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Labeled A 'Terrorist,' A Black Lives Matter Founder Writes Her Record

Jan 27, 2018

In recent years, these three words have become part of your visual landscape: Black Lives Matter.

You'll see the phrase on T-shirts, on yard signs, on billboards in front of churches and other organizations. You may also see other T-shirts and signs in response, proclaiming "all lives matter" or "blue lives matter."

It's easy to forget that a phrase that has become so ubiquitous came about just a few years ago in 2013, by the efforts of three women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Their hashtag became an organizing tool to express their frustration, anger and pain over the violent deaths of unarmed black children and adults.

Khan-Cullors remembers when she first realized the power of the three words.

"I was watching this young black woman stand in front of a tank in Ferguson with a Black Lives Matter sign," she says. "I said, 'How did this get to Ferguson? Oh, like, this is now in the public imagination.' Folks don't even know where it came from, but they're using it, and they're understanding how important it is. And she was this thin woman — she had the sign, and she was yelling into that camera, like, 'Look at this, look what's behind me. Where are we? We're in Ferguson, and there's a tank on the street.' And it was this very, very powerful, visceral moment for me."

Patrisse Khan-Cullors describes how all this came about in a new book, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, co-written with journalist asha bandele. We spoke at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.


Interview Highlights

Why it matters that Black Lives Matter was started by women

For all the reasons why it's been a struggle for people to believe that it's been started by women. Honestly, there's some people I've talked to who've been in shock: 'Oh, I had no idea — I thought it was a man who started Black Lives Matter.' I think it's important for the legacy of black women who have been at the helm of movements to identify who the founders of something are. It's why it was so important that there was an intervention when Alyssa Milano started Tweeting #MeToo, and Tarana Burke had created #MeToo 10 years ago, right? There's a way in which it is easy to literally steal black women's work and not feel anything about it. And I think it's important because we've laid a foundation around challenging patriarchy as part of the movement, and I don't think that three men would have had that at the center of their movement for black people.

Why Black Lives Matter evokes a visceral response in some

The psychosis of whiteness is that it centers itself always. And when it is de-centered, when a group of people — but specifically black people, I think there's something about black people being visible or black people getting some threat of power that shakes up white people and their whiteness, that shakes up their experience of what should be true. I think there is a deep desire from even well-meaning white people to believe that they're not racist. But the reality is if you live in this country, if you're born and raised as a white person, then you most definitely are racist, and you have to contend with that. And I think Black Lives Matter puts it in peoples' face to deal with not only the ways in which they benefit from whiteness and white supremacy, but deal with the ways in which black people actually must be free. And I think that's actually hard to contend with.

What she says to those who perceive Black Lives Matter as anti-white

It's unequivocally not true. Black Lives Matter is really Black Lives Matter Too. It is not a phrase that is about excluding — it's a phrase that is about focus. We are focusing on black people because time and time again, we become the subjects of neglect.

On being labeled a terrorist

The first time I would see our organization, and me, and other people be labeled as terrorists, and then our faces be put on national television, was on Bill O'Reilly's show when he was still on air, would be scrolling through Breitbart. And knowing that these right-wing pundits had audiences ... it was painful because it was such a lie, but it was also scary, because the impact of being labeled as terrorists and receiving death threats — both in my email and on phone calls — really started to shape my understanding of how serious, how unsafe I was, how unsafe I was out in the world when all I ever wanted was safety for myself and black people. And that was such a deep contradiction.

Gemma Watters and Ammad Omar produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now to the civil rights phrase of this moment - Black Lives Matter. You'll see those words on T-shirts or on yard signs or billboards. It's easy to forget that something that's become such a part of a culture started just a few years ago, in 2013, by three women. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Khan-Cullors started using it as a hashtag and as an organizing tool to express their frustration, anger and pain over the violent deaths of unarmed black children and adults.

Now, Patrisse Khan-Cullors has published a memoir called "When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir." It's co-written with journalist asha bandela. I recently spoke to Khan-Cullors about it and started by asking whether it's significant that Black Lives Matter was started by women.

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I think it's important for the legacy of black women who've been at the helm of movements to identify who the founders of something are. That's why it's so important that there was an intervention when Alyssa Milano started tweeting Me Too, and Tarana Burke had created Me Too 10 years ago, right? There is a way in which it is easy to literally steal black women's work and not feel anything about it. And I think it's important because we've laid a foundation around challenging patriarchy as part of the movement. And I don't think that three men would have had that at the center of their movement for black people.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is as divisive as it has become to some people? Why do you think it evokes so much resentment and anger? You know, white lives matter, all lives matter, you know, blue lives matter. There's even a blue lives matter bill that was advanced in Louisiana even though there are already enhanced penalties for harming police officers in the commission of their work. So why do you think that evokes this visceral response from some people?

