An Interview with Loretta Ross
By Julianah Oguntala & Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
With the rise of hate crimes and the lack of preventative strategies government are adopting to prevent the radicalization of white supremacists, it can be to easy to feel helpless. In times like these, it can be so important to turn to our elders to help in our fight justice
Recently, I was given the opportunity to interview one of my heros, internationally-acclaimed author, activist and feminist, Loretta Ross, about her work dismantling hate groups. Loretta was the Founder and former Executive Director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia, former Program Research Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/National Anti-Klan Network, the third Executive Director of the first rape crisis centre in the United States and organizer of the largest protest in U.S. history. She holds an immense wealth of knowledge and decades of experience I think many of us could learn from.
Shabina: I’d like to thank you for taking you time to speak with me today. I first wanted to ask you about some of the struggles and challenges you faced when you led your organizing efforts.
Loretta Ross: Well, the biggest struggle, of course, is that when you are doing anti-fascist work, you have to get fascist, which is not always pleasant work and you are not necessarily hanging out with the right people. I was the only woman who ran a research department studying hate groups at the time and I was the only Black person to do it. And so, there was a lot of embedded misogyny and surprisingly, racism amongst the anti-racist movement .
S: Do you feel that has changed over time?
LR: Well, there is certainly more diversity in the people doing the work. Whether or not there is still misogyny or racism in the movement, since I don’t do the work anymore, I can’t say that the organizations are less racist or misogynist. But there are certainly more women writing about fascism. I organized a retreat last year on women and fascism and was able to bring together almost 15-20 people who do that research now and they were all women.
S:Can you talk a bit about the difference in terms of the approach in women-centered anti-fascist organizing vs. the former circles you were running with?
LR: Well, one of the things that men consistently doing the work fail to do is integrate an analysis of gender and so they weren’t intersectional. They usually only talked about racism and sometimes anti-semitism. They rarely talked about homophobia, and never, none of us talked about transphobia, to be honest. I means we weren’t that far ahead of the curve.
But they didn’t integrate gender to my satisfaction. For example, I thought that the violence against abortion providers by the violent vigilante subculture was connected to racist violence and to homophobic and anti-immigrant violence. I thought the walls between what looked like separate movements were in fact right polarists, and people were crossing over. If we are able to be intersectional in their hatred and that was very hard to persuade my male colleagues to give as much attention to misogynist violence as they gave to racist, anti-semitic and occasionally anti-Indian and anti-Immigrant violence.
S: Thanks. Did you want to chat a bit about what you did or what your role was, what were some of the goals of your organization at that time?
LR: Well, the Center for Democratic Renewal National Anti-klan network was the first group to monitor hate groups like that. We started in 1979, two years before the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was started by veterans of the Civil Rights movement, Black and White veterans of the movement. And so, our first goal was to identify people and organizations in the hate movement and our second goal was to publish reports about them to warn people of their potential for violence and therefore potential for affecting the discourse on civil rights, hate, and anti-semitism in the United States. And our third goal was to organize effective responses to them and that meant working with the affected communities. Let’s say when the Klan decided to have a march, to help people come up with effective non-violent responses − because the tendency was for people to want to bury their heads in the sands, hoping that they would go away. Or you had the other extreme response which was the response of violence with violence and we didn’t want either of those responses because they were less than helpful. I started as their program director and my job, at the beginning, was on the community responses. When our research director Leonard Zeskind retired after he got the MacArthur Genius Award, I became the research and program director. And so then my job was monitoring the preparation of reports and dealing with the media.
S: What was your experience working with ex-Klan Members like? I have read that you have done some rehabilitation with people who had left the Klan. Did you find their ideologies changed when they were working with you?
LR: I don’t think I was responsible at all for their change in ideology because usually they had left the organizations before they contacted the centre and there were a variety of reasons for why they left. Probably the largest single impulse to leave was to avoid being liable, or at least being held responsible, for the criminal activities of the groups of which they were associated. One particular person, Floyd Cochrane, said he left because his second son had been born with a cleft palate and his Nazi buddies said the Aryan Nations told him that his son was a genetic defect who needed to be eliminated; so he had quite a personal reason for re-evaluating the company that he kept. One family, Kian and Carol Peterson, left the KKK because of criminal activities that they didn’t want to held accountable for. So, there were a variety of reasons. The impact that we would have, first of all, was to help them get out of danger. Quite often, they would leave these organizations secretly, sometimes not even being able to carry clothes with them or their household furnishings or anything. They snuck away because they were afraid of retribution from their former colleagues. So it was an informal underground to get them relocated to another city. Similar to a community-based witness protection program. We weren’t the state, we weren’t law enforcement, so we had limited resources. And quite often we would use churches and things as ways to provide them support while they were reorganizing their lives. We did introduce them to different concepts and very rarely was anybody in the hate groups prepared to have conversation on homophobia, for example. And one of the significant moments that I experienced was when Floyd Cochrane had to testify. – chose to testify – I should say, in support of LGBT rights at a state legislature that was trying to pass a hate crime speil. And that was probably his first time ever really speaking up in support of gay rights. He was trying to make amends for all the wrongs that he had done so he was willing to have his mind expanded.
