When They Call You a Terrorist is the memoir of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. She grew up in Los Angeles in a Black neighborhood that was subject to the same over-policing and criminalization of Blackness that has filled prisons across America. She writes about how she came to proclaim #BlackLivesMatter.
It’s an example of the narrow-minded jealousy of racism that people interpret that to say “only Black lives matter” rather than “Black lives matter, too.” If that phrase offends you, you are trapped in the binary idea that if Black lives matter, it hurts you somehow. How can valuing any life hurt you?
Khan-Cullors tells her story from childhood to adulthood to activism and it’s a difficult story to read. Growing up in a majority Black neighborhood, Khan-Cullors experienced policing far differently than White Americans. For White Americans, the police are not omnipresent. We generally only see them when we solicit their help when we feel threatened and in need of protection. They serve us, they protect us, so when they are criticized, we wonder what’s wrong with people.
But, our reality is not the only one. We are not policed the same way Black people are policed. We won’t get arrested for waiting with friends at a bus stop because that won’t be seen as being part of a gang. Going to our mother’s house on Thanksgiving won’t be a crime as it is in the many “exclusion zones” created to criminalize Blackness. Our shirts, pants, shoes, and hoodies are not seen as criminal acts and yes, if someone is designated a gang member, they can be arrested for the clothes on their back. Stop and frisk was not directed at us. We don’t get pulled over for driving the wrong way when we pull out of a driveway as a friend of mine was. Our ten-year-old daughters are not driven to a quarry and interrogated by police and then left to walk home as my former supervisor’s daughter was. The adult Dylann Roof can shoot nine people, get arrested without injury, and treated to a burger while the child Tamir Rice was shot down in two seconds without police doing one thing to ascertain whether or not his toy gun was real. The injustices come in multitudes and Khan-Cullors provides a clear, unapologetic explanation of what it is like to grow up in a hostile occupied community, terrorized by police, and expected by a hostile nation to be grateful for it.
I expected When They Call You a Terrorist will to be a moving, angering, heartbreaking memoir. I did not expect its beauty. There is a poetic heart at the center of this book. The language is beautiful and powerful. Her life story is emblematic of too many people in America, their dreams deferred by inadequate schools, their families broken by addiction and mental illness, their lives shortened by poor nutrition in educational, opportunity, and food deserts, circumscribed and alienated by an occupying force whose purpose is to herd them into prisons where they can provide cheap labor and never compete for power.
And yet, this book is not bitter. Angry and impassioned, yes, but rich with love, compassion, and empathy. This is a book that will inspire you if you will only read it.
When They Call You a Terrorist will be published January 16th. I received an Advance Reading Copy from the publisher through a Shelf Awareness drawing.
- When They Call You a Terrorist at St. Martin’s Press | Macmillan
- Patrisse Khan-Cullors on Twitter and her website
- Asha Bandele on Twitter