let’s Organize the Hood is what you want it to be in your community. There’s no rule that says that you have to organize everything thus and thus and thus. Although there is a national program. We got areas that we work in but each community and sometimes even each neighborhood would be able to pick out its own particular program and carry that out.
JG: What is the situation in Memphis with police brutality?
LKE: To really understand why these things happen in Memphis, you have to look at the political structure here and go back a little ways. Back some years ago there were so many shootings of black people here by what was then an openly racist police department. An all white police department was killing black people including several young kids. There was a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court called Tennessee v. Garner and in that case the issue was brought up of a “fleeing felon law” which allowed the police to use deadly force in situations where a person was unarmed and merely trying to elude capture. Well they could shoot you in the back of the head and that’s what they were doing. A lot of people were dying in that period here.
So this case wound up in the Supreme Court. The court looked at this situation and they found that fleeing felon law unconstitutional. They forbade the Memphis PD from using deadly force in a situation where someone was trying to elude capture that didn’t represent any threat of violence to the public. Well of the nine people that were killed by the Memphis PD this year, none of them were armed and five of those were trying to run for there lives with police shooting at them. And this young man Justin Thompson that was killed, they claimed he was shot just one time but there were at least four other bullets that they pulled out of peoples houses. So he was shot at at least five times and they refused to let his family see the body.
In February a young man, 20 years old, was shot in the back. They claimed that he was the leader of a car theft ring. And when they ran up on him, they shot him in the back. They admit he didn’t have any gun. He was just trying to get in the car and escape.
Then you had the case of a young man who was 19 years old. He was mentally challenged. They claimed that he ran at six cops with a knife. They knew who this guy was. They knew he was mentally challenged and they had arrested him two months before this. They shot him. We don’t know how many times they shot him because they cover all this stuff up. Now Memphis claims that they have a model for how to deal with mentally challenged people that does not require them to use deadly force. And they claim to have at least 200 officers who are specially trained to defuse such situations. Well the question is where were those officers at? Because the police station is right up the hill within a couple of blocks from where this boy was killed. Any one of these officers could have defused the situation. They could have just overpowered him. Six cops can do that. The same night a white man was arrested with a knife and they didn’t beat him they certainly didn’t kill him.
Then there was another situation where a black man was in a relationship with a white woman and was driving around in her car. She reported the car stolen. Even after they found out that the car was not stolen, they went after this guy and shot him 32 times.
You got two people who were in police custody who got choked to death. One guy was arrested at a July 4th party and he turned up dead, choked to death. And the police won’t release the autopsy reports. So part of our struggle is to get them to release this information.
Then you got two people killed here in an automobile accident with a police officer. This guy was driving at 101 miles per hour with no sirens or running lights and just ran into a 13 year old girl and her grandmother and killed them. And this is the third case of what is essentially vehicular homicide by a cop in the last five years.
In all these cases, every one of these people was unarmed. One guy was sleeping in his car. How do you get killed for sleeping in your car? They say they beat on the door and woke him up and he jumped out of the car and grappled with the police and then jumped back in his car and started the engine and therefore they had to shoot and kill him. This is their story. And it really doesn’t matter to them what they tell us.
So this is the type of thing that goes on. But Memphis has a long history of this. Back in 1983 they killed seven young black men over a minor incident. This group was a so-called MOVE type organization according to the cops. So they set up an incident where they had the police go to the door claiming that someone had stolen something and forced their way in and surrounded the place. They killed everybody. They executed them. They shot every one of those men in the back of the head.
So this is what accounts for this kind of police terrorism in this town that has gone on for years and years. And we are the first group to be doing this type of grassroots organizing in 20 years. But the civil-rights groups have been neutralized by the election of a black mayor and also by money and status and all that kind of thing. In some places they will come out and demonstrate at least. They will at least acknowledge a police killing. But we’ve heard nothing in Memphis from the NAACP; nothing from the Southern Christian Leadership Council which we call the Southern Christian Liar’s Club; nothing from these groups. So this wasn’t the issue that we thought we were going to be organizing around but we’ve been pushed into it by community need and we’re the only force dealing with police brutality in Memphis.
JG: On September 8th there was a rally and march against police brutality. Can you tell us how that went? How do you see this movement against police brutality moving forward in Memphis and throughout the state?
LKE: We did have people come to this event from other cities especially Chattanooga which is my home town some five hours away from Memphis. And there is talk now of building a statewide movement. But the demonstration itself was fantastic if you consider the fact that what the media here does is they don’t report on anything that we do. We’re persona non grata. They are extremely opposed to us. If we give a press conference, nobody comes. I think one media source is pretty sympathetic, he comes. None of the other stations even report on it.
