Students around the country are again taking to the streets. It’s the latest mass action since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that claimed seventeen lives and galvanized young people to act in the long-stalled debate over guns. Some activists are heartened by the attention being paid to the issue but they raise questions about how these students get viewed versus the treatment of their peers in the Black Lives Matter movement.
I spoke to one of those activists, Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cullors, a New York Times best selling author, also spoke about gender dynamics as it relates to violence and her connection with another activist, Richard Edmond Vargas, whose work in a California prison is the subject of a CNN documentary called The Feminist on Cellblock Y, now streaming on CNNgo.
Our conversation, edited slightly for flow and length, is below:
Emma Lacey-Bordeaux: What’s missing from this current conversation we’re having about the gun violence?
Patrisse Cullors: It’s been really incredible to witness. The interventions, the narrative interventions that have been made over the last couple of weeks. And the relationship to, which people get to become victims and which people get to become heroes. We’ve seen black folks be on the front line, fighting for better gun laws and yes, our issues have not been amplified, even though we have been disproportionately impacted by gun violence. While I’m so, so glad the Parkland students had the support that they deserve, we can’t deny, uh, that the conversation on gun violence isn’t incredibly racialized.
Lacey-Bordeaux: How does that make you feel?
Cullors: It’s frustrating, and it’s enraging, and it’s clarifying, because it’s important as organizers that we’re able to articulate why racism permeates every single fight that we’re in, especially when we’re trying to fight for our lives.
Lacey-Bordeaux: Then, given this renewed focus on gun violence, do you expect or hope that there could be a different level of interest or approach to hearing the voices of young people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement?
Cullors: I think so. I’ve been pretty impressed with the Parkland students who’ve listened to young black students and brown students, mostly poor students who’ve been saying, you know, “our issues matter, too.” And many of the Parkland students who’ve gone to Chicago and then met up with the black youth, to talk about gun violence. Um, one of the young men, was quoted saying, our issues, as in white people’s issues, are being amplified over black people’s issues, it’s just a matter of race, and I thought that was so powerful, because they’re listening to the young black and brown students who are saying, you know, we deserve to be a part of this larger media conversation, part of this larger public dialog and outcry to save the lives of young black and brown people too. So that has been so impressive. And I point that out because it’s important for us to name our victories and I think that narrative shift has happened because black people have said, “hey, wait a second, like, let’s be a little bit more complicated about how we’re talking about this gun violence issue,” and the Parkland students have heard it and have been amplifying.
Lacey-Bordeaux: We, Contessa Gayles and I, read your book with great interest and it was cool to read about Richard Edmond Vargas, the main character in our documentary, in your book – in that chapter, specifically, you describe how the Black Lives Matter movement was founded, by the acquittal of George Zimmerman. So I wanted to ask you about that framing. Why frame both Richard’s story and your part in co-founding the movement in relationship to each other? What’s that connection?
Cullors: Richie is very important because he becomes one of the first young people that I mentor when I’m a young person. I was 21 when I met him, he was 14 years old. And he quickly becomes like a little brother to me. And when he’s convicted it was devastating for all of us. I made a commitment to stay in his life, and staying a part of his life. George Zimmerman killed somebody, literally, I mean, Richie didn’t hurt anybody, maybe scared a few people but he didn’t physically harm anybody, and I am visiting him, in a jail cell, in a locked-up facility, far away from his family and his loved ones. And, then George Zimmerman killed a young person, a young black boy, gets to go home free, and it just shows this juxtaposition of the banality of a quote “criminal justice system,” that has not been run to prioritize black people’s health and wellness, and it’s sort of amplified in that moment.
Lacey-Bordeaux: How involved have you been with any of his anti-patriarchy efforts?
Cullors: Oh, it’s been amazing. I mean, he knows all about patriarchy, doesn’t he? (laughs) You know, I remember talking to him when he first got into county jail and he used to get in a lot of fights at the county jail. Not, not because he wanted to and I remember talking to him on the phone, he called me, and he’s like, “alright I’m about to get in a fight right now,” and I said, “OK, listen to me, you get to choose what kind of person you wanna be inside, you could still be an organizer, they didn’t take that away from you, you get to organize on the inside,” and he said, “OK.” He ended up going to Susanville, 11 hours away, the guards were exceptionally violent, and he was just trying to survive in there. And we were talking about like what does it look like (to) organize inside. Richard’s not someone who is quick to be quiet, because he’s just like already having conversations about patriarchy and, you know, and, by the time it got so bad is when I think his greatest ideas took root. And, he set up this platform to amplify these conversations about patriarchy and its toxicity and its impact on men and boys, and I was just, it was brilliant, and he’s brilliant, and, so impactful, and everything he touches turns to gold, you know, everything he explores and every conversation he has, he feels a sincerity, nothing is inauthentic about Richard Edmond.
Lacey-Bordeaux: Somewhat in line with that, how do you see patriarchy as playing a role in Richard ending up in prison?
Cullors: I think Richard has a lot of different choices to make and I think the peer pressure of patriarchy won. When he told me why he robbed, he was trying to pay rent and he, you know, he wasn’t getting the hours he needed at the preschool. I asked him, “why didn’t you just ask me for money, like, you’ve lived- you’ve lived with me before, you’ve asked me for money, like why didn’t you ask me for rent money?” And he said “I was ashamed. You know, I was told that like I need to be providing, that, you know, taking money from women …,” and so this idea of like who he had to be and what he had to do to get what he needed is chock-full of patriarchy. And that really shaped his decisions and his, you know, decision that was then landing him in prison for all these years.
And, you know, I don’t know, I think it’s interesting, like, I’d love to ask him, like if he would change it, and if he would change what he did, um, I don’t know what he would - you know I don’t know what his life would be like, I’m not a person who’s like “go to prison and change!” I’m actually not that person at all, but one thing he’s been able to do on the inside for everybody else and for himself is remarkable. Granted we’ll see what happens, you know, what life on the outside’s gonna be like for him, he’s incredibly resilient. He’ll be fine, but, the impact of incarceration is a lifelong impact.
Lacey-Bordeaux: What’s the connection between patriarchy and violence?
Cullors: We’re seeing it now, like with mass shootings, exclusively by white men (Note: The vast majority of shootings are by men, but the interview was conducted before a shooting by a woman at YouTube headquarters), we’re seeing it with the Boston Bomber, we see it with law enforcement, and the police that use violence as a form of control and power.
Lacey-Bordeaux: What’s the solution?
Cullors: Organizing. Organizing, prioritizing the conversations and the dialog that help us undo patriarchy and developing new practices, and, the fact that Richard has his entire group, that is their stage and a group that is talking about patriarchy and its negative impacts on the men who are in that group that they can feel powerful and it’s so necessary. We need more spaces like this.