PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: TELL A DIFFERENT STORY
photography by dana washington
“That’s not art, that’s political art.” “This art exists outside the political debate.” “Art is just, like, free man.” “This is art, but with a message” We often talk about culture and politics as separate realities. Or at best, we talk about culture and politics like two neighboring countries that might be friendly at times but still have borders between them. I believe culture and politics are more like two family members—two aspects of one ecosystem. Patrisse Khan-Cullors knows that politics and culture are inextricably linked, that each has a unique function in the struggle towards the liberation of oppressed peoples. Through her lifelong work as an artist, activist and advocate—most visible for her foundational role in establishing the Black Lives Matter global network—Khan-Cullors has helped literally helped us see the humanity in ourselves.
When we speak for this interview, the San Fernando Valley native is measured and confident. She’s earnest as we discuss the process around her recently released best-selling memoir, When They Call You A Terrorist, co-written with the brilliant and fierce asha bandele. She’s vulnerable and open when we discuss empathy for oppressors, anti-Blackness in non-Black communities of color and why showing up for Black lives really means showing up for humanity. She discusses her ongoing campaigns against mass incarceration and the punitive state with the Reform L.A. Jails effort and she gushes over being a new mother. Our interview fills me with follow up questions but the conversation does give me one idea that feels solid and concrete: our liberation, physical and otherwise, will grow inside the bonds and commitments we form with each other. Black Lives Matter’s five-year anniversary is Fri., July 13, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You A Terrorist is available from St. Martin’s Press. This interview by sweeney kovar.
I’d like to ask you to expand on a few thoughts from the book. When you talk about the election of Trump, you write about being angry at your own naivete around thinking it wouldn’t happen. How do you manage that kind of feeling and not become disenchanted with your work?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: For me it’s always been really important to be curious about what’s out there and to dig deeper. The more I discover, the more that becomes an important part of my study and my political education [and] the more I realized added another puzzle piece to the puzzle. With more information, I have more clarity on why I fight. With more information, I can be a more effective strategist. That’s how I’ve approached my learning and my re-learning and my deeper clarity around things.
You also talk about fighting for the humanity of the people you’re fighting with. I thought that was such a powerful statement. How do you maintain that empathy for folks you are fighting against?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: I think a lot about what it takes to try to fight and get as many people involved and be on our side to win. While sometimes what I believe isn’t popular or the beliefs of our movement aren’t popular, I’m always thinking about how I get people to empathize—how do I make people understand the impact this is having not just on Black people but on everyone? When we fight for Black people—when we fight against the ways that Black people are traumatized, humiliated and not cared for—we’re actually calling for everybody to access their own humanity. We’re asking everybody else to show up for themselves because when you show up for Black people you’re showing up for yourself. That’s the way I try to talk about it, and not just talk about it but that is how I feel. This is something that I deeply, deeply, deeply feel and I believe it. I try to bring that to every conversation and every space to ground us in that, to ground us in that question: are we really going to allow ourselves to be witnesses to death or are we stand up to it?
As a non-Black person of color, I see the hesitancy in many when it comes to showing up for Black lives. What do you see as some reasons for that lack of solidarity?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: I think people feel like, ‘What about us?’ I think it’s a selfish, ego thing. I think often people don’t understand the nuances of anti-Black racism. They don’t understand why it should be a part of the conversation … and honestly I think that some people don’t want to stand up for Black lives. There are different variations of what happens in people.
To belabor an important point, why should non-Black folks be in solidarity with Black lives?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: Because part of what happens when you live in this country is that the way in which whiteness exists is predicated on the humiliation and death of Blackness. Once more people started to emigrate to this country what we started to see is that there really is two ways of being: white or Black. For some nationalities who were able to assimilate into whiteness, they benefit from anti-Blackness. For some nationalities who can’t assimilate—who end up being destroyed by anti-Blackness—it’s because of that anti-Blackness that they are not able to assimilate. So we have to combat it. We have to face it.
Can you tell me about Reform L.A. Jails?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: Reform L.A. Jails is a ballot initiative that we are working on with Justice L.A. and other groups across the country and inside of L.A. county. It’s an initiative that is challenging L.A.’s current relationship to incarceration and honestly its relationship to the Sheriff’s Department. We’ve lived in a county that has really prioritized law enforcement, policing and criminalization. This new initiative we’re spearheading is called the Reform L.A. Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative. It’s the first of its kind in the country. It will pave the way for reducing recidivism, preventing crime and harm and permanently reducing the population of people cycling in and out of the jails. The initiative would empower a civilian oversight commission to develop a plan to reduce the jail population and reallocate the dollars from the jail budget to community-based prevention youth programming and treatment. This initiative will also give that commission subpoena power and investigative power because right now it has no legal powers to effectively provide oversight from the Sheriff’s Commission.
What does that campaign look like and what are ways folks can be in support of it?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: There are three ways to support. We’re hiring folks to gather signatures. You can go to our website ReformLAJails.com and connect with us. If you want to be a volunteer signature gatherer, you can do that as well. The second thing people can do is donate. We need people to donate to the campaign. It costs money to run a ballot initiative so please, please, please donate. The third thing we need people to do is hold house parties. We want people to get their friends and have a conversation about what it means to reform L.A. jails. We want people to show up for this initiative and show up for what we’re doing and what we’re working on.