KHAN-CULLORS: When a group of people, but specifically black people - I think there's something about black people being visible or black people getting some threat of power that shakes up white people and their whiteness, that shakes up their experience of what should be true. I think there is a deep desire from even well-meaning white people to believe that they're not racist.

But the reality is if you live in this country, if you're born and raised as a white person, you most definitely are racist. And you have to contend with that. And I think Black Lives Matter puts it in people's face to deal with not only the ways in which they benefit from whiteness and white supremacy but deal with the ways in which black people actually must be free. And I think that's actually hard to contend with.

MARTIN: When you say whiteness, what do you mean? I mean, whiteness is a condition of, you know, it's a social construct just like blackness is. And so by whiteness, you mean what? Do you mean like the physical appearance of being, like, lighter skinned? Or do you mean like - what? - a hierarchy where whiteness is valued above...

KHAN-CULLORS: I mean, the latter, which is - yes, whiteness as seeing - whiteness as a social construct, but it's not just a social contract. It's a social construct that believes that white people are better, that if they work hard enough, that of course they just - they'll be able to be middle class or upper middle class. Whiteness, not just about individual privilege, but whiteness and its ability to have power over other people. That's really what I mean.

And I think in the conversations I've had, no matter where I go, there's always one white person will come up to the microphone and say, well, but why not all lives matter? It's literally every single place I go. And I've had to really understand, why is that so important? Why is it so important to not center black people? And I think I've come up with - part of what I've come up with is that white people are really 500 years of centering yourself, your privilege, your children. I think it does something psychologically when white people have to actually say, oh, maybe I don't deserve this.

MARTIN: But for those who say that - who experience Black Lives Matter as being anti-white, what do you say?

KHAN-CULLORS: It's unequivocally not true. Black Lives Matter is really Black Lives Matter Too. It is not a phrase that is about excluding. It's a phrase that is about focus. We are focusing on black people because time and time again, we become the subjects of neglect.

MARTIN: And you are, of course, well aware - because it's really in the title of your book - that the movement has stirred controversy and even been described as terrorists. I mean, one of the things you were alluding to in the book is that there was a petition sent to the White House asking for Black Lives Matter to be labeled as a terrorist organization. And even not to that extreme, I mean, the former police chief of New York, Bill Bratton, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has blamed this movement for attacks on police officers, some of which have been lethal. How do you respond to that?

KHAN-CULLORS: A few ways. One, there's always been a history of undermining black movements, whether that was Martin Luther King and SCLC or the Panther Party, Huey P. Newton. There is a desire always from law enforcement and FBI and CIA to repress and undermine.

MARTIN: In the '60s, these African-American civil rights leaders were constantly derided as Communists. I mean, we know this now from some of the private papers of the former FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, who was adamantly insistent that these were all Communists. Do you see the terrorists as the new Communist?

KHAN-CULLORS: Of course, I absolutely do. I think what we are seeing with the attacks on Black Lives Matter, the verbal attacks and calling us a terrorist organization - I think what I'm proud of is that it didn't stick. At some times, those types of allegations can totally destroy a movement. And I think they didn't stick because we came out and said no, that's not where we are. And, in fact, Micah Johnson wasn't a part of our organization. The only organization he was ever a part of was the U.S. military.

MARTIN: Micah Johnson being the Army reservist who fired on Dallas police officers who were present at the scene of a Black Lives Matter march, at what had been a peaceful march, and was later killed in a gun battle with police. Do you - but you will also say in the book that this was devastating. It was painful. It was hurtful to be to be described that way. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KHAN-CULLORS: You know, the first time I would see our organization and me and other people be labeled as terrorists and then our faces be put on national television was on Bill O'Reilly's show when he was still on air, scrolling through Breitbart. And knowing that these right wing pundits had audiences, it was painful because it was such a lie. But it was also scary because the impact of being labeled as terrorists and receiving death threats, both in my email and on phone calls, really start to shape my understanding of how serious, how unsafe I was out in the world when all I ever wanted was safety for myself and black people. And that is - it was such a deep contradiction.

MARTIN: That's Patrisse Khan-Cullors. She's co-founder of Black Lives Matter. Her memoir "When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir" is out now. She was kind enough to stop by by our studios in Washington, D.C. Patrisse Khan-Cullors, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KHAN-CULLORS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.