Interview with Lorenzo Kom’Boa Ervin


Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin is an American writer, activist, and black anarchist. He is a former member of the Black Panther Party. He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has lived in Memphis, Tennessee, since 2010, where he and his wife JoNina organize against police terrorism with Memphis Black Autonomy.

Recorded May 10th, 2014, in Portland OR. Download (right click and save file)

Lorenzo and JoNina also presented Mass Incarceration is Prison Slavery at the Law and Disorder conference, and thanks to we’ve got a recording of their presentation.

Interviewer: Alright, so I’m doing an interview with Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. Do you wanna just start with talking about your background and your experience and how you came into doing this work?

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well, I was a youth organizer in the South during the 1950s, actually, that was when I first became active in any kind of movement, I guess. I was in the student–or the youth–NAACP chapter in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the late 1950s. And then in 1960, the sit-ins came to Chattanooga and both myself and my cousin who was older and was one of the student leaders–he actually was one of the leaders of the protests from the black–from the only black—high school in the city [who moved] into the center of the city, into the department stores and so forth and they sat in, occupied the premises. And uh, after they were attacked by the police, however, and the racists, and started fighting them inside of the department stores, young people from–you know, much younger than the ones who were high school age, my age, which was, I was in grade school–but a whole bunch of us, thousands of us, really, as well as other people from the black community, cause at that time, the black community was situated primarily downtown in several large districts. The black working class people. And so a lot of people left the communities, came downtown to protect the students and so forth, and there was really something starting to see, you know, they were shooting high-pressure water hoses at–and this is interesting, this happened in Chattanooga before it happened in, you know, the more famous case happened in Birmingham. But they were doing this in Chattanooga. And loosing police dogs to attack people and all that stuff. That happened in Chattanooga. But what happened in Chattanooga was that the people weren’t passive. They resisted. They were actually fighting the cops, they were fighting, stabbing at the police dogs, beating the police dogs back, you know, people were fighting the racist whites who came into the department stores.. So it was a whole different kind of thing, and so the federal government called it a–when they did their report on it–they called it a “riot”. You know, they called it a “riot”. Which, it was a rebellion, you know. Let’s be clear. It was a rebellion against white supremacy. And uh, that radicalized me. That radicalized me, it made me an activist. And so just one step after another, during that period of the 1960’s from you know, just a young kid growing on and becoming older, and getting into the Black Panther party.. and then later, going into the army and so forth, that whole period was about stuggle and activism, and it just carried me along. And I was not the only one, there was a whole generation was just carried along at that time, it was just for me, the rioters never stopped. And so, you know, that was how I got involved in activism originally.

Interviewer: Cool. So what prisoner support movement and activities are you currently in contact with and working with?

