At age 34, Patrisse Khan-Cullors is already a veteran activist. She started as a teenage member of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, a group devoted to improving access to public transportation. That niche-sounding cause belies a radical agenda—one of the group’s slogans is "1,000 more buses, 1,000 less police," and it successfully sued LA County in the 90s to block a fare increase on the grounds that it disproportionately harmed commuters of color. Khan-Cullors is still deeply concerned with inequality, but what animates her work isn’t transportation, but systemic and state violence against black people.
Horrified by the mistreatment her brother endured in a Los Angeles county jail—including beatings, tasers, and choking—Khan-Cullors created the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in 2011. The group brought together a community of people affected by prison violence and created a space where survivors could both heal and organize to fight for change. In 2016, it won a major victory when the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to created a civilian oversight commission to monitor the LA County Sheriff’s Department. By then, Khan-Cullors had risen to such prominence that activists cried foul when she wasn’t named to the commission.
Expanding on the work she began with the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence, Khan-Cullors founded Dignity and Power Now, an umbrella organization that combats state violence and the prison-industrial complex using art, research, resilience practices, and leadership training.
She's also an artist whose work blends performance, visual, audio, and dance techniques into chilling denunciations of state violence. A 2012 piece, STAINED, featured caution tape, a recording of Khan-Cullors reading letters between her mother and brother detailing the beatings he endured in prison, and performers acting out the mental strain of solitary confinement—they laughed, then cried hysterically before turning to paste an ACLU report filed in a lawsuit against the LA County Sheriff’s Department to the wall.
But she’s likely most famous for her founding role in Black Lives Matter. In the summer of 2013, Khan-Cullors took part in a Facebook conversation with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin. It was Khan-Cullors who first used #blacklivesmatter in a post; Tometi saw that hashtag and decided it should be the name for an organization that would advocate for the end of state violence and repression against black people. The three women have gone on to build Black Lives Matter into one of the most prominent activist organizations in the world, a group that has both inspired millions and become a lightning rod for Trumpian rage.
In her memoir When They Call You a Terrorist, released last month, Khan-Cullors writes with clarity and candor about the physical and psychological violence that she and her family have suffered at the hands of the government, and how these traumatic experiences sparked her activism. As Black Lives Matters moves into its fifth year as the defining civil rights organization in America, I sat with her to talk about #MeToo, the politics of personal responsibility, and the new urgency her work has taken on in the wake of the 2016 election.
VICE: Why did you decide to write a book?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: I decided to write a book for a few reasons. First, we were in the middle of the last presidential election, and I started to see the way Black Lives Matter was being misconstrued by right-wing pundits and mislabeled as terrorist organization. I wanted to define who we are and what we stand for. And second, I really wanted to tell a coming-of-age story of a black queer women raised poor, and the impact state violence has had on my life. We often hear that story told from a black male perspective, but we rarely hear it told by and about black women.
"We live in a culture that wants to talk about individual first, that tells people they need to take personal responsibility for their hardships. Let’s not do that."
One of the most striking things I read in the book was how your pre-teenage brothers didn’t complain that it was unfair police had harassed and abused them for doing absolutely nothing. You write, “By the time they hit puberty, neither will my brothers have expected that things could be another way.” They internalized the devaluation of their lives at such a young age. Can you talk a bit about other ways in which young black children receive this message?
For many marginalized communities, we are told from birth that our lives are valueless. We are told that we don’t deserve things. That poverty is our fault. That our parents’ addictions and prison and inability to feed us is our fault. So if you internalize that, if you internalize the ways in which the world has literally shoved you out, then of course as you get older, you’re not going to believe in yourself. And that translates into not being able to do the things that are the most important and most healthy. We have to talk about changing systems first. We live in a culture that wants to talk about individual first, that tells people they need to take personal responsibility for their hardships. Let’s not do that. Let’s change the system that creates the hardships. That’s the work of Black Lives Matter, that’s the work of #MeToo, #TimesUp, the Women’s March, so many other important organizations that have come together in the past few years.
The silence surrounding rape and sexual assault and the silence surrounding state violence against black people and communities seems like it is at least partially beginning to lift.
