How a Black Lives Matter co-founder is turning anger into positive action

by Elizabeth Heritage / 12 April, 2018

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Patrisse Khan-Cullors: “I know that if we do what we are called to do … we will win.”

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, grew up “between the twin terrors of poverty and the police”.

Although only 257 pages long, this Black Lives Matter memoir is a big, big book. Co-written with journalist Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist is mostly the story of Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ life. The final quarter of the book is devoted to a history of the Black Lives Matter movement, of which she is a co-founder.

Khan-Cullors is a black woman, “a mother and a wife, a community organizer and queer, an artist and a dreamer” from Los Angeles. She grew up “between the twin terrors of poverty and the police”, who threatened black children and routinely tortured black adults. But this is no sob story: Khan-Cullors is one of those extraordinary people able to transform anger and grief into effective action.

As well as her experience of state violence, she’s motivated by the history of anti-racism campaigning in the US. “The stories I learnt as a small girl who read about civil rights, black power and black culture flowed everywhere in me and through me.”

Her personal narrative is backed up by startling statistics: in California alone, “a human being is killed by a police officer roughly every 72 hours” and “63% of these people killed by police are black or Latinx. Black people, 6% of the California population, are targeted and killed at five times the rate of whites.”

The odds are stacked against all people of colour in the US, especially under the present Administration, but Khan-Cullors brings to light the special hatred and fear that white-supremacist Americans have for black Americans in particular. She draws a direct line from slavery to Jim Crow to today’s epidemic of mass incarceration and institutionalised police brutality. “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 benefited from, and were raised up on, the notion that black people are not fully human.”

Khan-Cullors is clear about what needs to be done – and is doing it. “The goal is freedom. The goal is to live beyond fear. The goal is to end the occupation of our bodies and souls by the agents of a larger American culture that demonstrates daily how we don’t matter … And I know that if we do what we are called to do … we will win.”

Black Lives Matter is an explicitly feminist movement founded by black women that seeks to engage queer, trans and disabled black women in particular. Among their guiding principles are: “Being self-reflective about and dismantling cisgender privilege and uplifting black trans folk … Asserting the fact that Black Lives Matter, all black lives, regardless of … ability [or] disability … Fostering a trans- and queer-affirming network … freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking …”

Founded in 2013, it’s having an ongoing effect. “We have created space for us to finally be unapologetic about who we are and what we need to be actually free, not partially free. … We make everyday people feel part of a push for change.”

Reading this memoir put me in awe of the exceptional strength and compassion that US anti-racism campaigners must possess to face up to the scale of the problem and make positive changes. Although this book is about the US, it made me look at race relations here in Aotearoa with new eyes. When They Call You a Terrorist will stay with you for a long time.

WHEN THEY CALL YOU A TERRORIST: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele (Canongate/Allen & Unwin, $25)

This article was first published in the April 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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