“No movement has one leader. It never did and it never will,” says Patrisse Cullors.
As a co-founder of Black Lives Matter in 2013, she has been in the vanguard of one of the past decade’s defining social movements. The fight for racial justice, as embodied by BLM, compelled communities to take to the streets en masse this year. “We’ve been able to galvanise people around the world to ask themselves, did they show up for black life, or did they not? And what needs to be fixed so that we can live in a place where black people are actually free?”
In 2020, activists were confronted by two urgent forces running up against each other. The quarantines and lockdowns of Covid-19 compelled people to stay at home and self-isolate. But the brutal killing of George Floyd in May and the viral video of a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes caused an estimated 15 million to attend protests, go to vigils and join marches in the most widespread anti-racist demonstrations ever seen in the US. They carried signs bearing names in remembrance and slogans such as “I can’t breathe”.
“Folks risked their lives by protesting, marching in the street,” says Cullors. “They understood that fighting for the longevity of black lives, and challenging police terror and violence, was utterly important.”
Cullors, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, has transformed the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into a grassroots, member-led network dedicated to ending anti-black racism and preventing violence against black communities. Members from its 40 chapters across the US, Canada and the UK have done everything from campaigning for police accountability and organising bailout coalitions to pursuing civil rights legislation and helping the victims of police brutality find justice.
BLM has become part of the global consciousness and played a role both practical and moral in the recent US presidential election, in which racial justice was a contentious topic for voters and candidates. From politics to the community to the streets, its work is ongoing.
“We’ve tried and tried to negotiate with the state and they don’t listen. In fact, they’re not just not listening — they are killing us,” says Cullors. “That’s when we meet up, join forces and we show our bodies and our faces to each other and the world.”
The movement is rooted in a lifetime of experience for Cullors. The 37-year-old artist and activist grew up in Van Nuys, a Los Angeles neighbourhood turned into a battleground by Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs”. In the 1980s and 1990s, her hometown was impoverished, over-policed and under-resourced. In her memoir, Cullors described how money that could have been spent on parks or after-school programmes went to police patrols. Aged nine, she wrote in the book, she saw her two older brothers getting rushed by police for simply hanging out in an alleyway.
Activism has long been a part of Cullors’ life. She found words to express her queer identity at school and to express her faith, beyond her strict Christian childhood, in her studies of religion and philosophy at UCLA. (She was later ordained in Ifá, a west African faith tradition, and she incorporates ancestral spiritual healing into her movement-building.)
As an organiser at the Labor Community Strategy Center, a leftwing “think-tank/act-tank” in Los Angeles, in 2001, she developed her “theory of change” for social movements. This gave her tools to try to repair the damage that racism and sexism have inflicted on her community and her own family.
When her older brother Monte was arrested at 20 for attempted robbery, his erratic behaviour was diagnosed as schizoaffective and bipolar disorders. While in jail awaiting trial, this escalated into a full-blown psychotic episode, but instead of receiving treatment he was sentenced to 40 months in state prison. “I wanted to be a part of the undoing of the harm,” Cullors says. “I wanted to be a part of the team who was creating a new infrastructure.”
She founded the prison activist organisation Dignity and Power Now in 2012, the same year that George Zimmerman shot dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, claiming self-defence. Zimmerman had a gun; Martin had a bag of Skittles in his pocket.
Zimmerman’s acquittal a year later made Cullors feel powerless but she searched for a way “to hold Zimmerman accountable and the Zimmermans after him”, she says.
Black Lives Matter emerged from what co-founder Garza called “a love letter to black people”, which she posted on Facebook shortly after the acquittal. Cullors got in touch. Tometi then joined and launched the social media channels and website, transforming #BlackLivesMatter into a platform for organising.
When a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, BLM organised a national ride to join protests there, which served as a catalyst for other chapters across the country. The “direct action” mobilisations — protests, sit-ins, marches and vigils — around the killing of black people have enshrined Martin, Brown and others in America’s national story.
Seven years after she co-founded the movement, Cullors is the executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, which recently launched a $6.5m fund for chapters, to support their grassroots organising. As the movement looks to address the harm that violence against black people does to communities, its vision is becoming more encompassing: “In order to have an impactful movement you must have thousands of people with different skill sets supporting the mission,” she says.