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well I’m with a group called the Black Autonomy Federation and we recently just started–and when I say recently, like in the last less than a year–we started a Black Autonomy Prison Federation. And we started it because we felt like the issues of mass imprisonment of blacks and peoples of color was not being addressed by the prison movement. And still we feel that way, and this is one of the reasons why we started to give a voice to all the, you know, to the issue of mass imprisonment of people of color but also to give a voice to activists who wanted to organize a broad-based movement around it. And so we started it for that reason, we also started it around to deal with, in the black community, you condition these young black people into prison anyway, you know with the gangs and street violence and all of this, you know. And so we started this Black Autonomy Federation, we reached out to some prisoners on the inside, we still are doing that.. We are even reaching out to prisoners that are doing work around prison strikes and so forth now, in Alabama particularly. And these things are coming together because there is a dearth of activism at this period around these issues. There is very little activism on the outside around the prison strikes, there is even less around the whole question of you know, mass imprisonment. There’s less. And it’s a reflection of the kind of co-optation by non-profit organizations and by fairly conservative figures in this period–would be fairly conservative, certainly, by the estimation of the 1960’s and what I come from.. You know this lawyer, first, this um, what is it–Mrs. Alexander, she’s Alexander? .. Well, you know, the thing about her is she…[IA] she wouldn’t even believe what was apparent, in terms of mass imprisonment, that had been known for years. She didn’t believe it, and only was able to get a voice because she had access to mass media. She had access to mass media, her privileged position, both for herself as an attorney, a corporate rights attorney, as well as for her status of her husband, who was a federal prosecutor. So she was able to get publicity, and she appeals to these liberals and so on and so on.. I don’t. I don’t care about liberals. I care about people who are being subjected to police terrorism, the people who are in the ghetto, being starved to death and forced to commit crimes of survival. And, you know, this is the kind of work we’re doing right now. We’re working with this–and of course I continue to work with, or try to continue to work with the Anarchist Black Cross. Because one, for me, the Anarchist Black Cross was one of the movements that supported me when I was in prison and was very instrumental in getting me out of prison from two life sentences in the 1970’s when I was a political prisoner. But also, I have continued to have, on some level to have ties to the Anarchist Black Cross because it’s a world-wide Radical Activist movement in the Anarchist movement– one that, in my estimation, one of the few still around that has the potential with it has reached its full capacity.. you know, or not, that’s another thing altogether, but it certainly has the potential to build a mass-based movement that could deal with a great many issues with imprisonment and the state. Because the state, until I went to prison, I don’t really think I understood the whole question of the state. State terror and the whole issue, what oppressive government is really like. Until I went to prison and saw for myself, one, the racialized nature of imprisonment. The class nature of imprsionment. And the terror, the terror. The stark terror and murder of imprisonment. I didn’t see these things, didn’t know these things when I was, like a lot of people, I wasn’t naive, But I just didn’t know about it. And then having seen it for myself and understood what this meant, you know, understood what it meant and understood how a movement in the streets could be built. And was built, on our behalf, in terms of, um, you know, the Attica rebellion in ’71 particularly. And all after that, the period after that, there were massive protests. There were forty eight. There were actually forty eight such rebellions after Attica. In 1972, there were forty eight rebellions. Which is still the highest number of prison rebellions anywhere in the country. You know what I’m saying? And so, this was a time…[IA]… in terms of my own understanding, and my own uh organizing and activism inside the prisons and also understanding the power of the movement on the outside because I’m one of the people that, the movement on the outside got out. I was the one that was fortunate enough to get out. I was able to get a world-wide campaign in terms of the Atticus movement internationally, as well as you know, anti-racist organizations that were coming into existence at the time. And even a wing of the Dutch, I guess it was Amnesty International, split. Because the original, official Amnesty International had a policy that if you engaged in violence, and if you were um, some sort of radical or anti-authoritarian organization, but um..

Somebody: [Excuse me.. how are you?]

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: I’m good, [IA] (laughter)

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: The point of fact… the official organization actually split. And it split, and out of it came the Help A Prisoner Oppose Torture Committee. Which was based in Amsterdam. And also around that period, the British, the UK, you know cause Black Cross came into existence and that created the whole new wing of resistance under the name, under the banner of Anarchist Black Cross. So I was the first American prisoner to be adopted by the Anarchist Black Cross UK. Had long ties and familiar thing [?] So um, I’ve had a relationship with the Anarchist Black Cross in terms of at least, well one way or another, I’m not saying I was always some member of some board meeting, but certainly I would give them my ideas and make criticisms and so forth and so on, to kind of push the movement forward, and make it more radical and try to even deal with in terms of anti-racism, as well.

Interviewer: Cool. So as you may be aware, there are prisoners who are trying to organize a uh, nationally coordinated hunger strike and potentially work stoppage and other forms of resistance starting on September 9th. Um, what do you think the outcome of that might be and how can we on the outside support and make it uh, build that mobilization?

