Patrisse Cullors-Brignac: "Invest into a culture of dignity and care for Black people"
The founder of BLM discusses the need for momentum in the fight for justice.
This story originally appeared in up + rising, a celebration of extraordinary Black voices, and is the first chapter of i-D's 40th anniversary issue (1980-2020).
i-D chronicled over 100 activists and artists, musicians and writers, photographers and creatives, in Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis, LA, London, New York, Paris and Toronto.
Every major opposition movement has its flaws. In the mid-20th century during America’s classic civil rights movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arose as the dominant organisations in the Black freedom struggle. The leading figures of these movements were almost exclusively highly educated Black men who, unconsciously or not, prioritised fighting for legislation and social reform that primarily served the interest of Black men.
During this revered period in civil rights history, there was no room for a Black woman like Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, one of the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter organisation, to assume any real leadership role, and even less room for her to advocate within these male-dominated spaces for solutions to problems that were unique to Black women. Now, almost 70 years later, there has been a major shift in what it looks like to be a Black civil rights leader. The proof lies with Patrisse, who along with her two Black female co-founders, have led the world to chant and protect the most basic truth: Black Lives Matter.
Since founding Black Lives Matter in 2013, Patrisse has helped shape the advocacy group’s intersectional approach to fighting against state sanctioned violence and systematic oppression that impacts all Black people regardless of their gender, sex, or socioeconomic status. “For BLM, we have never said there was a perfect victim, we never said we only will fight for a certain set of Black people, we have always said that we fight for all Black lives,” she says.
In order to fight for all Black Lives, Patrisse understood that she had to listen to the people she was advocating for. Following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, BLM was born out of both a personal and community driven plea to find a new way to make this world a safer and more equitable place for Black people. At the time, social media had helped create a space for dedicated activists like Patrisse to engage further with their community and understand what Black people of all backgrounds needed to feel safe, to feel healthy, and to finally feel free to live a life not muddled by the impurities of racism.
"I think people were ready for a much more in your face response to what was happening in the streets,” Patrisse says. “I think the idea of just voting was much more complicated and there wasn't a group of people saying get out and protest, get in the streets in mass. I think Black Lives Matter became such an authentic and powerful call to action that so many people could rally around and they understood it. Those three words were so clearly understood, especially by Black people."
Over the last seven years, Black Lives Matter has transcended to represent more than just words. Outside of being a member-led global network of more than 40 chapters, BLM has also become the most prominent rallying cry during protests around the world, as well as a defining term that characterises the overarching Black freedom moment that is happening now. The broad social and commercial usage of BLM, which Cullors-Brignac admits they did not account for when they initially made the decision to name their non-profit, has also been weaponised against the movement. Both people who claim to be supportive of the movement and those who oppose it have adopted their own definitions of BLM that do not align with the organisation and organisers original ethos.
Despite two of its founders being Black women who identify as queer, many who support BLM are also guilty of once again centring Black men and their struggles while dismissing or demeaning Black women and queer people. BLM has also been employed by conservatives and other opponents to label Patrisse a “domestic terrorist” and the organisation a “hate group”. When violence erupts during protests BLM is blamed, and the three women who started it, whether or not they or the organisation were involved in the planning of the protests, are identified as the primary culprits.
"I remember that people like Angela Davis, Ella Baker, Fanny Lou Hammer, MLK, and Malcolm X were all called terrorists,” Patrisse says. “These are some of the people who are my heroes, who’ve changed how I understand the world that I live in and have changed the world and how it understands itself. I wear it as a badge of honour and I also understand it as part of a larger conversation of demonising the work that we do."
Much of the work she engages in very well does make her a threat to a large number of individuals and corporations who economically and politically benefit from the lucrative business of mass incarceration and over policing in Black communities. These are two areas she has passionately fought to reform over her 20 year career as an activist. With her two other organisations, Dignity and Power Now and Reform L.A. Jails, Patrisse turned the pain of seeing family and friends brutalised by police and incarcerated, to fuel change through legislation. Her most recent victory came in March 2020 when Reform LA pushed through the landmark “Yes on R” campaign, a ballot initiative that passed by a landslide.
“I think that we understand what the current criminal justice system does is actually break apart and really devastate communities,” she says. “We know that by the war on drugs, we know that by the impact of the war on gangs, we know that by the use of over-policing and over-incarceration in our neighbourhoods and communities. I think what happens when we actually have real criminal justice reform is we allow for healing to happen inside of Black communities. We actually allow for a divestment away from punishment and a punitive culture, and an investment into a culture of dignity and care for Black people.”
Following a public outcry in June to seek justice for George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a police officer who knelt on his neck for 7 minutes and 45 seconds, the resources and support BLM has received has been immense. However great this support may appear, it has brought the contemporary Black liberation movement its own set of issues. It has forced Patrisse and other activists to figure out ways to address the sudden commercialisation of the movement and understand how to work with organisations that themselves have not properly atoned for their contributions to white supremacy.
Nonetheless, Patrisse sees the sudden peak in interest as a great way to leverage supporters' means and power to make meaningful structural changes. She emphasises that the people in the streets are not responsible for holding the gross weight of the movement on their backs and that the movement has many different parts that require different resources and actors. “We have to remind ourselves that just because people end up not being in the streets every single day doesn't mean that momentum has died down, it means that people are doing different things to keep it going."
A youth adaptation of Patrisse Cullors-Brignac_'s Best-Selling Book ‘When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir’ is releasing September 29._
Photography Kirstin Powell
Casting Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.
Casting assistance Alexandra Antonova.