Indicting the System

February 19, 2018   •   By Stephanie Abraham

When They Call You a Terrorist

Patrisse Khan-Cullors

IN FEBRUARY 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager, was shot and killed while walking in a Florida gated community by George Zimmerman, a white-presenting man who felt threatened by Trayvon’s mere presence. Only because protests broke out across the country was Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder. On July 13, 2013, a jury acquitted him. Shocked by the ruling, political activist Alicia Garza wrote the following on her Facebook page:

btw stop saying 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.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a longtime community organizer and friend of Garza’s, responded to the post, ending her comments with: “#BlackLivesMatter.”

Khan-Cullors’s new book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, co-written with author and journalist asha bandele, explains the social conditions that led to that moment and the international movement that followed. At one point, Khan-Cullors states, “I’m writing this in sentences but this unfolded over days. Over several really hard days.” Given that this ambitious book explores her experiences from childhood to adulthood, she could just as easily have said, “Over several hard decades.” As a result of the book’s extended focus, the story sometimes jumps around in unexpected ways, but the payoff is worth it.

The authors don’t simply bridge the gap between the personal and the political; they purposefully meld these domains together, which is not surprising given Khan-Cullors’s experience of intersectionality as a poor, queer, Black woman and as a grassroots organizer. Early on, we are introduced to her mother, who never stops fighting in spite of never earning a living wage, and her father, “whose addictions were borne of a world that did not love him and told him so not once but constantly.” Khan-Cullors gives a nod to her ancestors also: “I knew it because I am the thirteenth-generation progeny of a people who survived the hulls of slave ships.” She speaks powerfully of her deep roots in family life — both the one she was born into and the one she created herself. Her family’s struggles with poverty and racism reflect the condition of Black Americans generally, as the statistics she cites demonstrate:

America [has] 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 who never raised a hand to another human being. And a prison population that, with extraordinary deliberation, today excludes the man who shot and killed a 17-year-old boy who was carrying Skittles and iced tea.

The book centrally addresses the accusations of terrorism leveled against Khan-Cullors. “There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House,” she writes. “It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of that child, said Black Lives Matter.” The real terrorism, she argues, has been directed at her and “many of the people who embody our movement,” who subsist between “the twin terrors of poverty and the police” and with the “terror of knowing that I, or any member of my family, could be killed with impunity.”

Like other autobiographical works written by Black leaders, such as Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography (1987), this book illuminates how institutionalized racism and systemic violence crush Black communities physically, mentally, and spiritually. It also reveals how the same system consistently targets non-Black people with political propaganda blaming Black folks for their problems and writing them off as “thugs, crack hos, [and] welfare queens.”

Born in 1984, Khan-Cullors grew up just north of Los Angeles, in Van Nuys. The GM plant that had once employed her father as a line mechanic — a job that had allowed him to sustain his family — had been offshored, so her mom worked multiple jobs trying to make ends meet. There wasn’t a grocery store in their neighborhood, so they bought food at 7-Eleven. Sometimes they didn’t have enough, so they would eat cereal with water instead of milk. Their lives didn’t matter much to the authorities, including the police, who made it a sport of arresting young Black males, or to their landlord, who ignored their substandard living conditions.

For a short time, Khan-Cullors attended middle school in nearby Sherman Oaks. One night while having dinner at a new friend’s house, she realized that her friend’s father was the owner of the apartment building she lived in. She observes:

He is, this father, this gentle inquisitor of my days and my dreams, to put it frankly, our family’s slum lord. He owns many buildings there in our Van Nuys hood, our poor hood. Our colored hood. Our building is one of the ones he owns. He is the very same man who allowed my family to subsist without a refrigerator for the better part of a year. The coincidence is so shocking to me. I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing. I think if I say something, someone would think I was making it up, eating a big meal with a friend whose sweet father doesn’t care that my family has no way to do the same. I could understand someone thinking I was lying, embellishing, at least, for dramatic effect.

But I wouldn’t have been. And I’m not now.

It is as true as the fact that our Van Nuys neighborhood, bordering as it did the wealthy white neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, was ground zero for the war on drugs and the war on gangs. There could be no spillover of us, the others, the dark others. We, our poverty and our music and our different foods and our reminders that they, the residents of our pretty adjacent neighborhood, were wealthy only at our expense, could not seep into the neat white world of Sherman Oaks. Of course that’s not what they said, they didn’t want to be reminded of what it took to keep themselves rich.

From a very young age, Khan-Cullors witnessed stark inequalities but seems to have instinctively understood that, though the individuals involved were certainly part of the problem, the power structure was also to blame. She saw firsthand how the system sets up middle-class and wealthy white folks, in particular, to falsely believe there is no system, thus helping to perpetuate its violence and robbing them of an opportunity for self-reflection, a chance to identify the ways they are complicit in and benefit from the system, and to fight for personal and social change.

Khan-Cullors’s role as a leader within her own family shows her tremendous capability, from a very young age, for compassionate community-building. Her relationship with her older brother Monte is a case in point. Starting at the age of 11, he was persistently detained and abused by the police for no reason except that he was a poor, Black male. Later, he was tortured by the LA County Sheriff’s Department. As an adult, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and PTSD. In 2006, he got into a minor fender bender with a white woman; although he never touched the woman but only yelled at her, the cops shot him with rubber bullets, tased him, and charged him with terrorism. As Khan-Cullors comments:

If someone alleges that you have said something threatening to them and causing them to fear for their life, you can be charged, as my brother, who was in a full manic episode, was charged, with terrorism.

Against all odds, Khan-Cullors has stood up for her big brother in jail, court, and hospitals, bringing in allies whenever possible. She persisted even when it felt like her soul was “being pulled over shards of glass.” Given this background, it’s not surprising that she has been able to maintain such grace and determination in the face of tremendous brutality and oppression. Her experience leading her family prepared her to lead on a national and international scale, an unexpected yet beneficial outcome for us all.

A decade before she was called a terrorist on national television, Khan-Cullors had already witnessed her brother face the accusation. The question of who gets to call whom a terrorist is thus one she has had to mull over for years — and, as a result, she suggests we should as well. In the book’s foreword, Angela Davis writes,

The very title, When They Call You a Terrorist, asks the reader to engage critically with the rhetoric of terrorism — not only, for example, 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 antiracist movements in the United States.

The second half of the book opens with a quotation from the Black poet Lucille Clifton, who wrote: “Come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed.” This memoir clarifies that, yes, there’s cause for celebration of that failure, but there’s also a grave need for action to stop the attempts, to stop all the killing.

This book is about Patrisse Khan-Cullors as much as it is about our current moment, wherein Black people, Muslims, the mentally ill, immigrants, women, trans folks, and others are one fender bender away from being beaten and charged with terrorism. The authors make clear that each of us needs to answer the question: what will I do when they call me a terrorist — because who among us won’t be?


Stephanie Abraham is an Arab-American feminist, media critic, and writer based in Los Angeles. Her work is available at