When They Call You a Terrorist

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors on her path to activism and being criminalized at age 12.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha bandele January 29, 2018

Illustration by Lindsey Bailey

The first time I am arrest­ed, I am 12 years old. One sen­tence and I am back there, all that lit­tle girl fear and humil­i­a­tion for­ev­er set­tled in me at the cel­lu­lar lev­el. It’s the break between sev­enth and eighth grades, and for the first time I have to attend sum­mer school because of my math and sci­ence grades and I am angry about it. No oth­er Mil­likan kids come here, to this school in Van Nuys, for reme­di­a­tion, only me. The sum­mer school I attend is for the kids who live in my neigh­bor­hood. It doesn’t have a cam­pus, but it has met­al detec­tors and police. There are no police or met­al detec­tors at Mil­likan. Some­how, men­tal­ly, I don’t make the adjust­ment. I still think of myself as a stu­dent there, which I am but not for these sum­mer months, and one day I do what I’d learned from my Mil­likan peers to do to cope: I smoke some weed. At Mil­likan it is a dai­ly occur­rence for kids to show up to class high, to light up in the bath­room, to smoke on the cam­pus lawn. No one gets in trou­ble. Nowhere is there police. Mil­likan is the mid­dle school where the gift­ed kids go.

"But having attended schools with both Black and white girls, one thing I learned quickly is that while we can behave in the same or very similar ways, we are almost never punished similarly."

But in my neigh­bor­hood school things are total­ly dif­fer­ent and some­one must have said some­thing about me and my weed — two girls had come into the bath­room when I’d been in there — because two days lat­er a police offi­cer comes to my class.

I remem­ber my stom­ach drop­ping the way it does on one of those mon­ster roller-coast­er rides at Six Flags. I can just feel that they are com­ing for me and I am right. The cop tells me to come to the front of the room, where he hand­cuffs me in front of every­one and takes me to the dean’s office, where my bag is searched, where I am searched, pock­ets turned out, shoes checked, just like my broth­ers in the alley­way when I was 9 years old. I have no weed on me but I am made to call my moth­er at work and tell her what hap­pened, which I do through tears. I didn’t do it, Mom­my, I lie through gen­uine tears of fear. My moth­er believes me. I am the good girl and she takes my side.

Lat­er, when we are home togeth­er, she will not ask me how I am feel­ing or get right­eous­ly angry. She will not rub my wrists where the hand­cuffs pinched them or hold me or tell me she loves me. This is not a judg­ment of her. My moth­er is a man­ag­er, fig­ur­ing out how to get her­self and her four chil­dren through the day alive. That this has hap­pened, but that she and her kids are all at home and, rel­a­tive­ly speak­ing, safe, is a vic­to­ry for my moth­er. It is enough. And for all of my child­hood, this is just the way it is.

WHAT MADE MID­DLE SCHOOL SUCH A CUL­TURE SHOCK, 

beyond the race and class dif­fer­ences, was that all through­out ele­men­tary school I was con­sid­ered bright, gift­ed even, a star stu­dent whom my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Gold­berg, indulged when I asked if I could teach the class about the civ­il rights move­ment. A week before she had giv­en me a book, The Gold Cadil­lac by Mil­dred Tay­lor, about a girl mak­ing the fright­en­ing dri­ve with her father from Ohio through the Jim Crow South, down to Mis­sis­sip­pi, where her extend­ed fam­i­ly lives.

The ter­ror in it was pal­pa­ble for me, the grow­ing sense on every page that they might be killed; by the time I was 9, police had already raid­ed our small apart­ment in search of one of my favorite uncles, my father Alton’s broth­er. My uncle who used and sold drugs, and who had a big laugh and who used to hug me up and tell me I was bril­liant, but who did not with live us, whose where­abouts we did not know the day the police in full riot gear burst in.

Even tiny Jas­mine, prob­a­bly 5 years old dur­ing that raid, was yelled at and told to sit on the couch with me as police tore through our home in a way I would nev­er lat­er see on Law and Order: Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit, where Olivia Ben­son is always gen­tle with the kids. In real life, when I was a lit­tle kid, when my broth­ers and sis­ters were, we were treat­ed like sus­pects. We had to make our own gen­tle, Jas­mine and I, hold­ing each oth­er, frozen like I was the day of the alley­way inci­dent, this time cops tear­ing through our rooms instead of the bod­ies of my brothers.