So if you consider this media white out that’s been going on for quite some time for us to get 70 people just with our own networks and flyers. That is absolutely phenomenal. And people were really militant and they took over the center of the city. And we went to the police station with all these tough guy cowboy cops and demonstrated in front of there and they would not come out.
And this is the place where they’re quick to beat you up. You can go on YouTube and see videos of them beating women up, beating children up, beating all kinda people up. But they would not come out to face us. So we marched on the city hall and went through the tourist district and had a 2 hour rally at city hall.
So this forced the media to come out and report on us. They wanted to portray a lot of negative stuff about us. Talk about my background as a revolutionary. Talk about my wife’s background in the Black Panther Party. Talk about the fact that I was a political prisoner; this that and the other. But the fact that they had to report on people protesting really shook them up. It allowed people to see that there are people who are willing to fight police brutality in this city. And we are going to build a statewide movement. And we are having an event on October 20th to raise the case of Justin Thompson, the 15 year old kid who was killed, and all of those who have died at the hands of the police. What we want to do is publicize these cases enough so that they will get the same kind of attention as Trayvon Martin. We want to eventually get a national march against police brutality.
It’s really important for people who’ve had loved ones die, whether that was last week or years ago, that they don’t give up the fight. A woman that I used to work with came to the event from Chattanooga and had somebody pushing her around in a wheelchair. But she wanted to be a part of it because she believes in this campaign. Her father was murdered by the police in 1983 and she founded the Concerned Citizens for Justice that I became president of. The CCJ led a 15 year campaign against police terrorism. And we had, at one stage, one of the most advanced political formations against police brutality in the country. ‘Cause our thing was grassroots organizing and protest as opposed to lobbying politicians and celebrity so-called leaders. We’re trying to build a grassroots movement from the bottom up.
JG: I first became aware of your work when I came across something you wrote about building a Poor Peoples Survival Movement and the need for autonomous communities to become self sufficient and eventually create bioregional federations. How does that connect to the work you’re doing now?
LKE: Well, you know, we’ve always taken the position of grassroots community organizing. So the logical next step is to then talk about how we build a community or series of communities that are not beholden to the existing government. How do we turn neighborhoods and communities into self governing communes? Right now there’s widespread disaffection with representative government. So the Idea is that on the local level people would start to build their own neighborhood institutions.
They’d even start to deal with community control of the police and building their own militias or self defense forces to deal with our own social issues. So the city and all these racist vigilantes calling themselves police officers wouldn’t be in the community to kill people. But you have to talk about how do you take a community that is extremely impoverished and create some kind of economic base where people can be given jobs and can build housing and infrastructure for themselves.
Urban food production is something that we’ve always recognized as a survival program. And we’ve been doing urban farming in other cities that we’ve been in and trying to understand the skills and link all these things together. We’ve got to deal with massive unemployment, police brutality and all of the things that are killing us.
Memphis has the highest number of infant mortality cases among black infants of any big city in the U.S. It’s the city with the highest rates of cancer among black women. And it’s the poorest big city in the country. And there’s all these social disparities because of long years of economic segregation and also years of police terrorism. All these things linked together. So when you build this, you can’t just concentrate on growing food. You have to organize around issues of people being disempowered by institutions that exist now. You gotta build a whole synthesis instead of just single issue organizing.
Even though at this stage we’re dealing with police terrorism, we came into existence actually to deal with a number of issues. One of them is the mass imprisonment of black youth. One of them is to deal with massive unemployment and poverty. And really this whole issue that we’re dealing with now is the one thing that no other groups wanted to deal with. But they were stacking up bodies so quick that we couldn’t ignore that.
To the question of a bioregional area as opposed to just a city: We cannot be limited to what the state says is the territorial limitation of an area. We need to be able to take land from corporations and use that to grow. Even in Chicago we started to do that. Because in the city of Chicago there’s all these plots of land. Buildings have been torn down and nobody’s using it for anything. So we started to just take it over. First they said, “Well we’re gonna give you permission,” and we said, “You don’t have to give us permission.” But it’s a fight. It really is a fight. And it’s not always dramatic. A lot of times people don’t even hear about it. We didn’t get any massive publicity for most of the stuff we did. And like I said, every city we’ve organized in has been different. And the expectations of people have been different.
JG: So is the strategy of the Black Autonomy Federation to help organize communities, share knowledge and skills, and then spread that to other areas?
