Seven years ago, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, three young women came together to form an active response to the systematic racism causing the deaths of so many African-Americans in the USA. The women were Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. Their message was simply Black Lives Matter.
On Friday 9 March, 2018 we welcomed one of these inspirational women to the Southbank Centre, as Patrisse Cullors joined us for WOW - Women of the World. Before she flew to London for the festival, we were lucky enough to speak with her about her life's journey as an activist and campaigner.
Though Black Lives Matter may have started with Patrisse Cullors and her friends and fellow campaigners Garza and Tometi; Cullors’ own advocacy did not begin with Black Lives Matter. Born and raised in 1980s Los Angeles, she commenced her journey as a campaigner whilst still a teenager, joining the Bus Riders Union. From there Cullors went on to work, as an activist, organiser and performance artist, within several communities including those segregated by racial and sexual prejudice and equality. As well as Black Lives Matter, she has co-founded several other activist and civil rights movements in the US, including Dignity and Power Now.
So what gave the sixteen-year-old Cullors the strength to take a stand and join a campaigning group, where does a young teenager find the strength to speak out? ‘I don’t know if see it as strength, so much as my duty, as part of growing up,’ counters Cullors. ‘Growing up marginalised there’s a necessity to fight for what you need, it always felt almost like survival. So, I don’t see it necessarily as a strength as much the qualities for survival. And that’s coming from a place of needing to change things, so that I could live in better conditions, so that my family could live in better conditions, and the people around me could.’
Where did this sense of duty come from? Were there any key moments or incidents that inspired Cullors to take up that fight, initiating this push for survival, and for change? ‘I probably wouldn’t use the term inspired, because, I think the experiences that led me to act and organise things were deeply traumatic,’ Cullors explains.
‘Rather than inspired it’s something more clarifying. One of those experiences was my brother being arrested and brutally beaten by a sheriff’s department... this incident really became a marker for me, a clarifying moment around life, on the need for those of us who have been directly impacted by state violence to speak up and to speak out against it.’
The brutal treatment of her brother – along with accounts of friends and family who also suffered at the hands of the state – are detailed in When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, published by Cullors, and award-winning author Asha Bandele, earlier this year. The book also examines the severe socio-economic disadvantages handed to those born in black majority communities, like those which Cullors grew up in, and looks at the issues of inequality, diversity, oppression and racism and why they need to be actively addressed from the ground up.
It is both compelling and critical a read, one that will doubtless resonate with anyone who has suffered such oppression or fought against social disadvantage. But the challenge of any movement is to move those who are not directly affected. How can you bring these injustices to the eyes of the population these things don’t happen to?
‘Well, I think one way is writing a book. Putting it all down in one place, having people read chapter by chapter, what kind of life my family and I were living, and the ways in which we were treated – which is badly – by law enforcement and the impact it had on us. I mean you can’t deny somebody their stories, right, you know, you might be able to argue whether the police are bad or not, but you can’t argue with someone telling you that this is their experience. That is the way you’re able to enlighten people.’
There is no denying Cullors book is reaching people, an instant New York Times bestseller, it has, as the author highlights, struck a chord with audiences across race, across gender, and across age. ‘From people as young as 13, or 14 reading the book to as old as 80 or 90 reading the book, or listening to the audio book, it has been such a powerful tool for folk. I imagine it’s going to resonate with people who have had similar experience, and it definitely moves people who haven’t.’
As an activist and a campaigner it can be hard to look beyond the continuing fight and the challenges that lay ahead, but is it possible to see change happening? ‘I’ve seen a greater awareness, a consciousness shift,’ Cullors reflects. ‘I’ve seen conversations that couldn’t have happened a number of years ago, happening. And I’ve seen more and more effort going into trying to transform the world, so it is better for black people.’
When she was just sixteen years old Cullors came out as queer and moved out of her home in Valley. She went on to form close connections with other young, queer, woman who were dealing with the challenges of poverty and being Black and Brown in the USA. It’s no surprise therefore that Black Lives Matter has sought to incorporate those traditionally on the margins of black freedom movements, and has embraced intersectionality from the start in a way past black and civil rights movements often failed to do.
‘It’s complicated when some folks are myopic in how they are realising their movement and practicing inside their movements,’ suggests Cullors. ‘I think part of the challenge and the push for this movement is for groups across the board to continue to build off of the intersectional lens that we have so importantly uplifted.
‘[Black Lives Matter] are in connection and collaboration with multiple movements across the country and the globe, and I think that’s been the case since the very beginning. I think we have opened up the space for so many movements to be where they’re at today, and to shout out for where they’re at today.’
Black Lives Matter started on social media, begun by Garza’s Facebook post titled A Love Note to Black People, and cemented by Cullors deployment of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. But whilst the movement emphasises the good that social media can do, when it comes to convening audiences, should we be more concerned by the way it can be similarly used to harness negative and hateful ideologies?
‘I think that social media plays an interesting role across the world at this point, as a place where people can connect, and a place where people can amplify their stories and voices. But people can also amplify their hate and their bigotry. It therefore becomes complicated because we as people believe in the right to free speech.
‘But I also think social media and the people who are the administrators of social media should have to think about, in a better way, how to not give voice and amplification to hate that is purposeful, and that is about trying to get people harmed - and you can see that very clearly in people. It becomes really tricky, when you’re trying to filter this out, whilst also trying to allow people to have their constitutional rights.'
Of course it would be remiss to talk about social media without touching on one of its most prominent exponents. A year on from his inauguration, how is America feeling the effect of president Trump? Cullors doesn’t hold back, but remains typically focussed.
‘I mean he personifies the type of bigotry and hatred that exists at America’s underbelly, and he is now the President one of the most powerful countries in the world, so it is important that we are hell bent on defeating him, to an extent where he’s not able to win again. But we can’t let that be a distraction from the larger issue, that of US Government, and its historical lack of, or its historical neglect of black communities, no matter who the President is. So it is important to us, as we focus on Trump, that we also continue to look around us, look 360 degrees, at what’s happening in this country to the most marginalised.’
Which brings us back to the subject of empowerment; and giving a voice to people who have previously been forced out to the margins. At the time of our conversation, the film Black Panther is drawing the crowds in UK cinemas, topping the box office charts for a third week in the row; an example perhaps of the consciousness shift Cullors alluded to earlier in our interview. Is it, we ask Cullors, much more than a film?
‘I think it’s brilliant, it’s powerful, it’s amazing. Wakanda is obviously a fictional place, but there’s a deep parallel right now with a non-fictional place – the US – and our work around Black Lives Matter is about uplifting the everyday superheroes that are black people, not just in the US, but across the globe.’
Empowering women, and inspiring everyday heroes has always been at the heart of WOW - Women of the World. As a platform it has been a catalyst for a huge amount of change, from the founding of the UK's Women's Equality Party to countless campaigns including UK Supports Yazidi Women and Girls, and Little Acts of Revolution. So, ahead of her own appearance at the festival, what advice does Cullors give to the next generation of women and young girls looking to stand up, action change and make a difference?
‘Stay focussed, and be present. I would say this is a long-haul fight and it feels really crucial and important right now, because it is, but take care of yourself. Make sure that you do the things that you need to do for your own health and your own wellness. And remember that there’s a generation just right above you that is doing work, and that will gladly support you.’
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interview by Glen Wilson