When They Call You a Terrorist makes the case that Black people are treated as disposable in the U.S.—by policymakers, police officers, and their fellow citizens. Patrisse has witnessed this in how police officers and the prison system have treated her brother Monte and father, Gabriel, as well as in high-profile killings of Black people. But despite broader society teaching Black people that their lives do not matter, Patrisse, her family (both blood family and chosen family), and her extended activist community are committed to supporting one another and recognizing one another’s worth as human beings. She and her community supported Monte when he was released from prison and experiencing manic episodes, and, as a part of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, she and her friends hosted a healing space with massage and acupuncture for activists in Ferguson. Patrisse’s reflections throughout the memoir show that being treated as disposable has a lasting, traumatic impact on Black people’s lives, but that healing from this trauma is possible through support from a loving family or community.
Policymakers and police treated Patrisse’s father, Gabriel, as disposable—but, with Patrisse’s support, Gabriel learned what it was like to be loved and accepted for who he was. Gabriel—whom Patrisse learned was her biological father when she’s in middle school—was a war veteran who was unable to access the benefits of the G.I. Bill (such as low-cost education and housing) because he was Black. Rather than being granted access to needed resources after serving their country in war, policymakers left Black veterans like Gabriel to fend for themselves. Unable to make ends meet, Gabriel turned to selling drugs, becoming an addict in the process. Gabriel was eventually incarcerated for his drug use rather than being offered rehabilitation or treatment, yet another example of being treated as if his life didn’t matter. Despite all this, Patrisse “refused to turn away” when she found Gabriel drunk and high while out on bail from a recent arrest, writing, “If he matters to me at all then he has to matter to me at every moment.” She sat with him the whole night, holding him and crying with him, showing him what it was like to be loved rather than disposed of.
Patrisse was also a healing force for her mentally ill brother Monte after a traumatizing prison sentence. While Monte was incarcerated for the second time, the prison doctors and guards treated him as a violent criminal rather than a gentle person suffering from schizoaffective disorder. They withheld his medication and locked him in solitary confinement, where he had to drink water out of a toilet. Whenever Patrisse interacted with guards, she noticed that they spoke about him as if he wasn’t human, and she recognized that the criminal justice system would not give him the type of post-release support he needed (the first time he was released, they didn’t even give him pants or shoes). So, Patrisse developed an informal “re-entry team” for Monte made up of members of her chosen family, such as her friend Carla and partner, Mark Anthony. Together, the re-entry team secured a job for Monte and helped make sure he got to work on time. When he had a severe manic episode, they rushed to calm him down and got him to the hospital without any police intervention, inspiring Patrisse to note, “My team, my community, my tribe: they stay with us.” Though Monte was treated as disposable while in prison, he ended up with a community of people who were committed to helping him heal, however long it took.
Patrisse also built a community of Black activists via the BLM movement who were committed to healing one another, even as the world treated them as disposable. While in Ferguson to protest the killing of Michael Brown, Patrisse and Mark Anthony set up a space in the basement of a church where protestors could come to rest and restore. Police had pepper-sprayed and beaten the protestors for several weeks in a row, and as a result, the media had demonized the protestors—as if they were the source of violence, not the police. As Patrisse notes, “They—we all—need a space to speak, to be heard, to breathe.” To help them heal, Patrisse and Mark Anthony offered massage, acupuncture, talk therapy, and group discussions about the pain the protestors were collectively experiencing. Patrisse also notes that as the BLM movement continues to grow, she and the other leaders will develop restorative processes for addressing conflict within their organizations. This is their way of challenging the underlying belief of the criminal justice system—that if a person causes harm, they deserve to be demonized and rejected. Patrisse and her community are committed to seeing one another as fully human and healing together in the process. So, although Patrisse believes that policymakers, police, and broader society treat Black people as though their lives do not matter, she makes it clear that Black people can make a conscious effort to treat one another differently. Through her healing relationships, she is building the very world that she—and the BLM movement—want to see.
Family, Community, and Healing ThemeTracker
Family, Community, and Healing 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.
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.
She is the first adult who doesn’t think who we are, how we live and love, needs anything but support, some architecture. She understands our, Carla’s and mine, emerging idea of building intentional family, a concept that I suppose will later become the basis of our theory of change.
To outsiders—in many cases outsiders being our families—our relationships may have seemed complex or odd or even dangerous. But to us they made sense. To us they were oxygen and still are.
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 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 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?
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:
At some point, sisters begin to talk about how unseen they have felt, how the media has focused on men but it has been them, the sisters, who were there. They were there in overwhelming numbers—just as they were during the Civil Rights Movement. Women, all women, Transwomen, are roughly 80 percent of the people who are standing down the face of terror in Ferguson, saying We are the caretakers of this community.