LKE: This is essentially what we’ve been doing. We’ve been in a number of different cities. When we first got started in the mid nineties, we were in ten cities. The whole idea of creating a national movement without creating local movement first is that it’s unsustainable. When people see that you’ve got a sustainable movement wherever you started at, it can spread. People will emulate it. And that’s essentially what happened with the Black Panther Party. They didn’t try to build a national movement. They started in the Bay area and it just spread. It was popularized through media and different things but it wasn’t planned. That’s why we’re concentrating on Memphis. I’m not saying that we won’t help someone start up somewhere else, but our objective right now is to worry about Memphis.
What we try to do is develop people so that they can take on leadership roles within the community. And that’s really important otherwise you’ve just got a cult. Everybody follows one guy or two people and nobody else can say anything or do anything and nobody’s being trained to do anything.
JG: You’ve written before about the importance of supporting people of color in dismantling white supremacist institutions. Unfortunately for most of the American white Left, the struggles of working class POC are either unknown or not considered a priority. What would you say to those on the Left who pay lip service to anti-racism or ending oppressive systems but seem dismayed at the prospect of making actual connections with communities of color?
LKE: First of all those groups and individuals have to be challenged by people of color organized in their own autonomous movements even if it’s within another organization. They have to organize in numbers enough to challenge these people and change the direction of the movement. You’re fighting for the heart and soul of the movement is what it is.
Generally if you take a broad analysis you would have to say that they are corrupt and their efforts won’t result in a revolution especially one that benefits people of color. I’ve criticized the Occupy movement because it’s predominantly a white middle class movement whose only concerns have always been predominantly for the white middle class. Some would say “Well, there’s black people in this”. That doesn’t mean anything.
What does matter is whether they have a voice or any power to create policy. And if they don’t have that, if they’re just a puppet organization or group of people that they can trot out and say, “Here’s our blacks.” We call that a Progressive Plantation. And that is a very dangerous and dispiriting development for people who are in those groups. And it’s very disempowering. This is how the white Left has generally operated over the years. They bring in a few people of color might even put them up front to be visible but they don’t have any power whatsoever. They’re puppets and they are not respected in communities of color. This is why the white left has rarely made any serious connections with communities of color.
What is really important right now is that people have to understand that racism is not going to go away on its own. It has to be challenged. And I don’t care what some white radicals, we used to call them “mother country radicals”, claim they stand for. They have privileges. Even the ones who claim to be broke. They have privileges vis-à-vis people of color and they will often use that to try to neutralize or weaken any criticism of them. They were happy when the Black Panther Party was attacked and destroyed and they didn’t try to help. Their whole strategy was to profit from the death of the Black Panther Party by attempting to absorb all of their cadre and community supporters into their own movements.
In the 1960’s what you really saw was an autonomous movement of working class black people that was able to challenge white supremacy in the South. And later when Black Power came in, it was able to challenge white supremacy and corporate capitalism throughout the country. It’s really important to understand that and compare the fight against racism in that period to what’s happening now. You’ve got so called anti-racist movements made up of white people who want to talk about right-wingers but don’t want to talk about their own internal white supremacy and how it is related to the state.
What people of color movements have to do is to understand this whole thing about decolonization which is an important concept but it has to be taken further than just trying to get the white folks to stop being racists or getting them to accept Indian claims. It has to be understood that we’re trying to dismantle this entire society. This entire capitalist system and the whole system of white supremacy worldwide.
JG: Tokenism and exceptionalism have been common tactics used by the media to make people believe that we’re living in a “post racial” or “post patriarchal” society. Do you think this has played a role in neutralizing resistance within communities of color?
LKE: Well, I think that’s it’s been effective for quite some time. We like to call it “black faces in high places”. And essentially what that is, is a form of neocolonialism where they put a person of color in an alleged position of authority to be administrators within this system.
In the 1970’s when the Black Power movement and was being defeated, the leadership wasn’t just killed or imprisoned. They actually went after the minds of the people too because they wanted the people to think that we had now reached the state where we’d arrived and were now enjoying the benefits of the civil rights movement. And what we really saw was a kind of entrenchment of black middle class forces going into the institutions and corporations or going into the government.
We went from seeing something like forty black officials nationwide to several thousand people of color inhabiting political positions. The white power structure was asking themselves, “How can we deal with Black Power? How can we deal with all these mass movements of people of color?” So what they decided to do was to neutralize them with their own people and to do the same kind of neocolonialism that they’ve done in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world.
It was Richard Nixon of all people who came up with this idea of holding up the black entrepreneur. His whole idea was that “we’re gonna give ‘em grants. We’ll give ‘em pay-offs and we’ll split them that way. We’ll find the ones who are gonna sell out. The ones who won’t sell out, we’ll put in prison or kill ‘em.” And this is essentially what happened. I was one of those that was put in prison and some of my comrades and other people I knew were hunted down and killed. Now you have people many of whom are still in prison today and have been there for 30 or 40 years.
