FINDING STRENGTH IN STRUGGLE WITH PATRISSE CULLORS
January 10, 2020
In her memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors recalls a childhood during which her mom worked 16-hour days. Cherice Foley had to leave for work before her children were awake; a contrast to the white families Cullors observed while growing up in southern California, with parents who had the economic freedom to see their kids off in the mornings or drive them to school. Cherice cobbled together various jobs — sometimes two or three at a time — to support her children. Cullors seems to have inherited her mother’s work ethic, both their lives epitomizing strength in struggle.
It was a few days before Christmas when Cullors and I spoke. She would be spending the holiday with Cherice, who now lives with her. “‘Before I moved in with you, I had no idea how much you worked,’” Cullors quotes her during our call. Like her mother, the activist artist has labored tirelessly in multiple capacities, and it’s the Black liberation struggle that has benefited. Cullors, who along with her co-founders Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza has raised Black Lives Matter, nurtures that struggle as one would their own child.
When we talk, Cullors is easy to laugh with, regularly pivoting the conversation from herself to Black people at large. It’s hard not to inquire about the personal path of someone who may embody her living family’s wildest dreams, let alone the visions of her ancestors.
“I was privileged in that I was sent to a different school, so I got to see a different way of life,” she says. “Of my siblings, I’m the only one that went to college, the only to get a graduate degree.” The contrast, however, has been “unnerving.” It juxtaposes the reality for her brother Monte, who is “in a psychiatric facility and still trying to figure out how to get what he needs to survive.”
Still, the opportunities she has had in her life — from being a Fulbright scholar, to a spot in Essence magazine’s inaugural Woke 100 — have not precluded her from having to navigate a white supremacist society as a queer Black woman. Growing up in Los Angeles, Cullors has seen up-close the effects of mass policing and the prison industrial complex.
I asked her how she would apply Frederick Douglass’ quote, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
“We spent the past seven years with Black Lives Matter challenging and pushing and protesting and showing up and asserting that we have to struggle,” Cullors says. “Even when we had a Black president, we had to challenge public officials to do better, to get the public to do better. To me, that quote couldn’t be more spot on.”
Since Cullors, Tometi, and Garza joined forces to create an online campaign that has since become a global movement, Cullors has managed to keep her work grounded in her Los Angeles community. Among other affiliations, she serves on the executive committee of JusticeLA, a coalition of organizations calling for an end to the constructions and expansions of jails, and chairs the board of Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots abolitionist organization she founded in 2012.
Cullors’s struggle doesn’t only take place in the streets. She also advances it through art. “The first day in my art studio [after getting accepted into the University of Southern California’s Master of Fine Arts program], I just said ‘yeah, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I realized how much I had been neglecting a part of me that was intrinsic to who I am. I was doing a disservice to myself and the community that I’m in. I’m both an artist and an organizer, and I needed to marry those things.”
I imagined that this was a respite from years of heavily scrutinized activism. You don’t get unjustifiably labelled a terrorist as a Black person in the United States of America without needing to mentally and spiritually heal. Black activists often neglect replenishing their wells. Cullors, however, seems to have found a path to balancing both her internal happiness and her external fight for peace.
Cullors studied social practice at USC, also known as participatory art, which introduced her to practitioners who weave together the worlds of activism and art. Her mentor, the artist and educator Suzanne Lacy, has been one of her influences. Cullors’ work is one of performance, “using theatre techniques, visuals, audio, and dance…to render bare the narratives of state-induced trauma, while lifting up a path towards healing.”
At the moment, Cullors is preparing another book — this one on abolition geared towards younger audiences — and getting ready for a performance of a new work at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles on February 5 that will bring attention to mental health and its impact on her family and Black people broadly. All the while she is working on the ground for Los Angeles prison abolition. I asked her how it feels to see the concept of abolition become normalized in mainstream political conversations.
“I remember saying it 15 years ago, and people would say ‘Now wait a second, that’s a little extreme,’ she says in a mocking tone. The book is rooted “in not just theory but real practice.” Based on a Harvard Law Review article she authored, it’s “really going to give a deep dive into what’s possible.”
Our conversation moved to electoral politics, naturally, given the pivotal presidential election approaching. “In 2020, there are huge possibilities and huge risks,” says Cullors. “Who gets most impacted by the risks and opportunities? Black folks. This year, it’s going to be incumbent upon us to build the kind of alliances across Black communities with other groups of marginalized people who’ve been really subjugated by this government, to change history.”
Among the issues Cullors wants electoral politics to address is gender justice, including the unemployment and underemployment of women — and particularly trans women — who should “get the job that they deserve and the skill set that they deserve.”
I understand how Cullors has become a prolific organizer through my conversation with her. Her work, she says, “lead[s] with love.” “Organizing is so different than the world of social media.” The latter, she says, focuses on “trying to make people believe what you believe and shoving it down their throat. But if you want to change belief systems and ultimately change how people are going to vote on things, we have to be taking the time to do that.” She is clear that this is not about “trying to change the minds of trolls or white supremacists who are hellbent on being white supremacists.” But in general, as an organizer, “the first thing you learn is to meet people where they’re at, and then bring them along for the journey.”
Having discussed her past and her present work, I asked Patrice what she was looking forward to in the future. Just as there is no progress without struggle, there is no progress without vision. She starts with “beating Trump” Cullors adds, “I’m looking forward to building a Los Angeles invested in mental health care and not criminalization. I’m looking forward to winning the ‘Yes on R’ campaign [a ballot measure that would help improve police oversight and develop a plan to reduce jail and incarceration rates].
“In 10 years, I want to live in a place where we are not just theorizing about abolition. We’re truly, honestly practicing it from the community level to city government to county government and national government. I’m looking forward to really building a world where my child feels safe, honestly safe.”
You know she is not just theorizing. Like her mother piecing together all the resources she could muster during Patrice’s childhood, she will undoubtedly work in every capacity to build that world.