When They Call You A Terrorist - A Black Lives Matter Memoir
WE ARE STARDUST
"I write to keep in contact with our ancestors and to spread truth to people."
Days after the elections of 2016, asha sent me a link to a talk by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. We have to have hope, she says to me across 3,000 miles, she in Brooklyn, me in Los Angeles. We listen together as Dr. deGrasse Tyson explains that the very atoms and molecules in our bodies are traceable to the crucibles in the centers of stars that once upon a time exploded into gas clouds. And those gas clouds formed other stars and those stars possessed the divine-right mix of properties needed to create not only planets, including our own, but also people, including us, me and her. He is saying that not only are we in the universe, but that the universe is in us. He is saying that we, human beings, are literally made out of stardust.
And I know when I hear Dr. deGrasse Tyson say this that he is telling the truth because I have seen it since I was a child, the magic, the stardust we are, in the lives of the people I come from.
I watched it in the labor of my mother, a Jehovah’s Witness and a woman who worked two and sometimes three jobs at a time, keeping other people’s children, working the reception desks at gyms, telemarketing, doing anything and everything for 16 hours a day the whole of my childhood in the Van Nuys barrio where we lived. My mother, cocoa brown and smooth, disowned by her family for the children she had as a very young and unmarried woman. My mother, never giving up despite never making a living wage.
I saw it in the thin, brown face of my father, a boy out of Cajun country, a wounded healer, whose addictions were borne of a world that did not love him and told him so not once but constantly. My father, who always came back, who never stopped trying to be a version of himself there were no mirrors for.
And I knew it because I am the thirteenth-generation progeny of a people who survived the hulls of slave ships, survived the chains, the whips, the months laying in their own shit and piss. The human beings legislated as not human beings who watched their names, their languages, their Goddesses and Gods, the arc of their dances and beats of their songs, the majesty of their dreams, their very families snatched up and stolen, disassembled and discarded, and despite this built language and honored God and created movement and upheld love. What could they be but stardust, these people who refused to die, who refused to accept the idea that their lives did not matter, that their children’s lives did not matter?
Our foreparents imagined our families out of whole cloth. They imagined each individual one of us. They imagined me. They had to. It is the only way I am here, today, a mother and a wife, a community organizer and Queer, an artist and a dreamer learning to find hope while navigating the shadows of hell even as I know it might have been otherwise.
I was not expected or encouraged to survive. My brothers and little sister, my family—the one I was born into and the one I created—were not expected to survive. We lived a precarious life on the tightrope of poverty bordered at each end with the politics of personal responsibility that Black pastors and then the first Black president preached—they preached that more than they preached a commitment to collective responsibility.
They preached it more than they preached about what it meant to be the world’s wealthiest nation and yet the place with extraordinary unemployment, an extraordinary lack of livable wages and an extraordinary disruption of basic opportunity.
And they preached that more than they preached about America having 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, a population which for a long time included my disabled brother and gentle father who never raised a hand to another human being. And a prison population that, with extraordinary deliberation, today excludes the man who shot and killed a 17-year-old boy who was carrying Skittles and iced tea.
There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of that child, said Black Lives Matter. The document gained traction during the first week of July 2016 after a week of protests against the back-to-back police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis. At the end of that week, on July 7, in Dallas, Texas, a sniper opened fire during a Black Lives Matter protest that was populated with mothers and fathers who brought their children along to proclaim: We have a right to live.
The sniper, identified as 25-year-old Micah Johnson, an Army reservist home from Afghanistan, holed up in a building on the campus of El Centro College after killing five police officers and wounding eleven others, including two protesters. And in the early morning hours of July 8, 2016, he became the first individual ever to be blown up by local law enforcement. They used a military-grade bomb against Micah Johnson and programmed a robot to deliver it to him. No jury, no trial. No patience like the patience shown the killers who gunned down nine worshippers in Charleston, or moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.
