Black Lives Matter Cofounder Patrisse Cullors Says We Shouldn't Be Shocked by Charlottesville

Photos courtesy Patrisse Cullors
Photos courtesy Patrisse Cullors

Almost a week ago, I set up a phone interview with Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors for the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 14. By that morning, our interview had taken on a new kind of urgency and direction. Over the weekend, racist violence rocked Charlottesville and the nation, and on Monday morning, I found myself scrapping several of my planned interview questions and writing new ones. Earlier that day, Cullors had released a statement on the terror unleashed by white supremacists that was both hopeful and forcefully clear-eyed about the legacy of racism in America that beget the attacks.

"We live in a world where Black people are targeted for death and destruction," Cullors wrote, "and we should not be surprised when moments such as these occur — in fact, Charlottesville confirms the violence that Black people endure every day."

Cullors, who in just four years has helped transform #BlackLivesMatter from a hashtag into a global social justice movement, has been both eyewitness to and active participant in the struggle for racial equality in America and beyond. In our conversation, Cullors discussed why being shocked by the events in Charlottesville denies a legacy of racism in America and shared her advice on how we can meaningfully combat hatred in our day-to-day lives. She also reflected on the power — and limits — of social media in creating real change.

POPSUGAR: Many people seemed shocked by this weekend's events. Does being shocked by Charlottesville necessarily mean you're coming from a place of privilege, or failing to recognize our history?

Patrisse Cullors: I think to be shocked really means folks have an ahistorical analysis of this country. What we saw in Charlottesville, and what we'll continue to see across the country as white nationalist groups rise up and take to the streets, is that this is very much the fabric of American culture. What I'm most interested in thinking about is how this connects directly to the White House, how this is Trump's base. These are the people that were beating up Black Lives Matter protesters as they protested his candidacy. So we are seeing white nationalists in the streets, but we're also seeing them in the White House. We're seeing them in Trump's cabinet.

"The first statement that Donald Trump put out is exactly how he felt . . . . His revised speech was damage control."

PS: The next question I wanted to ask was how you view Donald Trump's culpability — and what was your opinion of the statement he gave this morning?

PC: The first statement that Donald Trump put out is exactly how he felt: no remorse. He felt like he had no impact on what happened with the protesters, the white nationalists. His revised speech was damage control. The revised speech was because he was being pressured by both the Democratic party and the Republican party and the American people that he needed to say something stronger. What he first said, the very vague approach that didn't really speak to the issues, didn't speak to white supremacy, that's how Trump actually feels. We should be reminded every single day as he has rubber-stamped and pushed for a Muslim ban, as he tweeted out a transgender ban, as he has developed some of the most regressive policies on climate change. This president of America, 45, is actually racist, homophobic, and transphobic. He can make a statement all day that he condemns white supremacy, but the only way I'll believe that is if he is no longer the president, if he pushes out [Jeff] Sessions, if he transforms. And that's not going to happen.

PS: Especially since the election, there's been a lot of discussion of self-care around activism. I'm wondering how — personally, as a human being — you're coping with the events of the weekend?

PC: It's been a very challenging three to four years in this current movement, moment. It's been exhausting to have to do the work of making sure that black people don't die at the hands of the police, and now challenge white supremacists that are showing up in our cities, our communities. And most days I feel like I'm mourning. I don't get a chance to breathe. It's constant mourning, and that's exhausting.

"White supremacy is directly linked to transphobia. It's directly linked to patriarchy . . . . Our work is about looking at how all marginalized people are impacted by Trump and his regime."

PS: We saw really shockingly hateful, misogynistic attack being directed at Heather Heyer, the victim of the terror attack this weekend. It called to mind for me that you have been outspoken about the recent transphobic treatment aimed at Janet Mock. Why is it so vital that we face this threat together — as people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community — as an intersectional, cohesive unit?

