Culture & Conversation Race

‘There’s Still a Serious Crisis in Black America’: Patrisse Khan-Cullors on Breaking the Silence

Victoria Law

In her new memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, Patrisse Khan-Cullors gives readers an intimately personal look at her life, from her childhood in a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood where police violence was an everyday reality, to her current efforts as an organizer, family member, mother, and co-creator of Black Lives Matter.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors was 9 years old when, spying on her older brothers through a fence, she first witnessed the arbitrary and capricious power of the police. Her brothers, ages 11 and 13, had banished their little sister from their hangout with friends.

All that mattered to the police who stopped them, Khan-Cullors writes, were that they were young teenagers standing on the street while Black: “They throw them up on the wall. They make them pull their shirts up. They make them turn out their pockets. They roughly touch my brothers’ bodies, even their privates, while from behind the gate, I watch, frozen.” Her brothers never speak to anyone about the incident, one of many instances of police violence they would experience throughout their lives as Black boys, and later men, in the United States.

In her new memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, Khan-Cullors describes this and other instances of systemic and institutional violence faced by Black people in the United States. Co-written with journalist and organizer asha bandele, the book is subtitled “a black lives matter memoir.” But this is not an explicit history of the movement. Instead, the book is an intimately personal look at Khan-Cullors’ life, from her childhood in a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood where police violence was an everyday reality, to her current efforts as an organizer, family member, mother, and co-creator of Black Lives Matter.

“I really wanted to set some of the record straight around who we were, who I am, and why it was important and absolutely necessary to start something lifesaving as Black Lives Matter,” Khan-Cullors told Rewire. In 2013, Khan-Cullors, with organizers Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, created Black Lives Matter after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The hashtag—and the movement—took off, focusing sustained attention on and spurring protests about police violence against Black people.

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As Khan-Cullors notes, police violence is only one of the many forms of violence facing Black people across the country: “This book is an intervention in a conversation largely focused on the president of the United States. [It’s] reminding the country, and the world, that there are still Black people dying with impunity at the hands of the state. There are still Black women dying while giving birth, Black people still have the highest unemployment rates. There’s still a serious crisis in Black America. We can’t turn away from that,” she told Rewire.

Khan-Cullors’ childhood, she writes, was “a precarious life in 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.”

That poverty included being raised by a single mother working 16 hours each day to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, and living without a working refrigerator for nearly a year. The politics of personal responsibility, often espoused by pastors and politicians, would blame her mother for the lack of a refrigerator rather than the white landlord who refused to replace it. A sense of collective responsibility, in contrast, might have looked like the community rallying to demand that the landlord, who owned a number of buildings in Van Nuys, provide adequate living conditions for all of his tenants.

But despite the poverty, violence, and societal indifference to their well-being, Khan-Cullors and her family, both biological and chosen, took on a commitment to collective responsibility. In later years, her brother Monte was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which includes bipolar disorder. The first time he experienced an episode, the police tased him.

Years later, Monte was out of prison and struggling not only with reentry—finding a job with a prison record and learning to adjust to life outside—but with his own mental health. He stopped taking his medication and destroyed his ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Khan-Cullors and her family decided not to dial 911, a call which would have brought police (and the accompanying threat of violence) along with an ambulance. Instead, they spent days trying to convince him to go to the hospital. But after years of prison health care, Monte associated hospitals with being beaten and restrained to a bed with little to no actual medical treatment.

Khan-Cullors and her family persisted and, eventually, Monte agreed. “We have navigated this situation with no police involvement,” she writes. “And that night, before I drift off to sleep, I think: this is what community control looks like.”

As this story illustrates, community control is much more time- and labor-intensive than simply calling 911 (and praying that the police don’t respond with violence). For those communities that have long been under-resourced and whose members might be working 16 hours a day at jobs that won’t allow them multiple days off, what might community control look like?

