When They Call You a Terrorist is the memoir of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. As a “Black Lives Matter memoir,” the book focuses heavily on Patrisse’s work with BLM, as well as the adverse early life experiences she went through as a Black girl growing up poor in Los Angeles during the war on drugs and the war on gangs. This was a period when federal and local policymakers tried to reduce drug use and gang violence by incarcerating low-income Black and Latinx people for minor infractions. Throughout the book, Patrisse weaves personal reflection with facts about police brutality, mass incarceration, and lack of access to resources to make the case that Black lives have historically not mattered to policymakers in the U.S., and that they still do not matter in the 21st century. She does, however, argue that the BLM movement is paving the way for its eponymous statement to finally be true.
Through sharing her own story, Patrisse makes it clear that Black lives do not matter to policymakers in the U.S. Throughout Patrisse’s life, she watched her loved ones suffer racial discrimination. At one point, her mentally ill brother Monte was imprisoned after behaving erratically (but nonviolently) during a manic episode rather than being given adequate mental health support. This was due—at least in part—to the war on drugs’ demonization of Black men and bipartisan support of bills that target “super-predators.” In theory, super-predator legislation is meant to keep communities safe by giving particularly violent young people longer prison sentences. But in practice, it disproportionately targets young Black and Latinx men and leads to harsh sentences for minor infractions. Patrisse also describes how her father, Gabriel, faced the consequences of being Black “in a nation that treated [him] as expendable.” Despite being a war veteran, because Gabriel was Black, he did not have access to the many benefits of the G.I. Bill (such as a free or low-cost college education and affordable housing) that white veterans did. By intentionally leaving loopholes in the G.I. Bill so that Black veterans like Gabriel could not access needed resources, policymakers made it clear that Black lives did not matter.
In addition to sharing personal anecdotes, Patrisse also analyzes statistics and high-profile cases pertaining to the police brutality, mass incarceration, and lack of access to resources that Black Americans experience. For example, California’s prison population increased by 500 percent during war on drugs (between 1982 and 2000). Given that a disproportionate number of Black people were sentenced during this time, Patrisse implies that the harsh drug policies were more about targeting and controlling Black people than responding to crime. Moreover, at the time of the book’s writing in 2017, someone was killed by police in California every 72 hours, and 63 percent of those victims were Black or Latinx. Additionally, Black people were only six percent of California’s population, yet they were killed at five times the rate of white people and three times the rate of Latinx people. With these statistics, Patrisse suggests that policies equating Black people with violent criminals have led to police stereotyping and targeting Black people at a disproportionate rate.
Despite the dismal state of affairs for Black people in the U.S., Patrisse demonstrates that community organizers—particularly the Black Lives Matter movement—are working to hold policymakers accountable and ensure that Black lives finally do matter. Before starting the BLM movement, Patrisse was involved in community organizing in LA that effectively fought for a policy change regarding truancy, making it so that families no longer had to pay $250 if a student was late to school. While this was a win for families across the board, it was particularly beneficial for low-income families in LA, many of whom were Black and Latinx. Patrisse’s mobilization of families affected by the prison system in LA also led to the first civilian oversight board of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, a critical policy shift that granted everyday people the ability to hold police accountable for their actions. Now, if a Black person is killed or abused by police, the civilian oversight board can conduct an official investigation, leading to possible legal charges. Making sure that Black people are not killed with impunity is a crucial way of showing that Black lives matter. The growing BLM movement has also helped shift racist policies nationwide. For example, at the urging of the movement, President Obama radically decreased the federal prison population (federal inmates being disproportionately Black). The movement also made it a priority to recruit and train Black people for political positions in order to create policies that center Black communities’ needs.
In the end, while Patrisse makes a strong case that Black lives have historically not mattered to policymakers in the U.S., she leaves readers with a sense that at the time of the book’s publishing in 2017, the BLM movement was gaining momentum. The organization had a solid vision and measurable goals to build a world where Black lives finally do matter.
