African-Americans’ resistance to police mistreatment is rooted in the history of U.S. capitalist slavery and white supremacy. The group, or class, oppression continues, and is a central feature of the national landscape. This material reality propels When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).
The author, with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, co-founded BLM after a white vigilante shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old, in Florida six years ago. Khan-Cullors’ memoir begins in a deindustrializing Los Angeles, Calif. In this place and time, President Ronald Reagan oversees a Drug War.
Its victims are low-income blacks and Latinos. The perpetrators are what the late István Mészáros, a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, calls the Leviathan state of courts, jails, police and prisons. Khan-Cullors provides a personal and political lens to this history.
For instance, the author’s older brother battles mental health issues. That occurs in and out of incarceration. His inhumane treatment for mental illness is a factor igniting her political consciousness.
In the first of the two-part-book, General Motors Corp. lays off Khan-Cullors’ father. He joins the ranks of low pay, unstable work arrangements. The author’s mother labors union-free and thus by definition precarious, well before the term existed. What is new is old.
The author and her siblings, two brothers and one sister, are latchkey kids, in an under-resourced neighborhood. The police here harass and hurt the nonwhite mainly male teens in the community. The impacts on the author, her family and neighborhood cut deep.
She comes to understand the social forces at play through her experiences in and out of her household. The author flourishes in the classroom, where female teachers mentor her. This experience paves the path for her blossoming in social justice nonprofits.
At the base of class, gender and race oppression is corporate globalization of production. Investment capital flees the U.S. for the Global South of low pay and lax environmental laws. As nonwhites become superfluous to the labor market, they experience daily police violence. This policy of criminalizing low-income national minorities is a hallmark of neoliberalism, the policies and politics of state discipline for a part of the working class.
BLM forms out of this hell. Khan-Cullors describes this personal and social process. Spoiler alert: a four-letter word: love, is central to BLM, contrary to fear mongering of the movement as a threat to public safety.
Many are the moving passages that describe the healing processes to overcome the layered familial and social challenges Khan-Cullors experiences. To this end, she humanizes people on the front line of a gendered and racialized class conflict. Its impacts lead to trauma for her family and the broader community.
A major theme in the memoir is finding and nurturing the space and time to heal. We see the influence of Eve Ensler, activist, author and playwright, on Khan-Cullors. Finding a haven in a heartless society is vital to freedom struggles.
The second of the two-part memoir focuses on the formation of BLM. It is a striking narrative, with far-reaching ripples, from the recent rise of teens against mass gun school violence to women generally rising up against sexual mistreatment. Becoming conscious of others’ oppression can and does help others to understand and act on their second-class treatment.
Khan-Cullors chooses action and thought, or praxis, as the way forward. The choice shapes her and others. (Wo)men do make history under living and working conditions not of their choosing, to paraphrase Karl Marx.
The author’s relationship with her mother, born into a Jehovah’s Witness family, is rich in nuance. Several passages convey the rock-solid role of single-mothering four kids in a community beset by too few resources, save for policing and prosecuting youth. They are a politically powerless demographic unless they organize to make demands on the capitalist state. BLM forms a clear demand to the police: “Hands up don’t shoot.”
At points, the author verges on a critique of what Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, calls the African American political mis-leadership class involved in the corporate-state backlash against national minorities and the working class generally, but steps back from that. Perhaps this stance is due to the Democratic Party’s impact on BLM, as Margaret Kimberly, Ford’s colleague, suggests.
Nevertheless, Khan-Cullors’ memoir is a compelling read on many levels. I commend it to readers.