Change the world? Rip it up and start again
In celebration of International Women’s Day, we speak to Patrisse Cullors, cofounder and former executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, about working towards an abolitionist future
Tuesday 8 March 2022 By Kemi Alemoru
If we abolished the police force tomorrow, would the streets of every town, village and city suddenly look like a scene from The Purge? Without cops, would the world’s criminals run riot? Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, and author of a new book that tackles the topic of abolition, doesn’t think so. But she hears these fears all the time. ‘It’s really scary to think of people who commit crimes not being held accountable,’ she says calmly over Zoom from her home in LA. But as she points out, figures show that our current system still doesn’t protect us from harm. Cullors believes that we live in a world without imagination, where we see the system as we know it, which has only really existed for a few hundred years, as being the only way.
The 38-year-old answers questions about such a complex topic with brevity, clearly well-versed in thinking about how to tear up the old order. That’s par of the course when you’re the brains behind one of the most talked about movements of our generation. It all started in 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. ‘I don’t believe in caging human beings, but what the verdict told me is that Black people don’t matter. You can kill a young boy and get away with it and the state is in alignment,’ says Cullors.
Later, her friends and fellow community organisers, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, decided to start Black Lives Matter to push for change. Fast forward almost 10 years and The New York Times has stated that Black Lives Matter might be the largest movement in US history. It sent ripples around the world with huge protests taking place in the UK in 2020. ‘I’m very proud of that work,’ she says. ‘There’s power in it becoming a decentralised movement where Black people across the globe can mobilise around whatever specific anti-Blackness struggle they’re challenging.’
‘There’s power in [Black Lives Matter] becoming a decentralised movement where Black people across the globe can mobilise around whatever specific anti-Blackness struggle they’re challenging’
Cullors is currently promoting An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps To Changing Yourself And The World, which is the sequel to her New York Times bestseller, When They Call You A Terrorist. The new book is a call to lead with love and understanding, rather than having a world based on punishment and vengeance that ostracises people who need help. At points, Cullors’s goal to make warmth a key tenet of her personal politics is palpable. Her face is haloed by playful ringlets and she speaks softly – even when talking about the gravest injustices she’s witnessed, often flashing a kilowatt smile to encourage a feeling of hope and optimism around where we go next.
She grew up in Van Nuys, a working-class neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Its area code 818 is tattooed on the centre of her chest. ‘It’s a neighbourhood that shaped me for the good and the bad,’ she says. State violence is something she learnt to understand at an early age. The streets she should have been able to play on freely as a young girl were riddled with law enforcement. As she explains, the area was ‘ground zero’ for the war on gangs. Black and brown children were targeted and harassed. Whole families and communities were swept up in daily stops, frisks, and arrests. Cullors’s family home was the subject of frequent raids when her brother was on probation after being brutalised by the prison system. ‘When you’re on parole, your home could be searched at any moment. Your civil liberties are stripped,’ she says. ‘Cops used helicopters to police the community. It felt like a war zone, like we were being hunted. Our family was being hunted.’
From a young age, she had a profound sense of wanting to drive change for poor, Black and brown communities. She clarifies that her activism didn’t ‘go after police straight away’. Initially, she worked with the bus unions to try and improve the transit system, then she looked at the impact of climate change on the third world and marginalised people at home in the US. But when working closely with young people, it became clear that one of the biggest, most pressing issues in the US was law enforcement.
Cullors started by challenging the policing of school children, curfew laws, and eventually set up an organisation called Dignity and Power Now, which has won campaigns against local sheriff’s departments. This set the stage for her to organise on a much larger scale, and to acquaint herself with the possibilities of, and urgent need for, abolition.
Her new writing comes as she says she’s ‘transitioning out of the role’ at Black Lives Matter. Although the move was planned for over a year, it was announced around the time she was doxed by right-wing outlets who criticised her for being a Marxist while owning multiple homes to accommodate her family. The inference was that she’d bought the properties with the $90m worth of funds raised through the organisation in 2020 (the average donation was $30.76), rather than her income from her book deals, speaking engagements, and extensive freelance work. Cullors says the tendency to single out and terrorise activists, which has happened in previous movements such as Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party and other community leaders like Martin Luther King is ‘scary’.
Cullors prefers to look at her work within the framework of us all having a hand in changing society. In its essence, her book calls for us to get to the root causes of harm. Police mostly intervene once crimes have occurred, but an abolitionist frame of mind is a preventative tactic. ‘Mass shootings are a particular phenomenon in the US, specifically North America at large. So, we have to do something about those societies and understand what is cultivating this violence.’ Cullors explains that by examining the genesis of issues, we can begin thinking about how to heal our broken world and create better solutions.
An abolitionist project can look like the work she’s doing with the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, an art gallery and community garden in Inglewood to deepen local bonds, grow food, and provide space for communities inside ‘beautiful geometric domes’, or her plans to install a transitional housing village for homeless people to live until they get permanent housing. Social work in communities can keep people out of harm’s way and from committing harm. Directing funds to similar projects rather than a militarised police force is sure to see long-lasting change.
When asked what those who think of themselves as left wing should dream of as a more fitting system to solve crime than the world of jails, bail and parole, Cullors becomes impassioned. ‘Justice looks like having access to healthy food and adequate housing. Justice looks like having access to proper public education. Justice looks like not having a student loan that means you’re unable to take care of yourself and your family. Justice looks like being able to live in your communities and neighbourhoods without being gunned down by vigilantes or law enforcement. Justice looks like being able to have our dignity intact or humanity intact. We didn’t end slavery in this country, the 13th Amendment said it has ended except if you committed a crime. So, we are still living in the vestiges of such chattel slavery. Justice looks like ending slavery once and for all.’
She goes on to explain the role that the media has played in ‘valorising law enforcement’ via ‘copaganda’. ‘In the 1970s, police were being portrayed on TV as being overweight, they ate doughnuts, they were kind of the clowns. There was a real PR machine to make them look like the victors,’ she explains. Through a new deal with Warner Bros, she wants to do something similar using visual storytelling to aestheticise and simplify abolition.
‘What would it look like to use the storyline of abolishing the police and TV and film, and have a different kind of conversation?’ she asks. Black women are often the ones who are trying to shape a new world, while also being incredibly impacted by the world they’re in, so these films will also feature Black women as protagonists – ranging from scripted works, comedies and sci-fi to documentary projects.
For Cullors, the ‘art of abolition’ is simply a question of reframing the stories we tell, and relearning how to centre care and human dignity in all of the work that we do. Whether through film, literature, direct action or protest, she is laser focused on using everything in her arsenal to inspire others to dream up the possibilities of another, and more equal, world.