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well, it can be extremely powerful. It mean, it can be, I’ve seen it happen. Um, you know in the 1970’s we created the Prison Labor Union movement. It had between fifty and seventy five thousand prisoners in a brief period of time. And this actually formally incorporated in a lot of states, 36 states in all either had fully formed organizations or they were being formed, the unions. And it was so powerful and it was growing so quickly, that the prison officials became alarmed. An you know, the strikes and disruptions by prisoners. But it was growing so quickly that what they did was to take a case to the United Nations–oh, Sorry, the United States Supreme Court. They took the case to the United States Supreme Court called Jones vs. North Carolina Prison Labor Union. And uh, North Carolina was one of the strongest Prison Labor Unions. In fact, the person who helped me start the Federal Prison Labor Union in Atlanta, Georgia, came from North Carolina. He was a political prisoner anyway and he was framed up on, you know, on some, you know, a civil rights activist framed up on the uh-what was it-the uh… mmmm, can’t remember the city now. But they railroaded these three activists and anyway he went to prison over that in North Carolina, they transferred him somehow for whatever reason to the federal system and I met him and we worked together and we built a group–or were building, were in the process of building a group when the decision came down that you know, they had us all locked up and shipped out and what have you and broke the movement up. So I think that what I’m trying to say is that that is how far it can go, it can go much farther now, in terms of forming organizations and in terms of labor unions. I don’t know, they maybe could become the major labor force in this country in this period. I mean, all of this is possible. Now as far as building a national movement and so forth.. of course the prisoners have to decide, in the final analysis, what kind of movement they want. I’m not going to take that away from them. But at the same time, there are things that we can do out here, ourselves. That we should be thinking about in terms of national.. one is to create the framework for a National Prisoner Labor Union. Which is something they didn’t have in the past, but it can happen and should happen now. And I think that however that’s done, it has to be working with prisoners, but however it’s done that would be a real step forward. Also we need to go after every form of corporation or agency or whatever that makes money off of prison labor. We need to demand, we need to help them formulate their demands, in my opinion, even though we’ve got some very intelligent prisoners on the inside who have leadership potential. But we also don’t–and I said last night–we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. We need to understand that we can, on the outside, develop a framework where we go after these organizations and make them, pressure them to pay the prisoners a decent wage. [IA] from on the inside exploiting prisoner labor. And their objective is, is nothing but slavery. They make millions and billions of dollars from prison labor that’s run by the state, with their own corporations like the federal government had the UniCor.. I don’t know that they call it today, could be something else, but.. UniCor is what they called it back then, and most of the states have their own similar kind of state-based corporation. But then in addition to that, there are literally hundreds, hundreds, of corporations, of course in the United States, that have either factories on the inside or have contract workers with the prisoners, or what have you, and these are the kind of things we have to address I think, you know, we have to address this kind of stuff and so our objective is we’re gonna get, you know, we want to get involved with prisoners. And we want to, you know, express some idea that people might not’ve heard–you know, most of the time you have prison activists on the outside that have never been in prison. Now, that isn’t always the case, like last night, myself, Mark Cook and uh, Ed Mead and um Bo Brown were there, and of course all of us have been in prison, for a substantial period of time, I’d been in the prison with some of them, personally. But uh, I think most of the time you’ll find that most people who are prison activists have never been in prison. Now that is not to say that there cannot be great activism, you know, not to say that at all. But there’s a certain kind of sensitivity that comes from having been an activist in the prison system yourself at that time and you have an understanding of it that someone on the outside might not have. So we could build something. That could be very, very powerful in support of the struggle. Cause as you look at it right now, you only have really the three–I mean, there’s stuff percollating underneath, true enough, in all the prisons. But the reality is we’ve only had two or three real strikes. You know, now, we know they’re coming. Just like we know there’s going to be a revolution in the streets. But we don’t know when and how. And so what we have to do is try to create a framework for it to be successful and to spread. And I think it can spread if we could bring together some kind of national organization network of activists on the outside who can pass information to other prisoners and so forth. That’s what we need to do. But as I said, we need to see ourselves as a pressure group on the outside.

[We’re gonna go up and see what Paulette’s doing. OK?]

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Okay.

[Are you alright?]

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: I’m fine, thank you. Take care.

[Keep an eye on that guy over there, okay?]

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Okay. (laughing) He been drinking something? Okay.

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: So.. you know.. so.. So that’s where I’m coming from.

Interviewer: So the next question I had was: how can we include or involve prisoners who are in states where there’s not a lot of protest going on, people in women’s prisons, or immigrant detention centers, or other, or even county jails? You know, other forms of incarceration that aren’t part of movements like this?

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Well we gotta save that information. We’ve gotta get information into them. I mean, we can get information into them better than prisoners in another state, you know? So we have to get creative methods of doing that. Putting it in a newsletter, putting it in a letter, whatever, to get the information in to them. But more than anything, we gotta create fervor in the streets for them. See, that’s what I keep saying. And um, if we don’t do that, if we don’t create a fervor in the streets for them, it won’t be as successful in my opinion. It may even fold. And that’s why you know, you’re gonna have a limited number of them take place at this time. Because there’s been no ability to do coordination. And that’s to be expected, you’re in prison, you know, if you’re trying to write from prison, you know, it’s gonna be difficult. but if you got it in the street, you got some forces in the street, in different states that have a structure together, it makes it easy. We’re not taking anything from the prisoners, that’s not what I’m saying. We’re building something for the prisoners. To be quite honest. And I just think that uh, at this stage, we’re not seeing that. I mean, we keep talking about you know, in individualistic terms about this state, that state, and it’s not, you know. I always looked at it as–and people talk about class politics–I always looked at the politics of imprisonment as classist. And I never had any differences with you know, even people I was in prison with disagreeing with me at the time. When I tried to get the IWW to support the prison struggle or the strikes and so forth, and the uh, the whole idea of unionizing prisoners.. wouldn’t do it. Wouldn’t help. I mean, we were being attacked, wiped out. They wouldn’t say a word. So, those are the kind of errors, too, that we need to understand. And we made errors in the past, and we also have had victories. And I think what’s wrong with the left and what’s wrong with the movement of this period is it doesn’t even want to teach its own history. As its own. It’s not even teaching that to the newer generation of activists. And I think that’s a real serious mistake. And that’s what I’ve always seen myself as correcting, is that real deep divide in terms of the consciousness of between generations, okay, you know, “what did you do in the 1960’s?” and so forth, and what’s happening now? you know. Why don’t I know about that? Why don’t we know about the Prison Labor Union which was so powerful back in the 1970s? These are things that could help right now, in terms of building a movement, you know? You’d know where to go, you don’t have to start, go way back down to the beginning, you can start at a different stage, you see what I’m saying?

