Patrisse Cullors on a Lifetime of Activism and the Founding of Black Lives Matter (ep. 4)

July 12, 2018
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On the eve of the five-year anniversary of the creation of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors discusses the life that led her to co-found one of the most consequential racial justice movements of our time. She talks about the evolution of the organization since its inception, what it’s like to live under surveillance, the books that inspired her, and more.

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LEE ROWLAND
[00:00:06] I’m Lee Rowland and from the ACLU, this is At Liberty: the weekly podcast where we discuss major issues and civil rights and civil liberties. Today, I'll be talking with Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Patrice is an artist, a community organizer, a Fulbright scholar, and an author. We're going to learn about her political activism and the origins and future of Black Lives Matter, a movement that was founded exactly 5 years ago on July 13, 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. Patrisse, welcome and thank you so much for joining us today.
PATRISSE CULLORS
[00:00:54] Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
LEE
[00:00:56] So, you have co-founded this incredible movement that has changed the nature of racial justice advocacy here in the United States, how we talk about race. You are a Fulbright scholar, you're an artist and activist. What made you choose this life?
PATRISSE
[00:01:14] It chose me. It chose me. I think I grew up in conditions that were deeply traumatic and unfortunate and also incredibly planned. I grew up in an environment that was more invested in divesting from my family and my community. I grew up going to mostly white schools where I got to see how they were treated. Where I got to see young people being given things that I never received.
[00:01:57] I lived in sort of these two worlds and it became very clear to me that the way that I was living, what I was going back home to, was unacceptable. I had a fire in my belly to want to do something about it and I was really fortunate to go to a social justice high school where I sort of got the language and the understanding of, "Oh, this could be my life. I could fight for change."
LEE
[00:02:23] So, Patrisse, can you tell us where were these two worlds that you straddled, and what do you mean when you say, "This was a planned world"?
PATRISSE
[00:02:33] I grew up in Van Nuys, which is a suburb outside of the inner-city of Los Angeles. It's still Los Angeles city, it's just a working-class suburb. Adjacent to Van Nuys is Sherman Oaks, which is a mostly white, affluent neighborhood. So I grew up in Van Nuys, but I was schooled early on in Sherman Oaks and just witnessed, had the policing in my neighborhood, and then I would literally cross over to Chandler Boulevard on the other side, and little to no policing in that neighborhood.
[00:03:09] What I mean by planned is I mean that what I would learn as a teenager in my late teens that actually there's this thing called racism, and sexism, and capitalism, and homophobia, and transphobia, and ableism and that these isms were a part of the fabric of America. They're a part of how institutions in America, like schools and churches, like government agencies were able to have a class of people who have lots of privilege and classes of people who didn't.
[00:03:46] What I realized is that this wasn't my fault or my mother's fault. Actually, we were born into ... poverty because poverty exists in America even though it doesn't have to.
LEE
[00:03:57] How did you choose to act out on that and to talk about this discovery with people in your community?
PATRISSE
[00:04:05] I was incredibly defiant as a child.
LEE
[00:04:10] Those are the best kind of children.
PATRISSE
[00:04:12] Exactly. I was really like a joyous and loving kid, but I was also incredibly defiant. I just knew what I wanted, and I knew what was ... I was one of those kids that if an adult said something that I agreed with, I was like, "Okay, I'll do that," but if they didn't, I was very loud about it and it obviously didn't bode well in my household, but I think it did for my schooling.
[00:04:43] I was a voracious reader. I was very interested in learning. I wasn't necessarily interested in institutions, but I was that kid that like read everything that a teacher would give me, but didn't do my homework because I was like, "Who cares about homework?" So that was kind of like how I was.
LEE
[00:05:02] So you were already destroying hierarchical structures by age 8? Okay. Who were some of your favorite authors when you were a kid?
