A crowd of 500 gathered in UC Santa Barbara’s Corwin Pavilion last Thursday to hear Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement, speak about racial justice and the history of the movement.
The event, put on by the UCSB MultiCultural Center (MCC), has been in the making for nearly nine months, according to MCC Director Zaveeni Khan-Marcus.
“[Cullors’] voice and the message she gives is so powerful. We felt that it was important for her to come to campus and talk about her experience,” Khan-Marcus said.
Cullors, an activist and artist, spoke prominently about the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement.
She discussed how the acquittal of Neighborhood Watch Coordinator George Zimmerman after his killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin caused outrage among those in the black community and beyond.
“It was a response, it was a guttural response to one of our tragedies of our generation,” Cullors said.
She condemned Zimmerman’s trial and subsequent acquittal, stating Zimmerman’s defense “[tried] to build a defense that Trayvon Martin deserved to die.”
Cullors, a native of San Fernando Valley, also spoke about growing up in a community which resented the police and intimately felt the effects of mass incarceration. She highlighted the paradoxes in the American justice system, exemplified by Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.
“I sat with a contradiction of living in a country that has two million people in prison, one million of them black and George Zimmerman, a white-passing Latino, gets to kill a human being and go home free.”
Fellow activist Alicia Garza’s subsequent coinage of the term “Black Lives Matter” in a Facebook post, and Cullors’ decision to attach a hashtag to it in a post expressing her frustration, led to #BlackLivesMatter becoming a viral phenomenon – and later, a tangible social movement.
However, Cullors emphasized the continuity of the Black Lives Matter movement with regards to the past.
“This concept of Black Lives Matter has lineage. It’s a part of the Black Power Movement,” she said. “We stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Cullors emphasized the importance of becoming involved with issues beyond the confines of social media and fostering relationships with other organizations, such as the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement.
“Contrary to the media, a hashtag doesn’t start an actual movement. It takes skills, it takes organizing, it takes commitment and it takes sacrifice,” she said.
For those within the MCC, Cullors’ talk surpassed already-high expectations.
MCC Program Coordinator Abire Sabbagh expressed relief that Cullors didn’t avoid sensitive topics and instead tackled touchy subjects with grace and eloquence.
“We’re not going to sugarcoat anything. We’re going to talk about the struggles and we’re going to talk about how hard it is, but we’re also going to talk about what we do and how we build the movement that we need to liberate ourselves,” Sabbagh said.
Khan-Marcus also admired Cullors’ ability to bring light to the issues by talking about her own personal experiences and how a sense of community and family gave Cullors a refuge from suffering.
“She talked about all the hardship she went through as a child, but there’s also a sense of love,” Khan-Marcus said. “I’m absolutely thrilled. Her presence itself was incredible.”