Much of When They Call You a Terrorist focuses on author Patrisse Khan-Cullors’s experience growing up poor and Black in Los Angeles in the 1990s, during the height of the U.S.’s war on drugs and war on gangs. During this time, policymakers tried to reduce drug use and gang violence by incarcerating low-income Black and Latinx people for minor infractions. As a child, Patrisse watched both her father and brother repeatedly be imprisoned for nonviolent crimes and, as an adult, experienced police violence herself when officers raided her home in the middle of the night without just cause. Beyond personal experience, Patrisse also heard reports of Black people (like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown) being tortured or killed by police, prison guards, and vigilantes. All of this inspired Patrisse to get involved in community organizing in LA—and, eventually, to start the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. And as opponents started to call Patrisse and her fellow activists “terrorists,” she couldn’t help but feel that police officers and prison guards were the real terrorists. Throughout the memoir, Patrisse challenges the idea that prisons and police exist to protect people, suggesting instead that they are tools used to contain, control, and kill people—especially those who are poor and Black.
Patrisse makes the case that police officers unjustly target Black people for nonviolent crimes they commit out of necessity, for minor infractions, or for nothing at all. For example, Patrisse’s brother Monte and his fellow young Black male friends were arrested or otherwise targeted by police for a slew of reasons that weren’t crimes, such as carrying two-inch pocket knives, cutting class, talking back, and wearing the same T-shirts (police mistook this as a sign that they were in a gang). Additionally, when Monte was arrested during a nonviolent manic episode, the police tased him and shot him with rubber bullets. Monte and his friends were targeted and brutalized not because they actually did anything wrong, but because the police assumed that Black people (and particularly young Black men) were inherently dangerous in a way that other racial groups weren’t. Patrisse also cites the infamous killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, two young Black men killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator and a police officer, respectively. Patrisse argues that neither of the young men were acting violently when they were killed—that Trayvon was simply walking to his home in Florida with his hood on, and that Michael was followed and targeted after a supposed scuffle at a convenience store. Patrisse believes that their killings were high-profile examples of authority figures targeting Black people based solely on their race, not because they posed a genuine threat.
Moreover, Patrisse argues that police violence is just one piece of a much larger system of violence—prison guards and other prison employees also target and abuse inmates (particularly those who are Black). Monte, for example, suffered abuse at the hands of guards and other employees both times he did long stints in prison. The first time, he was overmedicated to the point that he was unable to speak when Monte and Patrisse’s mother, Cherice, visited him. The second time, he was undermedicated and only given Advil, despite the fact that the prison system had his mental illness in their records. When he came home, he had PTSD episodes that indicated he’d also experienced other types of abuse. For instance, he drank water from the toilet, which Patrisse interpreted to mean that this was the only way he could access water while in solitary confinement. While Monte’s story is telling, it is just one among many. Patrisse shares stories of other prisoners, as laid out in a 2011 report published by the ACLU of Southern California. The report contains 70 pages of testimonies from survivors or witnesses of torture that LA County Jail employees inflicted on them. This includes inmates being raped, having eyes forced out of their sockets, being beaten while unconscious, and more. It became clear to Patrisse after reading the report that prisons are used to contain and control people—especially Black and Latinx people—rather than rehabilitate them.
Patrisse intentionally compares these acts of violence to instances when she and other Black people were called terrorists in order to highlight the absurdity of what qualifies as “terrorism” in the U.S. For example, Monte was formally charged with terrorism after getting into a fender bender with a white woman during a full-on manic episode. He didn’t touch the woman but was accused of saying something threatening to her that made her fear for her life. The implication is that Monte was scapegoated as a terrorist simply because he’s a Black man—yet the officers who shot Monte with rubber bullets and locked him up without access to medication weren’t called terrorists. As the title of the book suggests, Patrisse herself was called a terrorist simply for engaging in nonviolent community organizing. After starting Black Lives Matter, opponents of the movement publicly called Patrisse, Alicia, and Opal terrorists, and a right-wing person even sued them on the basis that they “instigated riots.” Patrisse uses her personal experiences to highlight the absurdity of how the American justice system (and the American public) perceive Black people. Any form of Black resistance—even nonviolent resistance—tends to be labeled as terrorism or rioting, while actual terrorism committed under the guise of policing largely goes unnoticed and unpunished. All in all, then, Patrisse’s exhaustive analysis of violence committed by police officers and prison workers subverts the idea that the criminal justice system exists to protect people. She makes the case, instead, that under the cover of helping, police and prison employees torture, abuse, and kill Black people (and people from other marginalized groups). She and her community are not the real terrorists, she argues—law enforcement is.
Prisons and Policing ThemeTracker
Prisons and Policing Quotes in When They Call You a Terrorist
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.