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Activist, Friend, Comrade: Interview with Patrisse Cullors, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter

Patrisse Cullors is an activist, author, and playwright from Los Angeles, California. She is best known as one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and she advocates for human rights issues such as prison abolition. Her most recent book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, was published in January 2018.

The Politic: I wanted to start by asking you about a few of your formative moments, as your activism started pretty early on. I was wondering specifically what lessons you learned working with the Bus Riders Union as a teen growing up in Southern California.

Patrisse Cullors: I love that. … Nobody ever asks me about the Bus Riders Union.

The Bus Riders Union was my first political home. It’s a place that trained me to be the organizer I am today. I started as a member at 17 and a half and stayed there for 11 years. It was incredibly formative; I was given a lot of room and space to grow as a leader in the organization and to develop other leaders of the organization. It taught me the very premise of organizing, which is not about building your own personal brand, but about building the team. And that has been incredibly important.

In the same vein of formative experiences, religion has played a large role in your life. I was wondering if you could tell us about how you started to bring Ifá into your life and how you made the decision to bring its rituals to your rallies?  

I actually started to study Ifá, maybe…in my early twenties? And I felt really connected to the tradition. One, because it comes from Nigeria—from the Yoruba people in particular—and I felt incredibly connected to West Africa. I think the other part was that it was really practical. I come from a Jehovah’s Witness background, which is an incredibly conservative religion, and an incredibly conservative experience. I needed a tradition that was more generous to people and to humanity. I needed a tradition that was rooted in African traditions, and so I just naturally started. It’s something to know about me: I try to bring my whole self into every experience I have.

So I started to make little ancestor altars in my office when I worked at the Strategy Center, to create a little space of ancestors with little pictures. I thought it was really important to note that we stand on the shoulders of giants in our movement, other civil rights leaders who either were assassinated or died. I think when we started to do chants across the country—that we must love each other, support each other, we have nothing to lose but our chains—I would naturally end it with “Ase,” which is like Amen, but in Yoruba. I’m not the one that coined “Ase”; it’s from the old language. But it became really popularized in our movement to be present and to be spiritual, and showing that unapologetically.

Can you talk about your experience as a member of the conservative Jehovah’s Witnesses and how it affected your liberal values?

Being a Jehovah’s Witness very much shaped me and my environment and my friendships, and I think the choice to not continue to be a Jehovah’s Witness…was important for me. I couldn’t be a Jehovah’s Witness and also be queer, and also be political. Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught not to be in the world. I mean, literally, we are taught not to vote. … There are hundreds of thousands of witnesses who are eligible to vote but don’t because their religion is telling them not to be in the world. This didn’t seem practical to me and the life that I live. It felt like it was taking my agency away to be in the world and change the world.

In the past, you’ve called yourself the wife of Harriet Tubman. What does that mean to you?

I had a very particular moment where I was very obsessed and I was reading everything I could on her: every history book, every children’s book, every Google page. I was mapping her, the Underground Railroad tracks she took. I was really going through a moment right before Black Lives Matter where I was wondering what freedom means. I was having a philosophical conversation with myself about freedom, what it takes to be free, out of physical bondage—spiritual, mental, emotional. The one person I could draw from is Harriet, and Harriet would give me more answers. I looked to her and I felt like I became very close and connected to her, and it was sort of like I was married to this ideology she embodied about freedom. … And so I started to call myself the wife of Harriet Tubman.

I’d like to ask a few questions about social movements in general. If you could isolate a few factors that can make or break a movement, what would you emphasize?

Consistency. Something is always going to be trendy, because we live in a world of social media that makes things trend, literally. We should not be chasing the trend. What we should be doing is staying focused inside of the work. And being consistent. Your work may be trendy or not. I’ve done plenty of work that didn’t become trendy, but it was completely effective and changed the course of history. You have to stay consistent; you have to stay in itallowing yourself to remain hopeful, even when you don’t feel hope. Oftentimes, we think we always do this because we’re passionate. If that was the case, then I would not be an organizer, because it’s not always about passion. Sometimes it’s gritty and gruesome, and sometimes it’s thankless and confusing. That becomes a really important moment to say, “I’m here even when I don’t feel grateful or hopeful.”

Last thing: keep the people you trust closest to you. Keep them close, love up on them, thank them. It’s hard to be an activist, and its even harder to be a friend and comrade or colleagues with activists and organizers, because we are at the whims of what is happening politically. And especially in this moment, we are constantly in flux.

In your book that came out this January, you talked about how the shooting of two police officers in Dallas in 2016 was a really pivotal movement for Black Lives Matter, since people started equating the attack with BLM, despite the fact that the shooters dissociated themselves from the movement. How did you go about distancing your movement from this act of violence, and what did managing the crisis teach you about messaging?

It was a really extraordinary and devastating moment. It was devastating as human beings lost their lives, and it was devastating as we were being blamed for it. It was devastating because the protest itself was for black people who lost their lives. I think what we recognized was that we can mourn and grieve for our loved ones, people killed at the hands of the police, and we can also mourn and grieve for the loss of lives, specifically the police, who were killed. And we could still say that we believe Black Lives Matter and at the same time challenge this idea we had anything to do with that killing of the police. It became important to not back down from our demands whilst honoring people who lost their lives.

I want to talk about catalyzing change on a personal basis. For people who potentially live in districts where prison abolition may not be electorally viable, what steps do you think are most important to take right now to make lives better for people who are caught in the carceral pipelines?

Number one, know what your county jail population is. We confuse jails and prisons. Jails are usually run by the county. I think there’s only a couple cities where the county doesn’t run the jail, like New York. But in general, counties are running their jail systems. [They’re] different than prisons: prisons are where people go when they are convicted; jails are where people go before they are convicted, and some of them are innocent, and they can’t get out because they can’t post bail. So, know your county jail population.

Number two, fight for bail reform. Fight for people to not have to serve time in jail if they are actually innocent.

Number three, fight for alternatives to incarceration. If you know that your jail population is mostly homeless people, mostly people with mental illness, mostly women who are domestic abuse survivors, then you have to question why they are in jail in the first place. Are we providing enough services for these people before they’re criminalized?

What recommendations would you make to activists on campuses?

The first step is to make an announcement, whether it’s to your student body government or a class announcement, that you’re interested in a specific topic. Then try to meet with a bunch of people. Just have open call meetings about the work, about what you’re interested in. See who you can get involved. See if there any clubs on campus that align with the work that you do. If they don’t exist, then start one. And then from there, meet up with local organizations doing the work inside the communities. Sometimes colleges are really divorced from the local community, so you want to make sure that you do that.