S: You have been involved with a wide range of social justice fights and activisms. From the founding of the National Center for Human Rights and Education to being their program and research director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/ the national Anti-Klan Network. What motivates you to keep going and to keep the fight going?
LR: Well, I think my biggest motivation is my passion for human rights, which of course evolved over the decade. This wasn’t what I immediately started with. I was a rape and incest survivor and that led me to the anti-violence movement. It was there that I learned to teach Black feminist theory to Black men who were incarcerated, who were rapists themselves. What I learned about myself was that I could have very insightful, passionate conversations with people I wouldn’t necessarily bring home for coffee. And so when you are a survivor, you do the things that help you survive and eventually I developed a passion for social justice and dealt with the assassination of a political colleague in 1980 which frightened a lot of people because we were doing only legal activities so we never thought that the state would move so aggressively against us. Somewhat naively, we didn’t believe that. After Yolanda Ward was assassinated, I had to make a decision. I either had to recommit myself to being in the struggle or do like the majority of my colleagues did and go back into their regular lives. And so that was the point, 1980 was the year I decided that I was going to be a social justice activist for the rest of my life, however long that life was.
S: In terms of the current movement to end race-based violence, what kind of advice do you have for activists and organizers?
LR: Well, I can only pass on the same advice that was offered to me. As I said, my mentor was Leonard Zeskind, and he once told me to lighten up because I was taking the work entirely too seriously. And he said fighting Nazis should be fun, it’s being a Nazi that sucks. And I have always taken that to heart that we can do this work for human rights without sacrificing our joie de vivre and we really can see the world as a wonderful place full of promise and opportunities even as we deal with this netherworld of cynicism and hate. And to not descend into being cynical or hateful ourselves.
S: Right now, you are working on a book, Calling In the Calling Out Culture. Did you want to give a brief description of what the book will be about?
LR: Yes, It’s called Calling In the Calling out Culture and it actually was inspired by a fellow Canadian, Asam Ahmad. He and I spoke on a program together at the University of Massachusetts and I actually was perturbed in the early 2000’s by the vitriol of the internet culture. I was actually surprised by it because I’m fairly elderly, so I wasn’t aware of how much shade was being thrown, how much calling out was being done over the internet. And so when I observed this phenomenon and spoke about it, this young woman told me that this was part of the call out culture and of course young people had named it. And so this caused me to do an internet search and that was when I encountered Asam’s writing on the topic. And so, I began to read a lot on it. And then I figured I had something minor to contribute to trying to change this call out culture, since I had done this anti-rape work working with men who had murdered women and raped them and since I had done this anti-rape work working with men who had murdered women and raped them and since I had done that reprogramming of people in hate groups and things like that. That’s just decades working with problematic allies, in the predominantly white women’s movement. I thought I had learned some lessons that I would like to share about working with people without indulging in the call out culture. And so that’s what I tried to package up in my book. One of my life lessons about dealing with people you don’t agree with is also that you don’t use tactical calling them out as a way of building movements.
S: What are you hoping that the book can incite in terms of impacting call out culture?
LR: Well, the book is primarily on skills building as a pathway for building a more unified human rights movement and so, it’s about self-forgiveness, so that you can then forgive others for the mistakes that they make. It’s about how you can actually go through steps of listening to diverse points of views that you don’t necessarily agree with but still keep the conversation ball rolling. It’s about showing people that it’s possible to do activism in a lot of different ways without doing it in a way that violates people’s human rights.
S: Over your work doing rehabilitative work and working with people who have done some pretty awful things, how do you feel about people’s ability to transform? Do you have hope that we can get through this?
LR: I think the majority of people are just good people who do bad things. And I think that the majority of humanity, if we are honest with ourselves, we are all victimized violators capable of having our human rights violated, and at the same time capable of violating someone else’s human rights. And so that’s kind of how I see the world. I tend to really focus on forgiving others and start from forgiving myself. And trying to find that common ground where we can have discourse, where we can have conversation not with the goal of persuading people to agree with me or believe me. But with the goal of persuading them to work with me so we that can build a human rights movement.
S: Thanks so much, Loretta.
Loretta Ross is the Founder and former Executive Director of the National Center for Human Rights Education (NCHRE) in Atlanta, Georgia, former Program Research Director at the Center for Democratic Renewal/National Anti-Klan Network, the third Executive Director of the first rape crisis centre in the United States and co-organizer of the largest protest in U.S. history.
Shabina is a community herbalist and organizer working towards the liberation of all people.
Julianah Oguntala is a second year Biomedical Sciences student at the University of Guelph. She hopes to pursue a long career as a physician, providing compassionate care to those who need it the most. She loves to read and spend time with her family.