An Interview with Patrisse Cullors: Preview Conn’s Black Heritage Month Keynote

Photo courtesy of patrissecullors.com/Esquire

It was 11:20 am. I was sitting in the Voice office, revising the pointed, thoroughly researched and carefully ordered questions I had written for my interview with Patrisse Cullors, founding member of the Black Lives Matter movement. Charged with coffee and nerves, I was anxious; my interview was set to begin in precisely one hour and would last for 25 minutes. While considering which of my questions to drop, should time not allow for them all, I listened to a previous interview with Cullors by On Being Studios. I was studying—attempting to familiarize myself with Cullors’s speech patterns and to avoid asking questions she’d heard too frequently.

And then, at 11:25, my phone rang. The screen read “Patrisse Cullors.”

I realized immediately what had happened: that, when Carla Gonzalez, Executive Assistant to Patrisse Cullors, offered me the 8:20-8:45 PST slot a week earlier, I had confirmed enthusiastically, converted the time and written the appointment down for 12:20-12:45 EST, adding an hour that I did not, in fact, have. The night before, in a detail-oriented effort to cover my bases, I had double-checked the Pacific to Eastern time change to assure myself that yes, the difference was three hours. And yes, eight plus three equals twelve. Everyone knows that.

I scrambled to pause the audio track, not wanting Cullors to hear her own voice coming from my end, and apologized profusely for the delay upon answering. Cullors was warm and forgiving, and she waited patiently for me to set up my call recorder. She apologized herself for the occasional vocalizations of her baby in the background, though the sounds were hardly a disruption.

I started Cullors off with an admittedly easy question, asking her how the current incarnation of the Black Lives Matter movement compares to what she envisioned at its founding in 2013. Cullors described Black Lives Matters today as “more than [she] ever imagined” and referred to the organization’s awesome scope, noting that the realization that black lives do matter has spread globally.

In light of Cullors’s upcoming visit to Connecticut College on Feb. 28, I steered conversation more specifically toward higher education. I asked Cullors about the benefits and limitations of activism in academia, noting that in addition to being an organizer and a performance artist, Cullors is also a Fulbright scholar. She addressed the tendency of “PWIs” or “predominantly white institutions” toward “stifling black voices,” but also noted that colleges and universities are a natural breeding ground for activism.

Regarding successful diversity and equity efforts, Cullors said: “I’ll give you an example: at UCLA, a local organization that I helped found…works directly with UCLA Law School to develop reports around state violence,” clarifying that the core groups with which the organization concerns itself are “formerly and currently incarcerated people.” According to the UCLA Newsroom, Cullors started the nonprofit Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails in 2012, which now works with UCLA School of Law’s International Human Rights Clinic and passionate citizens to produce reports and run a civilian oversight board. Through these efforts, they endeavor to hold the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department accountable for its treatment of incarcerated people.

But not all institutional efforts are, of course, so progressive. As a point of contrast, Cullors highlighted University of Southern California, which she said “uses the campus as a way to police the local community.” The Chronicle of Higher Education claims that at USC, “crime is a constant concern in the gritty neighborhoods that surround the campus” and notes that through a watch program, “anyone who spots suspicious activity can call the USC police, whose patrol areas…extend well beyond the campus boundaries.”

Speaking directly to how Connecticut College students should endeavor to enact change, Cullors commented: “I always think that students should join existing student organizations like black student unions and MEChA,” and referred to efforts toward “ending campus rape” as an example of powerful and purposeful student involvement. She turned a critical eye toward those who seem not to care about social change in the contemporary era, noting: “There’s no reason why students should be apathetic in this time.”
Contextualizing the conversation in our current political moment, I next asked Cullors about her characterization in a Nov. 2016 article for The Guardian of Trump’s 100-day plan and proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. In the article, she identifies Trump’s plans as exemplary of “an outmoded weapon of isolationism,” an observation which, though perhaps not unique, is not often presented at the forefront of conversations regarding Trump’s xenophobia, brashness and general misunderstanding of foreign and domestic affairs.

“Every single executive order has been about pushing forward an agenda that’s really about Trump and his administration,” Cullors observed. Through these actions, she explained, Trump “isolates the American people,” a notion which frees the concept of isolationism from its most common understanding as being exclusively an international strategy, evidencing the fact that Trump’s exclusionary foreign policy has reverberations within the U.S.

With a more localized focus, I asked Cullors how she responds to criticism of her movement. Knowing, as most do, what the critiques of Black Lives Matter are among the far right, I encouraged her to focus on the comments that she receives from self-proclaimed liberals, especially considering that a majority of Connecticut College students are white, economically privileged and classify themselves on the political left.

“You have well-meaning white people asking: why don’t we talk about quote ‘black-on-black’ crime,” said Cullors, “I put it in quotes because there is violence within all communities…quite frankly that argument is [sourced] from the right.”

Such logically flawed arguments, Cullors explained, are not worth her time.

“I definitely start off [speeches and public appearances] by telling people what questions I won’t take: ‘all lives matter’ and ‘black-on-black crime,’” Cullors noted. Otherwise, she is receptive to comments from her audiences.

When Cullors visits Connecticut College on Feb. 28, she will address students, faculty and staff and take questions from more critical and conscious perspectives than those previously mentioned. When I asked what is most essential that students glean from her visit, Cullors reduced her message to: “Join the resistance.”

During our conversation, Cullors proved herself compassionate and eloquent, and I hoped to publish the audio track of our interview to the Voice’s website so that others might hear her thoughts. Unfortunately, my call recorder, which had never failed me before, claimed to have merged our call with a recording track but did not—due to what must have been a mistake of my own—uphold its end of the bargain.

If readers want to hear from Cullors themselves, they will have to attend her talk in Cro’s 1962 room at 7 pm on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.