Before running for vice president on the Workers World Party ticket in 2016, Durham resident Lamont Lilly was a foot soldier in the thick of nearly every high-profile racially charged protest in America.
In 2011, the journalist, poet, and community organizer was in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. He joined the Workers World Party that year.
In 2014, he was marching, chanting, and taking to the highways during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown Jr. was gunned down by the police. Lilly was one of the protesters who later encountered the heavily militarized police officers in riot gear, who teargassed the future vice presidential candidate and his fellow demonstrators.
The world watched and repeated new phrases that have since entered the American protest lexicon: “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!”
Lilly was angered, too, by the police murder of Eric Garner in New York, where protesters gave voice to another cry, “I can’t breathe.” And in 2015, he was in Baltimore for three months organizing community forums after Freddie Gray was found dead in the back of a police paddy wagon.
“I may have been a member of the communist party, but I was moving like any other Black organizer,” Lilly says. “I didn’t walk into meetings as a communist. I was just a Black man trying to help get my people free.”
Lilly was at the CVS pharmacy in Baltimore that went up in flames after Gray’s death, which he says marked a low point in how authorities confronted the protesters. Law officers took to the streets with tear gas, tanks, and militarized Humvees, along with drones and surveillance planes.
“We were standing in front of five tanks, dozens of assault rifles, and fifty police officers on horseback,” Lilly says. “We had tennis shoes, cardboard signs, bullhorns, and placards. Now who came to riot, and who came for peace?”
He was also in Charleston in 2015 after white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed Black worshippers at a historic church. One year later, Lilly was reporting on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests by Sioux tribe members at the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota. When George Floyd was murdered on Memorial Day, Lilly was interviewing Bree Newsome, the Charlotte antiracist who scaled a Confederate flagpole outside the South Carolina state house grounds.
Lilly, a native of Fayetteville, is slim, with piercing liquid-brown eyes. His is a purposeful gaze framed by a long deadlocked goatee that wisps at the end like the fine bristles of an artist’s paint brush.
He grew up in a working-class home. His father was in the U.S. Army, and his mother was a certified nursing assistant who worked her way up to becoming a registered nurse.
“My brother and I never missed a meal, but we also knew to take care of what we had, because that was all we were going to get,” he says.
Lilly moved to Durham in 1998 to study criminal justice at North Carolina Central University. He graduated in 2003 and never left a city he describes as “beautiful.”
“Fayetteville gave me, but Durham made me,” he says.
As an undergraduate, revolution and social change weren’t even a part of his thinking as far as what to do at the end of his studies.
“I wanted to be a lawyer. I was going to be one of those good little token Negroes for the system,” says Lilly, who was also enlisted with the U.S. Army Reserve at the time. “That was a different me back then. Much different! The only kind of lawyer I would like to be now is Chokwe Lumumba,” the attorney and former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.
Lilly was a college sophomore and working at a department store at Northgate Mall when he made a mistake that would affect him for the rest of his life. He caught a felony charge and conviction when he let a friend use his employee discount at the store.
He was 19, alone in a room at the mall with a security guard, who was questioning him.
“I was scared shitless,” Lilly says. His upbringing and his parent’s admonition to always admit wrongdoing led him to confess his crime to the Black security guard, who reported felony embezzlement charges for the $240 mistake.
“I didn’t know that felony would follow me for the rest of my life,” Lilly says, musing over the “good-paying jobs” he’s lost because of a criminal conviction now two decades old.
Lilly recalled at least three jobs in youth-oriented programs where, less than a week after showing up for work dressed in a suit, a tie, and hard-bottom shoes, he was summarily fired.
At one point, Lilly, who now shares a two-bedroom apartment near N.C. Central with his partner and their daughter, was homeless. Now he’s thankful for the experience.
“Had I never been homeless and struggling to eat, I wouldn’t be able to properly relate to the homeless,” he says. “I can demystify myself and use those struggles to inspire others to do what I did. I need poor people and the formerly incarcerated to know it’s possible to come out.”
Lilly readily identifies with the victims of America’s “massive prison-industrial complex” and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people, the “mockery loophole” that informed filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th.
“I’m still incarcerated here on the outside,” he says. “It’s a third-class citizenship. The walls kept getting taller even after a college degree. It was my first introduction to the criminal justice system.”
Two years after graduating from NCCU, Lilly was hired as director of the university’s now-defunct African American Male Leadership Academy, where he worked for three years with 80 families and young men considered at-risk. After leaving the job in 2008, he waited tables part-time at Dame’s Chicken and Waffles and at Cuban Revolution to make ends meet. He also worked seasonally at Measurement Incorporated.
