“There was never a time in my childhood that I can recall when people did not call me an old soul,” Patrice Khan-Cullors writes in When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (St. Martin’s Press). “Maybe that’s why my father thought I could handle being in his 12-step meeting.”
The activist and cofounder of the social-justice movement grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and several scenes in her book build a portrait of a child who had to grow up too fast. They range from the tragic — her father’s death — to the quotidian, like hardly seeing her mother because her mother worked three jobs. (“Oppression is embarrassing,” she writes at one point, emphasizing the everyday inconveniences and humiliations of being born poor, brown-skinned, and a woman in America.)
With her co-author, asha bandele, Khan-Cullors traces the events that would lead her to establish the Black Lives Matter movement alongside Oakland’s Alicia Garza and New York’s Opal Tometi. Throughout, their touch is light. For every brief jeremiad against private corporations like Whole Foods or Victoria’s Secret relying on prison labor to manufacture consumer goods, there are multiple moments where Khan-Cullors couches the oppression Black women face in more intimate terms, a matter of being disposable, unwanted, and unloved.
Unlike, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written about scarcely encountering white people until adulthood, Khan-Cullors grew up alongside people of all races and ethnicities. This generates more than a few uncomfortable scenes, none more so than a dinner at a white classmate’s house during she realizes that the father of her friend is also her negligent landlord, “the very same man who allowed my family to subsist without a working refrigerator for the better part of a year.” (On another occasion years later, she also finds herself scrounging to come up with $10,000 to get her brother a decent lawyer only to retain an attorney who once prosecuted their uncle.)
Primarily, When They Call You a Terrorist is a narrative of family struggles. Introduced to her biological father at age 12, Khan-Cullors finds herself welcomed into his extended clan — but that lasts only until he’s imprisoned again on a charge they never speak of but which she assumes is drug-related. Meanwhile, her beloved brother Monte gets swept up in the carceral system for “crimes” as petty as cutting class, wearing the same T-shirt as his friends, or “being kids.” Monte lives with mental illness, and at one point, two rookie cops come close to tasering him simply because it’s outside their comprehension that what he might need is psychiatric care. On another occasion, after a minor traffic accident, Monte will be tased, shot with rubber bullets — and charged with terrorism.
No less a figure in critical race theory and politics than Angela Davis wrote the foreword, in which she makes clear that Khan-Cullors “reveals how readily the charge of terrorism is deployed within white supremacist institutions.” And the case this book lays out simmers at a low heat.
The reader realizes midway through that the terrorism charge isn’t the same tired invective hurled at Black Americans protesting on interstate highways in 2016. Khan-Cullors’ argument is that she was born into a society that regarded its Black and brown citizens as de facto terrorists, long before 9/11 or the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Anti-gang statutes from the 1990s, she writes, were both draconian and ineffective, causing the unnecessary incarceration of innumerable young lives while failing to protect some 10,000 Angelenos from dying in the streets during that decade alone. The hysterical rhetoric among revanchist white Americans opposed to an anti-police-violence movement during the 2010s merely built on that foundation. But overincarceration is always at the heart of the matter.
“In California, there are more than 4,800 barriers to re-entry,” Khan-Cullors writes, “from jobs, housing and food bans, to school financial aid bans and the list goes on. You can have a two-year sentence, but it doesn’t mean you’re not doing life.” The purpose of all that is to disrupt Black life. The architecture of the War on Drugs and the merciless response to gang violence were “the legal response to the gains of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.”
A queer-identified woman who was married to a man and a Jehovah’s Witness by birth who later practiced the Nigerian spiritual tradition known as Ifa, Khan-Cullors is more than two-thirds the way through her chronicle before the names Alicia and Opal turn up on the page, immediately after George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin. From then on, the story begins to become more familiar to anyone who’s been part of or followed Black Lives Matter: a march over the Brooklyn Bridge and a sit-in in Times Square, Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., #SayHerName. That the movement was the product of three women doesn’t always get the recognition that it’s due, nor does the fact that many of its most passionate members are queer, trans, or gender-nonconforming. At times, When They Call You a Terrorist reads like a sincere promise not to let anyone’s labor and contributions go unremembered.
What is arguably most remarkable is the unsentimental way in which Khan-Cullors dispatches the details of her first face-to-face encounter with one of her co-founders, in St. Louis: “For the first time, I lay my eyes on Opal Tometi, whom I’ve only spoken to over the phone; we embrace. But it’s anticlimactic in a way. We are clear that we are in a war zone and that there is work to do.” That work never stops. It barely even paused for a world-historical hug.