“When They Call You a Terrorist”: The Life of Black Lives Matter Cofounder Patrisse Khan-Cullors

We turn now to a powerful new book, released today, that tells the story of one woman as she fights back against the impacts of social and racial injustice in America on her family. That woman is Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The book, titled When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, is both an account of survival, strength and resilience, and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent black life expendable. Patrisse’s story follows her childhood in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as her mother worked three jobs, struggling to earn a living wage. And it puts a human face on the way mass incarceration and the war on drugs hurt young black men, including her relatives and friends. Patrisse’s father was a victim of the drug war. He died at the age of 50. Her brother spent years in prison for nonviolent crimes stemming from his battles against mental illness. He was once even charged with terrorism after being involved in a car accident. The police would target Patrisse, too — raiding her house without just cause. In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Patrisse co-founded Black Lives Matter along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. The movement began online but soon spread across the country. We speak to Patrisse and her co-author, asha bandele. asha is author of five books, including the best-seller, The Prisoner’s Wife. She is a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance.

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a powerful new book, released today, that tells the story of one woman as she fights back against the impacts of social and racial injustice in America on her family. That woman is Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. The book, titled When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, is both an account of survival, strength and resilience, and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent black life expendable. Patrisse’s story follows her childhood in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as her mother worked three jobs, struggling to earn a living wage. And it puts a human face on the way mass incarceration and the war on drugs hurts young black men, including her relatives and friends.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrisse’s father was a victim of the drug war. He died at the age of 50. Her brother spent years in prison for nonviolent crimes stemming from his battles against mental illness. He was once even charged with terrorism after being involved in a car accident. The police would target Patrisse, too, raiding her house without just cause.

In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Patrisse co-founded Black Lives Matter along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. The movement began online but soon spread across the country. “Black Lives Matter” became the rallying cry at protests decrying the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and many others, including Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after a traffic stop.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors joins us in the studio today, on the day of the publication of her new book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. She wrote the book with the award-winning journalist asha bandele, who also joins us. asha is the author of five books, including the best-seller The Prisoner’s Wife. She’s a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance. Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele will join us after this break to talk about Patrisse’s remarkable life story. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a survivor. Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: Music recorded last spring at Judson Memorial Church at a gathering for Ravi Ragbir ahead of one of his check-ins with ICE. Last week, he was detained, and he is now in deportation proceedings in a jail in Florida. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Our guests are Patrisse Khan-Cullors, talking about her new book, released today, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, written with the award-winning journalist asha bandele.

Patrisse, congratulations. This is an astounding book.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This weekend, I flew to Colorado and then came back yesterday through Chicago’s snowstorm, and everyone on the plane knew I had misplaced my book, because I said, “I must finish reading this book,” until asha kindly sent me the manuscript on the plane, right? And then I said, “OK,” to the pilot, “we can now take off.” And I read aloud on the — no, not exactly — on the loudspeaker. But the story you have told of growing up against all the odds —

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us where you were born and place us in Los Angeles, in your community, one — next to one of the richest and whitest in the United States.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes. I was born in Van Nuys, California, which is not known, but it’s a suburb outside of Los Angeles inner city. And it was literally in between multiple white neighborhoods, including Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Northridge. And I witnessed consistent policing, militarized policing. I witnessed the impact mass incarceration had on my family members. And the most early memories for me were my home being raided by LAPD and LAPD lighting up my siblings and their friends, at 11, 13 years old, stopping and frisking them. And this became our normal in our neighborhood, even though I knew it was not normal.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you know?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Because I could feel the humiliation in every stop, in every moment LAPD was around. I could feel the impact it had on my mother. I could feel it in our community. And I knew that we shouldn’t be living this way. I knew that there was more for us. And then I ended up going to a mostly white school, and I got to see the very real difference between how they were treated, and never actually witnessing police in their neighborhoods, and then how my family and my community was treated.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. You write so eloquently about the differences. This was in the middle school that you went there. And the — talk about some of the examples of the difference in treatment between that mostly upper- and middle-class white community, so close to yours, and the way your own neighborhood was being dealt with.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I mean, it was just in the school itself. It was not policed. There were no cops on campus, compared to the middle school that I went to for summer school, which was the first time I was arrested, at 12 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: You can name your schools.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Millikan Middle School was in Sherman Oaks, which was the upper-middle-class middle school with mostly white folks. And Van Nuys Middle School was mostly working-class, poor, immigrant communities and black folks. And it was just literal. I mean, one looks like a prison, and one looks like a university.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one had metal detectors. And could you talk about the experience of one time you were arrested in the — in that summer school?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes. I was arrested because I was — had been smoking weed in the bathroom. And at Millikan, you could do that, and no one was checking for you, worried about you.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean the white school.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: At Millikan, the white school in Sherman Oaks, yes. It just sounds like a white school: Millikan. And at Van Nuys —