They even tore through our draw­ers. Did they think my uncle was hid­ing in the dress­er drawer?

But as with the inci­dent with my broth­ers, we did not speak of it once it was over.

I am sure this inci­dent is at least par­tial­ly why The Gold Cadil­lac was a sto­ry I clung to so deeply, why I remem­ber it now, decades on. Where the details wove togeth­er dif­fer­ent­ly, the fear drawn out across those pages is the same, is my own. Fin­ish­ing it, I want­ed more. I want­ed con­fir­ma­tion that that which we did not speak of was real. Which was why I asked, Please, Ms. Gold­berg, may I have more books to read?

Of course, she said, and gave me sto­ries I devoured, child-size bites of the fight for free­dom and justice.

Please, I went back and asked Ms. Gold­berg, can I teach the class about the books?

Yes, she said, Why not? Because that’s how she was. Ms. Gold­berg, with her 80s feath­ered brown hair and her Flash­dance-style work­out gear she wore to school every day.

I had a reward — pieces of can­dy — for my class­mates who answered the ques­tions I posed dur­ing the 15-minute pre­sen­ta­tions I was allowed to give on the books I read. I want­ed them to know our his­to­ry in this nation, what it was we come from. I want­ed them to learn, as I had learned, the ter­ror we knew. Some­how it con­nect­ed to a ter­ror I — we — felt in our own neigh­bor­hoods, in our own cur­rent lives, but could not quite name.

BUT BETWEEN MS. GOLD­BERG AND THEN MS. BILAL — THE 

after­school teacher and the sin­gle dark-skinned Black woman I would have dur­ing my ear­ly edu­ca­tion, who brought us Kwan­zaa and Afro­cen­tric­i­ty — I turned toward mid­dle school hope­ful, even if it was in a com­mu­ni­ty I didn’t know, a com­mu­ni­ty with­out my com­mu­ni­ty. I expect­ed to still be loved, encouraged.

Mil­likan Mid­dle School is suf­fi­cient­ly far enough away from my home that I need a ride each morn­ing in order to get to school on time. Before, I could sim­ply hop on the city bus with all the oth­er kids from my hood, but get­ting into Sher­man Oaks is a more com­pli­cat­ed endeav­or. The prob­lem is that my fam­i­ly does not own a car, which is why our neigh­bor Cyn­thia steps in to help.

My moth­er bor­rows her car to ensure my safe pas­sage. This is not quite as straight­for­ward as it may sound.

Cyn­thia, no more than 19, a young moth­er who has on and off been involved with my broth­er Monte and who will even­tu­al­ly have a child, my nephew Chase, with him, had been shot a year before in a dri­ve-by while she was at a par­ty. From the waist down, she was left par­a­lyzed. But she has a car she loans my moth­er, a beat-up, cham­pagne-col­ored sta­tion wag­on. The back win­dows are gone, replaced by plas­tic lin­ing, and the whole thing smells like pee because with Cyn­thia being most­ly par­a­lyzed, she some­times los­es con­trol of her bladder.


My moth­er takes me to Mil­likan in that car, which ini­tial­ly I deal with because, a car! But after the first day, I real­ize quick­ly I have to make a change. Day two and I say, Drop me off here, Mom­my, mean­ing a few blocks away from the school. The car we are in does not look like any of the oth­er cars that pull up to Mil­likan, all gleam­ing and new in the morn­ing sun. Kids pour out of those vehi­cles, Mer­cedes and Lexus­es, and run from wav­ing par­ents onto the campus’s green­er-than-green lawn, as all at once I become famil­iar with a sud­den and new feel­ing tak­ing root in my spir­it: a shame that goes deep, that is encom­pass­ing and defin­ing. I real­ize we are poor.

