AUGUST 12, 2015
ACTIVIST AND ARTIST PATRISSE CULLORS was speaking at Santa Monica College, and I was late. I drove to the lecture from an adjunct teaching job in Fullerton and sat in the back. It was the first time I had been in the same room with Cullors. As a leader in a movement that is constantly encouraging activists to “take up space,” Cullors did this herself with a kind of practiced ease. In fact, what I thought would be a fiery discussion about police violence and black resistance turned out to be an invigorating discussion of how we, as activists, can better take care of ourselves to make this movement for Black Lives sustainable over time. There were lots of questions from the audience, and she fielded them with grace and candor.
Patrisse Cullors-Brignac was born in Los Angeles and has been an organizer from an early age. Cullors started Dignity and Power Now, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for incarcerated people in Los Angeles Sherriff prisons. She is also one of the three co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In 2015 she left her position at DNP and joined the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights as the Director for Truth and Reinvestment. Cullors received a degree in Religion and Philosophy from UCLA. She is also a Fulbright Scholar recipient, the 2007 Mario Savio Activist of the Year, Sidney Goldfarb Award winner, and 2015 NAACP History Maker Award winner.
Six months after her lecture at Santa Monica College, we sat at a table together along with artists, activists, and prominent ACLU attorneys. It was before a social justice event, in Santa Ana, at the Gypsy Den. Again, I arrived late due to my teaching job, and everyone had already finished eating. Black Lives Matter-LA had just met with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, a meeting they’d earned after three days of occupying the mayor’s front yard, and disrupting his various public and private engagements throughout the city; some of the activists were arrested and one was even charged with lynching. They demanded that Garcetti fire LAPD police chief Charlie Beck for not disciplining the officers who killed Ezell Ford on August of 2014, a few days after Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown.
Cullors turned to me and a look of frustration passed over her face as she showed me a post from a police union blog on her phone.“You see what they’re doing to Ezell?” she asked. “They’re trying to make him out to of be a gangbanger.” She shook her head. “They always do this to us.” She flicked her finger and kept scrolling. And that’s the way Cullors is. Even though she is faced daily with situations that would make others want to give up, she keeps on scrolling. Later that night she preformed, with Damon Turner, her powerful performance art piece, “Protest: Then and Now.” The piece ends with her yelling out the phrase she helped create the day George Zimmerman was acquitted, the phrase that has become the battle cry for the movement that marched for the second longest consecutive protest in American history — second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts: “Black lives matter!”
Our interview took place on a warm muggy day in early August, a few days before the one-year anniversary of the killing of Mike Brown. In an afternoon when she had multiple interviews with various news outlets, we were able to talk about a number of different topics, including the coming presidential election and the current state of race relations in the United States.
JUSTIN CAMPBELL: First off, I want to congratulate you on becoming the Director for Truth and Reinvestment at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Can you tell me more about your vision for the position?
PATRISSE CULLORS: At the Ella Baker Center, we are really trying to talk about mass criminalization and issues of state violence in broader, more honest terms. We’re trying to orient talk about these issues around the concept of truth and reinvestment.
This country is in some serious denial around the harms it has committed against black communities in particular, but also indigenous communities, immigrant communities, and at the Ella Baker Center, we think that what needs to happen is a deep clarity and honesty from local government and national government about the harms it has caused, and the harms they continue to cause in communities, poor communities in particular. As that honesty unfolds we can have a more honest conversation around what kind of action we can take.
As far as reinvestment goes, what we’ve seen is that communities of color, poor communities in particular, have been completely divested from. We have very little infrastructure to access healthy food, jobs, shelter. We have very little infrastructure to access proper education, and so there needs to be a reinvestment back into our communities.
This role of Director of Truth and Reinvestment is about engaging in a larger public dialogue; it’s an intervention conversation. But it’s also about what does intervention look like in concrete terms. The work that I’ll be doing is developing a statewide network that will eventually be a national network focusing on a few things. One will be developing justice teams across the state of California. These justice teams will be the anchors for rapid response in local counties in the state of California. They’ll also help shape the local dialogue around what needs to be reinvested in in that community.