PATRISSE
[00:05:11] Bell Hooks. I got my hands on Bell Hooks at 16, thank the Lord. Audre Lorde became a really big author for me. I read everything, all of Audrey’s essays, her novels. Toni Morrison became really big for me and this was all taught in school, mind you.
LEE
[00:05:32] And this was in what you described as a white high school, too, right?
PATRISSE
[00:05:35] This was a social justice high school that was a Magnet program. The residential program was actually mostly of color, but the Magnet program inside the residential school was about 76 percent white. We probably had, in a classroom of 30, anywhere incoming class was probably like three to four black students. By the time we graduated, it was very rare, to be honest with you, that most of those black students would graduate from the program.
PATRISSE
[00:06:06] I think, for me, learning and reading the literature that I was given, and then living the life I was living, and then feeling like, "I have all this language. I know what racism is. I know what capitalism is. I'm living this life. What do I do with it?" I think that was the next phase for me and I was hungry for activism. I didn't know that that's what it was called then, but I was hungry for organizing. I joined, I went to a social justice camp called NCCJ, the National Conference for Community and Justice.
[00:06:40] I went through their youth leadership program and became a youth leader, but it still wasn't enough for me. I was like, "Cool. I'm learning more, but how do I take down local government? How do I transform systems? How do I create new pathways?" That's when I came across the Labor Community Strategy Center and the Bus Rider's Union, which is a local civil rights organization ran by an old-school organizer activist from the 60s, 70s, Eric Mann.
[00:07:12] I was organized into the Bus Rider's Union and I spent eleven years there where I really learned my organizing ... was trained as an organizer, base builder, someone that transforms systems. I mean, really that organization gave me my foundation. Then, I went off to start Dignity and Power Now, my local organization that took on the sheriff's department. And then a year later, I would be one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter.
LEE
[00:07:41] Can you tell us about your time at the Bus Rider's Union?
PATRISSE
[00:07:44] Yes, the Bus Rider's Union was the first organization to work with bus riders and to fight really for first-class transit system inside of Los Angeles County. What the Bus Rider's Union realized is that bus riders were being completely segregated from the rest of the city, from car drivers. Bus riders in LA were unable to hop on a bus effectively or efficiently to get to work. That was impacting people's ability to be mobile, not just physically but also in relationship to them being able to get to a job.
[00:08:26] There was a system in place in LA county that was privileging the building of trains, a train system that was largely built and created for mostly white riders. They were able to file a class action lawsuit against the METRO, Metropolitan Travel Agency, which was called then MTA and won, and we won a class action lawsuit. It was huge. I wasn't around when they won the actual lawsuit but I came into the lawsuit... the class action consent decree was still alive and well. So, I came into that and I came into this organization that had made history. This tiny org that sued a $3 billion agency and won, and that agency had a deal with this organization, and this organization represented a half a million bus riders in Los Angeles and I was a bus rider. My family were bus riders.
[00:09:21] I joined understanding really clearly that this organization was a civil rights organization fighting for racial justice. I was on the front lines of fighting for Black, Latino, and Korean riders and working-class people inside of LA. We talked explicitly about race and explicitly about anti-black racism. In a lot of ways that's where I got my training around understanding the impacts of anti-black racism. So I knew wherever I went that we were gonna talk about race and racism and class and classism.
LEE
[00:09:57] So, Patrisse, take us now to the founding of Black Lives Matter. How was the natural progression from what you'd seen and advocated for in the past, and particularly, I'd love to know why a new model? Why a new mode, a new organization, a new type of advocacy? Why did you feel like that was necessary?
PATRISSE
[00:10:18] Well, I think every generation of young people is trying to evolve what we or what they understand the last generation did. I wasn't necessarily sitting around a room being like, "What's the next movement? What are we gonna do next?" I was doing the work every day. I was being an organizer. I was hearing the stories. I was witnessing them myself, I was living them myself. I was dealing with over-incarceration. I was dealing with over-policing, police violence, police abuse, corruption. I live in LA county where the sheriff has been convicted of corruption, where the under-sheriff is now sitting in federal prison. This is not new. I live in the city where Rodney King was brutalized. I live in the city where there was an LAPD Rampart scandal, so the idea of police being the good guys was never a part of our vernacular.
