Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, talks about her early life and the creation of BLM in the book she co-authored with Asha Bandele, “When They Call You a Terrorist.”
Cullors grew up in a Los Angeles suburb that was inhabited by mostly “Mexican immigrants, a sprinkle of black people, some poor white folks.” The neighborhood was over-policed which led to many people being over-incarcerated, she says. Handcuffed for the first time at 12 years old, Cullors says the experience of watching as her brothers were criminalized would later help her understand her work.
“I wanted people to get a better understanding of who I was and the community I was raised in,” Cullors says on her book. “It was a community that a lot of people in poverty can relate to.”
The males in her family were constantly criminalized, she says in her book. If you went to the neighboring Latino neighborhood, Cullors says, people could more easily get away with selling drugs. In her neighborhood, she says, you would be locked up for selling a dime bag.
Growing up, both Cullors’ father and step-father were in and out of prison. The first time she ever heard the term “terrorist” was when the court system labeled her brother as such. Her brother was in the midst of a manic episode when he was arrested. She says it showed her how little compassion there is for black people with mental illness.
When Cullors became an adult, she began organizing groups to protest the injustices the community had suffered. She organized a group to take on the Sheriff’s Department, and in turn, the community was raided twice.
“It was the first time the community had been raided by police,” she says. “In those raids, it was my first moment of realizing that they didn’t like what we were doing, and they were going to intimidate us as much as they can.”
Her prior organizing experience helped greatly when she joined Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi to form the Black Lives Matter movement. Garza wrote a love note to black people and ended it with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Cullors added a hashtag to the beginning of it, and it soon became a political platform.
As the movement gained momentum, it attracted both positive and negative reactions.
“I knew we were being called [a terrorist group] by trolls, but then other people were going to try to indict us as terrorists and elected officials started calling us terrorists,” Cullors says. “All we had ever done was fight law enforcement violence and challenge it with protest by policy and strategy.”
BLM is more than how they started. Today they are bringing attention to climate change, immigration and issues from all around the world. Cullors says the organization is constantly reassessing what they have done and accomplished so far and how they can improve from there.