UC Santa Barbara Reads and UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures hosted Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and civil rights activist, on May 12 in a conversation discussing her memoir, “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Dialogue.”
Omise’eke Tinsley, professor of Black studies at UCSB, moderated the discussion.
The event began with an introduction by Celesta Billeci, the Miller McCune executive director of UCSB Arts & Lectures, and Kristen Antelman, the university librarian. The duo opened by introducing Cullors’ work with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) global network foundation.
“Cullors has been on the frontlines of abolitionist organizing for 20 years and began the BLM movement in 2013, and has expanded into a global foundation supporting Black-led movements in the U.S., U.K. and Canada,” Billeci said.
“Ms. Cullors’ account of her experiences with racism in the criminal justice system and the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement illuminate for students, and for all readers, the civil rights activism happening now in our country and around the world,” Antelman said.
Cullors began her opening remarks by painting a picture of what an “abolitionist world” would look like in light of the recent trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the police officer who was convicted for the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.
“In an abolitionist world, there would be no police, prisons or surveillance, we would still have George Floyd and Derek Chauvin would not have been on a four-week trial for a murder that the entire world witnessed,” Cullors said during the event. “We don’t live in that society yet. So we have to hold Derek Chauvin accountable, and we have to remind ourselves that abolition is really the only way towards our freedom and collective care.”
Cullors drew on human rights attorney Derecka Purnell’s definition of “what abolition really means:” “an invitation into finding new answers to the problems of harm and into building new ways to prevent harm in the first place.”
“Abolition is not just about getting rid of something,” Cullors said. “Abolition is about imagining; it’s about courageous conversations; it’s about being responsive versus being reactive. Abolition is about care and dignity and respect.”
“We live in a punishment-based system, and abolition is calling for us to be actively forgiving,” she continued. “Abolition is calling for us to imagine a world where every single human being gets their needs met.”
Tinsley asked what important lessons Cullors learned from her mother that shaped her work as an activist and as an artist, referencing Cullors’ memoir.
“Much of what I do and how I am at work is because of [my mother],” Cullors said. “She was the community counselor. She was the mom who let teenagers who ran away from their homes come stay. She is incredibly forgiving, and she’s very self-reflexive.”
“She’s one of the first people who taught me how to be in courageous conversations, how to have them, how to talk about things that are hard,” she continued. “She truly is a deep inspiration for me.”
Tinsley then moved into what it means to be a Black mother “protect[ing] her children in a world that is conspiring to kill them.” She asked Cullors what it would look like to her to be a Black mother who is a “human ‘being’ and a human ‘doing,’” and what her “wildest hopes” for Black women are in today’s world.
“We would be nurtured and cared for and protected. Black women would be protected,” Cullors said. “Our world would see us for who we are, which are world makers. We build freedom portals. Black women would be treated as the geniuses that we are.”
Tinsley then asked about Cullors’ description of her brother, Monte Cullors, in her memoir, and his experience with having a disability in a world where Black disabled individuals are one of the most marginalized groups.
“I think it’s important for the audience to understand that the experience of Black disabled people, especially ones that look like my brother, are criminalized, tortured, often killed,” Cullors said when asked about what Black disabled individuals experience.
“They’re often hunted and locked in facilities and jails and prisons and experimented on and seen as objects.”
“I think the work that we have to do is stop objectifying Black disabled people,” she continued. “Disability justice work is really about how we’re so interdependent … and we all are in need of each other.”
Tinsley then asked about a moment in Cullors’ memoir where she described her 12th year of life as the “year that [she] learned that being Black and poor defined [her] more than being bright and hopeful and ready.”
“[Black women’s] needs are often left on the backburner, and we are kind of a forgotten person in the community because the expectation is that we’re going to succeed and we’re going to take care of everyone and Black men need more than us,” Cullors replied. “So when you’re invisible, you also start to make yourself invisible.”
Cullors described the dramatic shift in the others’ perception of herself when she moved from elementary school — where she was seen as bright — to middle school, where her new, predominantly white environment often ignored her.
“I started smoking weed, and I just started to do things that were just so out of character because I was like, ‘Well, nobody cares about me so I’m going to be a teenager and I’m going to rebel,”’ she continued. “I ended up being arrested at my middle school because someone had told the school that I was smoking weed in the girls’ bathroom.”
Cullors said this experience was traumatic because the “first response was arrest.”
“There was no counselor who pulled me aside and asked me, ‘Hey, are you doing okay, what’s going on?’ And it was just so obvious that no one cared,” she said. “It wasn’t until my eighth grade year when a Black teacher pulled me aside, and she said, ‘What happened in your seventh grade year, we’re not doing that again this year.”
Tinsley described the experience of coming out as LGBTQ+ in Black families as often being painted as a “traumatic or dramatic” experience in media compared to white queer individuals and asked Cullors what her experience coming out as queer was. Cullors said that, in her memoir, queerness was not narrated as a “source of shame or particular tension with parents or friends.”
“I wanted people to know that I did have power because I was with a collective of queer young women, and we took care of each other,” Cullors said. “It was complicated with my mother, and I was pushed out at a young age for being queer. But that didn’t stop my relationship with my mother.”
“I always challenge this idea that Black communities are just inherently homophobic or transphobic, because it’s just not true,” she continued. “We are a community that really is so loving and often accepting of all different types of genders and sexualities and people.”
The conversation was followed by a series of questions asked by the audience in the Zoom meeting’s chat feature, with one question asking Cullors to elaborate on her experience of “being a Black queer woman in a straight, white, male-dominated society.”
“This world and this country, in particular, wants to get rid of Black women, wants to criminalize us, wants to hypersexualize us,” Cullors said. “It’s a very dangerous place for Black queer women, and I think it’s important that we collectively work to protect Black women, Black queer women and Black trans women. We live in a place where we are so, so unprotected.”
The event closed with a final question from Tinsley, who asked Cullors how being a mother has changed the work that she does.
“It’s changed everything, how I view the world, how I view other Black children,” Cullors replied. “It’s made me want to create not just a better world outside of my family, but also inside of it, to create the infrastructure for a better world for my personal family as well.”