Interviewer: Absolutely.

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: And so, this is what I think. This is what I’m saying. And the group I’m working with, you know, we pretty much agree that if we’re gonna come in with it, we’re gonna try to come in with a program that’s broader-based and non-sectarian. You know, cause you got a lot of sectarianism too, one group wants to show it’s doing more than somebody else and so on and that doesn’t help the overall struggle. it just makes it easier for the officials to come down on you. And the things we learned in the 70’s and 80s, they still apply.. 60s and 70s, I should say. They still apply to many things. You got the same prison officials. You might have a different kind of prison system in terms of repression or being standardized with the um, whaddyacallem, behavior modification units but now, you know, their so-called SHU and all that kind of stuff. [IA] But all of that happened when I was in prison. We had gone through that stage, we had defeated the man inside the prisons, we had destabilized the prison structure, and we had won some victories, but then we started suffering losses. Assassinations, George Jackson, forcible violent repression of the Attica rebellion, and then afterwards, mistakes were made in terms of letting liberal lawyers take over important aspects of decision-making and organizing of the movement. And then of course you know what lawyers do, after a while, even the ones that Carlton says are radical, they get to where they feel like it’s dangerous now. It’s “dangerous”. that the poor are gonna rise up. (laughing) That it’s gone beyond the stage of liberal negotiation. And they start bailing. And that’s what happened. You know, a lot of liberals bail out. And the rest of them are left, the rest of the people in the streets were left to hang. With that gone, a lot of them were prosecuted, some of them prosecuted, some of them were cases where they came in and broke up groups, you know, [IA] broke up organizations in support of prisoners. But it lasted for a long time, and I really learned a lot from that period. And I was hopeful that a lot of other people have, as well. You know, people my age as well as, just others in this period, younger people in this period. including new activists, That’s what i’m trying to say. The new activists have.. you know.. the thing that, the reason the government continues to hold Black Panthers is not just in terms of punishing them because of their active resistance. I mean, they’re doing that. But the reason why they’re doing that, they’re holding them so long, is that they don’t want them to link up with new generations of organizers in the streets where if you.. there’s some things that even myself–well I don’t get around much anymore but–there are some things that I can tell people that might be insightful. Oh, and inciting. (Laughing) Might be insightful on one hand, but the incite, you know, might incite rebellion.

Interviewer: I know, personally, that that’s true.

[Somebody: Hey, I’m going to be going out with Jimmy tonight.]

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: More trouble? More trouble you’re making?

[Somebody: Something like that.]


Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: But anyway, so, this is what I’m saying. We need to have continuity. We don’t have continuity in this, from that period to this, and so there’s so many problems because of that. Of course, the enemy won out, in many respects. The enemy was able to reshape the present circumstances from what had been a victory by the people. They were able to reshape the present social circumstances. Since you’ve got mass imprisonment. You’ve got the kind of disparities like I talked about last night with the black infant mortality or with the mass unemployment. With so many other things that are really issues that exist in this period that didn’t exist in the 1960’s. You didn’t have mass homelessness in the 1960s. Even in the 1970s you didn’t have that. And so these are things where the capitalist structure was able to induce more and more misery and poverty onto the masses of people so that now you’ve got mass imprisonment at a scale that has not been seen since the great depression but you don’t have fight-back. And you’re gonna see it get worse because they’re going to go and have more and more austerity measures before it falls. Because, you know, to put on our heads. And you’ve already got a mass poor population that has been decimated for years. But you have not had a resistance to fight back movement. So that’s the kind of thing you need to recognize: what is being used to stifle protests and what we can do to build it.

Interviewer: Well, I want to downstairs to see what Paulette is talking about, but, it was nice talking with you.

Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin: Yeah. Okay. Well, I hope you got enough to work with.

Interviewer: Yes. Definitely. Thank you.