When They Call You a Terrorist

by

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

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When They Call You a Terrorist: Introduction Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Patrisse Khan-Cullors remembers how, to offer hope after the elections of 2016, her co-author asha bandele sent her a talk by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in which he explains that humans are made out of stardust. Patrisse believes deGrasse Tyson because she has seen this magic in her mother, Cherice, who was disowned by her family for having children too young and worked 16 hours a day without ever making a living wage, yet never gave up. She also sees it in her father, Gabriel, who, despite struggling with racism and addiction, never stopped trying to be a better version of himself. She also sees it in her ancestors who survived slave ships, “who refused to accept the idea that their lives did not matter.”
asha reaches out to Patrisse to offer her hope because, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election in 2016, many progressive activists feared the conservative policies that could be coming their way. Hearing that people are made out of stardust moves Patrisse to reflect on the resilience of people in her life—how her parents and ancestors persevered despite hardships, such as racism, poverty, and other types of structural oppression. Patrisse also introduces the language of lives that do not “matter,” a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement that she will focus on in the memoir.
Themes
Black Lives Matter Theme Icon
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility Theme Icon
Patrisse feels her ancestors are the reason she is alive today, that their resilience gave her the ability to live as a queer Black artist and community organizer in a world where she wasn’t meant to survive. Growing up in poverty and listening to Black pastors (and Obama) preaching the politics of personal responsibility, she wasn’t taught the truth about the U.S.—that, while it’s the wealthiest nation, there is also extreme wealth inequality. And despite having only five percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prison population (including Patrisse’s disabled brother, Monte, and nonviolent father, Gabriel).
Patrisse was not meant to survive because she exists at the intersections of many marginalized identities: Black, female, queer, and poor. She does not believe that she and her Black community are personally responsible for the struggles that they face, but that structural oppression—like wealth inequality and racism—is to blame. Though the U.S. claims to be the land of the free, its extreme wealth inequality and large prison population suggest otherwise.
Themes
Black Lives Matter Theme Icon
Prisons and Policing Theme Icon
Intersectionality of Identity Theme Icon
External Forces vs. Personal Responsibility Theme Icon
Trayvon Martin’s killer, on the other hand, was not imprisoned. And when Patrisse and others started the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the wake of his acquittal, they were called terrorists. This was in July 2016, after the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and before Black sniper Micah Johnson killed five police officers at a BLM protest in Dallas. Johnson was killed by a military-grade bomb rather than taken alive, whereas white shooters in Charleston and Aurora were taken alive. (Most police officers killed in the U.S. are murdered by white men who are taken alive.) Johnson was then used against BLM, an excuse for opponents to call them terrorists. Despite knowing this is a strategy that has been used against activists before, being called a terrorist devastates Patrisse.
Trayvon Martin was a young Black man who was killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in 2012, while Martin was walking home while wearing a hood. After Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in 2013, Martin became a national symbol for all of the innocent Black men who are killed by police and vigilantes in the U.S. Alton Sterling (who was killed by Baton Rouge police while selling illegal CDs) and Philando Castile (who was killed by Minneapolis police during a routine traffic stop) similarly became symbols after their deaths in 2016. Micah Johnson was a Black former sniper who opened fire at police officers during a protest against the killings of Sterling and Castile. Patrisse takes issue with the way Johnson was immediately killed rather than taken alive like white shooters, an example of Black lives mattering less to police officers than white lives.
Themes
Black Lives Matter Theme Icon
Prisons and Policing Theme Icon
Patrisse has lived a life plagued by both poverty and the police, like many others in the BLM movement. Growing up during the war on drugs, neighborhoods like hers were war zones. White people have always used and sold more drugs than people of color in the U.S., yet both the public and the police have long associated people of color with drugs. Patrisse is terrified that she or a family member could be killed by the police at any moment, and it’s not right that she and her BLM co-founders Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi are the ones called terrorists.
The war on drugs was a period when policymakers at the federal and local levels tried to reduce drug use and gang violence by incarcerating low-income Black and Latinx people for minor infractions. Though technically ongoing, the height of the war on drugs was in the 1980s and 1990s while Patrisse was growing up. As Patrisse notes, white people have historically used and sold more drugs than people of color. That Black and Latinx people are targeted despite this suggests that prisons and police may be less focused on keeping people safe and more focused on containing and controlling people of color. Patrisse implies that the police, not her and her fellow BLM activists, are the real terrorists.
Themes
Black Lives Matter Theme Icon
Prisons and Policing Theme Icon
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