The author of When They Call You a Terrorist sees hope in the Black Lives Matter movement she helped launch
This article titled “‘We’ve ignited a new generation’: Patrisse Khan-Cullors on the resurgence of black activism” was written by Jamiles Lartey, for theguardian.com on Sunday 28th January 2018 07.00 UTC
It started with a Facebook post.
“I continue to be surprised at how little black lives matter” wrote activist and writer Alicia Garza in 2013. “Black people, I will NEVER give up on us. NEVER.”
A jury had just acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teen in Sanford, Florida. Similarly bowled over by the verdict, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a friend of Garza’s and a fellow activist, replied to the post simply: #BlackLivesMatter.
A year later, after the shooting death of another black teen, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, those three words leapt off the screen and took on a life of their own. The refrain, self-evident yet historically elusive, would serve as a totem of the newly energized black liberation struggle, and for days, weeks and months that followed, bring race to the fore of the national conversation in ways unseen for decades.
“Before BLM there was a dormancy in our black freedom movement,” Khan-Cullors said in an interview with the Guardian. “Obviously many of us were doing work, but we’ve been able to reignite a whole entire new generation, not just inside the US but across the globe, centering black people and centering the fight against white supremacy.”
In her new book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Khan-Cullors explores her own personal journey, from her childhood in Van Nuys, California, to becoming one of the leaders – if perhaps not as well known as others – of the latest incarnation of the US civil rights movement.
“What was most important for me is that I could share what I experience as a young person, in particular what impact incarceration and policing had on my life and my family’s life,” Khan-Cullors said of the memoir, co-authored with writer and journalist asha bandele.
Looming large in the story is what she describes as the criminalization of her older brother, Monte, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder as a teen, and how a lack of access to treatment led to his repeated arrest and detention. Khan-Cullors said her “big, loving, unwell, good-hearted brother” was the kind of person who “rescued small animals” and “has never, never hurt another human being”. Yet he was arrested in his own home in the middle of a psychiatric episode, she recalled.
Khan-Cullors calls his incarceration the breaking point, the watershed moment that drove her into activism.
“We rarely know what motivates somebody in their work and it’s usually a particular moment in their life,” she said. “For me that moment is my brother’s incarceration, and the ways in which this country has decided to neglect, abuse, and sometimes torture people with severe mental illness, especially if they’re black.”
She describes how her brother would, while in a “full manic episode”, shout at a woman after a fender bender, words that she took as a threat. In California, and many states, this can trigger a charge of “terroristic threats”, part of the inspiration for the title of the book.
Khan-Cullors later saw a charge of terrorism levied at her, rhetorically, by opponents of BLM. (California has since renamed the offense “criminal threats”.)
In the memoir, Khan-Cullor also reflects on her father, Gabriel, his struggles with addiction, his own incarcerations for drug offenses and the social and political conditions that fuel abuses of drugs and the justice system.
“His real addiction is to the fast-paced energy of it all,” Khan-Cullors writes. “How else was a man like him ever going to have some money in his pocket, decent clothes, be viewed as someone who mattered?”
In this way, the memoir hints at many of the broader ways black lives ought to matter – not just when a police officer or vigilante kills an unarmed black teen, but in the broadest sense: to matter every day.
“We deserve,” Khan-Cullors writes, “what so many others take for granted.” On that list are sustenance (“healthy, organic and whole food”), shelter (“homes that are safe and non-toxic”), knowledge (“mentors and teachers”), and love (“thick, full-bodied and healthy”).
This philosophy is part of the conceptual background behind the BLM network that Khan-Cullors would go on to co-found with Garza and a third organizer, Opal Tometi. The project today boasts more than 40 official chapters worldwide, and has inspired dozens of unofficial local offshoots . Official BLM chapters place a heavy emphasis on what they call “centering” women and LGBTQ people, as a corrective to the male, straight and cis-gendered focus of past black movements.
The effort to realize change, today, extends to the protest actions. Some of the organizing strategies BLM has become famous for (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) include vast marches, human blockades of cars, and interruptions at political rallies and speeches.
Toward the end of the memoir, Khan-Cullors reflects on the intention behind those actions, and how they make people outside of the movement uncomfortable or purposely inconvenience them in the service of an argument.
“I just wanted folks to take a moment and just feel what this must be like for a community that experiences this on a daily basis,” Khan-Cullors said, thinking about the police helicopters overhead, the armored officers and what it means to beckon those forces into posh, monied areas, like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, with a protest.
In the book, she contrasts “those who come for brunch” with the movement for whom “this is our every day”.
“I ask the people who are lunching,” she writes, “to remember the dead, and to remember that once they were alive and that their lives mattered.”
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