Of course, we will never know what his motivations really were and we will never know if he was mentally unstable. We will only know for sure that the single organization to which he ever belonged was the U.S. Army. And we will remember that the white men who were mass killers, in Aurora and Charleston, were taken alive and one was fed fast food on the way to jail. We will remember that most of the cops who are killed in this nation are killed by white men who are taken alive.
And we will experience all the ways the ghost of Micah Johnson will be weaponized against Black Lives Matter, will be weaponized against me, a tactic from the way back that has continuously been used against people who challenge white supremacy. We will remember that Nelson Mandela remained on the FBI’s list of terrorists until 2008.
Even still, the accusation of being a terrorist is devastating, and I allow myself space to cry quietly as I lie in bed on a Sunday morning listening to a red-faced, hysterical Rudolph Giuliani spit lies about us three days after Dallas.
Like many of the people who embody our movement, I have lived my life between the twin terrors of poverty and the police. Coming of age in the drug war climate that was ratcheted up by Ronald Reagan and then Bill Clinton, the neighborhood where I lived and loved and the neighborhoods where many of the members of Black Lives Matter have lived and loved were designated war zones and the enemy was us.
The fact that more white people have always used and sold drugs than Black and Brown people and yet when we close our eyes and think of a drug seller or user the face most of us see is Black or Brown tells you what you need to know if you cannot readily imagine how someone can be doing no harm and yet be harassed by police. Literally breathing while Black became cause for arrest—or worse.
I carry the memory of living under that terror—the terror of knowing that I, or any member of my family, could be killed with impunity—in my blood, my bones, in every step I take.
And yet I was called a terrorist.
The members of our movement are called terrorists.
We—me, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi—the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, are called terrorists.
We, the people.
We are not terrorists.
I am not a terrorist.
I am Patrisse Marie Khan-Cullors Brignac.
I am a survivor.
I am stardust.
We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be … black, but by getting the public to associate the … blacks with heroin … and then criminalizing [them] heavily, we could disrupt [their] communities … Did we know we were lying? Of course we did.
JOHN EHRLICHMAN, RICHARD M. NIXON’S NATIONAL DOMESTIC POLICY CHIEF, ON THE ADMINISTRATION’S POSITION ON BLACK PEOPLE
My mother, Cherice, raises us—my older brothers Paul and Monte, my baby sister Jasmine, and me—on a block that is the main strip in my Van Nuys, California, mostly Mexican neighborhood. We live in one of ten Section 8 apartments in a two-story, tan-colored building where the paint is peeling and where there is a gate that does not close properly and an intercom system that never works.
My mother and I are considered short in our family. She is five feet four inches, and I never get any taller than five feet two. But Jasmine, Paul and Monte are tall people, and by the time she is grown, my little sister will reach six feet. My brothers will also both soar up to well over six feet. They get it from our father, Alton Cullors, a mechanic with big, dark brown hands he uses to work the line at the GM plant in Van Nuys, hands that hold me, hug me and make me feel safe. He smells of gasoline and cars, smells that still make me think of love and snuggles and safety almost three decades on. Alton comes in and out of our home, in and out of our days, depending on how he and Mommy are getting along. By the time I am six, he will leave and never live with us again. But he won’t disappear entirely from our lives, and his love won’t disappear at all. It lingers, that good Alton Cullors love, inside me, beside me, even now, today.
Where we live is multiracial, although by far the majority of people are Mexican. But there are Korean people and Black people like us, and even one white woman who is morbidly obese and cannot bathe in the tub the apartments in our buildings provide. I watch her sneak down to the dilapidated swimming pool attached to our apartment building, the one I will learn to swim in. Each night when she thinks no one is looking, she bathes in the water, bath soap, washcloth, shampoo and all. She never knows I see her and I never say. Not only because she is an adult and I am a child. But because she is part of who makes us, us.
