In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young woman in California named Alicia Garza wrote an emotional Facebook post that ended with the words "Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter." Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, turned that into a hashtag.
"I was devastated," Cullors says. "Honestly I think it was my naivete, but I really believed that George Zimmerman was going to be found guilty of something." She turned to social media to try to understand what was happening, and found Garza's "love note to black people." The three words 'Black Lives Matter' "hit me in the gut," she remembers. "I put a hashtag on it because it just felt so necessary to archive it." That developed into street protests and online organizing. As Cullors told her friend they should use it "to develop a new narrative around what it means to believe and fight for black life in this moment."
"Black Lives Matter reminds people that black people are human, but more importantly, it reminds black people that we are human," she says.
On becoming an activist
By the time I was 23, my brother and my father that raised me had spent most of their life in prison or jail because of the war on drugs. And I knew that the system didn't actually care to rehabilitate black communities, but rather the use of jail was really what Michelle Alexander calls it: "The New Jim Crow." So for me, I had no choice but to be an organizer. I had no choice but to be an activist. It was the only way I could feel some resolve. For me, the choice is about either turning my eyes towards the violence happening in my community, turning my eyes away from it, or dealing with it head on. And people who know me well know that I deal with issues head on. And so that's why I say I didn't have a choice.
On whether #BlackLivesMatter has been healing
I appreciate you using the word healing, because I think sometimes that word is overused. But I think healing is actually an important piece of this conversation because what...black communities go through — especially poor black communities and poor communities in general — is a significant amount of trauma. To not be able to feed your children is traumatic. To witness people being kidnapped from their community, put in cars and handcuffed, you know, at 12, 13-years-old is traumatic. To witness people receive life sentences in prison is traumatic. And so if there's no sense of healing, if there's no way out of that, I think that leads to a significant amount of apathy in our communities, and so Black Lives Matter has created a track towards healing.
On what success might look like
I think the victory that people are actually looking at police killing black people is huge. Fifteen years ago, no one cared if police were killing black people. I mean that just wasn't newsworthy... The media wasn't making this an issue, and the fact that it's now a real live conversation is a huge success. At some point there may be some national legislative goals. Right now, that's not where we're at but that's okay to me. Because right now Black Lives Matter has 26 chapters across the country, and two chapters outside of our country - one in Ghana, one in Toronto. People are organizing, and any good organizer understands that organizing takes years to develop someone, to develop thought leadership.
On being a "leader-full" — not a leaderless — movement
It's important to us in the Black Lives Matter movement that... we're not following an individual, right? This is a leader-full movement. I don't believe you can do anything without leadership. I don't believe that at all. I think there are many people leading this conversation, advancing this conversation...There [are] groups on the ground that have been doing this work, and I think we stand on the shoulders of those folks.
On why Cullors turned down an invitation to take part in NPR's upcoming event about policing and communities
Black Lives Matter has made it a point to not share the stage with law enforcement, in particular, because we think it's unethical for us to sit at tables as if it's going to be an even conversation... I will have conversations with them. I don't believe we don't sit down with law enforcement, or have conversations with them or lobby them; I just don't think its ethical to be on stage with them at this moment.
And Michel Martin will be heading to Los Angeles on June 24 to learn more about policing and communities. Join her there, or on Twitter using #StreetsAndBeats.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Since the start of this year, police in the U.S. have shot and killed nearly 400 people, according to a Washington Post analysis. And among the many who were not armed, two-thirds were black or Hispanic. Bringing attention to those deaths is the movement and slogan, Black Lives Matter. NPR's Michel Martin spoke with one of the organization's founders.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: In 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, a woman in California wrote an emotional Facebook post that ended with the words, our lives matter, black lives matter. Her friend, Patrisse Cullors, turned that into a hashtag, which has now gone global and sparked a movement. And I'm joined now by Patrisse Cullors to find out more. Patrisse, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
PATRISSE CULLORS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Can you take me back to when your friend, Alicia Garza, wrote the piece and when you added the hashtag to the phrase Black Lives Matter? And I wonder if you could tell us if you had any particular hopes in that moment?