So now we get to Obama who’s now the president. And the idea of a black president has been used to neutralize any protest in the street or opposition to the government from black people. Everywhere else in the world, people are fighting tooth and nail against austerity measures.
Even the discussion by politicians of implementing austerity measures started mass protest in France, Greece and many other places; just the discussion of it. In the u.s. nobody said anything. They said “Oh, we’ll vote ‘em out”. In the u.s., there’s a mysticism about the electoral system that doesn’t exist in a lot of places. They see right through it. Now people are starting to see through it here. They’re gonna have to see through it more. But there are millions of people that are still brainwashed that Obama’s going to deliver something to them.
JG: Some would say that it’s the lesser of two evils or a gentler form of fascism.
LKE: I do think that there’s a lot of confusion. And I do think there’s anger but a lot of it is internalized so that you don’t see it in the streets. I think that Obama is a pacification agent. He was elected to neutralize the grassroots Left in this country which was becoming larger and they wanted to push people back into the democratic party fold. The democratic party is the liberal reform party. They had to posture with Obama. They needed Obama more than he needed them, really. Big corporate money went into getting him elected. The liberal wing of the capitalist class put him in office.
Now Romney represents what I call, “Raw Money” and he represents the extreme reactionary right wing of capital. Now what these people want is to have the state run directly by corporations. They want a fascist corporate state. The democrats also want to serve the corporations. They just want to serve them in a different way. We need to understand that neither one of these guys represent the interests of working class and poor people. They’re both are agents of corporations.
There’s this inter-capitalist feud where they fight over which policies they’re gonna adopt; policies that are never in the interest of poor people. And they know this and they’ll sit around and laugh about it at some stage, “I beat you that time, Raw Money! You can get the next one.” They know that they’re both serving the same people. And those people are not down in projects. They’re not in college dormitories. They’re not common people. They are the elite. And I do think that it’s great that the Occupy movement started to raise that issue. It’s just that they didn’t go to the logical extant and bring in voices that have never been heard before.
People of color were not part of the discussion. We were not seen as being an important enough base for them to try to recruit. When people do that to you, to me it is the worst kind of bootlicking to go try and beg to be a part of their movement. It’s treachery. So I tried to encourage people of color involved in Occupy to think about forming their own movement because it’s unsustainable. And that’s what I see. Some cities they’re not doing anything. Here in Memphis, it’s just white folks sitting around a camp fire. They’re in bed with the politicians. They didn’t even attack them here and drive them away like they did everywhere else.
Politicians and Corporations are smoking the planet. And they’re doing it in a way that will wipe out a significant section of the population. They’ll kill off the ability to have crops. Much of the things that we’ve been talking about are really survival programs. They’re not popular at this point because people still see supermarkets and that kind of stuff. But at some stage they are going to create a situation that’s so unsustainable that we won’t be able to eat their garbage food. We won’t have access to their capital reserves. Our lives are going to drastically change. We might not even have electricity, who knows.
But we will not have the things that the petro-fueled economy has created for us. As you know, without petroleum this whole thing is gonna collapse anyway. But from the standpoint of people of color, we have to have our own agenda. We have to be autonomous enough to have our own political programs. Even if we work with white movements we have to have our own agenda. We can’t let the white middle class set an agenda for people who have been historically oppressed in a different fashion. That won’t save us at all.
JG: What can people do to support your efforts in Memphis?
LKE: You don’t have to live in Memphis to be concerned with what’s going on here just like you don’t have to live in Sanford, Florida to be concerned with what happened with Trayvon Martin. We want people to write to A.C. Wharton the mayor of Memphis and complain about the situation here with police brutality. Especially about Justin Thompson the young man that was just killed. And we’ll have a website up soon. The mayor’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You should bombard that guys mailbox because all he cares about is tourism. And you should let him know that “If I come to Memphis, it’ll be to protest not to give you money.” Wharton’s phone number is 901-576-6000. The cops number is 901-636-3700. And you can make a complaint to the police chief, Tony Armstrong, about his reign of terror and corrupt police force. It’s really a national issue. All of our lives are in danger in this place.
These people are insane. They’re shooting people in the back. There’s people that have survived police shootings as well here and we don’t know the figures on that. There have been widespread rapes by police. We’ve got several officers on trial now for rape. We’ve also got officers on trial for prostitution. Many of the cops are drug dealers. In fact this last killing, we were advised, was the result of this cop being a drug enforcer and pick up man. He killed another young man before he killed this kid in 2009. So he’s a treacherous individual. And this is the kind of stuff that goes on around here. I’m not saying that this type of stuff doesn’t happen in many cities, but in our opinion, this is the most corrupt.