*Skip to the bottom for general feelings about and review of the book. Read in full for overall summary of the story*
A lot of people didn’t know that the Black Lives Matter movement was started by queer Black women until as recent as 2020. A lot of people still don’t know the names of those women. Here they are: Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Opal Temeti, and Alicia Garza. When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is the deeply personal and heart-wrenching story of Patrisse Cullors’ life and all of the moments, including the murder of Travyon Martin, that led up to the founding of what is now one the largest social justice movements in U.S. history: BLM.
“I know that it was organizers who pulled us out of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, and it is organizers who are pulling us out of their twenty-first-century progeny, including racist and deadly policing practices. And I know that if we do what we are called to do, curate events and conversations that lead to actions that lead to decisions about how we should and would live, we will win.”
Born in 1984, Patrisse Cullors was raised with her three siblings by her single mother in LA during the height of the racist war on drugs era. We learn from her childhood memories how her experiences with racist policing, the school to prison pipeline, mental illness, as well as addiction have shaped her and her family’s life while growing up impoverished. She manages to beautifully walk readers through a life many would describe as heart-breaking, because it is. Patrisse, like many people, was raised by a single mother on account of a well-intentioned, sometimes present, a lot of times absent, father who she loved. In her exploration of her relationship with her parents to herself and to each other, she discusses learning that she has another biological father who is different from the one that she believed she shared with the rest of her siblings. It’s through building her relationship with her biological father, who suffers from drug addiction, that she learns the importance of community building, among other things. Throughout the stories that she tells, Patrisse, even as a child and teen, understands the importance of generosity and compassion to support healing. She extends a generous amount of empathy to both of her fathers, despite their periodic absences, understanding even at a young age the role that systemic oppression has played in causing those absences.
“That night we speak of prisons and the drug war and how it feels to not seem to matter as a person in the world. He has never been worth saving, never worth treatment. No intervention beyond prison for this Black man from Louisiana. We talk about how Black people’s relationships are too often defined by harm. We wonder what it means to have so much of our own relationships formed by absence. What goes unsaid, what goes unknown, even as we try to be entirely open before each other? We acknowledge that he has spent more time behind bars and away from me than he has spent with me.”
Perhaps the most poignant events mentioned about Patrisse’s life are her and her brother’s experiences with policing. As a child who was bussed out to a well funded, suburban, white middle school, Patrisse points out the stark differences in safety, livelihood, and resources made available to others that she and her community did not benefit from. She recounts one of the first time she witnesses her brothers, just 11 and 13 years old at the time, being roughly stopped and frisked by the police one day. They choose to never mention it to their mother because although they weren’t doing anything to warrant the harassment, it is not the first time, and it will not be the last time. What Patrisse is able to do is to draw readers into the mind of a child as she looks out into a racist world that hates her, her family, and the people in her community that look like her, for no apparent reason. This, as we know, is the truth for many Black and brown children and adolescents growing up in underfunded and overpoliced neighborhoods today and across our history.
“For my brothers, and especially for Monte, learning they did not matter, that they were expendable, began in the streets, began while they were hanging out with friends, began while they were literally breathing while Black. The extraordinary presence of police in our communities, a result of the drug war aimed at us, despite our never using or selling drugs more than unpoliced white children, ensured that we all knew this. For us, law enforcement had nothing to do with protecting and serving, but controlling and containing the movement of children who had been labeled super-predators simply by virtue of who they were born and where they were born, not because they were actually doing anything predatory.”
