As we mourn the recent and untimely death of Erica Garner, a young woman in the prime of life and a new mother who risked everything in pursuit of justice for her father, Eric Garner, we cannot forget the toll the work of fighting for justice takes on black women.
Venida Browder also lost her life all too soon as she pursued justice for her wrongly incarcerated son, Kalief, who was tortured while locked up in New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail.
And it is not lost on us that both of these sisters died, in essence, of broken hearts—which is why the question looms large: What are we doing to honor and care for black women who are standing on the front lines of justice?
It was black women who did more than any other group to try to stop the election of an aggressive white supremacist to the highest office in the land. And it was black women who worked to shift the federal government by sending Doug Jones from Alabama to the Senate. And it was black women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement, the most recent and deeply powerful iteration in the ongoing fight against police and state-sponsored harm and death.
I sat down to talk with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance and the co-author of Khan-Cullors’ memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (St. Martin’s Press), which will be published Jan. 16. The offering, while a personal narrative, nevertheless unpacks the complex policies and sheds light on the human cost of the drug war and mass incarceration, as well as its impact on families.
We discussed Erica, Venida, the erasure of black women’s work and what we can do to not only stop the onslaught of hatred but also honor the work black women do by lifting up that work and by ensuring that each of us has the space to heal.
The Root: It’s been a tough season. Losing Erica Garner was heartbreaking.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: It was. A true tragedy. And the terrible reality is that black women, after having to deal with not just the criminalization of ourselves and our family members, then we’re put in the position to try to fight for justice for ourselves and our family members. And in that work, we receive too little support.
I think for Erica we all collectively could have done more—even as I know individually people did. But we live in a society that is built on the neglect of black women. And when I found out that she was put in a medically induced coma, I just kept praying for her to make it. I was so desperate for her to make it. Erica was me. She was just about every black woman that I had grown up with, lived with, the women who raised me.
Erica made the ultimate sacrifice; she lost her father and then she sacrificed herself. And I don’t think it’s necessary for us as black people to be the martyrs anymore. Erica’s death should not just be a wake-up call for black people but for this entire country. We deserve so much more than what we’ve been given.
asha bandele: Erica, someone I considered a mentee of mine, was the mother of two children. She did very brave work with Drug Policy Alliance and was a beautiful student. She was also someone who was deeply seeking to learn the history and how she could use her voice to speak for many others.
And I think that we can’t talk about Erica—or Venida Browder, Kalief’s mother—without talking about the ways in which black mothers have been treated since our first mother was kidnapped and brought to this country. We’ve never had a right to our motherhood. The U.S. has the highest maternity-mortality rate of any developed nation—and that rate is driven by the death of black mothers.
Why didn’t Erica survive a maternal-related illness? I don’t know. But I do know that I am deeply troubled that I haven’t seen a groundswell of all women raising a flag about Erica—like they didn’t raise the flag for Venida Browder. And what I know for sure is that, if we don’t take care of the most harmed in our society, then we will never have the policies we need to make this world the one we need it to be. But for now, I am keeping Erica’s children, little E.J. and Alyssa, in my heart, in my prayers.
TR: I really appreciate that because for every black man or black woman who has been targeted, harmed or killed by the police, there are family members whose lives and been permanently disrupted. And so I also really appreciate the effort that you’ve put forward, Patrisse, in sharing that truth about your own life in When They Call You a Terrorist, what do you hope that people will take away from your story?
PKC: I didn’t grow up hearing about young, black, queer women who are raised poor. I heard a lot about black men and what was being done to the sons and fathers in our community—and I certainly witnessed it. Except for asha’s book, The Prisoner’s Wife, there was little about the women who cared for these men, who put their bodies on the line, who worked five to six jobs so that children were fed and money was on the books so when men were locked up, they could call home.
And when I was approached about writing my story, I was shocked. I didn’t think I had a story inside of me. Because oftentimes for black women, the role that has been relegated to us is to be the container for someone else’s story. We’re the partner, the extra in someone else’s tale.
So to even think about me centering my story, frankly felt uncomfortable. But when I told asha about it, she just said, “They’re right. Let’s do this.” And to hear that reflection from another black woman, [saying] “Let’s do this,” gave me the courage to tell my story.
My hope is that this offers a moment for other black women raised poor, other black women who have been the backbone of other communities, to be centralized in this larger conversation around state violence and mass incarceration. I want to tell queer black girls why they’ve been through what they have, how to tell what they’ve been through, why they’ve been through it, and how to survive it. I want to reach a whole new group of allies.
