The words Black Lives Matter must have reached the ears of most in Britain by now. Comparatively few, however, will know that the global civil rights movement of which they are the name and reigning idea, was founded by three women – two of whom identify as queer. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors. That so many of us who are acquainted with their ideas do not know their names is symptomatic of the racialised sexism faced by black women everywhere, but also testament to the particularly democratic nature of the fight that these three founded. ‘We do not want to control it. We want it to spread like wildfire,’ writes Khan-Cullors in her recent book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, co-written with journalist asha bandele.
Khan-Cullors was with us this week in Bristol to speak about the memoir and the movement. In fact, memory and movement may be said to be the two pillars of the Black Lives Matter approach, for as Khan-Cullors puts it, we need to talk about the trauma that black people have faced and still face, “but we also have to talk about the resistance.”
Thus her book falls into two parts: first, a record of childhoods (hers, and of all the black kids termed “super-predators” by a racist state but “the forgotten generation” by Khan-Cullors) damaged by the repeated message – coming from schools, from police, from the mass incarceration of people in their community – that their lives did not matter. She writes with devastating clarity of the harm done to young people for whom “there is nowhere that they can be or feel safe. No place where there are jobs. No city, no block, where what they know, all they know, is that their lives matter, that they are loved.” She writes of how the state’s staggeringly unjust war on drugs effectively targeted black people over and above whites, and of the “external factors” such as a lack of supports and resources, “including the general sense that their life matters” that “exacerbate chaotic drug use, send people into hell.”
This section would be too painful if it were not already shot through with instances of solidarity and resistance within the community, or followed by the second section, which is an account of that incredible resistance organised from home to hashtag to global network. “We are part of a long history of black people resisting,” says Khan-Cullors, and this is one of the most powerful ideas I take away with me from the evening: that wherever there is oppression there is resistance, if you only know how to recognise it. The other is that the movement “started from a place of equally rage and love”: rage against the unjust loss of black life, and love for black life: love for her community.
Black Lives Matter has accomplished a great deal in its young life, such as the enactment of new legislation to address police violence. Arguably, though, one of its greatest achievements has been to raise the global consciousness: “before Black Lives Matter white people thought black people were being hyperbolic about our conditions,” says Khan-Cullors early on in her talk. In the last few years the world has been forced to begin recognising the massive racial inequalities and prejudices that lead to the maiming and loss of black lives; these are inequalities and prejudices that the white establishment has sought and still seek to deny, but the seeds of change are taking root in minds all over the world.
Along with “anti-black racism” the movement grapples other prejudices, such as misogyny and homophobia. Says Khan-Cullors, “our racial justice fight is not just about blackness: it’s about how blackness relates to all the other things that make us who we are.” And this is what makes it a movement of and for the 21st Century: its intersectional approach. This is its strength, but not everyone likes it – Khan-Cullors tells us that some fairly wild accusations have been levelled, including from “the old guard” of the civil rights movement: that it is a “gay conspiracy”, that it doesn’t care about the black family, that it doesn’t care about black men.
This last is perhaps the wildest accusation, seeing as it was the murders of two boys – Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown – that catalysed the forming of the movement. The majority of the dead whose names have been made famous by Black Lives Matter have been boys and men. Khan-Cullors’s memoir is full of love for the boys and men in her family and her community. Her movement is anything but a man-hating movement. Indeed, from within it has come the protest that the girls and women unjustly killed by police are too easily left out of the narrative. As Khan-Cullors writes, “at some point, sisters begin to talk about how unseen they have felt, how the media has focused on men but it has been them, the sisters, who were there. They were there in overwhelming numbers—just as they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Women, all women, Transwomen, are roughly 80 percent of the people who are standing down the face of terror in Ferguson, saying We are the caretakers of this community. It is women who are out there, often with their children, calling for an end to police violence, saying We have a right to raise our children without fear. But it’s not women’s courage that is showcased in the media. One sister says, when the police move in, we do not run. We stay. And for this, we deserve recognition.”
She tells us about journalists and news anchors who have covered the movement without once naming the three women who brought it into being; who have assumed that the male activists they are interviewing must be its founders and architects. This is patriarchy, she says: “there’s purposeful erasure, and then there’s unconscious denial.” There’s the persistent idea that “black women can’t start things: we can work for things, but we can’t start things.” A male-centred tradition of history and story-telling means that an account of women holding their families and communities together, women organising, “becomes a story that’s not interesting to tell.”
Enter her book, and this event. “I wrote a memoir to intervene in an international conversation,” she says. The world must unlearn its habit of putting men at the centre, its inability to see heroism and the human story in a woman’s story – especially a queer, black woman’s story. I’d say it’s the most interesting to hear, if you only know how to listen; at the moment it is certainly among the most important.