She is poor and raising her daughter alone. She has a fast kind of mouth that reminds me of the quick-tongued Black women in my own family. She wears muumuus. I miss her presence when she leaves, as she eventually does, like most of our neighbors. Ours is a neighborhood designed to be transient, not a place where roots are meant to take hold, meant to grow into trees that live and live. The only place in my hood to buy groceries is a 7-Eleven. Without it, George’s liquor store, the small Mexican and Chinese fast-food spots and the Taco Bell we would have nowhere in our neighborhood to get something to eat or drink.
But less than a mile away is Sherman Oaks, a wealthy white neighborhood with big old houses that have two-car garages, landscaped lawns and swimming pools that look nothing like the untended, postage-stamp-size one behind our apartment building. In Sherman Oaks, there is nothing that does not appear beautiful and well kept. There aren’t even apartment buildings.
There are just expansive homes with fancy cars in front of them and parents who leave their houses each morning and drive their kids to school, a phenomenon that catches my eye the first time I see it. Mine is a neighborhood of kids who take the bus to school or walk from the time we are in first grade. Our parents are long gone to work by the time we emerge, little multicolored peepers in the springtime, our fresh brown faces trying to figure out a world we did not make and did not know we had the power to unmake.
My own mother worked 16 hours a day, at two and sometimes three jobs. She never had a career, only labored to pull together enough to make ends meet. Telemarketer, receptionist, domestic support, office cleaner—these were the jobs my mom did and all were vital to us, especially after the Van Nuys GM plant shut down and our family’s stability did too, right along with it.
Alton got a series of low-wage jobs that had no insurance, no job security and no way to take care of us, his family, which is why I think, looking back now, he left, and while he visited and was always there, it was never the same again. In the 1980s, when all this was going down, unemployment among Black people, nearly triple that of white people’s, was worse in multiple regions of the United States, including where I lived, than it was during the Great Recession of 2008–2009.
Sometimes when we would be hungry, when what was left was Honey Nut Cheerios we put water on to eat because there was no milk and, for a year, no working refrigerator in our home, my mother would lock herself in the bathroom and cuss that man to the heavens: Help me fucking feed our children, Alton. Our. Children. What kind of fucking man are you?
I wasn’t supposed to hear those conversations, but I sat on the floor outside the bathroom and listened anyway to the yelling, to the problems, to the growl of my empty six-year-old stomach. Being hungry is the hardest thing, and to this day I have prayers of gratitude for the Black Panthers, who made Breakfast for Children a thing that schools should do. We qualified for free lunch and breakfast, and without them I am almost sure we wouldn’t have made it out of childhood alive despite my hardworking parents.
* * *
We love each other madly, my brothers, sister and I, and we are raised to look out for each other from the very beginning. Jasmine is the baby, our baby, and we love her up as such, but Paul is the oldest, so he takes charge when Alton moves out. It’s his voice I wake up to each morning when it’s time to go to school and my mother has left already for one of her jobs. It’s Paul who gets us ready, tells us to brush our teeth and Come on, let’s go. It’s Paul who, when we have the ingredients in the house, makes grilled cheese sandwiches for us for dinner just like Mommy taught him to. It’s Paul who says, Go on now, time to go to bed, while Mommy is on her second job, whatever it is.
But it’s Monte who plays with me, lets me get away with stuff. Monte is the one with the ginormous heart. He can never not feed the stray cats and dogs that wander our streets even when our own food supplies are meager. Monte is the one who scoops up the baby birds that fall from their nests, puts them back in the right place. If I close my eyes right now I am back there with him, watching him ever so gently lift a miniature bird—I don’t recall what kind we had in our hood—and put it back into the nest, which sometimes had fallen as well.
But Monte, who is the second oldest, is, unlike Paul, also a step removed from responsibility. At night we curl up and watch TV together when I’m supposed to be sleeping. Beverly Hills, 90210 is our favorite show, a world of rich white kids and their problems, a world where we, and our problems, do not exist. No police cars circle blocks or people in 90210, not like in Van Nuys, where they do all day, every day, like hungry hyenas out there on the flatlands. For a long time I see them, the police in their cars, but I do not understand them, what role they play in the neighborhood. They do not speak to us or help guide us across streets. They are never friendly. It is clear not only that they are not our friends, but that they do not like us very much. I try to avoid them, but this is impossible, of course. They are omnipresent. And then there comes a day when they pull up near our apartment building. They block the alleyway along the side of it.
