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Patrisse Cullors on 10 years of Black Lives Matter: ‘A painful reminder of what hasn’t changed’

The BLM co-founder talks Tyre Nichols, LAPD’s killing of her cousin and the fight for abolition: ‘It’s not individual bad officers, it’s a culture of violence’

Demonstrators in Memphis, Tennessee, block traffic while protesting the death of Tyre Nichols on 27 January. [Scott Olson | Getty Images]

When Patrisse Cullors first wrote the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in 2013, it was a simple and powerful demand for Black liberation – a phrase that at the time felt to her like a “freedom portal” and a “beacon of hope”.

But last month, the BLM co-founder and longtime organizer was faced with a personal and painful reminder of how little has changed in the 10 years since she helped spark a global movement. On 3 January, her cousin, Keenan Anderson, got in a traffic accident in Los Angeles and was met with LAPD officers who repeatedly Tased and restrained him before he died, sparking protests decrying yet another senseless killing by police in America.

Headlines about the beloved 31-year-old high school teacher and father were replaced, however, by stories about the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, who was also subject to a traffic stop and Tased and fatally beaten by five officers.

The back-to-back killings in different parts of the country starkly illustrated how a decade of reforms have failed to stop police violence against Black people in the US, said Cullors, an abolitionist who has pushed for defunding and dismantling of US police and prisons.

Keenan Anderson was a high school English teacher and father who was killed when Los Angeles police repeatedly Tased and restrained him. [Courtesy of Patrisse Cullors]

She is part of a movement that argues that efforts to “improve” policing don’t prevent brutality and death, as appears to be the case with the Memphis police, which killed Nichols despite having mandatory de-escalation policies, a majority Black police force, body cameras and requirements to intervene when witnessing excessive force. The best way to save lives, abolitionists argue, is to end the system rooted in punishment, control and surveillance and invest in community safety and services.

Cullors spoke to the Guardian about her cousin’s legacy, her hopes for abolition and a surprise call she got from the Biden administration. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s been a month since Keenan’s death. How are you and your family doing?

Many families end up being positioned as leaders of this movement after their loved one has been killed by law enforcement. My family is no exception, but the irony is I helped start a movement specifically to challenge law enforcement and state violence and to call for abolition, and now it’s deeply personal.

It’s disappointing that we can’t grieve privately, that we are forced to remind the public how important our loved one was, how needed he was, how necessary he was. But because of state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism, our family has to defend Keenan over and over again. I’ve seen it with Tyre. People are sharing the video of him skateboarding and being a free spirit and saying his life should’ve been valued. There are all these unnatural ways that families are forced to act under such terrible conditions. Many people don’t have to go to the public and the media and yell at officials to value the life of their loved one who died. But that’s what Black people do, especially those of us whose loved one was killed at the hands of the state.

Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and a longtime organizer. [Philip Cheung | The Guardian]

How have you processed the news of Tyre’s killing while dealing with your own grief and struggle for justice?

It’s always deeply triggering to hear of the death of Black people, but it’s different when you’re in grief and trauma yourself. It’s also made me feel even more adamant that I need to keep Keenan’s name alive. The media is constantly moving on to the next story and death, and I see now how hard that is for so many families. So I see Keenan as part of a collective of ancestors of Black people killed by police. I believe in the role our ancestors play in helping create more healing in the world. Keenan, Tyre, Daunte Wright, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Mike Brown and so many others who have been stolen from us are part of a collective of ancestors that have mandated us to keep talking about them, so we can enact change so this doesn’t happen again.

How does it impact families when their relative’s killing is highly publicized?

Our last memory of Keenan is on video for the world to see. I don’t know if people understand what that does to the human spirit and psychology. I can only imagine, as I’ve looked back in history and seen lynching photos of white people circled around a hanged Black body, that in 60 years from now, our children will look at these videos with similar disgust – how did we allow this to happen?

At this point in our country, it is the norm to be depressed about Black death, but also to see it as entertainment. There’s a hyper-visibility, and also a deep devaluing. When those collide it makes for the most inhumane circumstances for Black people. It does not allow us to be full human beings. There’s this expectation that we’re all going to collectively witness Black people dying so viciously and violently, and then not do anything about it. What is the point of watching these videos if the people in charge aren’t going to actually change the conditions?

What do these killings tell us about the state of police reform efforts?

Keenan and Tyre died only a few days apart from each other. That is incredibly telling about the nature of policing. It’s not just about LAPD or Memphis police. These aren’t individual bad officers. It’s a culture of violence that has been inherited, and it’s not going to stop until courageous elected officials make it stop. Media often asks me, ‘Why is this still happening – you’ve been protesting for decades?’ I say we’ve been protesting for 400 years, but also this keeps happening because people in power are allowing it. Millions of people went to the streets in 2020. Thousands were in the streets in 2013 and 2014. Every year, families, community members, organizers have said this must stop and there’s a different way to do this. And yet there has been deep cowardice from officials. The burden is on the officials who create the budgets for the police and other resources, who turn away from the violence and continue it in their departments. It’s truly a failure of leadership at the highest level, all the way up to our president. This movement was able to help get Joe Biden into office, and yet in his first State of the Union address, he yelled: “Fund the police.” It’s a direct affront to the movement that called for resources out of policing and into social services. Our elected officials have decided to abandon a movement that could have saved the lives of the people who have died.

People gather in Times Square in New York to protest the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police in Memphis, Tennessee. [Anadolu Agency | Getty Images]

How do we move forward? How can elected officials be “courageous”, as you put it?

We have a powerful opportunity right now at the national, state and city levels to reevaluate law enforcement’s role in traffic stops. We have to get cops out of traffic stops. It’s one, very reasonable demand. Tyre, my cousin, Sandra Bland are all examples of this. Law enforcement pulls people over for broken tail lights, for no registration, for running a red light, for all these low-level traffic violations. There’s research to back up the reasonableness of the demand to not allow police to be the ones who are stopping mostly Black people. Berkeley, Philadelphia and Seattle are piloting this. Los Angeles has said it was too radical, and then my cousin was killed. We should also fund evaluations of these policies, so we can get the data and avoid backlash.

I actually got a call from Pete Buttigieg. He said, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” and asked if there’s anything he could do. I couldn’t really think about it then, but I’ve been thinking now about how he’s the secretary of transportation, and this is a powerful opportunity where he could be helping lead a conversation about what federal dollars could fund programs to remove law enforcement from traffic stops.

The Memphis chief also eliminated the Scorpion unit, which was responsible for Tyre’s death. And many police departments have units like this that are given entirely too broad of a mandate with truly disastrous results for communities and taxpayers. So we need to get rid of these units that create trauma and harm, and put that money back into communities.

The demand about traffic stops is clear and specific, but instead we’re seeing many officials make familiar calls to improve training and fix “culture” – what do you make of that?

It’s exhausting and also terrifying. It’s this constant cycle in which Black people get killed, we say, hey, here are meaningful demands that will help change the conditions so we don’t get killed, and then we’re gaslit, and someone brings forward the same idea from ten years ago that didn’t work. So the question is, why don’t you want to change this? And how will you protect Black life?

And in LA, there have been three deaths at the hands of LAPD this year, but this week there was a unanimous vote by the police commission and our first female Black mayor to reappoint the chief, Michel Moore. So that’s a huge blow. We need officials to reassess their values – what is more important, your political relationships or ensuring that the Black people in your city live long, full and healthy lives?

‘Your family, your friends, your community will never allow you to be forgotten. You will not die in vain,’ said Patrisse Cullors of her nephew Keenan Anderson, who was killed on 16 January. [Courtesy of Patrisse Cullors]

Can you tell me what the statement Black Lives Matter meant to you when you first posted it ten years ago, and how you think about it today?

Ten years ago, the phrase felt like a freedom portal. It felt like one way to articulate a broader movement that’s not just about Black death, but that’s about Black life. Ten years ago, Black Lives Matter was a beacon of hope. It was a phrase that felt so pure, so liberating, so clarifying. It still feels that way, but it also feels like a painful reminder of what hasn’t changed. When our family decided to go public about Keenan, I remember putting his picture up and then hashtagging #BlackLivesMatter, and it felt like a sting, a reminder that the people who hold the power have chosen not to wield it on behalf of Black life. They’ve chosen to side with violent police forces.

I thought we could end our conversation on Keenan – what message would you want to share about your cousin?

Keenan, you were loved and you are loved. Your family, your friends, your community will never allow you to be forgotten. Justice would be having you alive right now, but you were taken from us. So you will not die in vain. And I want the world to understand that first and foremost: I won’t let my cousin die in vain.


(c) 2023, The Guardian


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