[00:11:16] We are literally the generation that witnessed the police become militarized. We're the generation that witnessed our families, our parents, unable to get work. We're the forgotten generation. Only time tells when a community pushes back. When a community snaps. When a community says, "Enough is enough."
[00:11:40] That's was BLM is. It's not a rational place. BLM comes from inter-generational trauma and inter-generational resilience. It's just tapping into what we've been doing for the last 500 years until this place changes forever. I think that's important to note, that BLM isn't a thing that sort of starts off at a non-profit structure. It's something that starts off in the bodies of human beings who've been pushed up against the wall, who've been torn from their families, who've witnessed some of the most destructive things and received no justice. It's a generation that's really rising up together. It's why Black Lives Matter, the moment it was spoken out of Alicia's mouth. It's why it became clear to me that it needed to be a hashtag. It's why Opal showed up and said, "Let's do this together." It's why, I believe, the rest of the world was like, "Yes, this is what we need to be saying."
[00:12:39] I think we're in a moment where Black Lives Matter has debunked the police being the ones who are telling the truth all the time. I think there was a moment in history ... even though black communities understood, and poor communities understood what police were doing to us, that nobody else did. Nobody believed us.
[00:12:59] Now that I have the privilege of making a decision on where I live, I ask, the first thing I ask... Whenever I move somewhere I go to the community during the day, and I go to the community at night. I wanna know if there's gonna be police circling the block. I wanna know if there's gonna be helicopters circling the block because it's not any way to live. It's traumatic. It's dehumanizing. It's frightening.
LEE
[00:13:28] So you've explained the growth of BLM as something ... I'm putting words in your mouth now. I hope it's not too wrong ... but as a primal cry. Right? As something existential that is a response to this intolerable life. Can you explain to folks who may not understand, how that has manifested in the structure of Black Lives Matter? Why is it different than say, the NAACP that you can give a tax-deductible donation to? Or why is it different from a group like the ACLU? How is your vision of how Black Lives Matters is structured and does its activism?
PATRISSE
[00:14:05] Well, it's decentralized, so while we have a global network, Black Lives Matter, we're decentralized. People are doing their work in their communities, not based off of one single mandate of a national organization, and it's autonomous, people get to decide what they do and the organization is for black people.
[00:14:27] It's not without guidance, meaning Black Lives Matter has a set of guiding principles. It also has a clear politik. We are trying to transform the way black people are treated, not just in this country, but around the globe. More importantly, we're trying to transform the systems in which black people continue to be targeted for demise. For us, the most obvious system we're trying to change, and many of us would say abolish, is the criminal justice system: the courts, the police, the jails, the prisons, detention centers. We live in a country that has used bondage for over 500 years as a form of labor, as a form of punishment, as a form of control. The work that we're trying to do is imagine a different world. Not just for black people, but imagine what our world would look like if we didn't keep a community in bondage. What would we be? What would we center ourselves around? So that is philosophical, but it's really important for us, especially when it comes to our practice.
LEE
[00:15:39] Do you consider yourself an anarchist?
PATRISSE
[00:15:42] No. No, no, no. I don't consider myself an anarchist although there are anarchists within BLM. I don't have a label. I consider myself someone who is fighting for the freedom for black people, but I do consider myself an abolitionist, a proud one, in the legacy of Harriet Tubman and the legacy of Angela Davis. I think that, at this point, if we haven't convinced people that abolition is the way forward, then we gotta work harder. We can't live in a system like this, and I think I'll answer the question before it gets asked, "Well, what do we do then about crime and violence?"
