American Word Interview with Patrisse Cullors Transcript | The American Word

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American Word Interview with Patrisse Cullors Transcript

Asha Smith | 1/19/16 12:41pm
| Updated 1/19/16 12:42pm

American Word interview with Patrisse Cullors, conducted by Asha Smith on January 13th 2016. 

The American Word: “Let’s start off with… what is your biggest accomplishment and your biggest setback?”

Patrisse Cullors: “In general?”

TAW: “In general and in the context of the movement. I mean, whichever! Because I’m sure they’re not just exclusive.”

PC: “Get back to me on that one.”

TAW: “Okay! We’ll move on to the next one. A lot of civil rights movement leaders think the Black Lives Matter is unorganized and decentralized. What are your thoughts about that?”

PC: “Unorganized and decentralized are not synonyms. Decentralized… decentralization simply means people have their own autonomy to decide what they want to be doing with their movement and with their lives, and I believe that you can be both decentralized and deeply organized.”

TAW: “Okay. Which way do you think is more the direction of BLM?”

PC: “Decentralized.”

TAW: “Decentralized? Why is that?”

PC: “Because we never wanted to start something that was about the three of us. It was always about black people and it was always about what’s best for black people. And so our vision was… similar to many of the movements of the past. This is the 50th anniversary of the Panther Party. They were deeply decentralized and they had chapters across the globe and in their work it was about building power. Black power. And so you can’t build black power by building one black individual.”

TAW: “Going off of that what are some of the key differences that you think are between the BLM and the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s?”

TWA: [Same question… rephrased] 

PC: “Black women, black queer people, and black trans people are at the front lines of this movement, and the way this movement looks physically is different. Black people are able to come out as themselves, they’re not told to leave one’s struggles behind, and we are encouraged to be present as all of our blackness.”

TAW: “Okay, and can you speak more about how that’s especially a struggle I feel like even in my own experience of being black and in the black community how it sometimes feels that you can only be black and male and be at the front of the movement. How has that affected the in practice of the BLM and black power?”

PC: “Well patriarchy is deep and so it is not like we are out of the clear in dealing with I would say is people’s deep desire to see a Martin Luther King. But what is true is there is social media now and we as in black women in particular get to tell our own stories and we get to show people that we are at the front lines.”

TAW: “Right, right. So going off your MLK statement, why is it important that there is no one figurehead for this movement and that it’s really a group?”

PC: “Because it’s about building black power. You can’t build black power by building one individual. That’s not.. power. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be leadership, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be leaders. But when we choose a messiah, everybody else must follow. And that’s dangerous.”

TAW: “Right, right, right. Okay, interesting… kind of shifting gears here, I saw on the BLM website the three of you made a comment on the “all lives matter” phrase but can you expand on what it means to you when you hear people say “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter” or anything like that.”

PC: “I get this question all the time… [TAW: “I know you do.”] Do I have to answer it?… I’m going to answer it in the audience because I know somebody is going to ask me.”

TAW: “Okay let’s go on to a different one. And this is one of the ones that really intrigued me. So on the website it said this: ‘And, to keep it real–it is appropriate and necessary to have black strategy and action centered around Blackness without other non-Black communities of color, or White folks for that matter, needing to find a place and a way to center themselves within it.’ Can you speak more on that?”

PC: “I’ll say this: people always fear when black people talk about ourselves, when we organize ourselves, when we build our own economies, but no one fears that with any other racial group. And so the… question becomes: why is that? And the answer is because we live in a country that has only seen black people as capital. We are not to produce our own capital; we are the capital. It’s in direct contradiction to this country’s philosophy, and so it is okay for other cultures and peoples and races and nationalities to build capital because that’s what we’ve been trained to see. But it is antithetical to this country’s history and its own current state for black people to build our own capital, to build their own lives, to choose our own destinies, because… that’s not what we came here for. So in the act of building our own capital, building our own spaces, we are defying what this country has said we are supposed to be, and we are defying the practice in which this country has used us. Both during chattel slavery and now through the prison industrial complex.”

TAW: “So then how do we essentially differentiate ourselves from other groups of color who have also faced oppression here…, from these same systems?”

PC: “Just that. That we were made as capital; no other group was made as capital. I think other groups were migrant workers or farm workers yet seen as part of capitalism. But we’ve only been seen as capital. We were stolen, we were forced into chattel slavery, and I think that’s… a really important part of the conversation that gets undermined but also gets shelved when we’re talking about racism. And anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy. There is no way that other groups could be what they are inside this country if it wasn’t for anti-black racism. That’s just the reality…Other racial groups benefit from anti-black racism. And until we have that conversation, we can’t have a radical reevaluation or radical transformation.”

TAW: “What are some specific ways that other groups have benefited?”

PC: “I think the whole conversation around how Jews became white, the Irish became white. They were not white. Whiteness is a social structure,… a social construct, that was developed to make this country very white and black. If you look at the Latino community and how the ways in which many right-wing Latinos or even progressive Latinos try to separate themselves there’s huge conversations and challenges in the immigrants’ rights movement that first began around the whole idea of ‘we are not criminals.’ Then who is? We are the sort of models. And I think that that’s important that we start to pull that apart. And we’ve seen some amazing conversations.”

TAW: “Okay…, just two last questions. What do you see as your role going forward in the racial justice movement?”

PC: “A lot of things. I’m really interested in technology and its role in amplifying our movement and so I’m working on a project where I received half a million dollars from Google—imagine that—to develop a web-based platform that focuses on mass incarceration… I’m a performance artist as well; I developed a piece called Power: From the Mouths of the Occupied that brings black folk stories of state violence to stage and so really amplifying the voices of our folks through art. And lastly, I’m going to be a mom soon, and parenting as a black person is super revolutionary.”

TAW: “Absolutely. And you’ll probably end up answering this question out here but what advice would you give a young activist?”

PC: “Yeah I’m going to wait until I tell the team out there.”

TAW: “That’s okay, I totally get that. Where did you go to college at?”


TAW: “What did you on campus while you were an undergrad?”

PC: “Nothing.”

TAW: “Really?”

PC: “Nothing in school. I don’t like student activism. Sorry, for student activists.”

TAW: “Tell me more about that.”

PC: “I think it’s a trap. I think if you’re not doing work in the community you can sort of do your student activism and leave and be like, ‘I was an activist.’ Which is true, I think there is very valuable student activism but I think it has to be tied to the community so my activism was all in the community when I was in college. I did not do student activism– as a political statement.”