Maria Paradinas recounts a talk given by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, for the Bristol Festival of Ideas.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, was in conversation with Gary Young this week as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Patrisse, who is from LA, was invited to speak about her experiences with the justice system, police brutality and anti-black racism, as well as the inception and growth of the hashtag-come-movement Black Lives Matter, as a queer woman of colour from a working-class background.
BLM, says Khan-Cullors, was born out of rage and love. Initially as a response to the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 by a police officer on duty, and as a productive reaction to the subsequent acquittal of the police officer who shot him, George Zimmerman, Black Lives Matter has sought to highlight and dismantle the preconditions that allowed tragedies like these, and associated miscarriages of justice, to occur.
The structural factors that facilitate police brutality and don’t hold the officers accountable are myriad. Patrisse touches on a few of them: the divestment from black majority neighbourhoods, racism in the judicial system and biased victim-blaming media.
Khan-Cullors observes that when the Zimmerman trial was happening, it was not really him but Trayvon Martin who was actually on trial. He was scrutinised by the media, who detailed information about his behaviour and suspension from school. Pictures from his Twitter account were broadcast in an attempt to smear his character. The media were not asking if Zimmerman shot and killed Martin: that is fact. The question that was actually being asked was: did he deserve it? When Zimmerman was acquitted, the answer that the media offered was: yes.
Growing up between, what she calls, the twin terrors of Poverty and Police, she reflects on the ways in which she was systematically disenfranchised as a child and adolescent. ‘Now I’m a mother myself’ she confesses, ‘I understand that my mother was the real hero’. Patrisse celebrates black womanhood and motherhood, voicing the reality that women’s suffering in this situation is mostly overlooked because oftentimes it is invisible. Supporting, healing and protecting their families, feeling the pain of the community but also having to hold the community together, the experience of black womanhood, especially in poor neighbourhoods, is one of constant siege. Black Lives Matter was founded by three women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, which is a testimony to the central role that black women have in rebuilding and protecting their communities.
Khan-Cullors highlights the fact that 97% of black women vote Democrat in America. Black women are literally the helm of the helm of the Democrat party and yet their concerns are not reflected in the party’s aims.
She imagines a future that redirects the funds that are being channelled into the police force and prisons (which perpetuate the cycle of criminalisation, incarceration, disillusion) into black institutions, services for the mentally ill, schools and schemes that provide opportunities for poor black men, women and families.
Khan-Cullors is asked about the #MeToo movement, which was able to successfully extricate abusive individuals from their positions of power. She reflects that it is easier to single out individuals: what BLM is trying to do is hold the state accountable, which is much more difficult. The movement seeks to hold police officers and politicians accountable and pressure elected officials; these elected officials are unlikely to fund such a venture which illuminates the issues around lack of funding and resources that such movements face.
Black Lives Matter is a call to action. In America, they have the gun, and in England, we have the baton. In England and Wales, there have been 1,694 deaths in police custody since 1990 and zero convictions. Last year, 13 people of colour were killed in police custody.
Black Lives Matter has spread like wildfire since its birth in 2012, but the change that the movement is striving for has still not happened, and the fact is that Black Lives Matter is still something that needs to be reinforced. It is still relevant, still active and still fighting.
Patrisse’s co-authored new book ‘When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’ is available in all big bookstores.
Illustration by Maria Paradinas.