[00:16:23] There's many things we do. There's many things we can do. There's many things that other countries do right now, living in this environment. This is not a made up thing. There are countries that don't use the death penalty, countries that don't use imprisonment, countries who are actually looking at caring for their populations who suffer from drug addiction or mental illness, caring for their populations who are poor.
[00:16:46] We have to do something about how we care or don't care, for those that are most marginalized in our communities because if we open up the jail cells, you go to any jail throughout the country, any prison, ask who's in there. The majority of those people will be in there for drug charges. Majority of those people will be in there because they suffer from mental illness.
[00:17:11] We have to take a moment to really look at, "Are we serving the entirety of the people who reside in this country, or are we punishing them for things that are out of their control?"
LEE
[00:17:24] Right. So you're speaking in part of a Black Lives Matter that emerged years ago when we had a different administration, right? We had President Obama in place. You're saying it emerged in response to unjust systems.
[00:17:41] How has that ... and with the full recognition that we're talking about a decentralized movement, how has the Black Lives Matter movement and coalition changed with the election of President Trump?
PATRISSE
[00:17:57] I think all of us understand that we were gonna be on the front lines fighting whether it was 45 or Hillary Clinton, and yet, we completely understand that living under 45's government is incredibly destructive. That at this point in history, his administration is single-handedly eroding the American Constitution. So much of our work is still doing the work that we've been doing around ending law enforcement violence and challenging it, but we've also been really looking at these midterm elections, both at the candidates who are running, but also at legislation that we can push forward. We are meeting and talking with experts in the field around electoral politics. Not because we think electoral politics are gonna save the day, but rather we know that we have to understand all the different ways that this American machine works so that we can be a part of challenging it and changing it.
LEE
[00:19:09] Can you give a specific example of a Black Lives Matter-led campaign that you would measure as successful? Either changing results or changing the conversation?
PATRISSE
[00:19:20] Yeah, I mean, I think about here in Los Angeles where our Black Lives Matter chapter has been taking on LAPD and also taking on DA Jackie Lacey, and thinking about the work that our local chapter has done to amplify police killings here in LA alone and has been able to challenge the LAPD Commission, that on paper, is actually a really strong commission but sides with law enforcement often and has lifted up black people's names in a way that this city has never done. I think about Chicago, our chapter in Chicago, who is on the brink of really shaping a new way of relating to how to fight elected officials. Chicago is such a brilliant place for organizing. I think about our DC chapter who has effectively sued the metro police in DC.
LEE
[00:20:20] We started out with a movement that you described as very organic and kind of reactive in a way that was part of your lives and a product of our communities. Now you're talking about ballot initiatives and particular legislation. Is BLM becoming more mainstream, do you think, as an advocacy organization?
PATRISSE
[00:20:42] I think that BLM is becoming more strategic. I would not say mainstream. I think being on the streets over the last three years was strategic. We couldn't sit and have conversation with law enforcement, try to have conversation with elected officials because we knew that if we sat at the table too early, that they would try to co-opt us. So shutting it down, showing up in the streets, that was absolutely necessary and strategic. We can look at this for any movement or uprising. It starts in the streets, but you don't stay in the streets. It's not necessary.
LEE
[00:21:18] Right.
PATRISSE
[00:21:19] You move in the ways that are strategic. We actually have to have all of it. We have to be in the streets. We have to be working with elected officials. We have to be moving ballot initiatives. We have to be fighting for the elected officials that we want to see in office. It's not one or the other.
[00:21:38] I think this country sometimes lives in a dichotomy. It's like, "Okay, well BLM is no longer in the streets, so now it's doing this." No, BLM is doing all of it, and we could see that if you look at any good movement around the country. I've done a lot of study and research on the Creative Worker's Movement. The entire country will shut down when the workers are like, "No, we're not doing this." And they will be in the streets for weeks until they go to negotiations, and they get what they want, and then will probably be back in the streets again because that's how it works when you live in a democracy.
