Patrisse Khan-Cullors

Distinguished Speaker Lecture - April 5, 2018

Patrisse Khan-Cullors
April 05, 2018— Bentonville, Arkansas
Black Heroes Week
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This address was presented at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

It is such an honor to be here. I'm deeply appreciative of the warm welcome. I don't take it for granted. I appreciate you all coming out on a Friday to hang out with me to talk about the current state of the world and to really strategize together about what the hell we're gonna do. [laughter]

We live in a world where black lives don't matter. We live in a world where black people have to be worried, where we are scared to walk out of our homes. We live in a world where black folks are dying every single day and often at the hands of the state or a vigilante or a security guard.

Five years ago when Alicia, Opal and I started #BlackLivesMatter, it came from a place of passion, of despair, grief, rage – a righteous rage – and we didn't realize that the rest of the world was going to take up the banner of #BlackLivesMatter, but what an honor. What an honor to have been able to participate in ushering in what many people call the most recent civil rights movement, human rights movement.

And so much of the work and the last five years…the first thing we had to do was to remind people – mostly white folks – that just because we had a black president didn't mean racism was over. [applause]

I remember the CNN headlines and MSNBC saying, "Does this mean racism is over? They got their black president." I remember having conversations in college, talking to childhood friends, saying, "I think we don't need to talk about that thing any more, that thing called racism. I think y'all got it."

And then Trayvon Martin was killed. And Trayvon was killed in 2012. Some people didn't realize that he was killed until 2013 when George Zimmerman, his murderer, was acquitted.

But I'm gonna take us back to Sanford, Florida. Sanford, Florida, is where Trayvon Martin lived. It's where his father lived. And he was actually sent off to his father's house because he was getting in trouble in school – normal kid shit – and his momma was like, "You know what? Go to your daddy's house." I remember that. So he went there. And on an evening, he went to the liquor store. Went to go pick up some Skittles and iced tea. Regular evening. Had on his hoodie – it was cold.

And as he was walking home, George Zimmerman called 911. Many of us remember the racist 911 phone call, right? Said that someone looked suspicious, used some curse words in there, said they always get away with it. And the 911 operator said, "Go home. Don't follow him. We got this." But George Zimmerman didn't listen. And he didn't just follow Trayvon, he stalked him. And we don't know what happened that night. The only thing we do know is that Trayvon ended up being killed.

And I remember seeing this little, tiny newspaper – I think it was maybe even a blog – and I read the headline: "Young seventeen year old boy is murdered by…" – at that point we didn't know that George Zimmerman was half Paraguayan, right? – so it was like this "…by a white man."

And I'm scouring mainstream media, trying to figure out who's talking about this. Nobody was. I went to social media. I put it online. I said, "Hey, this is disgusting. I can't believe this is happening. Who is writing about this? Who's…. Does anybody know about it?" Many of my friends were on my timeline, said, "I had no idea."

And so I hosted folks to come to my house to just process, what does it mean in 2012 that we live in a country where a young black boy can be murdered and no one talk about it, mainstream media. And as I started to witness the next several months, Sybrina Fulton, his mother, started going on TV, and Reverend Al Sharpton really worked with her to amplify the message, which was "Re-arrest George Zimmerman," because he was released on stand your ground. And so George Zimmerman…. The call is to at least have a trial, right? So while she's grieving her child's murder she's also having to fight for her child.

And so there's a victory. We do get him re-arrested. And he does go through a trial. But we all know the outcome. On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman gets to go home. Y'all, he gets to go home.

And during that year while he's on trial – George Zimmerman that is – Trayvon Martin is actually on trial. And what we witness… As we witness a year-long campaign of humiliating, stereotyping, denigrating not just Trayvon but people that look like Trayvon. And I remember being so livid watching that trial, but I felt like I had to witness. I had to witness it, at least to be in solidarity with Sybrina Fulton.

And on July 13 in 2013, I drove up to Susanville, California – little town and just 11 hours up from Los Angeles. I went to go visit one of my mentees, Richard Edmond, who had received 10 years in prison for never hurting anybody. And if we remember, the night before is when the verdict was supposed to be released, but the jury said they weren't ready. So I drove up to Susanville that morning and was preparing for the verdict. Went to go see Richard, we processed about it. I was like, "I'm really worried," and I remember Richard being in a pretty demoralized space during that time. He had just…that was his first year in prison and kind of wasn't interested in talking about it. But I just I had to talk about it, had to process.