CULLORS: You know, the moment George Zimmerman was acquitted, I said, this is dangerous. This is dangerous for our country. This is dangerous for the narrative around the devaluing of black life. And I was searching on social media to sort of understand what was happening. And when I finally reached Alicia Garza's love note to black people and that last, you know, black lives matter just like hit me in the gut. And I felt like this could be big, and I said to Alicia, #BlackLivesMatter - let's use this as something to develop a new narrative around what it means to believe and fight for black life. And I wanted it to go global. I didn't think I understood that it was going to go global. And now that it has, it's awe-inspiring, and it's also a lot of responsibility because it means that we're trying to figure out what's the next way forward.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that because one of the critiques of the movement is from people who say, now that we've elevated the issue, what are you leading us to do? And then the other critique is that it doesn't address the many ways in which African-American lives have been lost in violence within the community.
CULLORS: Yes. Policy change, it's work I've been doing since I was 16 years old, so I understand the value of that work, and I think there's a myth that that work isn't happening. We are deeply entrenched in changing policies, but policy doesn't change the culture. You can have Jim Crow laws change, but we still have Jim Crow hate. And so Black Lives Matter reminds people that black people are human, but more importantly it reminds black people that we are human. It reminds black people that we have total agency to change our conditions.
And so I think that lends a second question which is, why don't we talk about black-on-black crime? You know, this is a tricky question because it sort of points the question as if there isn't white-on-white crime or Latino-on-Latino crime. That's actually not the issue to me. The issue is what allows for those conditions to push people to enact harm. And so when you're living in abject poverty, when you're living amongst significant amount of violence - we have to look at the root causes, right? So if we're telling black people to pull up their pants, to change their behaviors, but we're not actually calling on the state to ensure that we have jobs, to ensure that we can feed our children, that's just a false way to deal with the actual problems. And so it's not that we don't want to talk about the violence that's happening in our communities. I just think that the way we talk about it is different.
MARTIN: You know, of course many people in law enforcement would say that they engage in these actions in order to protect people within the community who are being preyed upon by other members of that community. What would you say to that?
CULLORS: I think that's false. I think we need to redefine what public safety means. Public safety looks like the ability to be able to go to a job on a daily basis, the ability to have shelter, have access to healthy food. That's what public safety looks like. And if we continue to believe as a country that public safety exists in courtrooms and jail cells with people who wear badges, we are going to see more and more killings. We are going to see more and more harassment. And it's our job as community members to redefine and imagine a new way of living.
MARTIN: You said that you've been an activist since you were 16. What made you an activist at that age?
CULLORS: I grew up in Los Angeles, born and raised. LAPD patrolled my block daily. I witnessed a significant amount of state violence. I remember my home being raided at the age of 8 - the battery ram knocking my door down, then LAPD searching for my uncle. I remember at probably age 9, LAPD once again coming in our home. My mom had done nothing. They had handcuffed her. And I remember the shame she felt. I remember feeling also humiliated. And I remember my single mother, who was probably under 30 at the time - she's a teenage mom, worked three jobs, worked really hard for us - and just feeling like LAPD in particular had no respect for the lives of my family and the community around me and just feeling really hurt and angry at a young age and trying to understand why this was OK.
And by the time I was 13, most of the boys in my community had been jailed. By the time I was 16, my brother was incarcerated in the county jails and was brutally beaten by the sheriff's department. And at that point, I realized there's something wrong with the system. This isn't about individual officers. This is about a culture of violence that exists inside law enforcement. And by the time I was 23, my brother and my father that raised me had spent most of their life in prison or jail because of the war on drugs. And I knew that the system didn't actually care to rehabilitate black communities. So for me, I had no choice but to be an activist. I was searching for something else outside of what I was witnessing, and I was searching for a way to find my dignity. This conversation for me is about the dignity of my family and my community, the dignity of black people because our dignity is lost at a very, very young age.
MARTIN: Patrisse Cullors is an artist and organizer and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter. She's based in Los Angeles. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
CULLORS: Thank you so much.
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MONTAGNE: And Michel Martin will be onstage here in Los Angeles in two weeks for an evening of storytelling with local residents and law enforcement. You can join the conversation and share your experiences on Twitter using the hashtag #streetsandbeats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.