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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

On Black Lives Matter: An Interview With Patrisse Cullors

Corinne Gaston |
January 7, 2015 | 9:17 a.m. PST

Guest Contributor

Black Lives Matter activists successfully pushed for a meeting with Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. What's next? (@Blklivesmatter/Twitter)
Black Lives Matter activists successfully pushed for a meeting with Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. What's next? (@Blklivesmatter/Twitter)
Since the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, protests, rallies and direct actions have taken the country by storm.

Some dismissed the initial protests, predicting that they would taper off after a few days, but instead, the national protests took on a life of their own. The events in Ferguson have struck a cord deep enough to inspire tens of thousands of people to participate in direct actions. And one of the groups at the forefront of this growing movement is Black Lives Matter

I was lucky enough to catch Patrisse Cullors for an interview. Cullors is an artist and activist in L.A. who is the founder and executive director of Dignity and Power Now/The Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence as well as one of the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, for an interview.

The phrase “Black Lives Matter” and its message have exploded across social media and national conversations on race, anti-black racism and state violence in America. However, many may not know the roots of the organization and the purpose its founders had in mind when they created it back in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin.

READ MORE: #Ferguson And #Blacklivesmatter Illustrate How James Baldwin's Words Resonate More Than 25 Years After His Death

Neon Tommy: Ferguson is no longer just the name of a place. It has become a movement, a collective response, and I think it will become a marker in history. The momentum of Ferguson has been building up for a long time, which I think is reflected in Black Lives Matter. What role do you think Black Lives Matter has played in the movement arising from Ferguson and vice versa?

Patrisse Cullors: I think Ferguson has positioned America and black people in particular to fight harder for black lives. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter that myself, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi started has also pushed for a lot of conversation on anti-black racism and state violence.

NT: When you co-founded Black Lives Matter, did you feel that it conveyed a message and purpose you weren’t hearing in other social justice and liberation groups?

PC: Yeah, I think the hashtag #BlackLives Matter was about trying to heal from my own grief as a black person and my life other black people’s lives constantly being devalued. Social media is powerful, because it gives those of us who have been directly impacted the ability to reach millions of people and talk about our stories. But what we try to do with this hashtag is we try to bring it to the streets. It’s become the slogan of our generation.

NT: Do you think it’s similar to “Black Power?”

PC: Yes, I do. I think it has a similar cultural charge of shifting the message of who black people are. I think it creates a wedge in the conversation of whose lives actually matter to the government and whose lives don’t matter. And so claiming and declaring that black lives matter is an important conversation and important grounding point for black people and their allies.

NT: Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about the meaning of “black lives matter,” especially since it has grown in visibility?

PC: People get defensive, non-black people in particular get defensive and ask, “well why don’t other lives matter?” And I think that’s a reactionary response that’s been ingrained in non-black people. You know, you can Google lots of non-black POC groups and they have a lot of their own agency, they have their own banks, they have their own networks, but the moment we talk about black people having our own thing, it provokes a deep-seated culture that we live in that really privileges and centers people around not talking about black folks.

READ MORE: Is The 'Black Lives Matter' Movement Being Hijacked By The Revolutionary Communist Party?

NT: In what kind of ways do you want to see the phrase “black lives matter” used? Because many different people and organizations have taken it up—sometimes without asking you or the other creators—and using it in different ways.

PC: I want people to always talk about where it comes from. It comes from three black women, two of whom are queer: myself and Alicia Garza. I want folks to give its origin story. I think that’s important not to erase who the visionaries are behind Black Lives Matter. But I also want folks to use it for all black people.

We’ve made it very clear that this is not just a conversation around cis, hetero, black men. It’s not just a hashtag to push back against law enforcement violence against black people, but rather this is a hashtag to talk about the value of all black lives such as black trans folks, black folks who are incarcerated, black folks who were formerly incarcerated, black folks with disabilities. This is a much broader conversation and the conversation around state violence isn’t just about the act of murdering a black person, but rather how this country, at every level of government, at every moment, has devalued black lives, whether that’s by putting black folks in ghettos, defunding our school systems, over-policing our communities. Black people are at the precipice of always being in danger. And so how do we take that conversation and uplift it by saying the things we want? We want jobs, we want housing, we want access to healthy food.

NT: How do you view Ferguson within the history of black liberation movements? Do you see it as a tipping point for a national movement?

PC: Yes. I think Ferguson allows for all of us to think about the legacy of the Black Panther Party, about the legacy of Angela Davis, about the legacy of many of the national liberation movements that existed here in this country--as well as internationally--that have fought for the liberation of particular people: the liberation of women, of queer folk and trans folk. The uprising that Ferguson is a part of belongs to a much longer history of liberation struggles.

NT: On the website for Black Lives Matter, it reads that Black Lives Matter is a “tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” What kind of changes do you envision Black Lives Matter making in the future? And what do you see it doing for people right now?

PC: I think we’ve captured people’s imaginations. We captured black people’s imaginations to take elevated risks for our own lives. We’ve seen cities across the country have uprisings after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Most of the people on the front lines have been black folks, using freeway shutdowns as a tactic to get our message across. That’s important and critical. It’s an elevated risk we’re all taking in support of our own lives. There’s this tactic of direct action that Black Lives Matter is pushing for folks in this country to utilize and it’s forcing Obama himself to sit with people. In December, the Obama administration sat with Ferguson protestors and other folks who have been fighting for police accountability across this country for the past few years.

NT: Are there any other groups or organizations you believe are making a difference in Black liberation that you’d like to mention or that you have worked with?

PC: Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis has been a huge participant in pushing forward a particular agenda around looking at black folks, valuing our lives and building black tolerance. I think that group in particular has been huge. And Black Lives Matter now has different chapters across the country as well as in Canada. Then there are groups that have been doing amazing work like the Black Worker Center focusing on building jobs for black people here in L.A.

Reach Guest Contributor Corinne Gaston here; or follow her on Twitter.



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