Bending Toward Justice: The Arc of Black Lives Matter
There are periods when history comes to a boil – when powerful forces of both destruction and creation result in massive social change. In 2020, the Black Lives Matter Movement emerged as the biggest protest movement in American history, and resounded worldwide.
Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, tells the story of the birth of this powerful movement for racial justice, and shares her vision of a world where black people are actually free, a world that we all deserve to live in.
- Patrisse Cullors, a performance artist and award-winning organizer from Los Angeles, is one of the most effective and influential movement builders of our era. She was a key figure in the fight to force the creation of the first civilian oversight commission of LA’s Sheriff’s Department, but is most widely known as one of the three original co-founders of Black Lives Matter and for her recent, best-selling book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: No one can say exactly why, but there are periods when history comes to a boil – when powerful forces of both destruction and creation result in massive social change – a historic time of revolution and evolution.
PROTESTORS CHANTING: No Justice, No Peace, No racist Police!
HOST: 2020 marked a high tide of serial events since 2012 that crystallized for all to see the systemic racism ravaging Black communities and tearing the US apart.
It was certainly not news for Black communities and communities of color, who have long endured, resisted and fought to overcome the daily injustices and routine state violence. But for White America, this consciousness of the African American experience reached a historic tipping point.
Perhaps it was the ubiquity of cell phone cameras that graphically showed the staggering volume of chronic police violence against Black communities.
Perhaps so many people sheltering in place against COVID-19 now had the time and space to actually pay attention.
Or perhaps it was the public’s radicalization at this head-spinning political backlash against the nation’s first Black President and the change that so many Americans hoped had finally come to a nation that within a generation would have a majority minority population.
Whatever forces of history may have converged, the Black Lives Matter Movement had emerged as the biggest protest movement in American history, and it was resounding worldwide.
Patrisse Cullors spoke at the 2018 Bioneers conference…
PATRISSE CULLORS: In 2013, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and I co-created and gave birth to Black Lives Matter. [APPLAUSE] We were super clear on a few things. One, this movement wasn’t a movement about black Americans only. This movement was a global movement, and that was incredibly important that we connected ourselves to a larger diaspora, because anti-black racism isn’t a US phenomenon, it is a global phenomenon. The second thing is we were super clear that Black Lives Matter was about all black lives. It was about black women, black queer folks, black trans folks, black people with convictions, black people who were incarcerated, black people with disabilities. We were not building a movement just for heterosexual cis black men. [APPLAUSE] We were building a movement that could combat patriarchy and homophobia and transphobia. We are building a movement that can have an honest conversation about climate change. We’re building a movement that can have an honest conversation about what justice really looks like to our communities. We were building a movement that was unapologetic about being abolitionist.
And when we created Black Lives Matter, we weren’t on a conference call. We weren’t at an organizing strategy meeting. Each of us were in separate places, watching the verdict of George Zimmerman. We all remember that day – July 13th, 2013 – waiting to hear for some sort of justice for Trayvon Martin, and really some sort of justice for black people, here in the US but also around the world. And instead, what we received was not guilty verdicts. Over and over again I read on my social media feed, not guilty, not guilty, and eventually not guilty of all charges.
HOST: Patrisse Cullors had long been working as an organizer to end mass incarceration and state violence against Black Americans. She founded the group Dignity and Power Now to bring forth a truly Restorative Justice to create both justice and healing for incarcerated African Americans, their families and communities – and to change the structural inequality baked into the system itself.
A year into that work, the murder of Trayvon Martin shocked the nation. Just 17, the Black boy was killed because he looked “suspicious” to an armed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, even though Martin had nothing on him except a pack of Skittles and an iced tea from a walk to his local store.
PC: And I was sitting in Susanville, a small prison town, 11 hours north from Los Angeles, visiting one of my mentees, who actually just received 10 years, 85% time, for never harming a human being. And I’m watching this verdict of someone that we know killed this little boy. There was no question about that. And then also sitting in this prison town, knowing that my mentee deserved to be free.
And I had this moment of first shock, second rage, third despair, and then fourth: What are we going to do about it? [APPLAUSE] And as I was scrolling through my social media feed to figure out who I was going to talk to, how we were going to show up, what was the next step, I came across Alicia Garza’s post. And she had written a love note to black folks, and in that love note, she had closed it off with Black Lives Matter. And I remember looking at those three words and saying, That’s it. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to do.
And I put a hashtag in front of it. And Alicia said, Well, what’s that? [LAUGHTER] And I said, We’re going to make this thing go viral. And within that year, it wasn’t social media that made Black Lives Matter go viral, it was three black women. [APPLAUSE] It was black women and the community of black women and queer folks and trans folks that believed in those three letters, believed it so deeply and so profoundly, and we organized around it. We showed up for it. We talked to people about it. We talked to our own family members about it.
