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BOOKS Patrisse Khan-Cullors reflects on helping to start Black Lives Matter
by Angelique Smith

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"What I feel serious about, specifically around political direction, is a resurgence of a reparations campaign … and one of the first agenda items I would have [is], I would really like for every Black person to have their own therapist as a part of the reparations package. I think that's essential."—Patrisse Khan-Cullors when asked her greatest hope for Black Lives Matter to accomplish in the next few years.

A Fulbright Scholar, activist and artist who identifies as queer, Patrisse Khan-Cullors created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and, along with Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, founded one of the most important decentralized, localized movements of this generation. A movement that won a Sydney Peace Prize in 2017—among other honors—but was also declared a "terrorist organization" by dissenters.

Khan-Cullors recently started a book tour for her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, co-authored with journalist asha bandele and with a forward by the legendary Angela Davis, who has had her own share of being labeled as a terrorist.

On Jan. 23 at Wilson Abbey, in an auditorium filled with people and the free flow of ideas on direct action, Women and Children First hosted an author reading for Khan-Cullors, who sat with Black Youth Project 100's ( BYP100's ) Charlene Carruthers to discuss Khan-Cullors' beautifully-written book and the life of activism that inspired it.

Growing up in Van Nuys, California, under the constant terror of police presence and criminalization of Black people, Khan-Cullors' raw and riveting book touches on the various systems that regularly fail marginalized groups—racialized trauma and mental health issues not being properly addressed nor funded, how the failed war on drugs and America being tethered to punishment works to fill our prisons, the discrepancies in education, resources and living conditions—and how those failures laid the groundwork for her life's work.

Prior to the event, Windy City Times sat down with Khan-Cullors:

Windy City Times: It's considered controversial by some to actually say the words, "Black Lives Matter." Could you have ever, in your life, thought that your simple statement could result in such vitriol and pushback in this country?

Patrisse Khan-Cullors: No, I didn't. Part of the excitement about Black Lives Matter when we started it, for me, was that we were going to be able to galvanize a new generation around the impacts of anti-Black racism on our communities. And the backlash we received, pretty early on, [around] the calling out of the phrase … I wasn't surprised, because I know the history of white folks and their racism against Black people, in particular, but I was confused. It's a very simple statement and we see what's happening to Black people, so why is that so difficult for people to embrace?

WCT: What made you decide to write your memoir?

PK-C: I did it reluctantly. It wasn't this thing I was excited about it, or what I thought was the best use of my time. But, then Black Lives Matter was called a terrorist organization and we were watching a moment where 45 was a candidate for president. As people were debating whether Jeff Sessions should be appointed, I went to look at his record and [saw] the terror he has caused throughout the South. I was very concerned about his role in the war on drugs and what we could be reliving as a country if he became the attorney general. I wanted to write a story down on what I've seen, what created this current iteration of our movement.

WCT: The word, "terrorist," and the concept of terror comes up often in this book—not just in the title, but in relation to what your own brother was charged with and what it feels like to be constantly over-policed and under siege. It led me to think about [U.S. Attorney General Jeff] Sessions' Department of Justice speaking about the terrorist threat of so-called "Black identity extremists." When was the first time you heard or read about yourself being called a "terrorist?"

PK-C: It was either on Bill O'Reilly or Breitbart … or both at the same time. And I was scared; I was concerned. I was clear that this is what happens when you take up the mantle to fight for our lives. This is what happens to so many Black activists.

WCT: Martin Luther King Jr., in his time, included. You've mentioned that activists such as yourself are going through COINTELPRO 2.0. I was going to ask you to expand on that, and then I thought about how we've never had a reckoning or an acknowledgement in this country of COINTELPRO, in general. I guess with that said, and with more people starting to care more about politics and protest, are you optimistic about our country finally waking up to the realities of injustice?

PK-C: I don't think it happens where everybody wakes up at the same time, it happens in waves. There are moments in which people realize, "Oh, this is why they're saying 'Black Lives Matter.'" But there are also moments where people are committed to bigotry and their own racism, their own power and privilege. Some people will forever be in this country, die in this country and be staunch racists. And some people will evolve and grow. I'd like to think more people will do evolving and growing.

WCT: Here's hoping.

PK-C: I think the fact that you can get millions of people out in the streets fighting for women's rights is huge. At the height of Black Lives Matter and our protesting, we were getting thousands of people out in the streets to fight for Black lives, which is huge, but it's a long-haul fight. There's no one day that everyone wakes up. It took 500 years to get here and it's going to take 500 years or more to get out.