Despite growing up in a neighborhood where she and her siblings do not have after school programs, without adequate community resources, with a mother who works no less than 2 jobs at once to make ends meet, and with a father who received incarceration as a treatment for addiction, Patrisse Cullors grew up like many other young adults in search of themselves with a steady spirit of determination and compassion, and a need to change the world around her for the better. At least the world where she and her family existed. That meant that while she was coming to terms with her sexuality and exploring relationships for the first time, she was also consistently supporting her older brother through a mental illness that was responded to with violence by the state, further exacerbating it. While she was discovering her own spirituality and relationship with God, she was also learning to become an organizer and social justice activist in her community. Patrisse grows to become one of LA’s key organizers against police brutality, among other things, and as it happens becomes connected with other organizers around the country. She and these organizers often worked together to send protestors to cities where they are needed, like Ferguson, and helped to set up trainings and healing sessions for communities and protestors. In the midst of all this and in the aftermath of Travyon Martin's death and the verdict of the trial, Black Lives Matter was born. Because white supremacy doesn’t stop for anyone, the work doesn’t either. As we’ve seen, Patrisse, Alicia, and Opal get to work in their respective cities and build out a network of people that will grow into a movement and that has continued to grow every year since.
“We are firm in our conviction that our lives matter by virtue of our birth, and by virtue of the service we have offered to people, systems, and structures that did not love, respect, or honor us. And while we are cultivating this idea in our respective meetings in our respective teams, we, Alicia, Opal, and I, do not want to control it. We want it to spread like wildfire.”
If you’re still reading, this is the part where I just give my opinions and feelings. I could honestly just keep going and take you through every detail of the memoir (because it’s all just that good). It might seem apparent in how this review is written, but I had a difficult time parsing out what I thought was most important to mention and what to leave to be read. All of it feels so important. I’m not sure if it’s because I read this for the first time in June of 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others. Or if it’s because I grew up with a parent who struggled with mental illness and addiction that resulted in incarceration several times. Or because my other parent also “spent more time behind bars and away from me than he has spent with me.” Or it could simply be that I’m a young, Black woman in the United States. Either way, it hits home for me. All the way home. Like home, home. And no, I don’t think you need to have had my experiences or even be Black or from the United States for it to resonate with you too. But I do think it added a special prickle for me.
“We say we deserve another knowing, the knowing that comes when you assume your life will be long, will be vibrant, will be healthy.”
By simply telling the story of her own life, Patrisse covers so much of what the world has seemingly been discussing more frequently and openly for the past few months: mass incarceration, the war on drugs, racial inequity, police brutality, defund the police, abolish the police, fund our communities, intersectionality, #SayHerName, translivesmatter, adultification of Black children, stop and frisk, and so on. There were several moments while reading this that I stopped, reflected, and just cried. Several of her stories brought to mind some of the martyrs we’ve lost and some of my own experiences with policing in my family. And if you’re like me, it might make you do the same. That said, this story isn’t just heartbreak and tragedy and trauma. It’s an incredible story of resilience and compassion and empathy. And it’s not hyperbole when I say it is written quite masterfully. You can’t deny the beauty in how it’s written, how every word is perfectly selected and placed. There is so much intention in the pages of this book. I felt it was not just important, but necessary to understand the people behind the origin of this historical movement we’re experiencing right now, and I am by no means disappointed. Patrisse Cullors’ story is one of courage, survival, community, and the pursuit of Black liberation. This book is 5/5 stars. It is a small and necessary read for anyone, anywhere.
Some of my (many) favorite quotes:
“What could they be but stardust, these people who refused to die, who refused to accept the idea that their lives did not matter, that their children’s lives did not matter?”
“We will remember that most cops who are killed in this nation are killed by white men who are taken alive.”
“The person who only has alcohol or crack at their fingertips almost never does as well as the other person who has those things but also a range of other supports, including the general sense that their life matters.”
“As soon as you said drugs, as soon as you said gangs, you didn’t have to talk about what it meant to throw a bunch of adolescents together in a community with no resources, no outlets, no art classes, no mentorship, no love but from their families who were being harmed, cut daily, themselves.”
“I set out to find God, to find my spirit, to find myself.”
“In a world that has deliberately made Black humanity invisible, I feel seen in a way that is almost shocking.”
“What it means to not have the ability to love yourself. How do you honor something you do not love?”
“My father who got cages instead of compassion.”
“What kind of society uses medicine as a weapon, keeps it from people needing to heal, all the while continuing to develop the drugs America’s prisons use to execute people?”
“A love that we could not have predicted but always imagined. A love that rocks us and a love that holds us. A love not ordinary.”