And I remember that first year. Right? That was the year that Obama was in office, and many folks said, Well, we don’t need Black Lives Matter. Why would you say that? You have your black president. It’s all over, guys. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] And our response was we need Black Lives Matter more than ever.
HOST: The ground truth was that the US was not remotely a post-racial society. Instead, the election of Barack Obama had ignited a brutal racist backlash.
In 2014 during Obama’s second term, in Ferguson, Missouri a White police officer named Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown Jr., another young Black man who like Trayvon Martin was unarmed.
The massive spontaneous protests that erupted in the St. Louis suburb were met by overwhelming militarized force by police and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Many observers compared it to an occupying army.
NEWS ANCHOR: Police departments in the St. Louis area like those across the country are arming their officers with equipment once on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
ST. LOUIS PD: This is the Police Department, you must continue to disperse peacefully, or you will be subject to arrest and/or other actions.
CHANTS: Hands up, don’t shoot!
HOST: A St. Louis grand jury declined to indict Wilson, and four months later, the US Department of Justice acquitted him, claiming he acted in self-defense.
Once again, cell phone cameras showed otherwise, as they would keep doing in what seemed like an unending national nightmare of serial police murders of Black citizens.
CHANTS: Justice for Michael Brown!
HOST: Time after time, there was little or no accountability for the officers, who were either not charged, charged with lesser offenses, or acquitted.
Ferguson became another tipping point – both in the national consciousness and for the Black Lives Matter movement.
PC: And there was this moment for many of us, in those two to three days that Mike Brown is not just murdered, he’s also left on the concrete for four and a half hours, humiliated in front of his family and his community. And then when the family and community decided to grieve, the way we know how to grieve, right, for black folks protest is grieving. And so folks go out, they hold a vigil, they hold a protest, and instead of receiving care, instead of receiving dignity, instead of receiving love, they’re met with rubber bullets, they’re met with tear gas. And I’m watching, again, on social media, another tragedy.
And I called a few friends up. I said, What are we going to do? This can’t keep happening in this way without a public response, without public outrage. And so, Darnell Moore and I organized 600 black folks to travel from across the country, including Canada, to St. Louis for three days. We called it the Black Lives Matter ride.
And we had two specific goals. The first goal was to show up and just be present, just let folks know that we’re here, we’re here for you, whatever you need. And the second was that we were going to go home and organize. We weren’t going to allow the media to make it seem that Ferguson was an anomaly. We believe that Ferguson was Oakland, Ferguson was Los Angeles, Ferguson was Detroit, Ferguson was Baltimore, Ferguson was every single city where black people existed and were under the lynchpin of state violence and law enforcement violence.
And this became an incredibly important moment for Black Lives Matter, because it’s the rise of what is now a global network of 40 chapters across the globe. We’ve seen Black Lives Matter be used across Latin America. We’ve seen it used at – Yes, shout out! – we’ve seen it used in South Africa. We’ve seen it used in Amsterdam and Australia.
And so as we continued to develop and get stronger and bolder, 2016 happened. And I remember 45, because I don’t say his name, being told that he was the next president of the United States, and I had a similar reaction that I did in July 2013, a reaction of shock, grief, despair. And I remember sort of holding my body and crying, and a good friend of mine leaning over and rubbing my back and saying, We’re going to be okay. And I remember saying to him, No, we’re not. We’re not going to be okay.
And I started to plot my escape from the US. [LAUGHTER] No lie, y’all. [APPLAUSE] Really and truly started to look up other places, where I’m going to take me and my 2 ½ year old, what are we—It’s a wrap. And I’m an organizer, born and raised an organizer, so that was like a couple weeks of me going down a rabbit hole of trying to escape, and rather quickly pulled myself back up and said, Alright, it’s time to fight. It’s time to fight. [APPLAUSE]
HOST: Patrisse Cullors spent the next two years exploring how to move forward with the growing Black Lives Matter global network, and with other organizations and community members.
In 2018, she published her bestselling book: When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir where she described the impact state violence has had on her life.
the federal government and police departments sought to brand the growing movement as a terrorist organization, conducting widespread surveillance on the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters and organizers exercising their civil rights.
It was a well-worn playbook reminiscent of the 1960s when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled the Black Panthers a terrorist organization and brought the full force of militarized federal repression against Black activists as well as their White allies, planting provocateurs, and carrying out political murders.
CHANTS: I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!
HOST: When we return, the head-spinning cascade of events that would propel Black Lives Matter to become the biggest protest movement in American history, and Patrisse Cullors’ vision for what Black Lives Matter is fighting for…
This is “Bending Toward Justice”, on The Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature.
In the years leading up to 2020, there was a rising national movement to remove Confederate monuments and flags that, to many people, glorified white supremacy. The momentum radically accelerated following the Charleston AME church racist mass murder of Black parishioners in 2015, and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to the killing of the peaceful protester, Heather Heyer [pronounced HIGHER], by a White Supremacist.
Then came the killing of George Floyd.
