We Spoke to the Activist Behind #BlackLivesMatter About Police Racism in Britain and America
"Britain has done a great job as painting itself as the humanitarian, with the US being the torturer. But that shit ain't true."
With political slogans becoming the property of absolutely everybody with a Twitter account within a matter of minutes, it's easy to assume that some of the most Zeitgeisty parts of our political discourse come out of thin air, but of course that's not the case. Patrisse Cullors is co-founder of the Black Lives Matter – the movement and oft-trending hashtag. Based in LA, she's been on the front line at uprisings across the USA in response to a wave of high profile deaths of black people in police custody. She's currently on a speaking tour of the UK and Ireland, heading to communities, universities and holding meetings in Parliament. I caught up with Patirsse on the train from Brighton to London in the midst of a hectic schedule. We chatted about how she's spreading the Black Lives Matter movement across the globe, what's happening in the States at the moment and why that's relevant to the UK.
VICE: Tell me about the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Patrisse Cullors: After George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, back in July 2013, myself and two friends came up with the hashtag. My friend Alicia had written a love-letter to folks, saying, "Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter". I put a hashtag in front – within days people were using it across the world. We're talking about all black lives, we weren't just talking about black men dying in the hands of the police, we're talking about black women, black trans people, black queer people. We want to show that under the current system of white supremacy, anti-blackness has major consequences. Inside the US, and around the world, anti-black racism has global consequences. Black Lives Matter is a call to action – it's a mantra, a testimony.
My brother was incarcerated in LA county jails at 19, and he was almost killed by the sheriffs. They beat him. They tortured him and brutalised him.
How did you end up at the heart of it?
I've been organising since I was 16. I came out as queer, and was kicked out of home. Along with a bunch of other young queer women of colour, we raised each other. We also dealt with poverty, being black and brown in the USA, and trying to figure out how to live our daily lives. My brother was incarcerated in LA county jails at 19, and he was almost killed by the sheriffs. They beat him. They tortured him and brutalised him. This was my awakening, seeing how far the state will go, and how they treat our families. Most disturbing was the lack of support and absolute neglect that my brother and my family faced after he was brutalised. Part of my upbringing was a feeling of rage, but I also knew I could do something about it. With my mentors, and a civil rights organisation, I learnt my craft over 11 years. I focussed on the school to prison pipeline [where young people go straight from school into the juvenile criminal justice system], environmental justice, and police violence.
Did this movement grow out of the death of Mike Brown? That's really when we started to hear about stuff in the UK.
Actually, I think the first set of uprisings came with the murder of Oscar Grant. That was our politicisation.
You don't hear as much about Oscar Grant over here. Who is he?
Oscar Grant was a young black man murdered by Bart police on the 1st of January 2010. He was coming home from a New Years Eve party with his girlfriend and some friends. An altercation happened on the train, by Fruitvale Station. This film came out of it – it's powerful. He's handcuffed; the cops take three of his friends off the train as it's stopped. The cop is shouting "relax, relax!" and he's saying he is relaxed. Next thing he is shot in the back. It was all on camera, all recorded. It goes viral. That was our generation's "oh fuck".
Uprisings happened in Oakland, in LA, there were a lot of protests. And then we had Trayvon Martin's murder, and while we don't take to the streets, we follow the trial of George Zimmerman. When he's acquitted, we take to the streets. This went global. And then we saw a visibilising of the murders, of young black boys in particular. The media picks it up. Renisha McBride, shot on a doorstep when looking for help. It wasn't just Mike Brown's. It was multiple murders; Mike Brown was the last straw. The momentum picked up. People had always been dying, but now the world seemed to care.
What's the situation on the ground at the moment?
There is still a lot going on, people showing up to council meetings, in the halls of power, and we are shutting shit down. Just in the last week there was an altercation between the cops and the community at a council meeting in St Louis, Ferguson. Folks are very angry. We don't think the changes we need have been made. There has been no justice for Mike Brown, no justice for Eric Garner – people are still dying at the hands of the state. It's important for us to continue to push these conversations, even if the mainstream media has taken a step back. We've proclaimed that 2015 will be the year of resistance, the year of resilience, and its only January.
