When They Call You a Terrorist

by

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

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When They Call You a Terrorist: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Patrisse is raised by her mother, Cherice, in a broken-down Section 8 apartment in Van Nuys, California, just outside Los Angeles. Patrisse and Cherice are both short, but Patrisse’s older brothers (Paul and Monte) and younger sister (Jasmine) are all tall, a trait they get from their father, Alton. Alton works at the General Motors plant nearby. Although he stops living with the family when Patrisse is six, he continues to visit, and she feels his love. Van Nuys is multiracial; Patrisse’s family is Black, but the neighborhood is majority Mexican. Yet Van Nuys is also not somewhere people can grow roots. There isn’t even a grocery store.
Patrisse and her family live in Section 8 housing, meaning they qualify for a federal program that decreases how much rent they have to pay because they are low-income. The lack of grocery stores in Van Nuys is an example of how companies often choose not to invest in low-income communities of color, implying that those communities matter less to them than white or wealthy ones. When Patrisse says that she loves Alton despite the fact that he left their family, she shows that she believes in understanding and empathizing with people who have caused harm rather than shunning or punishing them.
Themes
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Family, Community, and Healing Theme Icon
Less than a mile from Van Nuys is Sherman Oaks, a wealthy white neighborhood where there are no apartment buildings, just large houses with lawns. Parents in Sherman Oaks drive their kids to school, whereas the parents in Van Nuys leave early for work. So, kids like Patrisse take the bus or walk, “our fresh brown faces trying to figure out a world we did not make and did not know we had the power to unmake.”
In describing Sherman Oaks, Patrisse demonstrates the extremes of the racial wealth divide in the U.S.—it is not an accident, but a direct effect of racism, that white kids tend to have larger houses and parents with reasonable work schedules. When Patrisse writes that she and her friends did not know they had the power to unmake the world, she foreshadows the activism she will later in engage in to challenge the racist status quo.
Themes
Black Lives Matter Theme Icon
Cherice works 16 hours a day between two or three working-class jobs. After the GM plant closes, Alton also works a series of low-wage jobs and is unable to provide for their family, which may be why he eventually leaves them entirely. This is the 1980s, and Black unemployment in the LA region is worse than it will be during the 2008 Great Recession. Patrisse’s family often does not have enough food. Free breakfast and lunch at school (a program started by the Black Panthers) is how Patrisse survives childhood. 
Patrisse understands Alton’s decision to leave their family as the result of external circumstances rather than personal responsibility—she believes that his inability to find a job to provide for his family and then leaving them in shame is not his fault, but their racist society’s fault. Unemployment for Black people in LA was higher at this time than it was during the 2008 Great Recession, a global period of marked economic decline that deeply impacted the U.S. Patrisse also references the Black Panthers, a militant Black Power organization that was active in the U.S. from the 1960s through the 1980s.  
Themes
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Family, Community, and Healing Theme Icon
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility Theme Icon
Patrisse and her siblings look out for one another. Jasmine is the baby and Paul is the oldest, taking charge after Alton leaves. Monte is special to Patrisse because he plays with her and is very loving. One day, though, police round up and roughly accost Monte (who’s 11) and Paul (who’s 13) while they are doing nothing more than hanging out with friends in the alley next to their building. (There are no parks or community centers, so this is the only place where they can see each other.) The police violently throw Patrisse’s brothers against the wall, aggressively searching them. From behind a nearby fence, Patrisse (who’s nine) watches, frozen.
Watching her brothers be arrested for doing nothing more than play with friends outside, Patrisse witnesses police violence for the first time. She sees firsthand that they are doing nothing wrong but are treated as criminals anyway—the implication being that they are being targeted because of their race. That there are no parks or community centers in Van Nuys suggests that policymakers are choosing not invest in their Black and Latinx community.
Themes
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Prisons and Policing Theme Icon
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility Theme Icon
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Monte and Paul never talk about what happened, likely because they expect this behavior from the police and/or are worried that no one will believe they were doing nothing wrong. Over the following months and years, police continue to brutalize them; the war on drugs is ramping up, and the police find more and more “ways to make us the enemy.” As an adult, Patrisse thinks about this particular incident of police brutality against her brothers after hearing about the murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Grey, two unarmed young Black men killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, respectively.
Again, Patrisse highlights that police target her brothers not because they are committing crimes, but because the police see Black people as “the enemy.” This is a direct result of the war on drugs’ racist depiction of Black people as being predatory and violent. She compares her brothers’ experience to those of Mike Brown and Freddie Grey, who were both unarmed when they were killed by police officers in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Themes
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Prisons and Policing Theme Icon
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility Theme Icon
Monte and Paul get arrested so often that Cherice moves the family to a different part of Van Nuys, but there is no place they can go where they know “that their lives matter.” Patrisse, meanwhile, is sent to Millikan, a wealthy white middle school in Sherman Oaks, where she makes friends with a white girl whose brother is a drug dealer. Patrisse is surprised to learn that not only has he never been arrested, but that he’s never feared being arrested. Patrisse comments that, in that moment, she couldn’t comprehend the idea that some people live without the fear of police, and that she still can’t.
Patrisse’s brothers are unable to escape being racially profiled by the police no matter where their family moves, showing how pervasive this form of discrimination is. But until Patrisse starts attending a majority wealthy and white middle school, she doesn’t realize how tied this police brutality is to her family’s race. That there are white drug dealers who do not fear the police suggests that police are less interested in cracking down on drug-related crime and more interested in abusing and controlling Black people.  
Themes
Black Lives Matter Theme Icon
Prisons and Policing Theme Icon
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility Theme Icon