There’s going to be nine different counties involved across the state of California, each one with a different anchor organization for the justice team. In doing this project we will be providing change for counties that might not have anything happening in their counties. They might not be doing work around divestment and reinvestment. Our initiative will create platforms for folks in these counties to be involved in local politics.
What are some of the obstacles you see in general to getting local governments to be honest and to reinvest?
I think there’s a lot of obstacles. The obstacle to honesty is that we have elected officials and appointed officials who won’t admit to what they’ve done to enact terrible policies. Often times you get elected officials who are dishonest about the affects their policies or their administration has on black folks as communities and as individuals. I think that the obstacle to reinvestment is that we are now living in a place that invests more money into policing and prisons than ever before; we have to change that. As we know, it takes a lot for governments to actually divest from the things that they put a lot of investment in. That means that divestment is going to be very difficult to accomplish.
What does your work look like these days?
At the Ella Baker Center, we worked on and are now co-collaborating with ACLU of California on a smartphone app, called the Mobile Justice app. That app is an app that allows citizens to record the police and sends recorded footage directly to the ACLU for safekeeping.
We are also developing these justice teams, as I mentioned before, talking with the anchor organizations, being in communication with them. We are also in the process of developing a web-based platform that would be like a Facebook for social justice and issues like mass criminalization and state violence. My work looks like talking with developers, talking to funders to help fund a project like that. It looks like having conversations with people on a daily basis about the impact of state violence on our communities — the impact of criminalization on our communities.
Micah White, a co-founder of the Occupy Movement, has recently said that “[Traditional] protest is broken […] Attracting millions of people to the streets no longer guarantees the success of a protest.” He goes on to say in regards to the BLM movement that even though he supports it as a black man, he believes it is very important never to protest directly against the police. He says that this is “because the police are actually made to absorb protest — the objective of the police is to dissipate your energy in protesting them so you’ll let alone the most sensitive parts of the repressive regime in which we live: politicians and big corporations. We must protest more deeply.” What do you think about this idea that it’s important to never protest against the police?
I don’t know if I agree with what Micah said in that regard. We’re living in a police state — a police and prison state, to be more specific. There are no jobs; there is no industry. The industry that does exist is policing, the industry of imprisonment. In light of all this, it only makes sense to protest against the police. They’re the largest lobbyists in the nation. They control elected officials. Our protest is against the police, and that’s because the police have become a force that is not just about stopping protest; they’ve become what this country has completely invested itself in.
I think where Micah is probably coming from is a very deep class analysis. That being said, we have to talk about the ways in which police, in their inception, were first slave patrols. They were created to kidnap enslaved Africans and throw them back into slavery. We have to talk about the fact that we are currently living in a country that supposedly abolished slavery 150 years ago. But if you look at the 13th and 14th amendment, slavery was abolished only if you were never convicted of a crime. And so, we have to take on the prison-industrial complex and the enforcers of the prison industrial complex: the police.
Another thing that Micah talks about is the need to protest more deeply, to go beyond traditional protest. What are your thoughts on creativity in protest? Is there a need to go beyond what we’re traditionally familiar with when it comes to protest: signs in the street; marching down the blvd.?
Well, we’ve seen that this generation of activists has already embraced creativity in their protests: Black Lives Matter LA occupying the LA City mayor’s home to protest the death of Ezell Ford; Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina; women bearing their chests, naked, in the San Francisco streets to protest violence against black women; BLM Minneapolis shutting down the Mall of America; folks using social media to protest. We are living in the land of creative protest.
That creativity is what makes BLM so effective, no?
In terms of media coverage of protest, there’s a lot of focus in the media left, right, and center about victims, scenes of uprisings, property damage. But we don’t hear about unsung heroes who are in the streets every day, organizing communities, working to raise awareness, doing what they can to affect real change. In addition to the work you do, what other people, programs, or groups out there do you feel are making a true difference right now, and not getting the recognition they deserve?
That’s a good question! I think that we first have to look at the BLM chapters across the country. I feel like the co-founders of the movement get a lot of play and visibility, but there’s ALL these people across the country leading vibrant work that we rarely get to hear about.
In terms of specifics, I think there’s folk in the south like Spirit House, Project South; Women like Mia Wilson, Ashely Henderson, Mary Hooks that are leading work in the south; organizations like SONG. There are individuals and collectives that are not nonprofits, like a healing justice collective called Harriet’s Apothocary that’s leading powerful, powerful work in New York City that I think we should all be paying attention to.
