On the evening of July 13th, 2013, Patrisse Cullors sat on her couch alone, glued to the television, and yet she was connected to thousands all over the country, watching the news in disbelief.
The jury of Seminole County Court, Florida, had found George Zimmerman not guilty. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, had shot and killed Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Trayvon Martin was a black high-school-student. He was 17. The night of his death, he was returning to his father’s new fiancée’s house after having stopped by a convenience store to buy Skittles. Zimmerman said he followed the kid because there had been several burglaries in the area and he thought the young man, who was wearing a hoody, looked suspicious.
The night of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, her Twitter account exploded, Patrisse Cullors recounts. She was tweeting back and forth with two of her friends, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. Alica had just seen a movie, and Opal was at a bar. “The verdict came out, and our phones just blew up. Alicia wrote a post saying, black lives matter, and I used the phrase as a hash tag”, Patrisse Cullors recalls. The hash-tag went viral. A year later, she and others first took the hashtag to the streets, helping to organize protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer had shot and killed black man Michael Brown in August 2014.
During Obama’s second term, protests and riots sparked by the killings of black Americans by mostly white police officers were frequent. According to a Washington Post data-base, 732 white and 381 black people were shot and killed by police officers from the beginning of 2015 until July 2016. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police officers than white people.
Patrisse Cullors is in her early thirties. Her hair is half shaved, half braided. We sit at a corner table of a deserted Asian restaurant in downtown Oakland, California. Outside, trucks rattle by. Cullors lives in Los Angeles, a six hour drive from here. She’s in town because Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a civil rights organization she works for, will celebrate its 20th anniversary tonight. I visited Oakland to meet her.
Patrisse Cullors grew up in Venice and Canoga Park, two suburbs of Los Angeles, both dominated by Mexican immigrants. “I grew up around a lot of poverty, a lot of policing and a lot of gang violence.” By the time she was 12, she says, almost every boy she knew had done prison-time at least once. It was a world where people just disappeared, and reappeared, and disappeared again.
Her father went to prison several times for drug charges, and died homeless when Cullors was in her twenties. Her mother worked several jobs to feed her and her eight siblings, five brothers and three sisters. “We hardly ever saw her.”
When she was sixteen years old, her brother, who was 19 at the time, was incarcerated in an LA county jail for drug offenses. He is bipolar, and was seriously injured in a confrontation with a deputy sheriff. Patrisse Cullors says the event took place during a psychotic episode. “They tortured him”, she says. “After they beat him, they denied him water. He was forced to drink from the toilet. They denied him blankets. They denied him food.” Back then, the LA Times reported on the case. Cullor’s brother acknowledged having punched an officer. He also filed a written complaint stating that he was beaten and choked by a group of officers until he lost consciousness and that he woke up in his own blood. He was sentenced for battery of an officer, but none of the officers were held responsible. “This incident has led me to this work.”
Last year, Patrisse Cullors married her life partner Janaya Khan, a black transgender person from Toronto. They had met just shortly after the United States Supreme Court had decided in its historic Obergefell-verdict that forces all states to allow same-sex-marriages. Getting married was a personal as well as a political decision, Patrisse Cullors wrote in June’s “Esquire” : “Together, we could challenge marriage as a white, heteronormative religious construct. We could build a new narrative steeped in the intersections of black love. (…) Janaya and I (…) understood our love as an act of political resistance.”
“Those in deepest darkness lying./Comrade, only these can see you/Only they can hear you crying. Comrade, only slaves can free you.” A few days before my interview with Patrisse Cullors, I heard formerly incarcerated people chant a line from Berthold Brecht’s poem “All of us or none”. Patrisse Cullor’s, it seems to me, draws strength from this deepest darkness. To her, it seems, there is no line between her person, her biography, her causes and actions. It’s everything or nothing, just like in Brecht’s poem.
When Patrisse Cullors checks in at her hotel that Thursday in Oakland, California, the television in the lobby is tuned to Trump. The sound is turned off. She watches Trump’s muted pursed lips spitting nothingness for a moment, unmoved, then turns back to the counter to receive her keys, slightly shaking her head.
There’s not much in this race for her. The national debate focuses on the nominees’ characters, on email-sloppiness versus sexist slurs, while the issues Patrisse Cullors cares about – police violence, racism, justice reform, queer marriage – serve as mere decorum. “There hasn’t been enough from Hillary Clinton for me to feel I stand by her”, she says.
Later that evening, at the Rotunda building in downtown Oakland, a celebratory atmosphere of clinking glasses reigns, echoing from the majestic domed cupula. The evening’s main sponsor is Google. Friends and donors of the Ella Baker Center, many of them white and academic looking, dine on organic chicken and Quinoa, while Cullors joins a conversation on the podium. “All that money that is spent on policing and prisons must be reinvested in the poorest communities, in education”, she demands. “Some call it reparations, I call it reinvestment. Whatever you call it, it would mean finally recognizing the wrongs done to the black people of America.” Applause roars up. Zachary Norris, the Center’s executive director, lists the center’s recent victories. The Ella Baker Center has worked intensely on a bill that will end solitary confinement in Californian youth prisons. It is soon to be signed by Governor Jerry Brown. “There’s a way forward”, he calls out to the cheering room. In LA, Patrisse Cullors and other activists have pushed for civilian oversight over the Sheriff’s Department for years. A board is now about to be installed.
Continue reading Chapter 3: John Lewis, Civil Rights Hero – a story of bridges and alienations between generations