The first time Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, was arrested she was twelve years old. A police officer appeared at the front of the classroom at her school in Van Nuys, California. He called her name — when she walked up to him he cuffed her in front of all the students present, students gathered to study sixth-grade math and science. The not-yet-teenage girl, her “stomach dropping the way it does on one of those monster roller coaster rides,” was marched off to the principal’s office, where her bag and person where searched: pockets turned out, shoes checked. No drugs were found, but dignity had been duly extracted from a little girl, and no apologies would ever be offered. Finding drugs is not the point. Searching, patting, stripping, violating are acts in law enforcement’s pageant of subjugation and dehumanization. Black bodies, we learn from the pages of When They Call You a Terrorist, Khan-Cullors’s memoir written in collaboration with co-author asha bandele (the writer does not capitalize her name), make up the terrain on which white supremacy parades its power.
The onslaught, as Khan-Cullors documents with empathy and acuity, is unrelenting. Before she is in double digits in birthdays, she is witness to the “War on Drugs,” which is in truth a war on African Americans. Her brothers are “trained and tracked,” thrown in and out of juvenile detention, “readied for longer stretches in prisons far away.” They return from prison hardened, different people: a “human testimony to other little boys” of the future that awaits them. Nor is home a refuge; in one search of the small apartment Khan-Cullors shares with her siblings and single mother, the police go through every drawer and tear apart every room, their ruthlessness unchecked despite the presence of small children. Another lesson, to the children, of how their lives are valued.
As the ’80s march on, a War on Gangs is declared. Kids hanging out with friends in Khan-Cullors’s Van Nuys barrio, where “there are no parks, no green spaces, no community centers,” are now labeled “gangs.” The tax dollars thrown into fighting this never-defined phenomenon fund an advancing army of law enforcement. Helicopters now hover over their homes “at all hours of the day and night,” shining lights, “circling and surveilling, vultures looking for prey.” Their targets, their “enemy,” is anyone “Black or Brown who moved.”
The personal histories that constitute When They Call You a Terrorist highlight the architecture of an all-encompassing surveillance, which sets the stage for the subjugation and removal of those being watched. The black bodies that are rounded up and taken to prison are “disappeared,” both figuratively and literally. When Khan-Cullors’s brother is taken away to Los Angeles County prison, the family, despite her mom’s desperate efforts, does not find out where he is for nearly a month. When the author’s mother finally does get to see him, he is drugged and drooling. In prison, Monte Cullors has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. It is only later, much later, that his sister will discover the extent of the torture he has faced behind bars. After being digested by the system, he is broken in all the ways a man can be.
The losses contained in the pages of When They Call You a Terrorist are acute, but they are rendered with lucidity and lyricism; the endings of many chapters have a lilting, almost incantatory rhythm. The chapter in which Khan-Cullors tells of the impunity with which black children are violated ends with “Twelve and childhood already gone / Twelve and being who we are can cost us our lives / It cost Tamir Rice his life / He was a child of twelve.” In a later chapter, she tells of her brother’s relapse into schizophrenia and the gentleness with which her older brother and her boyfriend come to his rescue, and concludes with the lines: “This is what the love of Black men looks like / This is what our Black yesterday once looked like / And I think: If we are to survive this is what our future must look like.”
It is this effort to reclaim a lost communal love for her generation that radiates through When They Call You a Terrorist. It stands by in moments of uncertainty and in moments of desperation; as a teenage Khan-Cullors struggles with coming out as queer, her cousin Naomi — who has already declared herself — is there to comfort her. When she finally graduates high school but has no real plan for her future, a patient high school teacher takes her in. Then there is Strategy Partners, the nonprofit where she eventually works, which gives her a solid base; and the “intentional family” of friends and lovers she creates carries her through the darkest hours of her life.
It is unsurprising, then, that it is in the strength of communal action — as opposed to only the individual — that When They Call You a Terrorist situates its hopes for the future. In its early pages Khan-Cullors says, “We lived a precarious life bordered at each end by the politics of personal responsibility that Black pastors and then the first Black President preached more than a commitment to collective responsibility.” It is this disproportionate emphasis on individual responsibility, in Khan-Cullors’s view, that imprisons black men like her biological father, Gabriel. Unable to contextualize their own failings against a society that degrades and excludes, they remain engulfed in a shame that never leaves. Struggling with drug addiction, Gabriel swallows the whole prescriptions of his twelve-step counselors, who disconnect his condition from collective failures that surround him. Trailing him into meetings, the author listens to the stock rhetoric of individual responsibility but comes to a different conclusion. As she says at his funeral, he “died of a broken heart in a nation of broken promises.”
Hardship can birth tenacity more formidable than fear, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s story, told so evocatively in When They Call You a Terrorist, is proof of it. Even as she acknowledges the dire character of the present, she refuses to bow before it. As she says: “So yes, yes, it is a terrifying time, as an organizer, as a new mother, as the wife of an immigrant living in a Queer relationship to be in this nation.” But for all the terror of it, she also admits, “I can’t leave the work here.”
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