It seems that right now, a lot of attention is being paid to the presidential race. As we think about the coming election, do you think that the candidates’ response of “all lives matter” to the claim of “black lives matter” is a response born out of these candidates not having thought critically about the movement for black lives, or does their response represent something more insidious politically?
I think some candidates haven’t thought about the movement enough. For them, saying “all lives matter” is their reactionary response that is basically saying, “I don’t care about black people. We aren’t going to actually talk about black folks because they aren’t a priority.” “All lives matter” is a political critique of “black lives matter.”
So when Martin O’Malley said during your action at the Netroots convention last month that “black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter,” was he saying that black folks are not a priority in our country?
I think that was him trying to be safe, to be honest with you.
You have been pushing the candidates to address issues of racial justice. Are they addressing those issues to your satisfaction? Or does there need to be more pressure placed on Democratic party candidates?
I actually think that all elected officials at this point in history need to be pressured. We have not seen political officials show up for black lives in a real, concrete way. If anything, we’ve seen the damaging policies of the ’80s, the ’90s, early 2000s, the War on Drugs, the war on gangs, the war on terror that have systematically destroyed our communities.
So for you, there’s a sense that politicians have done a lot to damage poor, communities of color and not a whole lot to show up for racial justice.
Exactly; all of this destruction has been done under the guise of “showing up.”
As we think about destructive policies enacted by our elected officials, it seems fitting that we talk about the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which is coming up this month. For me, there are a lot of connections that can be made between Katrina, Ferguson, and Baltimore, and the ways in which the media portrayed black bodies as looters, thugs, and sub-human. As we reflect on the 10th anniversary of the hurricane along with the first anniversary of Ferguson, what are some of your observations on how black people are presented in the mainstream news media?
It’s been 10 years?! Wow. I was 22 when Katrina hit. I went there, actually, after the storm and was able to a lot of work. Let me say it like this.
One year after Katrina, black folks were devastated. There were no real solutions, no real movements. I would say that it is much different now, one year after the killing of Mike Brown. There’s vibrant movement and that has everything to do with social media. It has everything to do with being able to tell our own narratives. Ten years ago we did not have that. We didn’t have Twitter. Facebook wasn’t popping like that. I really believe that Katrina was devastating to so many of us and we are, I think, in a different place now.
It sounds as if for you, Katrina, was a seminal point in the process of getting to the movement we have now.
Yes, I would that it was. We wouldn’t be here without what we witnessed with Katrina.
It seems that Katrina is the beginning of the decline of race relations as of late. Recently polling has shown that race relations have been plummeting in the past 5–8 years. Do you think that this decline has anything to do with the election of the first black president?
I think it has everything to do with the election of the first black president. I think that President Obama’s presidency shook up the country in so many different ways, specifically middle-white America. This is a demographic that has held on to the Confederacy, that has held on to the ideal of white supremacy. We saw their anxiety manifest itself in the fact that both times Obama was elected, gun sales went up. White America seems to believes that there is a legit war being waged against them.
Who is leading this war, in white America’s mind, do you think?
Well, I believe they think black folks in general are going to war against white America. I mean, black folks are scary right? In white America’s mind, black folks are leading the war and immigrants are taking the jobs.
And pundits like Bill O’Reilly are not helping dispel this misconception.
You’ve seen that he’s being going after the BLM movement, right?
Yes, I saw your response to him with Marc Lamont Hill, where you called out the implications of his rhetoric. How do you feel when you watch Bill O’Reilly talk about the movement? Is it disheartening? Is it frustrating? What goes through your mind?
To be honest, it’s hard. It’s a distraction. And it’s scary. He fuels people like Dylan Roof, you know?
Do you think that if you had him off camera, that he would say the same types of things he says on his show? Or do you think it’s an act to get ratings?
I don’t think it matters. On TV he’s being seen as a real, sincere person. If he happens to say off camera that he doesn’t believe that stuff, it doesn’t really matter. It’s already out there; not only has he said it, it’s been picked up by all these right-wing blogs.