The alleyway is where my brothers hang out with their friends and talk shit, probably about girls and all the things they probably never have done with them. Monte and Paul are 11 and 13 years old and there are no green spaces, no community centers to shoot hoops in, no playgrounds with handball courts, no parks for children to build castles in, so they make the alleyway their secret place and go there to discuss things they do not let me in on. I am the girl. Nine years old, I am the little sister banished behind the broken black wrought-iron gate that tries, but fails, to protect us from the outside world.
It’s from behind that gate that I watch the police roll up on my brothers and their friends, not one of whom is over the age of 14 and all of whom are doing absolutely nothing but talking. They throw them up on the wall. They make them pull their shirts up. They make them turn out their pockets. They roughly touch my brothers’ bodies, even their privates, while from behind the gate, I watch, frozen. I cannot cry or scream. I cannot breathe and I cannot hear anything. Not the siren that would have been accompanying the swirl of red lights, not the screeching at the boys: Get on the fucking wall! Later, I will be angry with myself: Why didn’t I help them?
And later, neither Paul nor Monte will say a word about what happened to them. They will not cry or cuss. They will not make loud although empty threats. They will not discuss it with me, who was a witness, or my mother, who was not. They will not be outraged. They will not say they do not deserve such treatment. Because by the time they hit puberty, neither will my brothers have expected that things could be another way.
They will be silent in the way we often hear of the silence of rape victims. They will be worried, maybe, that no one will believe them. Worried that there’s nothing that can be done to fix things, make things better. Whatever goes through their minds after being half stripped in public and having their childhoods flung to the ground and ground into the concrete, we will never speak of this incident or the ones that will follow as Van Nuys becomes ground zero in the war on drugs and the war on gangs, designations that add even more license to police already empowered to do whatever they want to us. Now there are even more ways to make us the enemy, even more ways to make us disappear.
And I will not think of this particular incident until years and years later, when the reports about Mike Brown start flowing out of Ferguson, Missouri, and he is morphed by police and the press from a beloved 18-year-old boy, a boy who was heading to college and a boy who was unarmed, into something like King Kong, an entity swollen, monster-like, that could only be killed with bullets that were shot into the top of his head. Because this is what that cop did to him. He shot bullets into the top of his head as he knelt on the ground with his hands up.
I will think of it again when I watch bike-riding Freddie Gray, just 25, snatched up and thrown into the back of a police van like he was a bag of trash being tossed aside. Freddie Gray, taken for a Baltimore “rough ride” vicious enough for the cops in the case to be charged with depraved heart murder. Those actual words. Cops who would be, like most law enforcement accused of shooting Black people, acquitted. Even with the presence of video.
Soon after the day that my brothers were set upon in the alley by cops, a new cycle begins: they start getting arrested on a regular basis, and it happens so often that my mother is eventually forced to move us to another part of Van Nuys. But there is nowhere that they can be or feel safe. No place where there are jobs. No city, no block, where what they know, all they know, is that their lives matter, that they are loved. We try to make a world and tell them they are important and tell ourselves we are too. But real life can be an insistent and merciless intruder.
Later, when I am sent out of my neighborhood, to Millikan, an all-white middle school in wealthy and beautiful Sherman Oaks, I will make friends with a white girl who, as it turns out, has a brother who is the local drug seller. He literally has garbage bags filled with weed. Garbage bags.
But that surprises me less than the fact that not only has he never been arrested, he’s never even feared arrest. When he tells me that, I try to let it sink in, living without fear of the police. But it never does sink in.
Copyright © 2017 by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
Foreword copyright © 2017 by Angela Davis