Do you think the mood has changed outside black communities in the US?
There's been a significant amount of consciousness-raising throughout the entire country, and specifically in more middle class communities. What has been interesting is that middle class black folk, who before hadn't identified with poor black communities, have had their own revelations. They're realising that they're still black, and it's still America. There was this husband and wife I met, both Harvard grads, raising their children to believe we live in a post-racial society. They sent their kids to private school, where their son gets called the N-word. Suddenly they realised these things still exist. Even with all these resources, they're still subject to these discriminations. The country is waking up. Five or six years ago if you went up to some random white folk in a middle class neighbourhood, they'd think the cops work for them. If you ask now, there's harsh criticism. I think that's got a lot to do with social media, and how we've shaped the narrative.
Many queer black women are prominent the movement. How does the work with the church, which plays such a big part in many black communities?
Historically there's been a massive discontent between black queer and trans people and the church. We know that in the civil rights movement a lot of black queer folk were asked to step out, including a predominant member, Bayard Rustin, who was actually the mastermind of the march on Washington, but because he was gay he was asked not to participate. None of us want to be him this time. We've pushed the black church in particular to look at the crisis for all black people, not just cis-black-heterosexual men. This has split the church a bit, but there's a hell of a lot of pastors turning out to support the queer and trans community.
You've been in the UK for a week, how has it been, and how does the situation here relate to the USA?
In theory the UK has a significant amount of structures to allow for accountability, of law enforcement in particular. That's the theory. But in the US we don't really have these structures to allow for accountability. There aren't really independent investigators, its just very rare for prosecutions for law enforcement. And so, being here, I've realised, there are some systems in place that might actually be good for the US. It just seems those systems don't work.
Britain has done a great job as painting itself as the humanitarian, with the US being the torturer. But that shit ain't true.
Then there are the similarities, the ways in which black people are treated – it's outright racism. From Christopher Alder being brutalised on tape, hearing the officers calling him racist slurs, to the G4S guards who killed Jimmy Mubenga with racist texts on their phones. You have that same hatred, these white supremacist ideologies coming out of both of our countries. And here too, justice is not being served. We have Mike Brown, no justice. We have Eric Garner, no justice. Here we see the same: Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg. The list is vast.
Is this stuff talked about in the States, like how in the UK we're aware over here about what's going on in Ferguson?
Here's the thing, black people in the US don't know what's happening here in the UK. I'm well read, well educated, and coming here and learning these stories I'm like, "why don't I know about this, why haven't we heard?" The US is very insular. The UK has an image of being better, a humane society, that there isn't the same level of racism here. But now I have a very different perspective that I'm going to take home and talk about. Britain has done a great job as painting itself as the humanitarian, with the US being the torturer. But that shit ain't true.
Here in the UK there've been solidarity actions. People shut down the streets in London and Westfield shopping centre too. What's the impact of these things for people on the ground? Do you notice?
Yes, it was noticed. We've seen all the work folks are doing on the ground. From here, where you guys shut down Westfield, to Spain and Brazil. In Israel, African refugees are using the Black Lives Matter mantra to talk about law enforcement violence by the Israeli police. We see it, and we're in awe. We wanted and needed it to go global.
Where is this going? What happens next?
There are 23 Black Lives Matter chapters right now, in the US, Canada and Ghana. We need to uplift the local struggles across the country, as well as pushing for greater accountability for law enforcement.
We want legislation that will see divestment from law enforcement and investing in poor communities. We want to build a national project linking families who have been impacted by state violence, with a national database that looks at individual law enforcement officers and agencies. We also want to look at how to develop a system of independent investigation. We want to figure out a victims' bill of rights, to counter the police bill of rights. Until then, we're gonna shut shit down.
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