For all his vitriol towards the movement, he doesn’t seem to be doing anything to stem the flood of black blood sweeping through the streets of this nation, whether it’s a result of so-called black on black crime or otherwise; he doesn’t seem to realize that we’re fighting for our lives as black folks. That being said, if he invited you, would you go on his show?
Never. That’s silly. That’s a set up. I don’t think any of us should ever go on right-wing shows that are about trying to debate what we’re about. I don’t need to debate the deaths of black folks. I’m not into that shit.
Thinking about debating and convincing skeptical whites, Dr. King sometimes talked about how the movement’s success depended on black leaders winning over skeptical whites in order to be successful. As our nation’s ethnic demographics shift and whites lose their majority standing, do you think that the BLM movement needs to win over skeptical whites in order to accomplish their goals?
Well, I think we need everybody. Most importantly we need to get black people to make sure they’re on board. But I do think we need everybody. I think we need all hands on deck in this moment. I actually think that’s what King was trying to say. I think King was trying to show us that we need everybody; this is an American crisis. And yes, we need black folks on board, but we also need all folks on board.
So, do you think the average white American knows what the BLM movement stands for and what its demands are?
If you’re talking about the average white American in Los Angeles or New York, I think they do know who we are and what our demands are. If you’re talking about a rural town in the South? Not necessarily.
But, I think it’s hard assess, right? We have to understand that there is a burgeoning movement of anti-racist white allies that are organizing other white folks. I think these allies are actually an important population of people that should be interviewed more; they should be part of a larger racial dialogue. These allies made decisions to be anti-racist and to stand up for black lives and this needs more publicity.
That’s a powerful move for these allies, both rhetorically and actually in our society. That being said, do you think that as the demographics shift that people of color may not see the need for solidarity with white folks if people of color can get things done as the majority?
I think that as a human race, on some real talk stuff, we need people to show up for each other, period. Our work, our liberation is tied up in one another’s liberation. That’s just real, you know?
In light of the eloquent vision of all us showing up for each other’s collective liberation, what kinds of broad hopes do you have for the next generation when it comes to race relations in America?
I think it’s really important that we don’t have the sort of gap we had between this generation and the generation of the Civil Rights Movement. I think we really need to be mindful of building new black leadership. We need to be mindful that our ways of working for change may not be the way to do this work in 10 years.
I’ve seen you write about black revolutionary amnesia. Is that what you’re saying happened between the Civil Rights Movement and this generation?
Yes, I would say that’s a good description.
So how do we avoid another round of black revolutionary amnesia with our own children?
I think a lot folks in the Civil Rights Movement became elected officials, got into good jobs, and were like, “Oh, we won!” They didn’t think about mentoring a new generation.
Do you see yourself going into electoral politics in the way that former Civil Rights leaders did?
No, not at this time.
I want to end with some word associations. Tell me what comes to mind when you hear these words. First one is “Netroots.”
The shut down of the presidential forum.
I would say, the erasure of black trans women that is an integral part of our current movement. Historically the Black Power movement has left out black queer folks, but specifically black trans women. We still have a problem with the erasure of black trans women who are an integral part of this movement. This movement is trying to rectify that.
I think about the Black Friday protest that happened across the country last year after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. I think specifically about the BLM Minneapolis action that shut down the Mall of America. Reports showed that sales dropped by 11 percent in the States during the Black Friday protests.
Wow. Well, a deep disappointment both in Bill Cosby and the rape culture we live in that allowed him to harm so many women.
The words that come to me are the Black Lives Matter Convening Conference that just happened at the end of July of this year. I think of us getting together all of the BLM chapters and affiliated orgs, along with the meeting in Detroit.
Like I’ve said elsewhere, I think that Bill O’ Reilly should be held accountable for the harm and violence he creates through attacking activists, their organizations, and the current movement for Black Lives, in general.
Years and years of trauma against the black community.
I actually think collective care; I think, that yes, we have to take care of ourselves, but we also must have and be in environments that take of ourselves as a collective. Black Lives Mater Convening was a space for that to happen. We have prioritized collective care as a central piece of how we are going to have a sustainable movement.
Last one. “Blackness.”
It is beautiful.
Justin Campbell is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He is the winner of the 2013 Hurston/Wright Award for African-American Writers. His work has been published in The Millions and The African American Review.