From Silicon Valley to Hollywood, Californians lead the world with big ideas. For the latest installment of our “Big Think” series, we meet Patrisse Cullors. She is the director of truth and reinvestment at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland and one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Her Big Think?
"Build a national network of communities to respond to law enforcement violence."
Cullors received a $500,000 racial justice grant from Google to help make her Big Think become a reality.
The Black Lives Matter movement started with a simple love note. It was the night the jury acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the 2012 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during an altercation in a gated Florida community. Her friend, Alicia Garza, wrote a series of posts on Facebook that were intended to be an open letter to black people:
Where those folks at saying we are in post-racial America? where those folks at saying we have moved past race and that black folks in particular need to get over it? the sad part is, there's a section of America who is cheering and celebrating right now. and that makes me sick to my stomach. we GOTTA get it together y'all. Our lives are hanging in the balance. Young black boys in this country are not safe. Black men in this country are not safe. This verdict will create many more George Zimmermans.
black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.
Cullors says she saw that love note and hash-tagged it. She then "used that hashtag over the next several hours to really just love on black people, and pretty quickly thereafter myself and Alicia spoke and said we need to build this out as a project."
According to Cullors, #BlackLivesMatter is an affirmation that embraces the resistance and resilience of black people. It is also a rallying cry to defend black life and create successful black futures.
Not to mention, the deaths of black women like Renisha McBride, who was shot on the porch of a suburban home when she sought help after she had car trouble, and Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her jail cell.
Suddenly people all over the world were talking about Black Lives Matter and using the hashtag.
But what about all the other people who face law enforcement violence — who don’t have a video. Where do they turn?
How Should Black and Brown Communities Handle Law Enforcement Violence?
Growing up, Cullors says, she witnessed a significant amount of policing and police repression in her Van Nuys neighborhood.
"My brother was almost killed by the Sheriff’s Department when he was 19 years old inside of the L.A. County jails. And my mother had nowhere to go. She called the Sheriff’s Department over and over again and they sent her in circles."
This experience is part of the reason why Cullors wants to create a network of rapid responders to help people deal with law enforcement violence. That includes violence at the hand of the police, FBI, ICE officers, California Highway Patrol and correctional officers.
"We know what to do if an earthquake happens in California. People know what to do if a tornado happens. But what happens when your loved one is killed by the police? When your loved one is killed in a jail cell?" Cullors says.
"We don’t know what to do. We’ve seen it time and time again. Families are at a loss. They don’t know who to talk to, they don’t know who to go to because, you don’t go to your murderer to have them give you justice."
Black and brown communities can’t rely on law enforcement to protect black and brown bodies, says Cullors.
"If your loved one is harmed or killed by law enforcement, if they’re illegally arrested, if there’s a raid on your home, you will be able to call a hotline number that will be staffed 24/7 that can help you navigate the system."
What makes her idea different is that the rapid responders will be people who live in the community and understand what it's like to face law enforcement violence firsthand.
"It will be a multiracial justice team. Allies can definitely play a role. But really the point is people who are directly impacted, and that often looks like black and brown people, and poor people."
She imagines the first responders could help victims file a complaint against the police. And if the complaint isn’t getting attention, they could help stage a protest in the neighborhood or organize to demand that the officer is fired.
Cullors has already mobilized the teams. They are all over the state, from Sacramento to Orange County (and in between in Oakland, Stockton, Fresno, Salinas, Los Angeles and San Diego). The next step is to train the teams of rapid responders.
A Platform to Focus Black Voices
She's also creating a social media platform specific to issues of law enforcement violence and mass incarceration. It will expand the Mobile Justice app that the ACLU and Ella Baker Center created. It allows people to send a recording of questionable police activity directly to the ACLU.
"We use Twitter and Facebook to talk about our stories, but we don’t own Twitter or Facebook. We need a social media platform that’s owned by the community, sourced by the community and where we know that if we put up our own images and videos, that we own it. This social media platform can’t bring it down."
Cullors hopes that one day people all over the world will use the platform to organize. And the teams will help create more caring, healthy and safe communities for people of color all over the state.