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Black Lives Matter Co-Founder: “We Are In a State of Emergency”

Patrisse Cullors speaks about Sandra Bland, the 2016 race, and the Netroots Nation protest

Ross D. Franklin/AP

These days you’re not organizing for direct action and protests—particularly for black liberation—if you’re not doing it online. Which is why I wasn’t at all surprised to see a Twitter message from an activist letting me know that a Black Lives Matter protest was planned to disrupt the massive Netroots Nation town hall last Saturday, in Phoenix, AZ. I found a livestream on the conference’s website—and I didn't have to wait very long for things to get rolling.

The chants began just before 11 a.m. local time, interrupting an interview with former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley. "Black lives matter!"  people shouted. "Whose side are you on?" A Phoenix-based immigration activist, Tia Oso, soon took the stage and was given a microphone, whereupon she demanded that O'Malley "advance a racial justice agenda." Soon afterward, one of the three women who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, took the stage. She echoed Oso's demand for "concrete action plans" from O'Malley and, by implication, every other 2016 presidential contender.

"Let me be clear–every single day people are dying, not able to take another breath,” Cullors said to O'Malley and the crowd. “We are in a state of emergency. If you do not feel that emergency, then you are not human.” She's right.—Jamil Smith

Jamil Smith: I got wind of it about 20 minutes before it started, so I knew something was coming—but can you tell me a little about how you planned this, and who planned it?

Patrisse Cullors: Yes. This was a plan between BAJI (Black Alliance for Just Immigration) here in Arizona, Black Lives Matter, and Dream Defenders. We decided that at a meeting [Friday] night we had a meeting for black and brown folks to discuss Sandra Bland, and during our meeting folks made the decision that we wanted to do a shut down and call out. So shut down the presidential forum today but also take the opportunity to call on the candidates to answer some of the questions that we had for them. 

JS: I got you. Can you tell me a little bit about what she was hoping to get accomplished and what, when you took the stage, you were hoping to do?

PC: What we were hoping to get accomplished was to lay a framework that we are in a state of emergency. That black folks across the country and the globe are systematically targeted, and that our lives are on the line on a daily basis, and that, ultimately, this is a life and death issue for us. We wanted to have a frame that spoke to intersectional analysis that was in alliance with the Latino community here in Arizona, [which has] one of the most repressive sheriffs, Sheriff Arpaio. They also have loved ones in detention centers, and dying in detention centers.

This action was to really lift up Sandra Bland, in particular, the black woman who died in police custody in Texas, and to say her name because so often the names of black women who died at the hands of law enforcement are erased from the conversation.

JS: I wrote Friday about how structural racism, or a plan to fight it, should be a part of every presidential candidate's platform. Obviously, that seemed to be one of the driving messages: You wanted details from candidates on how they plan to combat that. How do you think presidential candidates can address structural racism?

PC: First of all, presidential candidates have to agree that structural racism exists. So when former Governor O’Malley says “white lives matter,” he obviously doesn't understand why the call for #BlackLivesMatter is about a new racial justice agenda. When we are naming the ways in which black lives in particular are being destroyed at the hands of the state, we're asking for presidential candidates to take that seriously and literally and to speak courageously and boldly about these issues. 

JS: It seemed like the first response that O’Malley had was to express sympathy, or at least, offer an attempt at empathy. Given the urgency do you think the protest community is beyond symbols at this point, and now you just want to hear plans—or does that still have any value? 

PC: I think there is a value. I think he started off in a really authentic tone, but clearly the issues that we were naming, he didn't understand. The way I heard him speaking led me to believe that he actually didn't have a real plan. And I think that there is value in saying, “Black lives matter,” and hearing elected officials say that it means that we won a particular victory around the battle of ideas, right? But that's actually not matched with these practices, it's not matched with new policies, if it's not matched with the people's agenda, then what's it worth? 

JS: Do you feel like the other candidates who weren’t there on Saturday have been more successful in having specific plans for combating racism and other issues you mentioned—such as Hillary Clinton, for instance, or any Republican candidates?

PC: No, I don't actually. I think we've heard Hillary say mass incarceration, we've heard these candidates use words that in the past haven't been used, and once again that's important, that's valuable, that means we're winning the debate, but we're not hearing candidates actually talk about police unions, and the role that they play, and [having] some of the biggest, having the most power in the lobby. We're not hearing candidates talk about a divestment from law enforcement and policing and incarceration and a reinvestment and a radical reinvestment into healthcare, into access for healthy food, into access for employment for all people. We're not hearing candidates talk about voter reform. We're not actually hearing candidates talk about the issues that mostly impact poor communities and poor black communities in particular. 

JS: Doing this at Netroots Nation has its own significance. The festival has come under fire in past years for not representing African American perspectives, as well as the movement. What did it mean to do it there? 

PC: Yes, Netroots poses itself as a progressive place and space. The problem with Netroots is the leadership continues to be mostly white progressives, with a very little understanding of a racial justice agenda, of a gender justice agenda, or an economic justice agenda. And so, when you have mostly white folks who aren't invested in building real allyship and solidarity with the communities that they're asking to come in and have discussions with about our lives, we see things like protests happen inside of Netroots Nation.

They're planning on going to St. Louis [for next year’s Netroots Nation conference]; as we shut it down here in Arizona, you can only imagine that St. Louis won't let them step foot [in town] unless they're actually meeting with the on the ground organizers and seeing what value will it have for us for Netroots to be in us to be in our town, to be in our city, we have to actually find the value. It can't just be a rubber stamp for Netroots to be able to come into our communities. 

JS: I feel like #BlackLivesMatter is mostly used for good, but also used as a way to garner some kind of authority or recognition or credibility on an issue. How do you feel like that has been co-opted, if at all?

PC: I think that's a very good question. I think as we enter into what I think is gonna be one of the most historic presidential elections yet, we're gonna see it be co-opted by elected officials because they're going to want our vote. They're going to use it in a way that makes us feel good. I think the challenge for us is going to have to be really listening to their policy agenda, their reform efforts, and seeing if it matches the policy agenda and reform efforts that we're bringing to the table.  

JS: What's in store for you and the movement, in general, what are some things you all have been talking about? 

PC: I want to be clear that everything that's happened with Sandra Bland has deeply impacted the black community and black women in particular. This action was mostly led by black women, and black women were the architects of it. You're going to see us take more action in response to Sandra Bland. You're also going to see us take these presidential debates very seriously. For us, this was just the model for what we want to do at every presidential debate. We should be the ones modeling the debates. I'm really appreciative of Jose Antonio Vargas, who was actually a really great moderator, supporting the protestors, and was actually an amazing liaison; that's not always going to be the case. I think we have to get in the habit of shutting down the debates, and calling out the elected officials. They need to earn our votes, they need to fight for our votes, and they need to be prepared to answer hard questions—and not become defensive or cowardly in the face of them. 

When I went on stage and I said, “This is a state of emergency”—I'm not using that as a hyperbole. Any other racial group whose religious symbols are being burned down and homes are being burned down; whose community members are being killed on a daily basis; who are completely dying of starvation, have the high unemployment rates and infant mortality rates—any other community, this would be seen as an opportunity to support and uplift and try to deal with the crisis. That's actually not what's happening in the black community, so I think the iteration that we are in a state of emergency, and we want elected officials to treat it as such, is so important.