When They Call You A Terrorist: Courageous Conversation Between Angela Davis and Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors

by Anna Greer

Imagine being privy to conversations with some of the most interesting people in the world. This is basically what The New York Times does with its “TimesTalks” events, where luminary figures sit on a stage and talk, guided by an interviewer. And we get to watch.

The most recent TimesTalk was a dialogue between legendary activist Professor Angela Davis and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, with Melissa Harris-Perry interviewing. Patrisse spoke for everyone in the audience when she began to answer the first question posed to her. “Can we just take a moment,” she said, and gestured at the women seated beside her. “This is amazing.” The audience laughed and clapped, because it was, in fact, amazing. Having this much black feminist power in one room was electrifying.

You would think intergenerational dialogue would bring out the differences of lived experiences, but this talk had the opposite effect. Both activists reflected on the racist violence that permeated their childhoods. Professor Davis lived next door to one of the victims of 16 St Birmingham Church Bombing. Her mother gave one of the girls’ mothers a ride to the church, where the two women discovered a scene of carnage.

Say their names: Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors grew up in a neighborhood where black and brown bodies were subject to excessive police control and violence. Stop and frisk and mass incarceration robbed black children of their childhood as they were arbitrarily punished and their families were fractured. Her own particular story of racist violence came when her older brother, Monte, was arrested without reason. In jail, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, but that didn’t keep guards from almost beating him to death.

Say their names: Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice.

It was here that Melissa Harris-Perry brought up a line from Angela Davis’ forward to Patrisse’s new book When They Call You A Terrorist: “Her story emphasizes the productive intersection of personal experiences and political resistance.” This came up again and again throughout their talk. Data combined with stories paints an unforgiving picture of reality. Professor Davis says this is the genius of Khan-Cullors. She has the ability to inspire the collective, political imagination in a way that mobilizes action. #BlackLivesMatter came at a time when unceasing, shared experiences, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, demanded outcry.

“… So many of us were experiencing the same thing. We were saying that this has been going on for years, and decades, and centuries and now we have to do something to make sure we at least start the process of arresting the violence. Or at least understand what it is that has given rise to this continual tradition of racist violence,” Davis said. She then turned to Patrisse and thanked her to thunderous applause.

And this is another intergenerational constant about the anti-racist movement that all the speakers agreed upon: black women have been and always will be the backbone of progress. Patriarchal structures within anti-racist movements are the reason that hasn’t always been the overriding, mainstream narrative. People forget that Rosa Parks wasn’t just tired, she was a trained activist. The founders of Black Lives Matter — Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi — defied expectations, not only by being women, but by also being queer. Professor Harris-Perry described how they represent the intersected wars against the most marginalized within marginalized communities. “And yet why does everybody think this movement is just about boys and the police?” asked Harris-Perry, eliciting another round of applause from the audience and Angela Davis.

Professor Davis wants us to make these connections. The recent surge of the #MeToo movement is built upon the movements that came before it, and it isn’t separate from Black Lives Matter. She credited the greater number of women speaking out to “the fact that it is publicly known that the 21st century black freedom movement is lead by women.” The creation of #MeToo is another intergenerational expression of this. Tarana Burke wanted to say “Me, too” to express solidarity with a young girl and give her strength in the knowledge that she wasn’t alone. A woman in the audience said, “Me, too. Anita Hill.”

Melissa Harris-Perry brought the discussion portion to a close by asking Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Angela Davis what it means to be called a terrorist. For Khan-Cullors, this label is especially potent, because her schizoaffective brother, Monte, was literally charged with terrorism in the middle of an episode, in which he did not threaten harm to anyone or actually harm anyone. The gentle Monte, her older brother who was her “first, best friend,” was charged with terrorism while he was suffering from extreme deprivation of medical care. Professor Davis, who was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List in the 70s, said that it serves to distract people from the real work that is being done, and is a coded label. Assata Shakur was put on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List in 2013, but no member of a white supremacist group has ever been on that list.

I highly recommend everyone to go watch their talk. Honestly, I was disappointed when it ended. I could have easily listened to them talk for hours. These are the kinds of productive conversations that drive movements forward, and it’s vital to partake in that as an activist. I cannot write about this event without addressing my own whiteness, and I have to encourage other white people to go listen to this talk. Take off your pussy hat and read their books. Let them spark your political imagination. It was an indescribable honor to stand in front of them and have them autograph my books after the talk, but the next step after receiving that honor is to read and listen and think. Both Davis and Khan-Cullors used the phrase “courageous conversation” throughout their dialogue. We all could do with more courageous conversations in our activism and in our daily lives.

Top Photo: Griffin Lipson/BFA.com

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