Book trailer for When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
I don’t often read the comment sections on social media anymore.
I even stopped myself for a while after George Floyd’s murder. A simple Black Lives Matter comment on my part in support of the fact the Black lives do indeed matter caused quite a few people to come and try and educate me on the facts as they saw them about BLM, the organization not actual lives.
My course of action was to recommend a memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, a memoir by one of the Black Lives Matter founders Patrisse Khan-Culllors.
The perspectives that we develop in recent times are often shaped by what we see in the news and soundbites, social media, out of context quotes and hearsay. However the art of listening and learning from another’s perspective or story can get lost. Khan-Cullors story doesn’t begin at BLM, it begins with a family affected by mental illness.
In 1980 there existed the Mental Health Systems Act put in place by Jimmy Carter’s administration. The Act supported and financed community mental health support systems, which coordinated general health care, mental health care, and social services.
In 1981 with the Reagan administration came the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation, repealing most of the MHSA. One administration enacts sweeping changes, in this case benefitting mental health services, and the next administration repeals or dismantles it despite potential repercussions. Patrisse’s family lived in the aftermath of not only decreased mental health services but also aftermath of systemwide racism. That’s racism legislated and built into the American system for countless numbers of years.
Khan-Cullors inserts quotes throughout her book. Some represent her influences while others represent what influenced the lives her family would navigate to try and survive. Chapter 1 begins with this one from “John Ehrlichman, Richard M. Nixon’s National Domestic Policy Chief, on the administration’s position on Black people”.
“We know we couldn’t make it illegal to be…black, but by getting the public to associate the…blacks with heroin and then criminalinzing [them] heavily, we could disrupt [their] communitites…Did we know we were lying? Of course we did.”
This quote could also apply to the crack epidemic, criminalization of marijuana and how it is carried out. This was the reality for Patrisse and her siblings growing up. A time when young black boys could be stopped and searched for fitting a description or suspected of dealing drugs and gang activity, simply for hanging out or socializing with friends. The first time Patrisse was arrested was at the age of 12, in front of her class and searched. Her closest brother Monte arrested at age 11.
Patrisse recounts incidents like these and others, including a raid on the family home to look for a relative suspected of dealing drugs. The relative did not live with them. The youngest child in the family at the time was 5. Police searched everything in the house. Although this was anything but normal it was not discussed in the family. They went on to survive this day.
While some may be outraged to hear this, I can recall talking to relatives about living in the Jim Crow South. Things were so a part of their daily lives that there was no discussion about events. No spoken outrage, just survival. Knowing it was wrong but legal to be treated like you don’t matter.
Another chapter quote for your consideration,
“One of the worst things about racism is what it does to young people.” –Alvin Ailey
I think the one set of incidents that most affected the author on her journey to Black Lives Matter was that of her brother Monte. In the midst of everything going on in their environment, Monte would develop a mental illness. He would not be diagnosed until time in prison. Through all of his episodes the way the system dealt with it would be through multiple arrests and jail time. The family would grow weary of calling police for assistance, because the abuse and treatment he would receive were not what they wanted for him. They were also at a loss at what to do as no assistance solutions were in place. As I stated Monte was diagnosed with schizophrenia while in jail.
The brother Patrisse knew as, “the one with the ginormous heart” who fed strays and put baby birds back in nests, would later also develop PTSD through his experiences in jail and in dealing with the police. Monte’s story weaves in and out of her own stories of love and family. It’s not something she could compartmentalize or separate. The experiences of Monte and those of her own life are not separate stories to tell. He was her closest sibling, she says, “best friend”. In 2011 the Southern California ACLU released a report and filed an 86 page complaint against the LA County Sheriff’s office for torture, not just abuse, but torture. Reading this report provided a whole new perspective on her brother. The irony in this is that Monte was once labeled a terrorist.
As an adult Patrisse’s house would one day be raided. Her family treated like criminals, again. She’d be labeled a terrorist. In 2013 following Trayvon Martin’s murder Patrisse, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi would found Black Lives Matter, a movement. It would become a rallying cry is subsequent cases and protests for Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others. It is not a cry in representation of an organization, but a cry to be heard that the lives of Black people do indeed matter. That the lives of one group (whether Black, LatinX, Native, women) have to matter before an All Lives Matter can be true.
Patrisse includes a quote from Assata Shakur in the beginning of her book, before any introductions of her text. Assata Shakur is a revolutionary icon for many. Even though her story has been told in much the same way BLM has been, through mainly negative perspectives, her own memoir, Assata, is a worthy read, offering a closer look at her life and journey. A connection is made in their memoirs through Angela Davis, who pens forewords for both memoirs. Assata Shakur remains in exile, her status for the last 40 years.
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, author
New York : St. Martin's Press  Formats: Book, eAudiobook
A memoir by the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement explains the movement's position of love, humanity, and justice, challenging perspectives that have negatively labeled the movement's activists while calling for essential political changes.
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