Patrisse Cullors is an organizer and one of the founders of Black Lives Matter. She’s working right now on the question of accountability in the Los Angeles sheriff’s office, and there’s a lot more to Cullors’ story, too.
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Not so long ago, she was in Palestine, dancing in Ramallah against occupation. When the video played on “The Laura Flanders Show,” some viewers said, “Palestine? I thought Black Lives Matter was about Ferguson?” They might as well have said, “Dancing? I didn’t know Cullors was a choreographer!”
Cullors joined us at the INCITE! Color of Violence conference in Chicago, fresh off a 10-day trip to the UK and Ireland. Why so much travel?
“We have to see this as a global movement,” said Cullors.
Is it a movement about policing or a movement about poverty? It’s both, of course, Cullors agrees. Which doesn’t necessarily make it easy to set priorities. Queer, Black, female and temporarily homeless in her youth, part of Cullors’ work, she says, has been about pulling experiences together: “Part of joining the movement was my way of figuring out my whole.”
Read, below, what Cullors has to say about Angela Davis’ concept of the “economy of violence.”
Laura Flanders: You choreographed the Black Lives Matter members’ dance in Ramallah, and people said, “Huh?” Explain a little. What’s the connection between, first off, the movements?
Patrisse Cullors: Well, it was important for the Black Lives Matter movement to show up to Palestine, both in solidarity, but also to learn more about what’s happening on the ground to Palestinians. It was a Dream Defender delegation – and myself and folks from BYP 100 (Black Youth Project), folks from Dream Defenders, as well as artists, went on this trip. There were about 14 of us, mostly all Black folks, and we were really clear that we were going to listen to what was happening to the folks in Palestine, specifically around the occupation. After and during Ferguson, folks spoke so much about the ways in which Ferguson felt like Palestine, and the level of occupation and militarization.
We can’t see our issues as just domestic issues; we have to see how the US empire exports racism, how it exports militarization.
When I showed up in Palestine, I had already known a lot; I’ve been studying it for years; but nothing would have prepared me for the level of violence and militarization that the Palestinian people are under. There was also this kindredness that we felt with Palestinians as Black people. The constant battering and terrorizing by military, and for us, by police, is eerily similar. We thought it was important, even though we knew that it might be a huge risk for a lot of us, to show up and let Palestinians know that we are in deep solidarity with them, and frankly, we believe that Palestine is the new South Africa.
Then you went to the UK; did you find eerie similarities there, too?
Yes, yes. The UK blew my mind … Story after story was exactly the same as folks here, Black folks in the United States. Recently, Mark Duggan, he’s a huge case that it was almost similar to Mike Brown, actually; he was coming home, driving his car; he was stopped by police. They eventually surrounded him, and they shot him to death. The police were just let off … A lot of folks are saying, “This is so similar,” yet what I think I was most disappointed by is how much here in the US, we don’t know about those stories in the United Kingdom. For me, the importance of that visit was to talk about international state violence, and to talk about the ways in which it impacts both inside this country but also across the pond.
As somebody who started her reporting in Northern Ireland, I’d be remiss not to ask you about that part of the trip. We talk about the “United” Kingdom, but it’s quite different from part to part, in terms of policing.
Derry City is where I visited, and it was like a liberated zone. The ways in which the community of Derry stands in solidarity with Black people in the United States is incredible. A lot of the Northern Irish people talked about Irish people in the states, and the level of racism that they’ve taken on here, and this very intense interrogation of what it means to become White in the States. It was powerful to have this very open dialogue with folks who were naming racism in a particular way. I got to take a tour of all the murals in Northern Ireland; I was there for Bloody Sunday, and so I was able to speak at the marches. There was such a deep understanding of how occupation impacts our communities.
Bloody Sunday, when British armed forces on the streets of Derry shot down nonviolent protesters [in 1972]. Let’s talk about the relationship of the issues. You’ve touched on it, but when you came back, how did it change your sense of what we’re really grappling with here?
We have to see this as a global movement. We can’t see our issues as just domestic issues; we have to see how the US empire exports racism, how it exports militarization. I said this a lot in the UK when I spoke to press. The United States and all of these different groups of people, they meet together often. They’re not isolated; they’re going over tactics together. We must do the same, and I think if I didn’t make those trips, I wouldn’t have understood how necessary it is to call out for a global movement.
In terms of the nature of that movement, is it a movement about policing? Is it a movement about poverty? Is it a movement about the relationship between the two? How do you see it?
I think that’s a really good question. What I see right now, and it’s because this is what I’ve been working on for years, is that we are in a particular moment in history where we are looking at state violence, and I think we can use this moment to look at state violence as a way to look at many other things, such as poverty, such as homelessness. These are not unique to the United States, but something that I think is unique is the ways in which state violence is being uplifted in this moment of history. I think we have an opening, which doesn’t happen very often, to change policy, to change the culture, and to shift some pretty deadly dynamics.
Were there any institutions, whatever their success, that you saw in other countries that you think we could do with [having] here?
You know, I think in the United Kingdom, although there’s still a significant amount of state violence, their complaint process, is way better than ours. They were pretty disturbed at the level of lack of transparency that happened in this country, because all of their proceedings are open to the public. I think that there are ways in which I learned a lot from their litigators on what can be established here.
