Patrisse Khan-Cullors was 9 years old the first time she saw police harass her brothers and their friends for being young, male, and black.
The boys, none older than 14, were thrown against a wall, ordered to pull up their shirts, and empty their pockets. Later, she says, her brothers “will be silent in the way we often hear of the silence of rape victims. They will be worried, maybe, that no one will believe them. Worried that there’s nothing that can be done to fix things, make things better.”
That indignity, so often inflicted on those in her community, was evoked for her when an officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and when Freddie Gray died, his neck broken, after a “rough ride” in a Baltimore police van in 2015.
In “When They Call You a Terrorist,” Khan-Cullors recalls the shame she felt as a child for her silence in the face of racial injustice. Her deeply felt memoir is a blueprint of how that silence exploded into a scream heard around the world. In 2013, Khan-Cullors, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, founded Black Lives Matter. It was a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who killed Trayvon Martin, a teenager shot to death not because he posed any threat but because, like her brothers, he was young, male, and black.
Co-written by poet and journalist Asha Bandele, this personal and political book, subtitled “A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” is also timely. It comes during a still-unfolding moment when women are demanding to be heard — about the sexual misconduct they endure, the gender pay gap that persists, and, to borrow from a recent New Yorker cartoon that went viral, how it feels to have their expertise interrupted by a man’s confidence.
She tells the story of the first positive coverage of Black Lives Matter — except she and her cofounders were not invited on the cable talk show. Instead, a male activist was given national exposure to discuss a movement created by three black women. (She doesn’t mention his name.) More than a personal slight, Khan-Cullors writes, it fed a stubborn narrative that “living in patriarchy means that the default inclination is to center men and their voices, not women and their work.”
Even as these women fight systemic racism, they also battle institutional sexism because for black women, there is never just one front to be challenged.
Raised with her three siblings by her hard-working mother in Van Nuys, Calif., she lived in a building “where the paint is peeling and where there is a gate that does not close properly and an intercom system that never works,” while less than a mile away is wealthy white Sherman Oaks with its swimming pools and beautiful lawns.
She learned early all the ways African-Americans are barred at the door, and how their lives are under constant threat from the police, the government, and the institutions that are intended to protect but instead oppress.
She witnesses this when her brother Monte is arrested. It’s not his first time in custody, as he struggles with mental illness in a society that treats his disability like a crime. From housing to employment, his record makes it nearly impossible for him to reintegrate into society, leading to more scrapes with the law. “You can have a two-year sentence but it doesn’t mean you’re not doing life,” Khan-Cullors writes.
When she finds him in a hospital’s prison wing, police officers tell her they used rubber bullets and a Taser to bring him down after a minor fender bender. Monte, having a manic episode, harmed no one, and Khan-Cullors wonders why “cops never seem to think that Black people can have mental illness.”
Yet what she also experiences is the strength of a community that understands it can best take care of its own. After her brother’s release and unsuccessful return home, Khan-Cullors’s family and friends slowly convince Monte to return to the hospital. A group of men form a “gentle healing circle” around him as they guide him into a car.
“This is what the love of Black men looks like. This is what our Black yesterday once looked like,” she writes. “And I think: If we are to survive, this is what our future must look like.”
Khan-Cullors doesn’t hesitate to take former president Obama and black pastors to task for speeches she believes emphasized personal responsibility — a tough-love bootstraps philosophy — over “a commitment to collective responsibility.”
“They preached it more than they preached about what it meant to be the world’s wealthiest nation and yet the place with extraordinary unemployment, extraordinary lack of livable wages and an extraordinary disruption of basic opportunity,” she writes. “And they preached that more than they preached about America having 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population . . . [one] that, with extraordinary deliberation, today excludes the man who shot and killed a 17-year-old boy who was carrying Skittles and iced tea.” This is a book about the birth of an activist, but also how to be truly aware — woke — is to resist.
That’s why the name Black Lives Matter, which Khan-Cullors began as a social media hashtag, is not only apt but vital. It defiantly flies in the face of centuries of American racism. Yet it is also heartbreaking to have to utter those three words when you know too many of your nation’s leaders won’t acknowledge it; police officers deny it; and millions believe declaring your right to exist is inherently threatening in a nation where people of color are still expected to know and stay in their place.
For this, Khan-Cullors, Garza, and Tometi have been called terrorists, criminals, and worse. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Like Baldwin, Khan-Cullors wants only for her nation to live up to its ideals, and afford everyone the same opportunities and protections. By that measure — or any measure — that doesn’t make Khan-Cullors a terrorist. That makes her a patriot.
Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
WHEN THEY CALL YOU A TERRORIST:
A Black Lives Matter Memoir
By Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
St. Martin’s Press, 272 pp., $24.99