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Black Lives Matter Quotes in When They Call You a Terrorist
Alton got a series of low-wage jobs that had no insurance, no job security and no way to take care of us, his family, which is why I think, looking back now, he left, and while he visited and was always there, it was never the same again. In the 1980s, when all this was going down, unemployment among Black people, nearly triple that of white people’s, was worse in multiple regions of the United States, including where I lived, than it was during the Great Recession of 2008-2009.
Whatever goes through their minds after being half stripped in public and having their childhoods flung to the ground and ground into the concrete, we will never speak of this incident or the ones that will follow as Van Nuys becomes ground zero in the war on drugs and the war on gangs, designations that add even more license to police already empowered to do whatever they want to us.
For my brothers, and especially for Monte, learning that they did not matter, that they were expendable, began in the streets, began while they were hanging out with friends, began while they were literally breathing while Black […] For us, law enforcement had nothing to do with protecting and serving, but controlling and containing the movement of children who had been labeled super-predators simply by virtue of who they were born to and where they were born, not because they were actually doing anything predatory.
I know about crack. Everybody uses it, it seems like. At least in my neighborhood where there are no playgrounds, no parks, no afterschool programs, no hangout spots, no movie theaters, no jobs, no treatment centers or health care for the mentally ill, like my brother Monte, who had begun smoking crack and selling my mom’s things and is already showing signs of what we would much later come to know as schizoaffective disorder.
As I grow older I will come to question 12-step programs, see their failures, all the ways they do not reduce the harms of addiction by making their harms accrue to the individual, alone. They do not account for all the external factors that exacerbate chaotic drug use, send people into hell. The person who only has alcohol or crack at their fingertips almost never does as well as the person who has those things but also a range of other supports, including the general sense that their life matters.
In 1986 when I am three years old, Ronald Reagan reenergizes the drug war that was started in 1971 by Richard Nixon by further militarizing the police in our communities, which swells the number of Black and Latinx men who are incarcerated. Between 1982 and 2000, the number of people locked up in the state of California grows by 500 percent. And it will be nearly a quarter of a century before my home state is forced, under consent decree, to reduce the number of people it's locked up, signaling, we hope, the end of what will eventually be called the civil rights crisis of our time.
The groups of kids they first called gangs were really young people who were friends, they were my friends, and they took a defensive posture against what looked and felt like an actual advancing army that came in on foot and came in police cars for which the county had appropriated ever more dollars to patrol us with. And worse than the cars, most frightening of all, were the helicopters overhead. At all hours of day and night they hovered above us, shone lights into the midnight, circling and surveilling, vultures looking for the best next prey.
There are drugs to take when a person is having a psychotic break. Those drugs can bring the person back into a good or total semblance of themselves. This was not what they did to my brother. They drugged Monte to incapacitate him, to incapacitate his humanity. To leave him with no dignity.
He says his real addiction is to the fast-paced energy of it all. How else was a man like him ever going to have some money in his pocket, decent clothes, be viewed as someone who mattered? He was invisible before immersing himself in the life, he said. But drugs not only made him feel seen and relevant, the lifestyle itself gave him that sense.
I try continually to talk to my father about structural realities, policies and decisions as being even more decisive in the outcomes of his life than any choice he personally made. I talk about the politics of personal responsibility, how it’s mostly a lie meant to keep us from challenging real-world legislative decisions that chart people’s paths, that undo people’s lives.
It was easy to understand that when race was a blatant factor, a friend says to me in a political discussion one afternoon. Jim Crow left no questions or confusion. But now that race isn’t written into the law, she says, look for the codes. Look for the coded language everywhere, she says. They rewrote the laws, but they didn’t rewrite white supremacy. They kept that shit intact, she says.
I have never seen him high before but I refuse to turn away. If he matters to me at all then he has to matter to me at every moment. He has to matter to me at this moment. Seeing him like this feels like my soul is being pulled over shards of glass but I do not turn away. His life is not expendable. Our love is not disposable. I will not be to him what the world has been to him. I will not throw him away.
It would be easy to speculate about the impact of years of cocaine use on my father's heart, but I suspect that it will tell us less than if we could measure the cumulative effects of hatred, racism and indignity. What is the impact of years of strip searches, of being bent over, the years before that when you were a child and knew that no dream you had for yourself was taken seriously by anyone, that you were not someone who would be fully invested in by a nation that treated you as expendable?