LEE
[00:22:12] Right. So I'd like to ask you about a perhaps, no definitely, more dubious mark of a successful racial justice movement, which appears to be the almost definite likelihood that that movement will be surveilled and infiltrated by the FBI. My work at the ACLU, I know we ran into the FBI's creation of a new term for racial justice activists, which they are labeling as black identity extremists. Have you yourself, as an activist, become aware of surveillance in any personal way, and how has the reality of being surveilled by your own government, how has it affected your advocacy and relationships among people in the movement?
PATRISSE
[00:22:57] I mean I know many of us have been surveilled, are being surveilled. I think it's hard to fully comprehend that you're being watched while you're being watched. Obviously, I read about surveillance, co-intel pro. We all kind of joke or sometimes are a little too flippant with the use of “someone’s an agent” or “we're being watched.”
[00:23:22] You know, I think part of what happens is if you think too much about it, you probably won't continue doing the work. I'm mindful of what I say over my machines. We all try to use as much private and safe, secure apps and emails as possible. But at the end of the day, technology is technology, and they always have more technology than us. The fight against surveilling our communities has been a fight for a very long time.
LEE
[00:23:58] You mentioned earlier in our talk that you released a memoir this year. You chose to title that book When They Call You a Terrorist. Why did you use that word, terrorism?
Patrisse:
[00:24:11] 'Cause that's what we were called. We were called terrorists, and not only were we called terrorists by right-wing pundits, we were called terrorists by former elected officials, current elected officials, appointed officials. I mean, that language was wielded against us and upon us. When I say us, I mean Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter activists. We were sued. They didn't win but we were sued. It became really clear that the police and law enforcement was going to try to use many of the killings of police officers like in Dallas and New York against our movement and blame us.
LEE
[00:24:50] At the beginning of the interview, you described yourself as joyous and loving. It feels to me like there is a sense of optimism that suffuses so much of what you do. I'm really interested in how you process such a magnitude of tragedy every day. How do you do that every day and still remain a joyous person?
PATRISSE
[00:25:15] I have good friends. I have good community. My family's amazing. My child's brilliant. I have an amazing husband and partner and my mother is incredible. I get to see and be with families who have been through the worst and are still showing up at present. Part of that, for me, is how and why I feel like I'm not gonna let them steal my joy.
LEE
[00:25:46] What’s next for you and where do you see Black Lives Matter headed next?
PATRISSE
[00:25:51] Well, I'm doing an MFA program. Getting my Master's in Fine Arts in the middle of it all.
LEE
[00:25:56] I know you've done some performance art. Are you still doing that?
PATRISSE
[00:25:58] Yeah, I'm a performance artist and I do installation. So really looking at the history of the Black Arts movement and how it's shaped the Black Power movement, I'm really interested in the artists in our movement. I think we really shape history and shape futures.
[00:26:19] Black Lives Matter is developing itself. It's in such an amazing moment where we get to shape our work and shape our supports. Black Lives Matter is on the front lines of changing this country and will continue to do so. We have our five year anniversary July 13th.
LEE
[00:26:40] Wow.
PATRISSE
[00:26:41] I know. Five years. We're gonna continue to show up for black lives here in this country, around the world. I think we're excited to be a part of this midterm elections and this moment and continue to do the work that we're doing to change the way law enforcement is in relationship to us.
LEE
[00:27:03] Patrisse, just tell folks, if they wanna learn more about either your book or your work, where can they find more information about you online?
PATRISSE
[00:27:11] You can find me at patrissecullors.com and that's like my whole world there. You can go to blacklivesmatter.com to learn more about Black Lives Matter, and the book is probably in your local bookstore, online, and some local libraries have it, and if they don't, tell them to get it.
LEE
[00:27:29] And that book again for people didn't get it is When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Cullors. Thank you again, Patrisse, for joining us today.
PATRISSE
[00:27:37] Thank you.
LEE ROWLAND
[00:27:43] From the ACLU, this has been At Liberty. Thanks for listening, and be sure to subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts.

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