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.
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.