PROTESTORS CHANTING: Take your knee off our necks…
HOST: On Memorial Day 2020, the gruesome on-camera police murder of George Floyd convulsed the nation and world. Witnesses filmed officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for an agonizing 8 minutes and 46 seconds while calling for him to stop. Within minutes, the world was able to see the policeman’s casual cruelty and cold arrogance of power. All for Floyd’s allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Peaceful, cooperative and unarmed, Floyd cried out more than 20 times that he couldn’t breathe.
George Floyd’s murder ignited people worldwide to protest and demand justice.
PROTESTORS CHANTING: Black lives matter, Black Lives matter…
HOST: Patrisse Cullors spoke at a rally in Los Angeles.
PC: We’re living in the middle of an uprising…35 cities yesterday and counting are uprising. We’re uprising not just for black death, let’s be real clear. We are uprising for black life!
Somewhere between 15 to 26 million people took to the streets in the US. Polls estimated 104 million Americans now voiced their support for Black Lives Matter. They came from all walks of life and generations.
NASCAR’s only Black driver Bubba Wallace raced in his car emblazoned with Black Lives Matter. Astoundingly, NASCAR banned the display of Confederate flags, as did the US Navy.
Small predominantly White towns that had never before had protests marched to proclaim that Black Lives Matter.
As Martin Luther King Jr. III commented:
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR, III: I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my life. We’ve never seen a large number of white people who are taking a knee and apologizing for 400 years of mistreatment of black people. So there’s a different energy this time than ever before.
HOST: The demands were no longer only for police accountability, or getting rid of so-called “bad apples.” Where just a few years earlier, the term “systemic racism” had been confined to activists and academics, now it was center stage everywhere.
Patrisse Cullors and others called on cities to shift a proportion of funds away from law enforcement and toward essential social services that are often underfunded.
She discussed the issue with NBC’s Late Night host, Seth Meyers.
PC: If anybody has time, they should look up their city budget, it’s public. And what they will come to realize across every major city and I argue small cities as well, the majority of the budgets are made up as a law enforcement budget. And what we start to realize so much in our communities that are divested from, that have little access to health care, educational opportunities, access to jobs and healthy food, is that our city governments are using our tax dollars to primarily pay for an economy of punishment over an economy of care.
HOST: The city of Los Angeles reallocated $150 million of the LAPD’s 2 billion dollar budget to provide services and programs for communities of color, including a youth summer jobs program. Other cities followed suit. The new trajectory was toward addressing grave economic injustice and to create jobs, businesses, housing, social services, education, health care and mental health care.
When Patrisse Cullors spoke at the Bioneers conference in 2018, she could not have known all this was about to unfold. But that did not matter – she did know she had to bend the arc toward justice in the centuries-long lineage of the fierce struggle by Black people and their allies for freedom, equal rights and equal justice all over the world.
She had a vision not only that this kind of transformation was possible – but that so much more was possible…
PC: How do we – yes – respond to the terrible, terrible crimes against humanity? And yet also how do we build a vision, a vision where we can imagine black people living, black people thriving, where part of the work that we’re doing is not just responding to our death, not just responding to the harm against us, but actually developing something that has the ability to raise my child, to raise my child’s child, and his children’s children. And what does that vision actually look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like?
Part of our work, all of us in this room, is not just about tearing things down. We know that. But what are we building and what are we building towards?
And so I just want to ask the audience for a couple of minutes to humor me.
Close your eyes. Put your hands on your legs or beside you, and take a moment to imagine that we are living in a different time, to imagine we are living in a moment where all of our needs are met. Every single human being that we interact with is not suffering. Instead we are led with joy. And take it a step further, and imagine what you would want your community to look like, what it would sound like. Listen to those sounds. Honor them. And take it a step further and imagine what would be built around your community. Imagine that every single jail and prison no longer has a place there. And instead there are homes for everyone, community for everyone. Good, healthy food for everyone. And take it a step further, and imagine that healthcare is no longer a big business. That we have now entered a world where we get our physical and emotional and spiritual needs met, that we, yes, can go to professionals, but we also have access – the parts of us that know how to heal ourselves.
And take it a step further, where women no longer have to fight for autonomy of our bodies, where folks who are trans survive past 35. And just hold that right now, in this moment. Hold that feeling. Hold how special that vision is. And as you slowly open your eyes, take the time, every single day, to remember that vision, to remember why we fight so hard. We’re not fighting so hard because we want to fight so hard. We’re fighting so hard because we have a vision. We have a vision for what we deserve, for what every single human being, animal being, plant being deserves.
And when you think about Black Lives Matter, when you think about the movement that has been created over the last five years, remember that our movement is about imagining, imagining a world where black folks are actually free. [APPLAUSE] Imagining a world where the word poverty is a past tense, imagining a world where we don’t need handcuffs or shackles any longer, imagining a world that we all deserve to live in. Thank you so much, Bioneers. [APPLAUSE]