Published by St. Martin's Press on January 16th 2018
A poetic and powerful memoir about what it means to be a Black woman in America—and the co-founding of a movement that demands justice for all in the land of the free.
Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse Khan-Cullors experienced firsthand the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by a criminal justice system serving a white privilege agenda, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
Condemned as terrorists and as a threat to America, these loving women founded a hashtag that birthed the movement to demand accountability from the authorities who continually turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted upon people of Black and Brown skin.
Championing human rights in the face of violent racism, Patrisse is a survivor. She transformed her personal pain into political power, giving voice to a people suffering in equality and a movement fueled by her strength and love to tell the country—and the world—that Black Lives Matter.
When They Call You a Terrorist is Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s reflection on humanity. It is an empowering account of survival, strength and resilience and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent Black life expendable.
Appearing on the UK breakfast show Good Morning Britain, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement was put on the spot by a white male presenter (whose name escapes me), about the slogan of the BLM movement:
“Donald Trump’s made the point that surely ‘all lives matter’”
— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) March 9, 2018
It shouldn’t need to be said at all, but there is a significant problem we face when a white male presenter in the UK, chooses to reinforce a Trump-led bigoted framing in the US, but using that rhetoric as a yardstick by which to measure the legitimacy of any movement. What the presenter does, is to provide white cover to an issue that has already been debated and answered in the US.
With that backdrop, Khan-Cullors’ book ‘When They Call You A Terrorist’ could not have arrived at a more important time. A memoir that reflects on her own life, and all the moments that led to the creation of Black Lives Matter. The memoir is beautiful and tragic all at the same time. It is full of trauma, recovery and compassion that is difficult to imagine – and Khan-Cullors very much embodies in her life and her perspectives, the compassion that is so important in any movement.
It is entirely appropriate, that the foreword to the book is written by Angela Davis – who is one of the voices of conscience for the black civil rights movement in America. Davis has not only resisted racism in the US, but was imprisoned, vilified and repressed by a full spectrum response of the state, media and public. In that regard, Davis shows her leadership when she passionately calls on all of us to be critical of the ‘rhetoric of terrorism’ and:
“…the way in which it has occasioned and justified a global surge in Islamophobia, and how it has impeded thoughtful reflection on the continued occupation of Palestine, but also how this rhetoric attempts to discredit anti-racist movements in the United States.” [p.xiii]
In Khan-Cullors’ memoir, there is a genuineness that is difficult to escape. Her critique of the world that she inhabits is not based on any personal lack of wealth or easy life, but it is purely based on the love that she has for her own people. Her critiques then, are very much directed at those at power, while her love and compassion is reserved for those without – this is a theme that emerges again and again across the pages of her words:
“I was not expected or encouraged to survive. My brothers and little sister, my family—the one I was born into and the one I created—were not expected to survive. We lived a precarious life on the tightrope of poverty bordered at each end with the politics of personal responsibility that Black pastors and then the first Black president preached—they preached that more than they preached a commitment to collective responsibility.
They preached it more than they preached about what it meant to be the world’s wealthiest nation and yet the place with extraordinary unemployment, an extraordinary lack of livable wages and an extraordinary disruption of basic opportunity.
And they preached that more than they preached about America having 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, a population which for a long time included my disabled brother and gentle father…” [p.5]
From her childhood, Khan-Cullors is keenly aware that her family were subject to police profiling, suspicion and brutality. This was not just in the streets, but also in the classroom too. A manifest reality of black American lives where the colour of their skin is in itself part of the matrix of threats. In the early pages of the memoir we read of a twelve-year-old girl who is threatened with expulsion from school and charges of criminal damage for merely writing the word ‘hi’ on her locker. We also read of another black child who is threatened with expulsion for wearing her ‘natural’. [p.27] The detention of her brother Monte, despite his mental health issues, and the almost life long third strike sentence that her father Gabriel narrowly avoids, bring the structural violence of the state into glaring focus, her commitment to social justice is not theoretical, it is a necessity for survival.
Central to the narratives in the first part of the memoir, is the relationship that Patrisse Khan-Cullors has with her two fathers, Anton (the man who raised her, albeit absent for large parts), and Gabriel, who she discovered later was her biological father and a man she grew to love. These men are harmed by the system, at what Khan-Cullors teaches us, is how she was able to see past the way in which these men had been harmed, and to find love and care for them. From the perspective of her personal story, it is one of the most moving parts of the book, that at all times, she is willing to find the human being within these men who have difficult lives, and love them despite how society teaches us to judge them.
As with Angela Davis, Khan-Cullors understands that when the term terrorism is deployed, it is a means by which the state intends to not only demean an individual, but also to permit any form of violence to take place against him/her. The state is not able to recognise her brother Monte’s mental health illness, it only sees the danger that a black man poses, and so the securtised lens of terrorism is used to justify harming his body:
“Two days later Monte is transferred to Twin Towers as a high-power alert prisoner, which means he is classified as a threat to officers. To hear this is complete cognitive fucking dissonance: my brother has never hurt another living being, let alone a cop. But he has been stripped, beaten and starved, kicked and humiliated by cops. So they get to call him the threat. They get to call him the harm. They get to charge him with terrorism.” [p.117]
The harm caused by the state in her personal life, and being a witness to the destruction of black lives such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, alongside all of the community organising that she has made a staple of her life, leads Patrisse Khan-Cullors to respond her own frustration to her friend Alicia with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter:
“btw stop saying that we are not surprised. that’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that, stop giving up on black life. black people, I will NEVER give up on us. NEVER.
And then I respond. I wrote back with a hashtag:
This term galvanised a movement, across the world, people took to social media and the streets to proclaim #BlackLivesMatter, a proclamation that continues to this day. It is a call that is met with disdain by those who continue to be fightened of losing their power, which is why they respond with #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter – in order subvert the focus of this movement, to disrupt it and shift the focus away from what is really going on, the complete destruction of black lives.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ memoir is moving in a way that does service to the tradition of civil rights memoirs. Her personal story within the wider political struggle centres us to the fact that it is not just about the politics, it is about human lives and the way in which we value human lives. The one thing I took most from her example though, is the way in which she finds compassion for the downtrodden, and continues to speak truth to power, something we all need to embody more regularly as we seek to find some semblance of justice against the structural violence of the state.1