“Part of the work is training our communities in how we respond, whether it’s in the moment or after the fact,” Khan-Cullors told Rewire, noting that communities of color rally together in the face of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, even without formal training or knowledge. In contrast, she continued, communities often lack the skills, such as de-escalation or navigation of systems, to respond when the violence is man-made.

“How do we create models, specifically inside communities that are stricken by poverty and over-policed to create new ways to relate to harm, violence and sometimes mental health issues?” she asked during our interview. She points to the work of the Justice Teams Network, which organizes rapid response to police violence and longer-term support for healing trauma in California, and Spirit House, which has organized a Harm Free Zone in North Carolina. But, continued Khan-Cullors, “This is a question of what we [as a society] invest in. We have invested billions of dollars into police and incarceration and very little funds into preventing and intervening” in crises.

Even communities of color that come together still face the omnipresent threat of state violence. In February 2013, months before George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin and before #BlackLivesMatter was created, Khan-Cullors and her then-partner were living in St. Elmo Village, a collective of cottages in Los Angeles populated by artists and organizers of color since the 1960s. “This is my home, the first place where I have felt wholly safe,” she writes. In fact, she and her partner felt so safe that they never locked their doors.

That safety, she explained to Rewire, came from building community: “Our neighbors, we knew each other, we talked to each other, we knew what each other’s lives were like, we spent time with one another, we ate together. We created an environment that really was a haven.”

But that February night, Khan-Cullors came home to find her partner standing outside their house, barefoot, in pajamas and handcuffs. The police had entered their home through the unlocked back door and yanked the sleeping man from his bed. “They said he fit the description of a guy who’d done some robberies in the area. They offered no further explanation,” she writes.

In her book, she reflected, “Later, when I hear others dismissing our voices, our protest for equity, by saying All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they might fit a vague description offered up by God knows who. How many skinny, short, blond men were rounded up when Dylann Roof massacred people in prayer? How many brown-haired white men were snatched out of bed when Bundy was killing women for sport?”

Until that night, St. Elmo’s had been a haven. “The police interrupted that haven. It was the night that they came into our home … when we started locking our doors,” Khan-Cullors told Rewire. “I think that’s a really important point to make. There’s this idea that Black neighborhoods and neighborhoods full of poverty are inherently violent, that the people who are going to keep us safe are the police, who will keep us safe from intruders. But what happens when the police are the intruders?”

Even before the incident in St. Elmo’s, though, Khan-Cullors had been part of the fight to divert money away from policing and incarceration and back into communities. After reading the American Civil Liberties Union’s 86-page complaint against the Los Angeles County sheriff in 2011, she understood the magnitude of her brother’s 1999 experience behind bars. That pushed her to create a performance art piece in 2012 about it and, six months later, the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence, which included people who had experienced violence in the Los Angeles County jail as well as their family members and communities. For many, including Khan-Cullors’ own family, it was the first space they had to break the silence around violence from law enforcement. “There’s a lot of shame when you’ve been harmed, when you’ve experienced violence, when you’ve experienced torture. Especially when it’s done by the government, when it’s done by powerful people who are the only ones believed,” she explained to Rewire.

The coalition’s first campaign pushed for civilian oversight of the sheriff’s department. It won: “It was a moment when I realized how powerful organizing is. Even if a small group of people put their minds to it, we decided that we had to change the county. We made such huge changes locally. We created a new conversation about state violence.” From there, Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles organization of incarcerated people, family, and community members, was born.

Now, Khan-Cullors and other organizers are engaged in a campaign called JusticeLA. “We want to reinvest, reimagine and rebuild a Los Angeles that doesn’t focus on mass criminalization,” she explained.

Khan-Cullors grew up surrounded by silence about her family’s experiences with police and state violence. When They Call You a Terrorist—and Black Lives Matter—breaks that silence. She also sees the parallels between #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Both movements, she tells Rewire, are “trying to reckon with centuries of harm and violence. This is a moment of reckoning with how this country has perpetuated this culture [of violence], how this country has kept some of the most powerful people quiet about what harms have happened not just to individuals, but to whole people.”

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