We learned quickly that intervention was either us alone and without medical professional support, or it was the police. The brutal memory of Monte's first break, during which we learned that there were no social services or safety nets for my brother, hung over all of our heads like a sword.
I will learn later that my brother had been driving and had gotten into a fender bender with another driver, a white woman, who promptly called the police. My brother was in an episode and although he never touched the woman or did anything more than yell, although his mental illness was as clear as the fact that he was Black, he was shot with rubber bullets and tased.
And then he was charged with terrorism.
I am thinking of all the people, like my brother, like my father—who have been the targets of harm, not the harm itself. And yet they are the ones whom society views as disposable […] I am filled with a sense of rage and a call to action at the idea that my brother, my Monte, is considered someone disposable to these people. But to me and my mother and to my sister and my brother, to Chase and to Cynthia, Monte was never disposable.
Is this my mother who is gripped, albeit wrongly, with guilt? Is she in this moment wondering what she did or did not do to ensure her baby, her Monte, be kept safe from the nightmare he's been cast into? Is my mother the fallout, the collateral damage in the battle to elevate personal responsibility over everything, over all those decisions that were made about state budget priorities, about wages, about the presence of police, and even about damn grocery stores and access to quality food?
Consider: In the wake of Katrina, there were two Getty images that Yahoo News ran two days after the storm hit. In the first photo, two white residents waded through the water with food. Beneath their picture, the caption read: “Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans, Louisiana.” Right after it, they ran an image of a Black boy also wading through the water with food. The caption read, “A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005.”
The sheer number of individuals who were kicked in the testicles, set upon and beaten by several deputies at once, individuals who were tased for no apparent reason other than the entertainment of guards, who had bones broken by guards wielding flashlights and other everyday tools that became instruments of extreme violence in America’s largest jail, is breathtaking enough. But other elements of the torture almost break me as I read the words of a civilian who testified about a wheelchair-bound prisoner whom deputies pulled off his bed, kicked and kneed in his ribs, back and neck and then shot with pepper spray in his face. I begin to hyperventilate and remember my brother on his knees drinking out of the toilet. My God.
I can’t breathe.
We can't breathe.
And then my friend Alicia writes a Facebook post. Alicia, who I’d known for seven years at this point, who I’d met at a political gathering in Rhode Island where at the end of the day our goal was to dance until we couldn’t dance anymore […] she writes these words in the wake of the acquittal:
btw stop saying that we are not surprised. that’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. stop giving up on black life. black people, I will NEVER give up on us. NEVER.
And then I respond. I wrote back with a hashtag:
Police, the literal progeny of slave catchers, meant harm to our community, and the race or class of any one officer, nor the good heart of an officer, could change that. No isolated acts of decency could wholly change an organization that became an institution that was created not to Protect but to catch, control and kill us.
Immediately, the police surround the three of us, who are not armed and who are dressed like three people who were sitting in their house and planning out their day, which is what we had been doing when we first heard the helicopters.
Ten, maybe a dozen, cops force us at gunpoint […] into the courtyard in front of our cottage while the others swarm past us and enter my home like angry hornets or a sudden airborne plague.
And then I ask the people there on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to please just stop for a moment, to hold space for Trayvon Martin, to hold space for his parents left in grief and an unspeakable pain. And when I do that it seems like the police are going to pounce; they move in closer and closer and I am scared. But I ask again for a moment of remembrance for Trayvon, and as far as I can tell, every single person within reach of my voice, and all of them white as far as I can see, puts down their champagne glass and their silver fork and stops checking their phone or having their conversation and then every last one of them bows their head.
Since Black Lives Matter was born in 2013 we have done some incredible work. We have built a decentralized movement that encourages and supports local leaders to name and claim the work that is needed in order to make their communities more just […] But we have more than 20 chapters across the United States, in Canada and the UK, all autonomous but all connected and coordinated. We have centered and amplified the voices of those not only made most vulnerable but most unheard, even as they are on the front lines at every hour and in every space: Black women—all Black women.