This powerful book by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Khan-Cullors reminds us American racism is pervasive – even in liberal California
This is a powerful memoir by “a mother and a wife, a community organizer and Queer, an artist and a dreamer”, who in 2013 coined the phrase Black Lives Matter and then became one of the co-founders of that organization.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors grew up in Van Nuys, California, where she was raised “between the twin terrors of poverty and the police”. It was a place where she and her siblings were always treated “like suspects” and crack cocaine “filled the empty spaces for a lot of people whose lives have been emptied out”. She was part of the “post-Reagan, post-social safety net generation”.
Her life was saved by an indomitable mother, a fourth-grade teacher who gave her books and allowed her to teach her class about the civil rights movement, and a charter high school where she studied apartheid, communism, the anarchist Emma Goldman and the African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde.
Her narrative never flags, party because there is never anything predictable about the trajectory of Khan-Cullors’ life. She comes out as queer at 16, then falls in love with a boy two years later. Eventually she marries that boy. When she leaves him, she remains close to him as a fellow activist. Later there is another boyfriend, who fathers her son, and then another marriage, to Janaya Khan, a black, queer, gender-nonconforming activist, also known as future.
Activism is always at the heart of Khan-Cullors’ life, whether she is organizing mass protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown is shot by a white policeman in 2014, or fighting to legalize marijuana in California because “marijuana is the fourth-leading case of deportation, and every night in LA County 500 people sit in the jail simply for possessing it.”
She is always aware that she is picking up the torch from previous generations of activists, from the Deacons of Defense, who organized against white vigilantes in Louisiana in 1964 and 1965, to Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers who began their fight against the brutality of the Oakland police in 1966.
“We were and are their progeny,” she writes.
The book is peppered with statistics that remind us racism is pervasive throughout the US, even in a very blue state like California where “a human being is killed by a police officer roughly every 72 hours” and “63% of these people killed by police are black or Latino. Black people, 6% of the California population, are targeted and killed at five times the rate of whites.”
Her own brother, mentally ill and wheelchair-bound, is brutally tortured in a California prison. Shortly after he returns home in 2011, she experiences a terrible shock of recognition when she reads a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of southern California, which alleges systematic torture by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department in the county jail.
Among the victims is a “a wheelchair-bound prisoner whom deputies pulled off his bed, kicked and kneed in his ribs, back and neck … I begin to hyperventilate and remember my brother on his knees drinking out of the toilet. My God.”
Somehow, through all the traumas suffered by friends and close family members, Khan-Cullors manages to sustain herself with her activism.
“In the wake of the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer,” she writes, “we have to change the conversation. We have to talk very specifically about the anti-black racism that stalks us until it kills us … There is something quite basic that has to be addressed in the culture, in the hearts and minds of people who have benefitted from, and were raised up on, the notion that black people are not fully human.”
She has devoted her life, she writes, to “trying to get people to see that as much as there is a progressive movement for justice, there are those working just as hard for the opposite outcome, an outcome where only the fewest of lives matter at all”.
On the first anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump, the first president of modern times to use the White House to blatantly fan the flames of racism, the mission of Khan-Cullors and her fellow activists has never been more important – or more urgent.
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