AMY GOODMAN: And lots of girls did it.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah. I mean, all the white girls did it. I mean, that’s actually who introduced weed to me, was the white girls. And Van Nuys Middle School was mostly, like I said, working-class, communities of color. And I was — a cop came into my classroom. It was my science class. And when I — as a younger person, when I saw law enforcement, I feared them. There was already sort of that emotional response. The entire classroom got kind of tight. And the science — you know, the cop whispered in the science teacher’s ear, and the science teacher called me up to the class. He handcuffed me in front of my classroom and then walked me down a hallway.

AMY GOODMAN: You were 12 years old.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I was 12 years old. And all I can think about — because when you’re 12, I wasn’t thinking about the political, you know, analysis of the moment. I was thinking about: What is my mother going to say? What am I going to tell my mother? Which I lied through my teeth. But it wasn’t until I got older that I realized the impact of that moment and the impact that would have on me for the rest of my life.

AMY GOODMAN: You also describe your brothers and the places you all had to hang out, very limited — you didn’t have the playgrounds of Sherman Oaks, rec centers, arts programs — and the police moving in on them when they were kids. You were right nearby. You were like what? Nine?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, 9 years old. I was 9 years old, yeah. And once again, when you’re a child, you just pick the places that are most convenient. That was alleyways. That was the front of our building. Sometimes it was in our homes. But it was — you know, when you’re a child, you’re playing. You want to play outside.

And because of the war on gangs, because of gang injunctions, the boys, specifically, in my neighborhood, were labeled as gang members. And my brother will tell the story, which is, they never considered themselves a gang, until the police called them a gang, that that’s not how they related to themselves. They were a bunch of boys hanging out. And those — and at 9 years old, bearing witness to that type of humiliation has an impact on you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, asha bandele, what made you decide that you thought this was an important story to tell, if you could talk about that, as well, and how you first came together?

ASHA BANDELE: So, Patrisse and I had known each other for a good number of years as organizers. And I thought it was monumentally important to go behind the statistics and unpack the real-world story of the impact of the drug war and mass incarceration on people’s lives. It’s sort of what I’ve dedicated my life to, as, you know, someone who had family members in prison and as somebody who has seen the human cost of mass incarceration. I wanted Patrisse to tell her story in a full, complete way.

And I was especially enraged that Black Lives Matter and the leaders of Black Lives Matter had been called terrorists, when I knew that these were people dedicated deeply to peace in our communities, peace for our children. I knew the impact Patrisse had on my own daughter, of love and of peace. And I wanted people to see that. I don’t think that you get to misname people. And I think that the history of who we are needs to be told and needs to be documented. And that’s my dedication as a writer and as an organizer.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrisse, I want people to meet your family the way you introduce them to us, because that’s really the point of this book, is people speaking for themselves, your unique experiences and the difference in how you grow up in this country from other communities. Can you introduce us to your mothers, your fathers, your brothers, your sister?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes. Cherisse Foley, who is my mother, a brilliant woman who literally raised four children on her own in the middle of the ’80s, ’90s, she is powerful. I mean, she’s literally powerful.

Monte Cullors, who was my first best friend, who was criminalized very early on — Monte’s first time in juvenile hall was 13 years old, and he would spend from 13 ’til 36 in and out of juvenile hall, prisons and lockdown facilities, simply because of his mental illness and the war on drugs.

My brother Paul Cullors, who was a parent to us, as my mother worked three, sometimes four, jobs, and also has become my security — he’s a security guard, so he does my security in Los Angeles. He’s pretty much my first protector.

My sister Jasmine Cullors, who — in a lot of ways, we kind of kept her from so much of what we witnessed and experienced. We protected her.