When we talk about harm and violence enacted by very powerful people and entrenched within the government, it’s a different type of conversation we need to be having around accountability. What we’re seeing with #MeToo is not just survivors telling their stories, but a reckoning with how entrenched sexual violence and harm is in every industry. And what we’ve started to see with Black Lives Matter and the recording and dissemination of videos of police violence is that no police department has emerged unscathed. The argument that this kind of abuse is only reflective of a few incidents or a few bad actors is no longer valid. There’s this pervasiveness of physical, lethal, and sexual harm in our culture, and survivors who have been impacted by it are leading an awakening in our country around its prevalence.
In the best-case scenario, what do you think happens after the awakening?
The best-case scenario would be putting infrastructure in place so these kinds of abuses don’t happen again. We’re starting to see that with #MeToo. It’s more difficult with Black Lives Matter because we are trying to hold the state itself accountable, and state has been in power for 500 years. Our work is to create the infrastructure so we can fight back against these abuses, now that there is greater awareness around them, and win.
You also mention personal responsibility in the book in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous, and their emphasis on personal responsibility over structural inequities. What do you think makes Americans so susceptible to the politics of personal responsibility? Why do we want to believe our failings are ours alone?
That’s socialization and culture. You don’t have to tell someone how to behave, we witness what is acceptable and what is not. And then laws are just the things that come out a culture, out of what our culture says is acceptable. So what I want to change is the culture, rather than focusing on legislation. We want to disrupt, to create a new sense of how to fight, and the culture around doing that.
I was so struck by your insistence on the importance of self-care in your work. You say early on in the book that you had to learn to “make your own gentle” in a world that often treated you brutally. Why is self-care so integral in your work?
Over the years I have been told to go take care of myself when I was experiencing anxiety or depression, to go do something and come back when I was better. And so what I want to do is create space inside of the movement to foster resilience and for people to take care of themselves. Our movement shouldn’t make us feel disposable.
Do you feel like the media’s approach to covering racial injustice and Black Lives Matter has changed over the past few years?
It’s been forced to change. Traditional media has been forced to contend with smaller outlets doing things better, especially with social media, which allows for organic, decentralized, and global stories to go viral. Traditional media has had to adapt to all of these new realities.
What was it like for you, having poured so much of your life into this work and this movement, to see Trump elected? Does doing this work feel different now than it did before the election?
There is a particular clarity of urgency to continue to do the work, yes. Especially in understanding the role of strong movement can play in electoral politics. A powerful movement is one that can hold officials accountable. For example, look at the ways the right has been able to galvanize and show up for their base. 45’s words aren’t just rhetoric, he is putting his words into action. We need to hold our leaders accountable. Black people have been failed by Democratic Party leadership time and again, and what we need now is new leadership.
How do you go about finding new leaders?
You start locally. Nothing changes from the top down, it always changes from the bottom up, and the same will be true with finding and cultivating new leaders. It’s easy to feel distracted by the federal government, by 45, but he’s going to do what he’s going to do. Look instead at what’s been possible on a more decentralized scale and what’s been possible state by state, from the legalization of marriage to the legalization of marijuana.
"If we’re treating each other terribly, and saying terrible things about each other online, it doesn’t get us where we need to be."
In the book, you talk about “living your whole life under surveillance, your life as the bullseye.” Can you talk about the post-traumatic stress that comes from living under these kinds of conditions for a protracted period of time?
Most populations living under governments that use violence and bullying and harm as punishment against them are suffering from some form of PTSD. We don’t take emotional responses or the idea of trauma very seriously in American culture, and so part our work is to try and explain why taking trauma seriously is so important to saving humanity, and how the journey in getting to freedom is just as important as freedom. We can’t be engaging in the kind of behavior that traumatizes others because we’re traumatized. So if we’re treating each other terribly, and saying terrible things about each other online, it doesn’t get us where we need to be. And that’s our own trauma responses to a system that perpetuates the type of harm and dragging down that we do to one another. So what I’m really interested in is resilience-based responses to trauma, and to that environment.
Are there any of those kinds of responses that you think have been particularly successful, or that would be?
There is a local organization I started, Dignity and Power Now, that does work around people who have survived trauma and state violence. The organization runs a monthly healing clinic with therapists, nurses, and medics for folks who have been impacted by jail violence. It’s a powerful space. During the summer, they hold the clinic right in front of the jails.
A collective in New York, Harriet’s Apothecary, does something similar with these huge wellness clinics and healing spaces that are open to the public.
And finally, if we are really going to have this honest conversation on how and what this country owes black people, I feel very strongly that every black person should receive a therapist as part of any reparations package.
This story is a part of VICE's effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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