We’re living in a moment where 45 and Jeff Sessions are literally dragging us back into the Jim Crow era. We’re living in a moment when, while the rest of the country is ready to end the drug war, this administration is hell-bent on continuing it. And so, I’m hoping that this book is also an organizing tool. I hope it reminds people why we need to not just fight this current administration, but why we should fight any administration that would allow human beings to live their whole lives in cages.
ab: And I’d only add this, Patrisse: Your story, your honesty, your courage, these will be a touchstone for others to heal, to restore, to stand up, to be the center of their own stories and dreams.
TR: Patrisse, what do you see as a black woman, as an activist, as a person who is advocating for the equality of black lives? What do you think this moment means for issues of black feminism, black queer feminism and black activism in general?
PKC: Part of why this movement has been so attractive is because we centered black women and black queer people as a part of this larger discourse around white supremacy and anti-black racism. Growing up in the movement, it was really challenging because the conversation was always about black men and the lens was patriarchal. And when I wanted to talk about black women and queer people, there was obstruction. It was looked at as a distraction. And I think what we’ve been able to accomplish in this iteration of the broader black-liberation movement is a deep center around why black feminism is an integral part of saving black people.
Also, I think this current moment has allowed for a new type of leadership, which is less about a single charismatic leader and much more about looking at hundreds, thousands of black people, not just in the U.S. but around the globe, who are taking on local fights that have national implications. It has allowed for black women to not just be at the forefront of the movement, but to be at the forefront of radical politics.
Without Black Lives Matter, we wouldn’t be able to have a Women’s March. Without Black Lives Matter setting the precedent for how we fight, we wouldn’t have so many people be in conversation around sexual assault and rape against the most marginalized people in the country. And so I think Black Lives Matter gave way for our movement to not just be intersectional, but to thrive and to grow and to evolve.
TR: And can you say more about the movement’s spiritual center—and your own healing?
PKC: We’ve been asked by many, “Why do you think Black Lives Matter didn’t grow from the black church?” And what I say is many of us were abandoned by the black church. Many of us were told not to bring our sexuality or our gender identity to the black church. So we formed a different kind of church. We formed a church with our unions and our bonds. We formed a church in the streets as many of us end up homeless.
We are a generation abandoned by our government, who were the targets of the drug war, who witnessed our families being torn apart and taken from us. We’re a generation that witnessed the deindustrialization of our cities and our counties. And while our loved ones, our guardians, our parents were left with no jobs, they were also given no resources. And so, the texture of our movement often is a “I don’t give a fuck about anybody,” right? And the idea of an authority, especially the authority of a church, is neither here nor there for us because those are the churches that abandoned us.
But I’ve seen also some brilliant pastors rise up and challenge homophobia in the church, challenge this idea that black, queer and trans people can’t be at the center. I think about Rev. Starsky Wilson in St. Louis, Pastor Michael McBride in the Bay Area; I think about Rev. Traci Blackmon in St. Louis. These are three prominent pastors who have completely opened up their arms and not just tolerated black, queer and trans people, but said that you are a gift here, you are honored here. And I think more of that leadership is happening. I think it’s part of a culture shift.
ab: And, Deborah, I would also say that we are less bound to Christianity and patriarchal religions. I would say that the centering of the healing and restoration of spirit and community and body has been a religion—even in the midst of all this pain. But, Patrisse, I don’t want us to get out of this conversation without talking about some of the things that you do to try to stay centered.
PKC: You know, I’d been in caring organizations, and as someone who battles with depression and lives with PTSD, the moments when I would have flare-ups, the response always was, “OK, go ahead and go take care of yourself and then come back” versus “We are an organization that has implemented ways that our membership, our staff, can be just who they are with us, holistically. They don’t have to go off somewhere and come back to a movement that is not equipped to look pain in the face.”
I have a lot of gratitude for places like BOLD—Black Organizers for Leadership and Dignity—who have centered aromatics, generative somatics and the reliance on the empathic for black people so we can thrive. And, finally, I am grateful to my spiritual practice, Ifa, a traditional religion from Nigeria.
What also calls us to heal is our practice in our work. We’ve centered abolition, and in doing that, you can’t just have a theory. You have to live it. And doing that allows me, in this hard moment, this often demoralizing moment, to remain grounded.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is Cullors’ and bandele’s first written collaboration.
Deborah Small is the founder and executive director of Break the Chains, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending the harm to communities of color caused by the drug war.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors is the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and an activist of 20 years.
asha bandele is a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance.