How homelessness and sexism ignited a spark that became Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors tells The Big Issue how she harnessed her childhood anger to campaign on inequality, diversity, racism and prison reform in the US

Patrisse Khan-Cullors, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, founded the Black Lives Matter movement after George Zimmerman walked free over the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012. Patrisse grew up facing racial, sexual and LGBT stigma and her older brother faced harassment and neglect at the hands of police and prison staff for many years. After coming out as queer, Patrisse became homeless for a time. As a child she was arrested at her school by police who suspected her of drug use and says this moment ignited an anger in her that she later harnessed to campaign on inequality, diversity, racism and prison reform in the US.

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Patrisse Khan-Cullors

I was handcuffed and arrested at 12 years old in my middle school. I wouldn’t realise the way that shaped me until later on in my life, but I felt that lack of agency, and it would really shape my activism. The lack of agency was an entirely new experience, an intensified experience. I had grown up with over-policing and incarcerations but I had never experienced the police putting handcuffs on me. I had never experienced the police directly target me. Usually it was someone in my family; a sibling, my father, my mother. But not me.

What I remember is the police coming into the classroom, whispering into the teacher’s ear. The teacher asking me to come up to the front and me being handcuffed and walked down the hallway to the dean’s office. They forced me to call my mother. She was really upset, but then when I got home there wasn’t a conversation. That was what we’d usually do in my family, something hard would happen but we wouldn’t have a conversation about it.

Now that I’m older and I think about everything that my mother had to go through – she was dealing with my brother, dealing with my biological father and my father who raised me not being as supportive as they could be in helping her raise her children, and she was working different jobs.

I was hysterical, obviously, and scared.

There was so much pressure on her. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for my mother to have her children constantly up against the police in our neighbourhood and for her then to have her 12-year-old call her and say, ‘the police handcuffed me’. I was hysterical, obviously, and scared. And she’s in the middle of work and she’s having to figure out how she’s going to feed us and keep a roof over our head and at the same time deal with the constant harassment from law enforcement.

At the time I felt anger, but it was a kind of anger that was repressed. I didn’t access it until much later. High school helped shape my understanding of the conditions I was growing up with and the people around me. It’s the friendships I would build with both teachers and my peers that would really give me the clarity around how to fight. And how to love too.

It’s no coincidence that Black Lives Matter came from women. And not just women, but black queer women who grew up in a generation that had been completely devastated by lack of jobs, lack of employment. We grew up post-deindustrialisation and in the rise of the War on Drugs. Black women ended up being both the criminalised and also having to take care of those criminalised. We become the caretakers not just for our own families but for an entire generation and so this is our connection to the bigger issues and they become the foundations for how we fight. I think there’s a way in which women are socialised to take care of the world, to have an eye out for the bigger picture and not just ourselves.

It’s no coincidence that Black Lives Matter came from women

Do I think that the power structures have changed? Not yet, but I think we’re on our way towards that. I think we’re seeing the rise of women, and black women in particular. We’re seeing the rise of our visibility in this moment, and I think that’s powerful.

The next step for black women is for other people to recognise our value. And to implement that, whether it’s black women’s equal pay, whether that’s providing care for us while we’re pregnant, whether it’s institutions providing the respect and dignity that we deserve.

We don’t have to intervene all the time. We want to be able to prevent incarceration and social ills. And I think part of that is divesting from incarceration, that’s where most of our money goes. We need to reinvest those dollars into programmes that are going to help people not just to survive but actually thrive.

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To that 12-year-old girl in the classroom, I wouldn’t tell her anything – I’d ask her a lot of questions. We don’t ask enough questions. We assume that what we say to young people is going to help them and I don’t want to make that assumption. More often than not, young people make the efforts. I was a young organiser once. I want to credit my brilliant young self, and while I had a lot of mentorship, it was my drive and passion – and the drive and passion of my peers – that got us where we are.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele is out now (Canongate, £16.99). She is appearing at Women of the World Festival event at the Southbank Centre in London on March 9

Patrisse Khan-Cullors was speaking to Sarah Reid @frutepastel

Main image: Gerry Lauzon. Shot at the November 25th Ferguson vigil held at McGill University in Montreal.