And my two fathers — my biological father, Gabriel Brignac, who I met when I was 11 years old, that I detail in the story and always kind of knew someone else was out there, always asked questions of my mother, but got to meet his brilliance at 11 and learned so much about myself because of him and my family. And Alton Cullors, the father who raised me, who is — used to work at the GM Van Nuys plant, and was shut down and was forced into taking jobs that were not so meaningful, and now owns a mechanic shop in Las Vegas.

AMY GOODMAN: If you can talk about Monte and your experience — well, first, he’s — after he’s arrested, before he’s diagnosed, what this all means, and then this unbelievable moment where you decide to call in the police, after he’s back from jail?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah. Monte — we didn’t know Monte was suffering from mental illness. Unfortunate reality is many communities of color, working-class poor communities, we don’t have people coming in and educating us about the crisis of mental health. And so, we just thought some — we didn’t know what was wrong. We didn’t. And when Monte was arrested for a robbery and when he was 18 years old, broke someone’s window, he said the voices told him to do it, and ended up going to prison for three years. In his stay in prison, he was tortured by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, brutally beaten. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Your mother first seeing him — she couldn’t even find where he was.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: No, no, they disappeared him. And this is actually — was a common practice of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. It’s disappearing prisoners. And when she finally saw him, two months later, he was emaciated. My brother is 6’2″, almost 300 pounds. They had completely overmedicated him. And we would learn, later on, years later, just what he endured in that jail cell.

When he was released, when he was 23 years old, it was one of the most exciting days of my life. I get to see my brother. I hadn’t seen him in years. We didn’t know that we could visit people. You know, they don’t give you sort of what are the steps when your loved one is incarcerated. We didn’t realize that we could go visit him, so we didn’t see him for four years. We just wrote a lot of letters. And the first thing that I noticed when I picked him up from the bus stop is they let him out in flip-flops, an undershirt and boxers. And I just — I was — I was so disturbed, like I couldn’t —

AMY GOODMAN: He was at the bus station in boxer shorts?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: He was in boxer shorts and a white T-shirt and flip-flops, which — shower shoes, essentially. And I ushered him in the car. And he was acting very different. It was not the brother that went inside and that I knew. And the minute he got into the house, my mother said, “This is — something’s wrong with my son.” And, you know, as every child, I was like, “Mom, be quiet. He just got out of prison. Like just give him some time.”

And over a week, he slowly — he quickly deteriorated. And I didn’t know who to call. And eventually I called the ambulance, and I made the unfortunate choice to tell them that my brother had just been released from jail. They said, “Well, that’s not our problem; you have to call the police.” And I said, “I can’t call the police on my brother. You have no” — you know, this is before Black Lives Matter, before we’ve seen, you know, black people be killed at the hands of law enforcement, especially black people with mental illness. But I just knew that that was not the right choice.

But I didn’t have anybody else to call, and I did call the police. And I talked them through, and I let them know what was happening. And the first thing they said to me — I said, “What happens if my brother happens to get violent?” And they said, “We’ll just taser him.” I mean, just like flat-faced —

AMY GOODMAN: These are two young cops who came.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Two young rookie cops, clearly scared out of their minds. And I said, “You cannot taser him. Like, that’s not — that’s unacceptable.” They walked into my house, and the minute they walked in, my brother just put his hands up and went on his knees and just started begging them. You know, he just started begging them. And I just knew I made a mistake. I just knew I made a mistake. And I, you know, held my brother. I said, “It’s OK.” And I told them to leave. And it was in that moment that I realized that we’re on our own, that we are literally on our own, and there is no infrastructure for black poor families when dealing with mental illness. There’s just none. And we had to piece the infrastructure together.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the — talk about the time that he was charged with terrorism.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, it was in those years, as he was off and on his medication. He was in a fender bender. And he was in the middle of a manic episode. And he might have cursed at the woman, might have not. We don’t know. We weren’t there. But the woman claimed that he had cursed at her. And because my brother was a second striker, then because they said that the cursing was threatening, they —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by “second striker.”