While a college student, Lilly, like many of his student peers, often visited the now-closed The Know Bookstore several blocks away from the university. He was deeply influenced by the pan-Africanist teachings of history, culture, politics, and Black pride by Bruce Bridges, the store owner.
In 2015, Lilly became a paid organizer with the Marxist-Leninist World Workers Party. The party had been around since 1959, and Lilly was impressed that the tenets of socialism were at the core of the Black Panther Party. He was paid $800 a month, with benefits that included one meal a day.
“The Party leadership asked me, would I like to organize full-time?” Lilly says. It was no-brainer. “You gonna pay me to be in the revolution? I’ll take it. I was already doing this work for free for several years.”
Lilly was a committed foot soldier. He was present at some of the nation’s most volatile anti-racism protests, but he had also joined dozens of demonstrators here in Durham against the police-involved deaths of Jesus Huerta, Derek Walker, and Jose Ocampo, along with Stephanie Nickerson, who was the victim of police excessive force, and Carlos Riley Jr., who was charged with shooting a police officer and later acquitted.
In late 2015, Workers World Party leaders asked Lilly to be their vice presidential candidate. Lilly never intended to run for political office and was hesitant.
“They told me, ‘Just keep being yourself,’” he said.
And so, he quietly made history with Monica Moorehead, his teacher and mentor—who is also Black—at the top of the ticket. The candidates offered a 10-point platform that called for an “end of the war on Black people,” reparations, an end to racism, the abolishment of capitalism, and an end to the mass incarceration of Black and Latinx youths. The Moorehead-Lilly ticket made four state ballots.
“We knew we weren’t going to win,” Lilly says. “We used the campaign as a launching pad around antiracism work, reparations, and colonialism.”
Lilly is still a committed socialist, but he left the Workers World Party in early 2018, soon after Durham activists (including fellow party members) pulled down the Confederate statue in front of the old courthouse on Main Street. Lilly was not with the activists who knocked over the statue, but he led the support for them after their arrests and more demonstrations.
“A lot of people are not aware of who brought it down,” Lilly says. “Five out of the eight arrestees were Workers World Party members. We were not just activists. We were professional organizers.”
For decades, right-wing critics have tried to discredit protests and agitation for equality—including the civil rights movement—as attempts by the Communist Party to destabilize the government. (That point is especially rich with the current White House resident’s ongoing bromance with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un.)
Lilly brushes aside that criticism.
“Terms like ‘communist’ and ‘left’ or ‘right’ lose focus of the issues,” he says. “The real question should be, ‘Is it just or not? Does it preserve lives and save the Earth, or does it look to profit from it?’”
Durham sheriff’s deputies ransacking the West Durham home he shared with two other party members while looking for the ladder used to tear down the statue was one thing, but Lilly says the local party branch started fielding calls from all over the country from people who wanted to join their branch. Membership increased. Lilly felt like the group was being targeted. The local party grew from a small, tight-knit cohesive unit into a large organization where nerves were frayed because those who were arrested for the statue faced felony charges.
“Mix in a little ego, mix in pride, the bickering and infighting; it tears away at the cohesion,” he says. Three months after the statue came down, Lilly says, he was sitting in a party meeting wondering, “Who are these people?”
“Knowing who is beside you is a matter of safety,” he says. “The same [infiltration strategies] happened to the Black Panther Party.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has recently come under attack by some members of the Republican Party, along with some Black and white evangelicals, who criticize it as “godless” and socialist.
Lilly says labels can be distractions from the truth.
“The real question is, are these laws just or unjust?” he says. “Do they serve all people or just rich white men?”
It’s a new season of activism for Lilly. In addition to working at an Indian restaurant in Chapel Hill, he writes for Truthout, a nonprofit news organization. He mentors young people who visit his home and has increasingly turned to writing poetry to reach diverse audiences, particularly young people.
Lilly is pretty sure the FBI has compiled a file on his activist activities and that he’s “no longer under the radar.” He chooses his words carefully.
“At this point, what’s most important is sharing this history and these experiences with the next generation,” he says. “If we don’t teach them the truth, they’ll think that the police kneeling at protests or painting big block letters in the street equals progress. The revolutionaries of today have to teach the revolutionaries of tomorrow. If we don’t, there won’t be any more revolutionaries.”
A previous version of this story listed Jose Ocampo’s name as “Jesse Ocampo.” The INDY regrets the error.
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