Patrisse Cullors’ Black Lives Matter memoir

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, an artist and activist from Los Angeles, was one of three black women who started the Black Lives Matter movement.   She co-wrote WHEN THEY CALL YOU A TERRORIST: a Black Lives Matter Memoir (2017) to tell what it’s like to grow up and live in a world in which black lives don’t seem to matter.

She wrote about her childhood and coming of age, about her mother struggling in multiple low-age jobs to allow her four children to survive, about her vocations as an activist and a performance artist, and about finding love as a Queer person who doesn’t recognize gender boundaries.

The over-riding theme of the book is surviving as a poor black person in an unforgiving society, in which employers, governmental institutions and especially the police were indifferent or hostile.

When she was nine, she saw her older brothers, Paul, 13, and Monte, 11 (her third sibling is baby sister Jasmine), set upon and humiliated by police for no reason.  All they were doing was hanging out with other boys, none over 14, in an alley because they had no playground or vacant lot or any place else to so.  Police screamed at them, forced them up against a wall and half-stripped them in public—just for being boys with nothing to do.

The same thing happened to her when she was 12 years old.  Police entered her classroom, handcuffed her, took her to the dean’s office and had her searched, just like her brothers, because somebody had reported she’d smoked marijuana.

Later she visited a rich white friend, whose brother was a drug dealer was a high school student who kept marijuana in garbage bags.  He said he never was stopped by police, and never feared police.

The main thing she had going for her were sympathetic and supportive teachers, in elementary school and in a social justice-oriented charter high school she was able to attend.

Every time she writes about something awful that happened to herself, her family or her friends, she refers to some news article or academic study that indicates it was not an isolated event, but part of a pattern.

Her older brother Monte, was actually called a terrorist.

Monte heard voices in his head.  He had what was later called schizo-affective disorder.  In 1999, when he was 19, he was arrested on a charge of attempted robbery.   He was in a full-blown episode when he was arrested.

He was in jail for two months before his mother could even locate him and then she had to make many calls before she could even see him.  When she did, he had been beaten and bruised and been drugged (but not given his medications).  He had lost 40 pounds, was drooling and unable to speak coherently.

He was too scared to say what happened, but Cullors wrote that years later, it came out that Los Angeles jail guards at that time were on a torture spree—breaking fingers, hands, collar bones, jaws and ribs, committing anal rape, beating prisoners who were unconscious or in wheelchairs—just for their own entertainment.

Evidently he wasn’t convicted that time, but soon after he was convicted of attempted burglary after the voices in his head told him to enter someone’s house.  One of the first things that happened when he entered the prison was that he was stabbed by a Mexican prisoner.  If you were a prisoner, you had to seek the protection of a black, white or Hispanic gang to be safe.  For his own protection, he was put in a “mental health unit” isolated from other prisoners.

He was released in 2003, wearing a shirt, boxer shorts and bathroom clogs, because the prison did not see fit to provide him with pants or shoes.  He was unable to find work, not only because of mental health issues, but because he was a convicted felon.

Monte was arrested again in 2006 after getting into a shouting match with a white woman after a fender-bender auto accident.  Police subdued him with rubber bullets and a Taser.  The charge is terrorism—meaning that he is accused of saying something threatening that caused another person for fear for their life.

He was classified as a high-power alert prisoner, meaning he was considered a threat to police and guards, even though, according to Cullors, he had never physically harmed anyone in his life.  He was kept for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, which has been known to induce mental illness in the mentally stable.  He was refused medications, she said.

She and her mother were denied the right to visit him for the 21 days leading up to his court date.  When that arrived, he was brought in, strapped to a gurney and covered with a face mask like Hannibal Lecter.  He was undergoing a psychotic episode.  His public defender said nothing.  The judge postponed the case for two weeks.

The family learned that Monte had been convicted while in prison the first time of illegal possession of a weapon, which means that, if convicted another time, he would go to prison for life for having had three felony convictions under California’s “three strikes” law.

A real lawyer offered to take on their case for $10,000.  At the time, Monte’s mother has $150 in the bank.  But they somehow raise the money, and the lawyer succeeds in canceling the gun possession conviction.  So he “only” had to go to prison for five years.

What somebody like Monte needed was treatment and compassion.  What he got was beatings, prison and indifference.

Reading about this made me feel ashamed, not because I’d vaguely known, all my adult life, of what conditions were like in American prisons—how prisoners were brutalized, how many of them were run by ethnic racist gangs of all races, how young boys were raped.  And yet I put all this knowledge out of my mind, said little and did nothing.

Not so Patrisse Cullors!  She was an activist from a young age.  At age 17, she joined the Bus Riders Union, which fought for better mass transit.  She was an organizer for the Labor / Community Strategy Center for much of her adult life.  When the ACLU report about torture in the Los Angeles county jail came out, she helped organize the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence, and Dignity and Power Now. to advocate for incarcerated people.  One of their initial victories was to establish the first civilian oversight boards over the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

When the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida by George Zimmerman, Patrisse Cullors and her friends Alicia Garza and Opei Tometi launched the Black Lives Matter movement on Twitter and Facebook.  They saw this killing, and the later killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., not as isolated incidents, but as part of a long-established pattern.

The hashtag of their Twitter Account was #BlackLivesMatter, not #ToHellWithWhitePeople.   The most popular slogan of Black Lives Matter demonstrators was “Hands Up – Don’t Shoot,” not “Down With Cops!”  Yet they were accused of terrorism.   The FBI thinks there is such a thing as “black identity terrorism,” even though the real problem is white identity terrorism.  I’m going to devote a separate post to white terrorism.


Patrisse Cullors home page.

Black Lives Matter web site.

The Movement for Black Lives platform.

When They Call You a Terrorist review: Black Lives Matter memoir convinces by Charles Kaiser for The Guardian.

‘We’ve ignited a new generation’: Patrice Khan-Cullors on the resurgence of black activism by Jamiles Lartey fpr The Guardian.

Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors Is Only Getting Started by Elizabeth Nicolas for VICE news.

Q&A Patrisse Khan-Cullors: ‘My favorite word? Freedom’ by Rosanna Greenstreet for The Guardian.

Torture in the Los Angeles County jail

Abu Ghraib, California: Report Shows Brutal Abuse of Prisoners in L.A. County Jails by Jack Casella and James Ridgeway for Solitary Watch.

People Are Getting Tortured in Los Angeles by David Mizner for Daily Kos.

Activist battles L.A. County jailers’ ‘culture of violence’ by Abby Sewell for the Los Angeles Times.

Right-wing white identity terrorism

The Resurgent Threat of White Extremist Violence by Jonathan Greenblat for The Atlantic.

White Lives Matter, Blue Lives Don’t: Right-Wingers Kill More Cops Than Any Other Group by Roger Sollenberger for Paste magazine.

White and far-right extremists kill far more police officers than black extremists do by Kate Irby for McClatchy newspapers.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “Patrisse Cullors’ Black Lives Matter memoir”

  1. whungerford Says:

    When I lived in Detroit, a friend suggested that I would have a broader perspective on life in the city if I read “The Michigan Chronical,” a minority newspaper. I didn’t have much time for newspapers then, but clearly he was right–without the experience of minority people, we are oblivious to the challenges they face daily.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: