When They Call You a Terrorist, a Black Lives Matter Memoir

Michael Brown. Kathryn Johnston. John Crawford. Rekia Boyd. In the closing chapters of this powerful memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele name several people, some well-known, some not, who were murdered by police. The sheer volume of names is overwhelming. With a new police-involved shooting making headlines every few weeks, it is easy to become detached from the cycle of tragedy. Khan-Cullors’ memoir cuts through the layers of anonymity by giving a deeply personal, heartfelt account of the dangers that Black people encounter when dealing with police. Her intimate portrait of the interactions between her family and the legal system exposes the urgent need for Black Lives Matter.

Khan-Cullors immediately welcomes the reader into her life, allowing her to see all sides of her background. The chapters are organized thematically. Some focus on her childhood, growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Oakland. Others zero in on her “otherness”, her difficulties fitting in as a Queer woman in a straight world, as a Black woman in a white world. Khan-Cullors includes her family members’ otherness as well. Both her biological father and her brother are frequently targeted by police, but for different reasons. Khan-Cullors’ father, Gabriel, has had several run-ins with police. Gabriel struggled with cocaine addiction for years. In spite of coming from a loving, supportive family, he feels as though he is not worth saving. He doesn’t see himself as worthy of receiving help because he has never been treated with respect by authority figures. These feelings, perpetuated by a negligent system, ultimately lead to Gabriel’s untimely death. Monte, Khan-Cullors’ older brother, suffers from schizoaffective disorder. His illness causes bouts of mania and depression, coupled with delusional thinking. The erratic behavior caused by his illness leads to frequent encounters with law enforcement, which all too often lead to barbaric treatment.

The intense accounts of the family’s interactions with the criminal justice system are what make the case for Black lives so urgent. Both Gabriel and Monte face barriers because they are ex-felons. It is nearly impossible for them to secure employment or find affordable housing. Gabriel’s depression is intrinsically linked to the fact that society does not value his humanity. When someone is treated poorly, they internalize that and see themselves as worthless, too. Whereas Gabriel’s feelings of worthlessness are heartbreaking, Monte’s treatment by police is flat-out abusive. When she visits her son in prison, Khan-Cullors’ mother is shocked to see he is covered in bruises and has lost 40 pounds. Subsequent encounters with law enforcement lead to Monte being tased, strapped to a gurney, and shot with rubber bullets. It is disturbing to read about his suffering at the hands of police, who are supposed to protect and serve him. These stories are evidence that the criminal justice system is causing real, mental and physical harm to those who encounter it. Khan-Cullors’ passionate recollections urge the reader to realize that human lives are being destroyed by a system that is negligent and abusive.   

    There are two messages to take from this memoir. The first is the urgent need for criminal justice reform. In their initial statement, the Los Angeles branch of Black Lives Matter had several demands, including no new construction of correctional facilities in Los Angeles, as well as community control over police.  It is the ultimate goal of BLM to bring forth a world that has no need for the repressive tactics currently utilized by the criminal justice system. Instead, investments need to be made in other areas, like job programs and quality public schools. These, in Khan-Cullors’ words, are “what actually keeps communities safe”. To accomplish these goals, Khan-Cullors pushes for grassroots organizing. At the community level, the residents know which issues are most urgent. In turn, these residents should also be empowered to fight for solutions to these issues. Unfortunately, this utopian view of the criminal justice system is far from reality. For those people who still face threats from police, or who are connected to the criminal justice system, Khan-Cullors implicitly urges self-advocacy. She speaks of her mother and her tireless vigilance over Monte. When Monte was arrested, she relentlessly called the authorities until she found out where he was being held. She attends Monte’s court dates, meets with his public defender, and even steps in as caretaker for his son. The message is when a loved one is unable to advocate for themselves, it is essential to ensure they are given their due justice, because in a flawed system, there is no guarantee that they will receive anything that resembles humane treatment.  

   This is the exact book that Americans need in these divisive times. Far from being partisan or biased, Patrice Khan-Cullors and asha bandele show how the personal is inherently political. At the micro level, Khan-Cullors’ relationships with her brother and father were destroyed by an unsympathetic, racist criminal justice system. By connecting these events to other interactions, past and present, Khan-Cullors shows that her experience is far from unique. She fearlessly tells her personal reasons for launching a national movement.  