And I went back to the motel – not hotel, not in Susanville – went back to the motel and I went onto social media because that's what our generation does – everything, all our news is through social media – and I started to see the verdict be released by the people on my feed, and it was one at a time not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. And I said, "He's gonna go home." I didn't believe it. I really thought he would at least get manslaughter. Maybe not murder, but at least manslaughter.

We all know that Trayvon Martin died at the hands of this man, so how does he get to go home free? But he did. And I sat in that motel room – and I was with two other women, Richard's wife and his best friend – and I, I just cried. And I remember thinking. what are we gonna do? What do we do now? Because if this is the precedent that is being set, anything can happen to us.

So I'm scouring social media, you know, and I'm cursing people out. "If you ain't talking about Trayvon, get off my page!" [laughter] Doing the most, you know; it's the only way I could deal with it in Susanville. I know I wasn't gonna hit the streets. So I'm, you know, I'm online, I'm trying to see what people are talking about and I come across Alicia Garza's page. I said, Alicia's always got great things to say. What is she saying tonight?

And she wrote this love note to black folks. It was a tough love note, the way Malcolm talks to us, and she said, you know, she was really challenging the ideology that if Trayvon just picked his pants up, if he just didn't smoke weed he wouldn't have been in this position, and she said, "Actually, I'm always gonna be surprised. I'm always gonna be surprised when they can kill us, humiliate us, abuse us." And she said to us, and we should be surprised, too. And then she ended it with, "Black lives matter."

And I was like, that's it. And I put a hashtag underneath her post. And then she was like, "What's that?" [laughter] I said, "Girl, it's a hashtag. It's gonna make it go viral!" [laughter] And she was like, "Word."

And literally within a couple hours, we were trying to figure out what we were gonna do. I said, we should create a political project. Let's bring this. We're trained organizers. This shouldn't just live online. Let's take it to the streets.

By July 15, I wrote on social media, "Hey, everybody. Alicia Garza and I just created this thing called #BlackLivesMatter and we hope that it reaches more than we could ever imagine." A day later, Opal Tometi contacted Alicia and said, "Hey, this #BlackLivesMatter thing? I want in."

And we created the comms infrastructure to make it go viral. And we took it to protests. And we had to organize ourselves and our team, right? Remember, we're still living during the time where it's post-racial, so we had to talk to people. [laughter] We had to say, "It's okay to say black, y'all. We can say the word. It's okay to focus on us."

And we really had to push our own community first. There was a lot of pushback, y'all. There was a lot of folks being like, "Well, I don't know," and "We're now living in the POC world," and "If we say black, people might feel a kind of way." And we argued, "We're dying. It's okay to focus on us. Every other community gets to do that."

And so we start to really challenge why #BlackLivesMatter is not just for black People, that #BlackLivesMatter should be for all of us [applause] and that we're in a position to really challenge anti-blackness and how it permeates every single structure of society. We get this opportunity to have the courageous types of dialogue that we've been missing out on. And more importantly, we get this opportunity to fight for those who are now lost, who couldn't fight for themselves, who were taken.

I think about what Wakiesha Wilson, a mother of two. She was arrested in Los Angeles, taken to a precinct. Her family went to go to her court date on a Wednesday. She doesn't show up to court. Her family calls the police precinct. They say, "oh, oh…" – kind of give her the runaround. She gets a call from the coroner a couple days later and the coroner says, "I'm sorry, your daughter is dead." LAPD says that she committed suicide. And we say, when it happens inside, it's not suicide.

I think about Sandra Bland. Sandra Bland, as we all know, got a job, her dream job. She was leaving Illinois. Driving into Texas, she got stopped. Why'd she get stopped? She wasn't reckless driving. Taillight was out. And…she's mad, you know, talking to police any kind of way. She's dragged out the vehicle. A few days later, they say she committed suicide. When it happens inside, it's not suicide.

I think about Quentin Thomas. Twenty-two years old, was going to Cal State University of North Ridge, had a child. Ended up in Twin Towers facility; it's a county jail in Los Angeles, specific medical facility. He was in a single-man cell. Guards came. They said they found him unconscious, found him dead. They said they don't know how he died. When it happens inside, it's not suicide.

I think about Mike Brown. Mike was in his neighborhood, walking in the middle of street like you do in smaller towns. Not everybody walks on the sidewalk, right? Him and his friend. Darren Wilson pulls up, tells him to stop walking in the middle of the street. They get into some conversation. Darren Wilson starts shooting at him. What we know is Mike Brown is left on the concrete for four and a half hours in the smoldering heat with his whole entire community and family to witness his public lynching.

And what we know, is that is the second time when #BlackLivesMatter goes viral. And as I witnessed Mike Brown's body on my Twitter feed, it was another moment where I was like, what are we going to do?

And the folks in Ferguson stayed in the streets. They grieved publicly. And what they received were rubber bullets and tear gas and humiliation and brutality, and what they needed was dignity. They needed care. The entire community just witnessed and experienced a trauma and the response from the state was to criminalize them.

And so this conversation that we've been having over the last five years with #BlackLivesMatter is not just about black folks who are dying at the hands of the state, it's also about those of us who put our bodies on the line every single day to make sure our lives matter. It's about the ways in which we now live in a country that continues every single day, executive order after executive order, stripping the Constitution, stripping our human rights away.

This…this is the moment to act. If you didn't act five years ago, this is the time to act. [applause]

For me, I joined this movement before it was #BlackLivesMatter. I joined this movement because I lived in a neighborhood where I witnessed the ways in which law enforcement criminalized and humiliated my family and the community I lived in every single day. I joined this movement because I needed something else to be excited about. I needed to know that we could fight for ourselves and other people would also fight for us.

And so today, in this gorgeous auditorium, I hope that it isn't just about seeing me speak for people who haven't joined the movement. I hope this becomes your moment where you say, where do I sign up? What can I do? How can I make sure – and this is the question I ask myself every single morning – how can I make sure that I am changing the material conditions for black people?

And I'm just gonna name…of course we know that all lives matter. It's never been about all lives. That's not actually the argument. The argument is that black people were brought here in chains. Our language was lost, our people were lost, our minds were lost, our bodies were lost. We've spent the last five hundred years reclaiming ourselves. #BlackLivesMatter is a reclamation moment. It's a moment for every single person who lives here, whether documented or undocumented, to fight on the side of black life. Because we know, we know deeply, that when black people get free, we all get free. [applause]

So I'm gonna open it up. I think there was three questions I got? I'm gonna open it up to the three questions that I got. I also got some other questions, but they're wild. [laughter] We decided that was not a good approach, so we're not gonna do those questions.

Before we get those questions, I want to do like a bit of a pivot around, because I know this will probably come up, is what can you do? What can we do, right? My big argument is, don't focus on the national, focus on a local. What we do, where we're at is so important. The work that's happening here in this town is so important to the rest of the country. What kind of narrative are we shaping for the rest of the country? So that becomes incredibly important to me.

And I think, you know, we're up against…in the last 40 years we've seen – and I'm so grateful Bryan's gonna be here, Bryan Stevenson, just love love love him, and he'll talk about this – but the last 40 years we've seen the rise of prison systems, right? And if you have a prison, that means you need police, that means you need court systems, means you need a district attorney, right? So we've seen the rise of institutions that are really about criminalizing certain communities.

We didn't have a population of 1.6 million people inside prisons and jails 40 years ago. It was about 200,000. Something happened in 40 years. That something was a divestment from black communities, poor communities, communities of color. And the only investment was a badge and a gun, a district attorney that was hell-bent on prosecuting black people. It was sheriff's departments. It was law enforcement that was created to ratchet up the war on drugs and the war on gangs.

And so part of the work that we could start to do is look at our own place. How has our own town relating to criminalization? How is it relating to investing in alternatives to incarceration? Is your town trying to build a new jail? Is it trying to build a new juvenile hall? Are they painting it as a safety facility?

These are the moments where we get to intervene not just personally, but we get to intervene on a system. And so a big piece, I think, of the work that we need to do is how are we intervening on the systems, the systems that are tearing communities apart, tearing us apart? And I really want to give that charge to the audience tonight.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Good evening. My name is Raven Cook and I'm a museum educator here at Crystal Bridges with school programs K-12. You just masterfully answered one of the questions so… [crosstalk] So the next question we have is how will we know when and if we finally live in a racially equitable world?