WCT: Similar to the erasure of the roles of Black women, and queer ones in particular, in the civil-rights movement, you've mentioned that it was both painful and enraging to have the story of Black Lives Matter initially unfold in the media without you in it. Tell us about that.

PK-C: There's a history of not just erasing Black women's work, but stealing it. That someone else gets to be praised, honored and, oftentimes, gain financial status because of the labor Black women put in. That first year and a half that we were cultivating and nurturing Black Lives Matter, it was clarifying and also painful to see how much people wanted to fixate on the idea that a Black, cis-male leader is going to get us to the salvation of Black people. Also, how hard it was for people to believe that Black women were at the helm of Black Lives Matter.

WCT: Can you tell us about how, post-Ferguson, the decision was made to affirm Trans voices and ensure their visibility in the movement?

PK-C: Black Lives Matter arrived in St. Louis, Darnell Moore and myself, and dozens of activists across the country, including Toronto, went on that ride, helped develop it and get people there. We had a crew of Black Trans women who came on the ride and gave us some really strong feedback at the end of it. They felt like they were invisible, like there was no space to talk about Trans people.

We took that feedback very seriously and relooked at who we were centering and how we were centering them, and what kinds of conversations we were having. What would come out of it was the tragedy of Black Trans women being killed and murdered more than any other group of Trans people, and why we had to focus on believing and loving and witnessing Black Trans women in their life, not just in their death.

WCT: Yes, so true. In the book, you often talk of not having the resources, or access to them, in terms of dealing with your father's incarceration, navigating the criminal justice system … especially in a time before crowd sourcing online, etc. What organizations should the community turn to that you wish that you had when you were growing up?

PK-C: I think BYP100 is an amazing organization; obviously, the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Organizations like Dignity and Power Now. Law for Black Lives, an organization that's full of lawyers who are specifically fighting on behalf of Black people and Black communities. There are so many organizations both at the local and national level that are doing powerful work. I think it's really important that all of us joins something right now. Don't do this alone.

WCT: A lot of this book is about your brother, Monte, and his battle with bipolar schizoaffective disorder. There was one part where you were forced to call the police when he was having a mental break and after no hospital would take him. I just felt the utter desperation that you must have felt to even consider that choice. Can you speak about what people can do when the system fails them in this way?

PK-C: In California, we have something called the Justice Teams Network, a statewide network that I started, and Cat Brooks is the executive director of, where we support families in dealing with responding to state violence. We know how to respond to natural disasters, when there's a hurricane or earthquake, but we don't respond well to state violence because we haven't trained ourselves, and it happens every single day.

WCT: Toward the end of the book, I think I came away with a deeper understanding of the word, "organizer," other than the obvious … especially in the way the Black Lives Matter organizes itself internally, making sure self-care is prioritized, that the organization is uplifting those within. How do you personally cope and what do you do for self-care?

PK-C: I'm a big fan of therapy. I deeply believe in the practice of generative somatics: the idea that our bodies hold trauma and that we're able to release that trauma and practice new ways of being. I believe in prayer and being in the community, not isolating myself, even when it feels hard and terrible.

WCT: What gives you hope these days?

PK-C: Being able to see the consistency of this movement. I don't see our movements—whether it's Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the immigrants' rights movement, or the Women's March—as separate. Black Lives Matter has laid the foundation on how people can fight in this movement. … I think we are all connected. I'm so proud to be a part of a generation that is taking our 1st Amendment rights seriously through exercising it and practicing the most innovative ways to approach the biggest social ills.

WCT: What's next for you after the book tour and for the organization, as a whole?

PK-C: I'm in school, so I'm going to take my butt back home and finish my MFA program. The tour is just one leg of how we are going to uplift the story and this book, so lots of exciting things to come. February is Black History Month, so it's our month. We can do everything!

WCT: I mean, Black Panther is coming out, so…

PK-C: Exactly! A lot of exciting things this year, professionally and personally. Within our network, we're at an interesting moment. We're taking stock of what we've been able to do for the last four and a half years. This is a midterm election, so some of our chapters are going to focus on the gubernatorial races. Many of our chapters are focusing on local legislation they're trying to pass. But as a global network, we are trying to understand what kinds of campaigns we can galvanize ourselves around globally that we can put out in 2019.

When They Call You Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir can be purchased online and in stores. Visit for more information about the book and the tour.

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