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: He has had two strikes on his record, which is part of the three strikes law, and was —

AMY GOODMAN: In California.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: In California — and could end up getting — if he were to receive his third strike, end up in jail for life. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Even if that third strike is stealing a candy bar.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Stealing a candy bar, getting in a fender bender. So, we went to court, when we finally found where my brother was. We went to that first court date, and the lawyer said, “You know, your brother is being charged with terrorist threats, and that is a felony. And they will probably be putting him away for the rest of his life.” And he was 24, 24 years old. And I said, “That’s not — not on my watch.”

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re a kid.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a kid through all of this.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You describe a scene where you’re in the white school, and so you’re making some white girlfriends, who you really cared about. And you describe going to one of their homes and the lovely, unbelievable scene that unfolds at dinner and the way they respected you. Describe what happened. Describe the dad of the family and how he treated you.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes, this is — was one of my closest friends, growing up, in middle school. And you become friends with the people that are in proximity to you. So, it was a significantly white program, significantly white school. Those are my friends. And I went back to this friend’s house and what looked like a mansion to me. It’s probably not that big of a house, but compared to our neighborhood and tiny apartment, this house looked like a mansion.

And we were all at dinner. And the father is jolly. I mean, honestly, like probably — he looked like the original Santa Claus, like big, jolly white man with a beard and super sweet and a smile on his face all the time. And we’re talking, you know, and I’ve never been in a scenario like this, where you sit around and have dinner, and people pass things and ask questions of you. And he’s, you know — and we get to a point in the conversation where he — I don’t know how. Maybe he asked me, because oftentimes, you know, middle-class parents ask what your family does. And I’m talking about my mother, and he says — you know, repeats my mother’s name, “Cherisse. Where do you live?” And I tell him my address. He says, “Oh, I own those apartments.”

And my heart dropped, because it was the apartment that I lived in that we didn’t have a refrigerator for a year, that sometimes appliances didn’t work, that we — I realized very quickly that that was our slumlord. And the contradiction in that moment, it was hard to settle, and a tension in that moment started to develop.

AMY GOODMAN: Because he was the first person who said to you, “Patrisse” — before you learned he was your slumlord — “what do you want to do with your life?”

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: “What are your plans?”

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: “How are you going to execute them?”

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Exactly, exactly. And yeah, what do you do with those moments, when the person who clearly has investment in you doesn’t actually have investment in your entire family and an infrastructure that your family is living in? It’s hard to manage.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also described, at a point, inviting a friend from that other world to your house, and him coming into your house, and the ambulance in the background —

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — that you just took for granted.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he suddenly remarks, “I didn’t know you live like this,” or something like that.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that?

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: That’s exactly what happened. And, you know, I think what’s interesting about growing up black and poor is you don’t actually realize how bad it is until you see what else someone else has. And my mother was very particular about who we let over. And I begged her. I begged her to let my friend over. He was my best friend. You know, I didn’t think there would be any judgment. I didn’t assume there would be any judgment. And there definitely was.

And he walked in my home. And I remember that day so vividly, because there was the ambulance in the background. I was like, “Why does the ambulance have to be here today? Why the sirens today?” And I was nervous about him coming in. And he walked into my living room, and I was sitting on the couch. And he said — kind of looked around. He was like, “I didn’t know you live like this.”

And I got that — I got that a lot from other middle-class children, because they only know their world, and they don’t have to actually enter the world of communities of color and of poor communities, in particular.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also describe that Van Nuys was a racially mixed neighborhood, a large Mexican-American community.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There were Korean Americans. There were even a few white folks who lived in the neighborhood. Talk about that experience, as well.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, I grew up mostly around Latinos. And my community — my experience with both law enforcement and witnessing what was then INS, Immigration National Security, was really prominent. And I think it was important, you know, to grow up in such a multiracial environment. Many of us, our family members were getting, you know, social welfare. Many of our family members were getting food stamps, when they actually looked like stamps and they looked colored. And like, we grew up in this environment, and we really raised each other, and we really took care of each other. And it colored — I think it really colors how I am in this movement. We have to take care of each other. We didn’t have local government taking care of us.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, what it meant to come out in your community, with your family, with your friends; your response to Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman being acquitted; how you came up with that hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. And we want to talk with asha about how this story shows us the stories about the effects of drug policy and mass incarceration. Today is the day that a remarkable book has just come out, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. It’s by our guests today, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele. This is Democracy Now! Back with them in a moment.