KHAN-CULLORS: I have no idea. [laughter] Never lived in one. [laughter and applause] But I think, how do we move closer to that might be a better way for me to answer that question. And it's systems. Some systems can be transformed, can be produced as an experiment for racial justice. Some systems have to be destroyed. Some systems have to be abolished. And so I think as we get closer to clarifying which of those systems can be upheld, that we can continue with, that we can help transform, and which systems we actually have to get rid of because there's no way if these systems exist we'll be able to get to racial equity or equality. I think that's where we have to start as a team. I think a lot of people think, oh if we just hire more black folks, or women, or things like that, we're gonna change those systems. That's not how it works, right? That's a big argument. "If we just have more black cops." Well, what about Freddie Gray? So we have to have a more honest, courageous, innovative conversation about how we change things, about how we change systems. And of course every single individual is a part of a system, so we play a role in it, but sometimes you're in a system where you're like, I thought I could change this but this ain't supposed to change – it's supposed to be just like this. We talk a lot about broken systems. Some systems are not broke – they were developed and created and masterfully developed so they can harm communities, decimate communities. [applause] Handcuffs were created not to be friendly – they have a role. And so I think we have to ask the harder questions, the questions that make everybody uncomfortable in the room, the questions that might make us uncomfortable asking. And I think that will move us closer.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you, Patrisse, so much for coming out and speaking to us. You're mentioning uncomfortable questions. I feel uncomfortable saying this one. It says, what is your perspective on white allies?

KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, well, you know I…. For folks who were here yesterday, and Aaron respond to this, who I deeply appreciated Aaron's response, which is true. I think there's two things. I think we should consider – I use the word allies because everybody understands it and it's kind of easy – but I actually think we need to reconsider what we mean by allyship. And sometimes allyship is translated into "how do I help?" As if I have the problem. [laughter applause] Right? No tea, no shade, y'all. [laughter] But I think…you know, once again, questions. How do we understand this? And also, how do we understand our positions with the questions? So black people don't have the problem, right? And so many black theorists and philosophers and activists have said this time and time again, from James Baldwin to Martin Luther King to Audrey Lorde to Malcolm X, which is white people have a race problem, and white folks and good allyship – and we've seen this at other places across the country, I don't know if it exists here in Arkansas – should be meeting with each other and having those hard conversations about how they participate and are in power because of white privilege, obviously, but also anti-black racism, and in those conversations start creating innovative approaches to how to be in partnership, in collaboration, be co-conspirators for black people and with black people. [applause]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you for being here, like they said. My name is Kentrell Curry. I'm an associated museum educator here as well. You did answer the question that I was going to read, so my question… [laughter]

KHAN-CULLORS: Take it! Reclaim your time, Kentrell, reclaim your time!

CURRY: It's really not a heavy question. We kind of talked about it a little bit last night, but could you maybe tell us about what your plans are for the future?

KHAN-CULLORS: Yeah, a few things. I mean, I'll tell you sort of the very concrete stuff, and then I got to hang out with Kentrell last night with Aaron and we were just…you know it's nice to just sometimes hang out. I don't get to do that a lot. So I was telling them about my dreams. And so a few things. I'm an artist. And I always say this – before I was politicized I was an artist. Art for me – I said this the other day on Twitter – which is, I feel like the most revolutionary thing I could do right now is make art. And I say that because with the marching – which I deeply agree with, I believe in our First Amendment right – with changing policy and laws and challenging them, I often continue to feel demoralized. It's when I'm making art, witnessing art, holding space for art, when I feel transformed. And I think this is important now. I'm gonna take it a little bit further. The first thing you do when you're trying to numb a people, wipe out a people, is take away their imagination. You take away our ability to imagine anything different than what we've lived in, what we've witness, what we've seen. I remember the first time I left the country and I was like, there's so much more than this place called America. I remember really being trained America was the world. Our imagination is…it's not just this thing that lives outside of ourselves. Our imagination is what makes us whole. It's what allows for us to feel other people, feel ourselves be deeply connected to what's here and the material world what's in the universe. And so art…art does that. It helps us imagine a world, a world where freedom actually exists for everybody, a world where the way in which we relate to each other is grounded in the respect and honor and love that we have for human life. That doesn't exist right now – not holistically – and so imagination…. I remember being a child and – you know, we grew up very poor in a small working-class suburb outside of the inner city of LA – and I remember sitting in my bed for hours imagining us being able to, not even living somewhere else necessarily, but living differently – not having to experience the things that we experience on a daily basis. And so part of the work that I'm really interested in doing is – I mean, I'm doing it always – but how do I deepen my social practice and bring it to different places and take it to scale? Thanks, Kentrell.

That's it. That's it and that's all, y'all. Thank you so much for having me tonight. I really appreciate it. [applause]

#BlackLivesMatter, #BLM