Festival of Ideas hosted Patrisse Khan-Cullors, author of When They Call You a Terrorist, to discuss her personal story which impressively includes the birth of the global Black Lives Matter movement. The event took place at Waterstones, where Khan-Cullors was in conversation with Gary Younge, editor-at-large for the Guardian.
When They Call You a Terrorist is a powerful memoir of growing up as black, female and queer in America. It tells the story of a family bound up in the war on drugs. The personal story is there, but the book also serves as legacy of black folks and draws a larger political narrative. The Clinton administration slashed social security, created ever-increasing poverty, and overcriminalised and overpoliced all black neighbourhoods, mainly through building the notorious crime bill. Black lives were divested in with a three-strike rule.
Khan-Cullors also tells the story that led her to become a founder of Black Lives Matter, seeking to end the culture that declares innocent black life expendable. From accounts of the brutal treatment of friends and family by the state, to the severe socio-economic disadvantages handed to those born in black majority communities like those she grew up in; dismaying personal experiences of racial and LGBT stigma to her first community campaigns as an activist, she builds an understanding of the cultural drivers of the issues of inequality, diversity, oppression and racism, and why they need to be actively addressed from the ground up.
In 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, Patrisse Khan-Cullors came together with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi to form an active response to the systemic racism causing the deaths of so many African-Americans. They simply said: Black Lives Matter; and for that, they were labelled terrorists.
From early childhood, Khan-Cullors was a witness to the faulty system designed for black people to be thrown into poverty. She tells Bristol’s audience that we cannot speak about a single moment of trauma; only about everything that happens around, and how seeing the bigger (bleaker) picture is necessary for reaching a wider understanding. She mentions the dynamic of kids versus the police and neighbourhoods turned into warzones. All this obviously creates a sense of rage and injustice, and supported by the right educators, Khan-Cullors notices the groundwork that hasn’t been done and decides on doing what she can.
In her words, Black Lives Matter starts from a place of rage and love and emerges organically, as is the case with all great historical movements. #tellblackstories builds a new narrative about how to fight and is a megaphone for black voices. Khan-Cullors talked about the need to build a movement that’s intersectional and build local black institutions. Even though black people don’t trust institutions, Khan-Cullors says, she is adamant on the need for alternative radical black institutions to drive real change.
An interesting discussion opened up about leadership, and Khan-Cullors recounted her experience of the disbelief among the black community that black women can’t possibly start things. They are the carers, not the leaders. She calls this patriarchal “unconscious denial”.
The evening turned into a lively discussion supported by interesting Q&A session with the audience, and a multitude of topics were touched upon: from the last US elections, and dangerous Trump rallies to the difference between movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.
As other reviews of When They Call You a Terrorist have said, it’s remarkable that even though Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ story shows the anger towards the system that perpetuates racial (and gender) inequality, her narrative is also full of love, resistance and resilience. As with all great leaders, she seems to have that rare quality of drawing her negative experiences into something bigger and shining her energy onto millions throughout the world.