PC: White supremacy is directly linked to transphobia. It's directly linked to patriarchy. Our work isn't about silos. Our work is about looking at how all marginalized people are impacted by Trump and his regime. This moment is not about saying yes to one identity. This moment is saying yes to all of them and how they intersect — and how our work intersects. I want to be showing up to airports and shutting them down when the Muslim ban is enacted, and I want those same folks to be coming out to our marches when Charlottesville happens. It is our work to really connect the dots around why this moment is so important for all of us. This is a matter of survival. This is a matter of life or death. And as we've seen white supremacists in the streets, we see them at every moment in Trump's appointments, and as folks are pushing to be elected and be a part of this new, they call it the alt-right, and I've been really appreciative of the hashtag #NoNewKKK — because that's what it is.

PS: What is your response to some of the false equivalency comparing BLM to these white supremacist groups, which I think many heard echoed in Trump's "many sides" comment?

PC: That's a distraction. Black Lives Matter is a group that is fighting for the rights of black people and marginalized communities. White supremacist groups, like the ones who showed up in Charlottesville, are fighting to take away peoples' rights.

PS: Can you share a message to young people on how they fight this in a meaningful way?

PC: My biggest advice right now is to gather with your people. Gather with the people that love you the most, that see you, that fight for you, not with you. That will take care of you. Have family dinners with your chosen family and your blood family. Hug on your children if you have them. Ask people how they're doing; check up on each other. It can be very isolating being in this work, even if you're with a bunch of people. We don't often check on each other, so make sure that you are checking on your team.

What fortifies me — I was actually texting with Angela Davis earlier, checking up on her — and I said, "I'm low, but I'm grateful to be part of this powerful, powerful movement." I want to encourage young people to join us. Come! You're welcome here. We want you to be a part of this and we know that many of you are partaking online. There are organizations that you can show up to and show up to those meetings, and we will support your leadership

PS: How do you maintain hopefulness in light of days like these?

PC: Sometimes I don't. I want to be honest. Some days I'm really, really hopeless. Some days are harder than others. Today feels better, easier, because I'm talking to people and we're in action. We're planning a national action next weekend, Beyond the Moment, which is a coalition of people, from Black Lives Matter to the Women's March to Black Youth Project 100. We're planning a national action for people to be able to feel agency, to be engaged. In Boston, a white supremacist group is showing up there, so our Black Lives Matter chapter will be doing a counterprotest.

PS: You have a book coming out — what can you share about that?

PC: My book is called When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, because Black Lives Matter has been called a terrorist group, and I've been called a terrorist. It's really the story of a young black girl and her relationship building a movement. It really draws on my experience growing up during the war on drugs and the war on gangs. It draws on my experience living with and growing up with a single mother. And it draws on my experience developing and ushering in this new movement.

PS: It's been four years since Black Lives Matter was founded. How has its mission or purpose morphed and how has it stayed the same in those years?

PC: Black Lives Matter has always been a movement — and would eventually become a network and organization — that challenged antiblack racism here in the United States and across the globe. In the last four years, I think we've been able to see some of the most courageous and innovative approaches to calling forth why black lives should matter, and we've seen people domestically and abroad use #BlackLivesMatter to talk about antiblack racism in that context. We have trained and developed and really amplified the leadership of thousands of black women — queer and trans — across the globe, and I think that is so powerful.

PS: Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag. How useful is social media in impacting change? Where does it fall short?

PC: Social media is one avenue into becoming an activist, and social media is our current gateway to rising consciousness in this country, and I think across the world. I think social media allows for new voices to be in the conversation. I think the downside of social media is we can often be pretty siloed, because we curate who we talk to and who we listen to. I think many of us did not believe that Trump could be the president, and it's because we didn't have people like that on our walls. We wouldn't have a bunch of white nationalists on our walls; we could block them, we could get rid of them. I don't actually encourage folks [to] sit with a white supremacist or a white nationalist, but I think it's important that we step out of our bubbles and realize what else is happening in the world so we have a better sense and we're not caught off guard in the ways that we have been, I think, in the last several months.