Published February 12, 2021
What does it mean when authorities in your own government call you a terrorist? What does that mean when you’re a social activist, a co-founder of a movement that calls out the frank injustice of the long history of police violence against Black people and other Americans of color? And how is it that that movement, that has been so viciously targeted, has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?
In a lively and engaging virtual talk Wednesday evening, Patrisse Cullors, artist, social activist, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and author of the bestselling “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” discussed those and other questions with Raechele Pope, associate dean and faculty and student affairs and chief diversity officer in the Graduate School of Education.
Nearly 1,000 participants attended the event, UB’s 45th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration keynote address and part of UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series.
“When they call you a terrorist, it means they’re out for blood,” Cullors told her audience, “they’re going to suppress you.” The goal of those who attack Black Lives Matter, she said, is to create chaos in the movement.
The terrorist label meant that in the movement’s early days, other like-minded groups wouldn’t work with BLM. “We were too controversial,” she said.
The label changed the way she and her colleagues live their lives. “It’s meant living with a lot of paranoia and fear,” she said, adding that she and others in the movement have endured death threats, requiring 24/7 security protection.
But during the 7½ years since BLM began, it has grown into a powerful, grassroots, global movement. Last month, Norwegian MP Petter Eide nominated it for the Nobel Peace Prize, citing its ability to mobilize not just Black people, but all sectors of society to push for human rights.
The dangers to Black lives and to the movement persist. Cullors made a point of noting that she was speaking to the UB audience on the second day of the (second) Trump impeachment trial about the incitement of the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“On Jan. 6, we witnessed a white supremacist mob that shocked so many,” she said. “But not everyone was shocked. As Black people, we know the impact of white supremacist violence.”
It was the legacy of that violence that ignited the BLM movement, which took root during the July 2013 protests against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. It gained followers and grew stronger the following summer during the uprising against the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Cullors discussed what the power of protest means for communities that have been systematically marginalized and traumatized. “When our states, cities and counties allow people to be murdered without any repercussion, we get to show up in the streets with our actual right to stop business as usual. Every set of protests I’ve been at I’ve recognized that there is a feeling of deep rage, but also of deep love, of coming together.”
She said that during the social protests following the police killing last year of George Floyd in Minneapolis, that love was especially palpable.
“We came together during a pandemic!” she said, noting that organizers all over the country communicated that protesters must stay safe, that they should be masked, should not share water bottles and should practice hand hygiene, all of which worked to stave off what public health officials feared would promote the spread of COVID-19. It worked.
“Our protests were not superspreader events,” said Cullors. “And when we show up for each other it’s an act of love and of grief.”
She reminded the audience of the movement that Martin Luther King Jr. led and how it was about uprooting white supremacy to enable a world where Blackness is seen as centered in joy, love and dignity.
If MLK were here today, she said, he would be working to fight the prison industrial complex. “MLK would challenge the system that’s allowed 1 million Black people to be locked in a cage,” she said.
This past fall, BLM and the coalition it is part of, the Movement for Black Lives, introduced the BREATHE Act, which Cullors has described as landmark civil rights legislation, and which she said Wednesday would be advocated by the movement with the Biden administration.
Developed by 200 organizations, the BREATHE Act reimagines public safety by diverting taxpayer funds from punitive, prison-based measures to non-punitive, protective, sustainable and equitable programs for building strong communities.
Another priority for BLM, Cullors said, is to work against the robust and accelerating effort in statehouses around the country to disenfranchise Black voters. She advised members of the audience to investigate whether their states are passing laws that make it difficult or impossible for those in prison or released from prison to vote.
“We need to get rid of all of those,” Cullors said, adding that people still in prison should be able to vote and people with prior convictions should be able to vote.
“There should be no disenfranchisement,” she said, “given that we know from data that incarceration of folks of color is based on race.”
Responding to a question from the audience about what whites can do to reverse white supremacy, Cullors smiled, noting that it’s a question she gets every time she gives a talk.
“We talk a lot about white privilege, but we don’t talk about white power. Those white supremacists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, they weren’t fighting for white privilege; they were fighting for white power. So the conversation to have with whites is, what power are you willing to give up? Are white people willing to share power?”
For example, she said, if you’re part of an organization that has an all-white board of directors, are some of the white people willing to step down so that there can be more Black board members? If you are probably going to get a job over a Black person, are you willing to step aside so that the job goes to them instead?
“If we’re trying to change systems and undo white supremacy, we’ve got to be investigating how to undo white power,” she said.
The road ahead is long and difficult, but Cullors said she knows success is possible because it’s happened over and over.
And despite the upheaval of Jan. 6 and the aftermath that continues, Cullors said something irrevocable has changed in America since the protests of last summer.
“Something has shifted for the country and the world,” she said. “It was a reckoning I didn’t know I’d be able to see in my lifetime. We are fighting for Black life, for Black people not just to survive, but to fight for us to thrive. Lastly, and most importantly, I need every single person to understand that when Black people get free, we all get free.”