It was Saturday afternoon, September 24, four days after police shot and killed forty-three-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, and three days after Justin Carr, twenty-six, was shot and killed while protesting Scott’s death. In downtown Charlotte, helicopters circled overhead. National Guard soldiers in camo gear stood watch near the entrances of tall buildings in the emptied-out business district. It was hot and bright out, and in Marshall Park, a peaceful protest was in full swing. A small stage had been erected. There was spoken-word poetry. There was conscious hip-hop. There were speeches about civil rights, police brutality, and the assault on America’s working class.
It was all right in Lamont Lilly’s wheelhouse.
Lilly initially wasn’t sure he was going to make it to Charlotte. The Workers World Party, the party that has nominated him for vice president of the United States, had planned to hold a daylong conference on socialism in Durham that Saturday. (Full title: “Hard Times Are Fighting Times: Building the Movement for Liberation, Revolution, and Socialism in the South.”) Lilly, who lives in Durham, was one of the featured speakers. But after the tension and the teargas on Wednesday, the decision was made to organize a caravan to Charlotte. Political theory could wait. This was a time for action.
“We’ve got another brother down, and it’s happened just two hours away,” Lilly told me that Thursday. “So fuck the conference. We’re freedom fighters. We’re revolutionary-minded people. It’s not a hard decision. We need to be in the street with our comrades right now.”
And so Lilly got his turn to address the crowd. He’d recently returned from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in North Dakota, where he’d joined protesters opposing the construction of an oil pipeline across the upper Midwest.
“Much love to the indigenous peoples I met up in Standing Rock, who taught me so much and elevated my consciousness and my spirit,” he said. “These are people that have been fighting against colonialism and white supremacy for the last five hundred years. And we bring them here with us today in love and resistance and solidarity and self-determination. We have to learn to connect Black Lives Matter with Standing Rock, the Palestinian resistance with the Latino movement.”
He went on: “We have to connect all oppressed communities together in order to defeat this wicked system: the state, white supremacy, racism, and also, what?”
The crowd responded in shouted unison: “Capitalism!”
The Workers World Party, founded in 1959, is a Marxist and Leninist revolutionary socialist party that believes, according to its literature, that “through global unity and solidarity of people’s movements against imperialism, capitalist exploitation, racism and all other forms of oppression, a new world can be created: a socialist order.”
Historically, the group has supported radical activist groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, and was an early advocate in the struggle for gay rights. Today, its causes include Black Lives Matter, opposition to the deportation of immigrants, and the discontinuation of United States imperialism.
“We believe the capitalist system can’t be reformed,” Lilly told me one morning in mid-October at Madhatter Bakeshop and Cafe in Durham, “and revolutionary socialism is the only way to dismantle and replace that system.”
Lilly, dressed in a tweed cap and a white short-sleeve shirt buttoned up high, was seated at a table with his laptop, a copy of Writing on the Wall: Selected Prison Writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and a couple hundred pages of a marked-up manuscripta rough draft of his first book, Lilly said.
The book, which Lilly intends to self-publish, will be a compilation of his writings between 2012 and 2016, years in which he emerged as a writer and activist in Durham. His byline has appeared in the Triangle Free Press (where he was a contributing editor until this year), Counterpunch, and in guest columns for The Durham News, The Herald-Sun, and Triangle Tribune. (In 2015, the INDY gave Lilly a Citizen Award for his work in the community.)
Lilly took a roundabout path to journalism and activism. The son of a military serviceman, he arrived in Durham from Fayetteville in 1998 to attend N.C. Central University. (Lilly was also in the U.S. Army Reserves, stationed at Fort Bragg, during this time. He was honorably discharged in 2001. “My anti-imperialist views don’t come from a blind perspective,” he explains.)
After graduating with a degree in criminal justice, Lilly found work mentoring young black males through a federally funded youth program at NCCU. He went on to seek a graduate degree in sociology, which he abandoned, he said, because it seemed to be only taking him further away from the community-based work in which he found fulfillment.