In my day-to-day conversations talking to people about jails and prisons and that there’s a better way—even among folks that are in general agreeance—people often have a hard time imagining a world without police or prisons. What advice or insight do you offer for someone who can’t imagine the alternative?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: The alternatives don’t necessarily exist in this country yet. We know people who have been able to stop jail construction. I think better models exist outside of the country. Sometimes you have to look outside of a place to really see its work. I think it’s really important that we’re able to introduce new ways of dealing with harm and violence and introduce new ways of dealing with social ills, whether that’s drug use or mental illness. We’ve been overly reliant on policing and incarceration and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.
What role does healing and restorative work have when we talk about work to end mass incarceration?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: Healing is central. We can’t do this work without having a healing justice analysis and practice. We need all of our work—especially the work that’s dealing with the death of our communities. We need to be having strong practices in our organizations and with our membership on how we hold space for the trauma and how we hold space for resilience.
Why do we need arts and culture woven into activism and movement work?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: I think having a creative approach is key. Part of the work is moving forward on integrating art and culture. Art and culture should not be seperate from our work. We should be developing Artivism [A term combining art and activism—ed.] as a central way that people see our work. It is also healing to be able to do art in your movement and your organization. I think the way in which art is healing is that it provides space for people to transform what they’ve experienced. Art is transformative. Art is really steeped in healing and really steeped in what’s necessary for our healing. I would say it’s spiritual as well.
What are the advantages—and just as importantly—the disadvantages of having celebrities engaged in activism and movement work?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: Good question. It’s important that our movements are popularized and it’s important that our movements are seen by more than just us. It’s important that mainstream people shout out ‘Black Lives Matter!’ from the mountaintops and I think it’s important to never rely on celebrities to lead a movement. That has never happened. That is not how we get free. It’s people on the ground doing the work and celebrities being led by people on the ground that gets us closer to freedom.
Has there been a piece of art that has inspired you in recent years?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: Solange’s last album A Seat At The Table really did good for me in the last few years. It was right after Philando and Alton and all the killing of Black trans women, and it feels like a similar moment now where we need something to heal—to be the balm. At that time there was so much Black death and she came out with so much healing for us. It was both a personal narrative and a political narrative. It was important for my own soul.
What about a piece of art that was inspirational during your childhood?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: I read a book called The Giver when I was in elementary school. That book changed me. It gave me a new perspective on what’s possible for me as a child. The premise is this whole world that is sci-fi where everything is constructed a certain way and everybody did everything the same but there was one boy who held all the terrible memories. They also held all the joyful memories. The only way that world could exist was if everything was flattened, everything was the same color. This boy was trained as The Giver, who would receive all the memories. As he started to receive them, it was too much to carry. I really started to feel a deep sense that there are other ways of living and other ways of being. It was a deeply reflective piece about humanity and it was so important as a child to read that.
You’re also a new mother. What further insights has motherhood given you that are applicable to the work you do?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: So many things … I think one of them is how urgent it is to change this place. I feel a deep need to change this world, not just for everybody else but for my own family and my own child. Having a child has also put into perspective what so many mothers have felt for centuries being in this country, a fear of not being able to protect our children. It’s very basic to protect yourself and your family. It’s a basic human instinct. The fact that we’re not able to fully protect our children—and not from natural disasters or anything like that but from the state, a state that hunts our children—is really painful.
What has been filling you with gratitude lately?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: My family. It’s been really beautiful to raise a child and to have a partner. My mom stays with us some of the time. Just building with my family has been really good for me.
What was the catalyst for writing your memoir When They Call You A Terrorist?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: It was watching the presidential election take place and recognizing that all of the work that BLM does was being demonized by the media and by elected officials. I wanted to tell a different story about BLM, about myself and about the people I grew up loving and caring about.
What was asha bandele’s role as a co-author?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: asha’s been a mentor of mine for many years now. She’s also the author of many books. I came to her to ask for her support in helping me develop this narrative that is my story, but she’s a master storyteller. She said yes. It was not at all hard to convince her. I could barely get the words out of my mouth. She played an important role in shaping the narrative and listening to all my stories and be able to craft them. We developed a beautiful poetic approach to how we put the story forward. We wanted two things to happen: we wanted people to see what I went through and what my family went through and what my community went through, and we wanted people to see what the government was doing in order to allow these things to happen in my life and in my family’s life.
Now that the book is released and you’ve done lots of events, do you have additional reflections on the relationship you formed with asha in the process of writing the book and sharing it out with the world?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: It was uncomfortable deciding to tell a story about myself because writing a memoir is pretty self-absorbed. Why me? Why is this story important? I really try to challenge ego when I’m doing this work. I was conflicted but I asked a lot of different people if I should do it and they said yes. It’s important and it also sets up the path for other Black authors to also write their own stories. I learned a lot about the kind of confidence it takes to tell your own story and believe in it. asha was an amazing co-author and co-conspirator and she’s just a deep, deep feeler so I got a lot of validation and affirmation from her. In the last few months it was really powerful to see the book become a New York Times bestseller. It was powerful to feel deeply connected to so many people who were like, ‘Thank you for writing this.’ It’s been an amazing experience.
PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS’ AND asha bandele’S WHEN THEY CALL YOU A TERRORIST: A BLACK LIVES MATTER MEMOIR IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM ST. MARTIN’S PRESS. VISIT PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS AT PATRISSEKHANCULLORS.COM. VISIT REFORM L.A. JAILS AT REFORMLAJAILS.COM.