When They Call You a Terrorist


Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

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When They Call You a Terrorist Summary

Growing up poor and Black in Los Angeles County in the 1990s, Patrisse Khan-Cullors witnessed the violence of the war on drugs and war on gangs firsthand. Throughout her life, she heard Black leaders lecture people about personal responsibility—but she didn’t learn about wealth inequality or mass incarceration until she’s an adult. Patrisse doesn’t think it’s fair that Black people are stereotyped as violent criminals, especially since she and her loved ones live in constant fear of being brutalized by the police. She also doesn’t think it’s fair that she and her fellow activists Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi were called terrorists when they started Black Lives Matter (BLM) following Trayvon Martin’s death.

Patrisse grows up with her mother Cherise, stepfather Alton (though as a child she believes that Alton is her biological father), older brothers Monte and Paul, and younger sister Jasmine in Van Nuys, California. Their neighborhood is poor, run-down, and predominately Mexican and Black. Cherise works 16-hour days while Alton is often absent and struggles to hold down a job. As the war on drugs ramps up, the police begin to target neighborhoods like Patrisse’s; one day, police roughly accost 11-year-old Monte and his friends for no reason. Another time, the police raid Patrisse’s house in search of her uncle (who sells drugs) and treat her and her siblings like criminals.

Patrisse attends a wealthy, predominately white middle school in Sherman Oaks, and she’s shocked that her peers don’t fear the police. At 12 years old, she’s handcuffed in front of her classmates for smoking marijuana in the school bathroom—something her white peers do with impunity. Attending this school makes Patrisse ashamed of her poverty and unsure of herself for the first time. Black American children, Patrisse explains, are stereotyped as delinquent and disposable—they’re taught that they don’t matter.

The same year, Patrisse finds out that Alton isn’t her real father—a man named Gabriel is. She meets Gabriel, who is gentle and kind, and grows close with him and his extended family. Gabriel is addicted to crack cocaine and has been in and out of prison throughout his life. One day, Gabriel suddenly disappears, and Patrisse is crushed to learn that he’s been sent back to prison. Later in life, Patrisse learns how the war on drugs unfairly punished millions of nonviolent drug offenders—“the civil rights crisis of our time”—and how some prisons function like for-profit businesses.

Soon after this, 19-year-old Monte is imprisoned too. He’s sentenced to six years for a robbery he committed because the voices in his head told him to. All of the boys in Patrisse’s neighborhood have been arrested at least once—often seemingly for no reason. She compares 1990s Los Angeles to apartheid South Africa, as Black people living in LA lack access to the same good schools, well-paying jobs, and opportunities that white people have access to. Black and Mexican people are stereotyped as criminals and incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate, and inmates are often mistreated. Monte (who will later be diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder) is under-fed, physically abused, and over-medicated in prison.

Patrisse, meanwhile, attends a high school that has special programs focused on social justice and the arts. She spends her time dancing and learning about all of the “isms”—racism, sexism, classism, etc.—while developing skills for dealing with conflict in a restorative way. Around this time, she drifts away from the Jehovah’s Witness religion she was raised with. She also comes out as queer and has a relationship with her friend Cheyenne before meeting Mark Anthony, a fellow student she connects with over art, healing, and justice and with whom she enters into a deep friendship that will later become romantic.

After high school, Patrisse begins working at the Strategy Center in LA, a nonprofit that teaches her how to become a community organizer in order to build the world she wants to see. She successfully recruits her parents and friends to be involved in the Center and gets closer to Gabriel, who has also been released from prison. Patrisse loves her father regardless of his struggles with addiction and incarceration. But one day, Gabriel unexpectedly passes away. Patrisse concludes that his fatal heart attack was, in part, the result of a life spent navigating racism, classism, and abuse in prison. Her community of activist friends organize a year-long healing process for Patrisse where they make art together every week.

Monte returns from prison again right around the time Gabriel passes away and he is in bad shape—after being fired from a job Patrisse found for him, he stops taking his medications and starts having manic episodes. At the same time, it becomes clear that he experienced severe abuse while in prison, including being forced to drink out of toilets. Patrisse and her friends put together a re-entry team, and she calls them to help get Monte to the hospital. Monte resists at first but eventually agrees to go with them, a moment that Patrisse celebrates for having no police involvement.

In between supporting Monte through his transition and marrying Mark Anthony, Patrisse puts together and then tours a performance art piece called Stained. The piece features blown-up pages from a 2011 ACLU about the torture inflicted on prisoners in the LA County Jail (where Monte was once held), along with recordings of Cherice’s calls to the jail to try to locate Monte the first time he was arrested. The art performance eventually leads Patrisse to start her own organization that mobilizes incarcerated people’s loved ones to push for civilian oversight of the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

The following year, a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin is shot and killed in Florida. His killer is acquitted of all charges, and Patrisse is furious—how can so many nonviolent Black people in her life be sent to prison while murderous white-presenting people get to go free? Her friend Alicia writes a Facebook post immediately after the trial that includes the sentence, “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter,” and Patrisse comments “#BlackLivesMatter.” They, along with Alicia’s friend Opal, start spreading the message and brainstorm how to expand its scope. This is the official start of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

While BLM is just getting off the ground, police twice raid Patrisse’s home in a peaceful artist community in LA. First, Mark Anthony is pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and handcuffed outside because he “fits the description” of someone committing robberies in the area. Then, Patrisse, her friend JT, and his young daughter are forced out of the house at gunpoint by a dozen officers in full riot gear who claim that they have reason to believe a violent protestor is hiding out there. These moments lead Patrisse to wonder who the real terrorist is—nonviolent activists like herself or abusive police?

The BLM movement grows, and Patrisse helps to lead a massive protest Beverly Hills, where she asks the wealthy white people eating outside to remember Trayvon and all of the Black people killed by police in the U.S. She is surprised to see them lower their forks and bow their heads. The movement is gaining traction. Still, more and more Black people are being killed every day. When Patrisse learns about the ramping up of police violence in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, she works with Alicia and Opal to plan a national Freedom Ride to Ferguson. Thousands of BLM organizers drive from a dozen locales, joining local protestors in the streets and resting in a healing space Mark Anthony has set up in the basement of a church. Throughout, Patrisse works to ensure that the Black women at the center of the movement are publicly acknowledged for their work.

While working on the #SayHerName campaign in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death, Patrisse and Mark Anthony end their romantic relationship. She starts a relationship with JT and is surprised to learn she is pregnant. When JT does not offer her support through the pregnancy, she leans on Future, a genderqueer leader of BLM Toronto whom she has recently started dating. Five months into the pregnancy, they get engaged and, after some challenges during Future’s immigration process, Future officially moves in with Patrisse in LA.

Soon after Patrisse’s son Shine is born, Donald Trump is elected president. Patrisse feels anger and despair yet knows that the BLM movement has already achieved so much and will not be stopped. BLM has pushed legislation decreasing the federal prison population, raised awareness about polish brutality, and offered thousands of people an outlet to heal from trauma and find their voices as activists. The organization still hopes to end police violence, reform the U.S. prison system, and build more a more robust support system for Black people’s physical and mental health. After Trump’s election, Patrisse tries to focus on her health and spend quality time with her family. She remains hopeful for the future and resolves to teach Shine (and Black children in general) that Black lives do matter.