Do we still have the 1033 program? [Note: On Monday, May, 18, 2015, President Obama announced restrictions on certain military-type vehicles, including armored, tanklike vehicles being given to local police departments.]
Which would be the program by which the Army surplus tanks get put on the streets of US towns?
That’s a great question. We still have the program, except it is being monitored now. It was not being monitored before, which is …
Who’s doing the monitoring?
That’s a great question. The DOJ’s supposed to be doing the monitoring.
Department of Justice.
Which the DOJ, I feel like a lot of us have lost some significant amount of trust in.
What about this question of accountability in the sheriff’s department? You’ve talked about protests, you’ve talked about meetings; do you think you’re going to get it, any sense of when this might actually happen?
The civilian oversight body?
Sounds like you have some real …
We’ve won. We won in December.
We actually won the body, but right now we’re in actual negotiations about what the body’s going to look like. That’s where it gets tricky, because that’s great to win a commission and an oversight body, but if it doesn’t have teeth, if it doesn’t have power, then we will have to protest that very commission we fought for. That’s where we’re at.
How about you, where are you at? Do you ever pinch yourself and say, “Wait a minute, I’m negotiating, talking with the sheriff’s office in Los Angeles?” Tell us a little bit about your background. You had experience, your family had brushes with the police department and worse as you were growing up.
Yeah, I pinch myself all the time.
Who is Patrisse?
I pinch myself all the time. This fight in particular is so important to me because of the level of violence that I witnessed at the hands of the state towards myself and my family. From my earliest memory, which was my home being raided with a battering ram, because of the war on drugs and the 1033.
I had a lot of rage, and usually what I do with my rage is, ‘What can I do to fix things? How do I fix this?’
I remember being 6 years old and the police rushing in my home, and searching throughout my entire house looking for my uncle at the time. I’m asking my mother, ‘Why are they looking in drawers?’ They just totally invaded our home. So by the time I was 13, I had seen my entire community decimated by law enforcement. We knew the local police department, we knew the local police officer that would harass my siblings. Then by the time I was 16, my brother was incarcerated inside the county jails and was brutally beaten by the sheriff’s department.
I think that’s actually where my own process starts with being inside this movement. I had a lot of rage, and usually what I do with my rage is, ‘What can I do to fix things? How do I fix this?’ I didn’t start the Dignity and Power Now when I was 16, but I did join the movement when I was 16, and I started at the Labor Community Strategy Center, bus riders’ union. I was there for 11 years, and then from there I started Dignity and Power Now. My brother’s been a part of it, my mother’s been a part of it, we’ve sat with the sheriff’s department, and it’s really actually healing, to deal with the department that was in charge of brutalizing your family.
You’re also part of the Dandelion Rising Leadership Institute? What’s that?
Yeah, that’s one of the programs that Dignity and Power runs. It’s a leadership institute for young people ages 16 to 24. We have a partnership with YouthBuild Charter Schools, and we’ve developed over 200 youth in Los Angeles.
There’s also you as a youth, finding yourself homeless, pushed out of your home because you came out.
Our movements haven’t been good at holding race and gender and queerness, and some struggle against some enemy with a deadline, all in hands and hearts and heads at the same time. How are you doing it differently? How are you managing to be all that you are, and how do you resolve that? The very same people you were fighting for were the people that put you out of your home.
Very good question. I think so much of my life’s work is about trying to figure out the whole, and part of joining the movement was my way of figuring out my whole. Where do I fit in this? The movement was my chosen family. I remember showing up to my organization and being queer and out and woman, and really weird, and folks completely embracing me. Also, seeing that as important leadership skills and seeing a deep leader in me. I think what we’re trying to do, both in Black Lives Matter and also in Dignity and Power Now, is to see the leaders for who they are and develop them.
Where does your art come into this? I have a suspicion this is where the art comes in.
It’s everywhere, literally everywhere. I just actually finished a production called “Power from the Mouths of the Occupied” that brings stories of Black folks who have been impacted by state violence to stage.
Joining the movement was my way of figuring out my whole. The movement was my chosen family.
We had a production in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is where I started, where I did an artist’s fellowship with the Arca Center for Social Justice and Leadership, and then in Los Angeles. I brought it to Los Angeles and trained all nonactors to tell their stories. The narrative to me is the most powerful. We can give statistics all day, but someone tells their story, you can’t deny someone’s story. That’s where my work comes in.
My final question; we’re talking at INCITE! Color of Violence conference taking place in Chicago this year. Angela Davis is one of the keynoters, and she talked about the economy of violence. I’m still unpacking in my mind what I think that means.
What did it mean to you?
I think how it landed on me was really talking about the ways in which violence is commodified, the ways in which violence is packaged, and the ways in which violence is really given and produced in families, in churches, in structures, and then reproduced.
We need a new economy of non-violence.
Me being pushed out of my home was a form of violence, and that was produced from my family’s religion; that then kicked me out in the streets. I think the economy of violence is actually a really important terminology for us to unpack as a movement, because we can also cycle through it inside of our own spaces and places that are supposed to be healing and transformative.
We need a new economy and we need a new economy of non-violence.
It’s great to have you, Patrisse. Thanks so much for coming in.
Thanks so much.
Thanks for your work.