“When you work with families, you see how poor everyone is, you see the school-to-prison pipeline, you see police brutality,” Lilly says. “You see all these things up close. I started to really question why this is our reality. And that led naturally to journalism: I was seeing these things going on in the community that were not being talked about, not being covered, and I wanted to raise awareness of them.”
When Lewis Little, a nineteen-year-old NCCU student, was incarcerated for one month over a murder he didn’t commit, Lilly told Little’s story and called out the Durham Police Department. When seventeen-year-old Jesus Huerta died of a gunshot wound while handcuffed in a police squad car, Lilly wrote articles questioning the cops’ account.
“I found I could use my pen as a counter to the mainstream media narrative that never holds the police power structure or political officials responsible,” Lilly says.
The murder of Trayvon Martin, in 2012, propelled Lilly to start speaking out at community protests, which led to community organizing and talks in other cities. He found he had a voice not just as a writer but as a speaker. Monica Moorehead, Lilly’s running mate, says she first encountered Lilly sometime around 2012.
“He joined the party, and it was clear that he was not only very political and class-conscious about oppressed people everywhere, but also very much in tune with younger generations,” Moorehead says. “I’m in my middle sixties. He’s in his late thirties, but he relates to people much younger than him. He’s very immersed in art and culturehe understands how those things can be used as a weapon and a voice for social change.
“Also,” Moorehead continues, “he’s from the South, like meI live in New Jersey now, but I’m from Tuscaloosa. So I think we both very much connected about our Southern upbringings, the fight against racism in the South. I’ve learned a lot from him. I very much expect him to be a very real force for revolutionary socialism moving forward.”
Running for vice president on the WWP ticket much more closely resembles a punk band’s DIY tour than it does the billion-dollar campaigns being waged by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The budget is tight. A hotel room is a splurge. Mostly, it’s speaking to small crowds and sleeping on couches, often in cities where voters can’t easily vote for WWP candidates.
“It costs an absurd amount of money just to get on the ballot in most states,” Lilly says. (Unless you live in Wisconsin, Utah, New Jersey, or Texas, you’ll have to write in your vote for Moorehead and Lilly.) “We don’t have the big-business engine behind us pushing out our message and our candidates. We don’t own the TV and radio stations or the newspapers. This two-party system is designed to prevent third parties from gaining footing.”
Travel is limited. The party has a small budget that mostly comes from online donations. Occasionally, at a campaign event, somebody will cut a check for a few hundred bucks. “That’s a big deal to us,” Lilly says. “For Democrats, two hundred dollars is chump change. To us, we can really put that to work. That’s two train tickets for the candidates. That allows us to eat while we’re on the trail.”
This summer, in addition to Standing Rock, Lilly attended both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention to speak and stage protests, and the week before I met him at Madhatter, he’d been out on the West Coast. He’d guested on Mutiny Radio, a community radio program in San Francisco; spoken about community cop-watches “with some Chicano sisters in San Diego”; and, in Los Angeles, attended a fiftieth-anniversary celebration for the Black Panthers.
“It was a real honor to be in the room,” Lilly says. “Everybody knows about Kathleen Cleaver and Bobby Seale, but these were folks who aren’t as esteemed or well-known, telling old stories and putting them in the new context of what’s going on today. It was an awesome experience.”
In the days before the election, Lilly will travel to Baltimore, followed by Philadelphia and then Detroit.
“The more places I go, the more I see that people out there are really ready for something new,” Lilly told me. “And not some new cliché, like Obama. I mean a brand new system. We’re up against these huge, elite corporations that don’t care about us. They don’t care about working people. They don’t care about our ability to pay for decent housing, or our right to livable wages, or our right to be members of unions, or our right to drink clean water, whether here or in Detroit …”
A Madhatter barista slipped into the booth beside Lilly with a video queued up on his iPhone. “Here, watch this,” he said.
It was a CNN clip from the RNC. The camera pans across a crowd of protesters, and there’s Lilly, on the front lines, shouting.
“I was watching TV and I was like, I know that guy, he comes into the cafe,” the barista said.
“That’s crazy, man,” Lilly replied. They had a laugh and the barista returned to work. “Durham, man,” Lilly said. “I miss being here.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Revolutionary”