This year, BLM played a prominent role in the campaigns of both candidates in the US presidential election. Polls found that two-thirds of Americans supported the movement after the George Floyd protests this summer, but President Donald Trump’s campaign tried to spin the subsequent demonstrations as a threat to “law and order”. His plea to the “suburban housewives of America” didn’t work: the Brookings Institution think-tank found that nearly two million votes flipped in suburban counties in swing states, helping Biden clinch the election.
Cullors was shocked and grateful when Biden was declared the presumptive winner in early November: “We voted out white supremacy. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to get closer to the things that we need,” she says.
BLM has created a political action committee (PAC) to fund black candidates who support a “divest and invest” framework, endorsing those who have vowed to reallocate budgets away from police and prisons and towards black communities. Although Biden has repeatedly stated that defunding the police is not on his agenda, the Black Lives Matter PAC is paying attention to local races for mayors and sheriffs, where decisions about budgets are made.
During his victory speech, Biden made a promise to African Americans, whose support during the Democratic primary added critical momentum to his campaign. “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” he said.
Cullors intends to see that he means this: in a letter congratulating Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris on their victory, she wrote that the particular challenges faced by black people needed to be a priority for the administration and asked for BLM to be engaged in the transition team’s planning and policy work.
“I think the people will have to push him to make the difference that we need him to make,” she tells me. At the time of publication, BLM was still waiting for a response.
“Marches in particular are healing,” says Cullors. “They create so much agency and they’re so life-giving . . . I believe we use protest oftentimes when we’ve tried everything else,” such as petitions and email campaigns. Younger people have given Cullors hope that change is possible. “Millennials have pushed to challenge the apathetic ideology of older generations,” she says.
The future she envisions for BLM is “grounded in dignity, humanity and the respect for black people in particular”. But often this message only becomes part of the wider national conversation after police kill another black person. Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Breonna Taylor — these, along with dozens of others, are the names protesters chant so that they are not forgotten.
If the support has been astonishing, so has the backlash. When I ask how she has dealt with the criticism, Cullors quips: “Oh, the seven years of vitriol?” She and the movement have been labelled “terrorists” by police unions and George Zimmerman, among others.
Cullors turned that label into the title of her best-selling 2018 memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, co-written with Asha Bandele. “Black people are going to experience some level of vitriol, racism or bigotry for who we are,” Cullors says. “I’d much rather fight for black people knowing why I am being targeted than be on the sidelines and still be a target.”
The atmosphere during our call is in stark contrast to such talk of racism and violence. From time to time Cullors offers hushed asides to her child: a reminder of what Squabbles the dog doesn’t like; a promise that she won’t be on calls much longer; the difference between a sweater and a jacket. Her friends and family have been a strong team that help her cope.
Cullors says that, after this interview, she will turn off her phone and continue reading Zora and Langston to decompress. Yuval Taylor’s biography charts the friendship and falling out of novelist Zora Neale Hurston and poet Langston Hughes. Their works helped define the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American artistic and intellectual expression in the 1920s. Two chapters in, her review is “inspiring, amazing and juicy”.
Among the priorities for BLM is funding other black-led organisations and amplifying black artists. Its core mission is to change how black people are seen in the US and around the world. Cullors herself is to bring the voices of Black Lives Matter to screens: earlier this autumn she signed a multiyear deal with Warner Brothers to develop and produce original content for the network.
Art helps Cullors process and understand trauma. In her performance “Prayer to the Iyami” in February, she fashioned her brother Monte’s old clothes into wings as she read out the text of a ballot measure to reform Los Angeles County jails and reinvest the savings into the community.
The measure, which Cullors founded and chaired, passed in March. Had it been in effect 20 years earlier, it might have been transformative for Monte, who cycled in and out of the criminal justice system before receiving adequate mental-health treatment.
Quoting Harriet Tubman’s last words, “I go to prepare a place for you,” Cullors explains that art is a way to show what that place could look like. Perhaps Black Lives Matter is one way to get there.
Oluwakemi Aladesuyi is a journalist in the FT’s New York office
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