--HG

Khan-Cullors, Patrice with asha bandele. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2018. 978-1-250-17108-5.

Evicted: Power & Profit in the American City

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Article Written by: H.G.

The majority of impoverished renters spend more than 50% of their monthly income on housing. This startling statistic opens Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Desmond follows eight families who are in the process of eviction. They come from various neighborhoods in Milwaukee, including a trailer park in the city’s (mostly white) South Side and several predominantly Black neighborhoods in other areas. Milwaukee, like many cities, is de facto segregated, where separation of the races isn’t illegal, but remains a fact of life. Desmond's interviews with landlords, tenants, and their associates reveals the pervasiveness of eviction and how it contributes to large-scale housing insecurity for the working poor.

The families experience various reasons for their eviction. One of the most pervasive is nonpayment of rent. The lack of a livable wage, plus a dearth of family and friends with financial means, often leads directly to legal, formal eviction. Landlords can also file a “no cause” eviction. The landlord’s reasons behind a no-cause eviction are more nebulous. The police deemed one residence a "nuisance property", because tenants repeatedly called 911. The landlord evicted the tenants who made the calls. Another tenant was evicted after being chased by a man who broke down the door. All examples are viewed as legitimate reasons to get rid of a "problem" tenant. Desmond lays out the facts with an empathetic tone, exposing the faults in a clearly broken system.

After facing eviction, the families dealt with other challenging circumstances as a result of losing their homes. "Arleen", a single mother, must move several times within the space of a few months, due to the fact she has been evicted several times. The multiple changes of address lead to unwanted consequences, ranging from lost mail to many missed school days for her children, not to mention the extreme stress it puts on the family. "Larraine", an older woman with a learning disability, faces eviction from her trailer. Her anxiety over impending homelessness causes her to forget about an appointment with her social worker. This, in turn, triggers a loss of government benefits for Larraine, who is cut off from services when she needs them most. Others, such as "Scott", cut ties from relatives, their shame preventing them from asking for help. Desmond describes his interviewees' situations without being either dismissive or patronizing. He presents the facts as they are without direct comment on the tenants' choices or morals.

In spite of the myriad problems Desmond presents, he also shows how both tenants and landlords attempt to coexist within the dysfunction. Tenants help each other out when eviction looms. Near strangers pool their resources to make the rent, staving off eviction for one more month. Scott cultivates a symbiotic relationship with a disabled man who lets Scott live with him in exchange for caretaking. For their part, landlords bend the rules to avoid evicting tenants. “Lenny”, a property manager, has tenants perform odd jobs around the trailer park to work off their rent. “Sherrena”, a landlord, provides food for Arleen and lets her slide on rent after Arleen's sister dies. The landlords and property managers are not depicted as villains, but as people with a disproportionate amount of power over their tenants. Desmond is careful not to ignore their benevolence, but underscores that the whims of the landlord can be the catalyst for homelessness.

Evicted pleads with its readers to see the humanity of tenants and the pervasiveness of the housing crisis. Everyone should have access to affordable, safe homes. Constantly living under the threat of eviction is detrimental to tenants and to society at large. To solve the problem, Desmond calls for government subsidized housing through vouchers. Prospective tenants would have more choice over where to live, simply because the funds would be available. Desmond recognizes that vouchers aren’t a magical cure. The suggestion is meant to jump start a larger conversation about housing insecurity and ways to reduce its grip on low-income people. Readers must advocate for these changes, regardless of their housing situation. Before potential solutions become a reality, readers must remain vigilant. Calling on lawmakers and demanding affordable rent is necessary to stem this problem. Those in power are encouraged to act ethically and compassionately toward tenants, ensuring their living spaces are habitable and reasonably priced. People who are secure in their housing have a huge burden lifted from their shoulders, allowing them to be more productive workers, parents, and citizens.

Desmond expertly reveals the all too often ignored housing crisis in America today. The families he follows see their problems snowball as a result of housing insecurity. He compassionately shows how evictions can happen suddenly and can utterly destroy tenants' lives. In addition to providing potential solutions to the problem, he also shows how both powerful landlords and their impoverished tenants work to stave off homelessness. Evicted teaches readers that housing insecurity has been ignored by lawmakers, and it is high time that someone start paying attention to the stories of Arleen, Larraine, Scott, and so many others who are affected by this crisis.