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Liberal-On-Liberal Antagonism

A terminated employee calls one of Nashville’s leading liberal activist organizations a racist ‘progressive plantation’

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In 1968, Lorenzo Ervin was a Black Panther in trouble with the law. He says he’d been arrested, beaten up by the cops and charged with “arming the youth [for] this so-called riot” in downtown Chattanooga after Martin Luther King’s death. He felt he had to leave the country but knew it wouldn’t be easy. “When you’re a wanted man,” he says, “you don’t go with your passport and just get on a plane.” The now gray-haired Ervin pauses, casts his eyes downward and folds his hands. “I, um, I…” he starts. “I hijacked a plane to Cuba.” After taking over the plane with a .44 and a hand grenade, Ervin lived on the lam in Castro’s Cuba and later in Soviet bloc countries, until his arrest in Prague by U.S. authorities. He served 15 years in a federal penitentiary. This remarkable journey would eventually lead him to a job with one of Nashville’s most prominent progressive activist coalitions. When the Nashville Peace and Justice Center (NPJC) hired Ervin last June, the organization’s leaders were thrilled with his platinum anti-establishment credentials. “I thought we’d be sitting around talking about Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers,” says NPJC board member Jane Hussein. But the honeymoon was short-lived. Oddly enough, Ervin’s felony wasn’t a hiring deterrent to NPJC. But that he wasn’t proficient in Microsoft Office and had embellished his résumé—those were deal killers. A mere six months into his position, the center fired Ervin last week, saying that he was essentially incompetent and had misrepresented himself on his job application. In response, Ervin has charged that one of Nashville’s most liberal institutions is a “racist clique” and a “progressive plantation.” He says he plans to sue the center for $1 million. The NPJC is a coalition of more than 25 organizations representing every lefty corner imaginable—from local chapters of Amnesty International and National Organization for Women to homegrown organizations like Radio Free Nashville and the Nashville Homeless Power Project. You can’t attend a board meeting without smelling both body odor and patchouli oil. The center has organized some of the largest demonstrations in the state. Last March, they demonstrated how difficult it is get home on a Friday afternoon when the streets of downtown Nashville are blocked by hundreds of people in wheelchairs. They also helped organize the longest sit-in of a governor’s office in U.S. history when, in 2005, demonstrators protested Gov. Phil Bredesen’s TennCare cuts for weeks on end. The decision to fire Ervin last week came in the form of a vote by the center’s board of directors at their monthly meeting. The center’s 21 board members look pretty much like you’d expect the board members of an organization called the Peace and Justice Center to look like: long gray beards, dreadlocks, flower-print dresses, earth-toned suits and of course sandals with dark socks. One board member wore a hood ornament-sized peace symbol from a long cord around his neck. Roughly 40 people showed up for the meeting, some to protest Ervin’s ouster. Included in this group were a klatch of anarchists, one of whom wore a T-shirt that read, “Don’t rock the boat, sink the fucker.” The first and only order of business on the agenda that evening was a motion to terminate Ervin on the grounds that he misrepresented himself during the interview process. The motion also stated that there were “serious questions…backed by documentation, about Ervin’s efficiency and competence.” Since his release from prison in 1983, Ervin has built an impressive résumé of protest work, including leading a Chattanooga group that confronted the police over the deaths of dozens of blacks while in their custody. Unfortunately, his new position at the NPJC required more bureaucratic wrangling than street-level rabble-rousing. Karl Meyer, who sits on the board, says that the majority of Ervin’s responsibilities as coordinator were administrative: helping to write grants, formulating budgets and keeping track of petty cash were just a few of his duties. Also vital was a basic understanding of Microsoft Office, particularly the spreadsheet program Excel. An internal NPJC memo, written by a board member and read aloud at the board meeting last week, says that shortly after Ervin began working there, his administrative shortcomings became obvious. “After a few days, it became clear that he didn’t have any knowledge of Microsoft Excel, Word or Office to the extent that he didn’t know how to cut and paste,” the memo says. The memo also states that Ervin was less than honest about his work experience. “The organizations [Ervin] headed did not have paid staff or were not ‘big 501(c)3s,’ as he had stated.” It also charges that Ervin was late to some appointments by as much as half a day, was a poor manager and that he “didn’t show competent skills” for coping with problems. Ervin counters that he has been harassed and threatened with termination practically since the day he started. He says that board member Jane Hussein left an angry message on his answering machine threatening to fire him. When he later came to a board meeting, he says that she grabbed papers out of his hand and threw them on the floor. “Like many of you in this group,” Ervin told the board before they voted to fire him, “you treat white people one way and people of color another way.” In textbook lefty fashion, Hussein responds this way: “I think he is a product of the history of our country and of the terrible things that have happened in the last 59 or 60 years of his life that he has had to go through.” Ervin says that the incident is symbolic of “the type of racism, cronyism and skullduggery that goes on” at the NPJC. It also led to a series of email messages that he sent to board members calling them “racists,” among other choice descriptors. “I was called a Southern white liberal,” says Chris Lugo, who ran for the U.S. Senate on the Green Party ticket this fall. “I’m not from the South, and I’m not a liberal.” Lugo says that his feelings were hurt by the message. As for the deficiencies in his computer skills, Ervin says, “I’ve been using Microsoft Word for years. I’m not an expert at Excel, but I haven’t seen many people come through here who are.” Be that as it may, it seems that the board was well within its rights to terminate Ervin’s employment. Greg Welsch of Radio Free Nashville says that Ervin’s contract had a six-month probationary period that allowed for a parting of ways in case the new hire didn’t work out. “A probationary period is a probationary period,” he says. “If either side doesn’t want to continue, then [they can] just walk away.” But not without a healthy dose of liberal self-flagellation first. Although Ervin’s termination—with 60 days of severance pay, twice that required by law—was a foregone conclusion at the start of the meeting, practically all of the pigment-deficient liberals who rose to praise or bury Ervin began their statements with proclamations such as, “I know that as a white person, I have my own biases, no matter how hard I try to control them…” or “I can’t possibly understand what people of color experience but….” Also remarkable, and very much in the spirit of the NPJC’s mission, was the eschewing of traditional rules of order that would have cut both the meeting’s length and acrimony in half. Elizabeth Barger, a self-described aging hippy and current interim chair of the board, quieted those who wanted to end the discussion and just get on with a vote. “Every voice will be heard,” she said. “I don’t want to go with Roberts Rules [of Order]. I feel that Roberts Rules is game-playing.” The main point of contention was whether the board should seek a resolution with Ervin through professional mediation or just give him the ax, as most companies or corporations would probably do. But, as everyone in the room was repeatedly reminded, the NPJC isn’t just another corporation. “We could,” said Jen Cartwright, education director at the center, “act like a good corporate business that has no soul or compassion for anyone and as soon as [an employee] is not working we throw you out.” She then invoked the doubly terrifying specters of Karl Rove and Phil Valentine. “If [they] could look in on us, they’d be grinning from ear to ear,” she said. After all was said and done, the outcome for Ervin—though not exactly executed with cold, corporate efficiency—was unavoidable. As they voted to fire the former Black Panther, some board members expressed great affection for him. Others seemed more concerned about his threats of legal action against the center and its board. “I’m not making a threat in terms of legal action,” Ervin responded to one such worrier. “You could call it a promise.”

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