Lat­er, as an adult, a friend will say to me, Of course you felt that. Oppres­sion is embar­rass­ing, she will say qui­et­ly. But in mid­dle school, seg­re­gat­ed as it is, between Black and white kids, wealthy and poor kids, I don’t quite know what to do with this feel­ing or the ter­ri­ble ques­tion that encir­cles my 12-year-old soul: Am I sup­posed to be embar­rassed about the peo­ple who nur­tured me, who gave me to the world and gave the world to me?

I DON’T FIT IN WITH THE WHITE KIDS WHO SMOKE WEED 

in between class­es in bath­rooms or on the cam­pus lawn. I don’t fit in with the few Black girls who want to be Janet Jack­son or Whit­ney Hous­ton when they grow up. I wear MC Ham­mer pants, crotch swing­ing low. I wear my own brand of Black­ness informed as it also is by the Mex­i­can­ness of the neigh­bor­hood I was raised in. Peo­ple say I am weird, but I don’t feel weird. I only feel like myself: a girl from Van Nuys who loves poet­ry and read­ing and, more than any­thing, danc­ing. I am in the dance depart­ment and my dances are equal parts African, Hip Hop and Mari­achi, which is also to say, weird.

Mid­dle school is the first time in my life when I feel unsure of myself. No one is call­ing me gift­ed any­more. No one, save for my dance teacher, encour­ages me or seems to have patience with me. It’s in mid­dle school that my grades drop for the first time and that I come to believe that maybe all that love I’d got­ten in ele­men­tary school had some­how dried up, my ration run dry. At the age of 12 I am on my own, no longer in the world as a child, as a small human, inno­cent and in need of sup­port. I saw it hap­pen to my broth­ers and now it was hap­pen­ing to me, this moment when we become the thing that’s no longer adorable or cher­ished. The year we become a thing to be discarded.

For my broth­ers, and espe­cial­ly for Monte, learn­ing that they did not mat­ter, that they were expend­able, began in the streets, began while they were hang­ing out with friends, began while they were lit­er­al­ly breath­ing while Black. The extra­or­di­nary pres­ence of police in our com­mu­ni­ties, a result of a drug war aimed at us, despite our nev­er using or sell­ing drugs more than unpo­liced white chil­dren, ensured that we all knew this. For us, law enforce­ment had noth­ing to do with pro­tect­ing and serv­ing, but con­trol­ling and con­tain­ing the move­ment of chil­dren who had been labeled super-preda­tors sim­ply by virtue of who they were born to and where they were born, not because they were actu­al­ly doing any­thing predatory.

I learned I didn’t mat­ter from the very same place that lift­ed me up, the place I’d found my cen­ter and voice: school. And it will not be until I am an adult, deter­mined to achieve a degree in reli­gion, part of a long and ded­i­cat­ed process I under­took to become an ordained min­is­ter, that I will enjoy school again.

A FEW YEARS AFTER I COM­PLETE MY DEGREE, 

Dr. Monique W. Mor­ris pub­lished her ground­break­ing book, Pushout: The Crim­i­nal­iza­tion of Black Girls in Schools, demon­strat­ing how Black girls are ren­dered dis­pos­able in schools, unwant­ed, unloved. Twelve per­cent of us receive at least one sus­pen­sion dur­ing our school careers while our white (girl) coun­ter­parts are sus­pend­ed at a rate of 2 per­cent. In Wis­con­sin the rate is actu­al­ly 21 per­cent for Black girls but 2 per­cent for white girls.

But hav­ing attend­ed schools with both Black and white girls, one thing I learned quick­ly is that while we can behave in the same or very sim­i­lar ways, we are almost nev­er pun­ished sim­i­lar­ly. In fact, in white schools, I wit­nessed an extra­or­di­nary amount of drug use com­pared to what my friends in my neigh­bor­hood schools expe­ri­enced. And yet my friends were the ones policed. My neigh­bor­hood friends went to schools where no mass or even sin­gu­lar shoot­ings occurred, but where police in full Kevlar patrolled the hall­ways, often with drug-sniff­ing dogs, the very same kind that they turned on chil­dren in the South who demand­ed an end to segregation.

By the time Black Lives Mat­ter is born, we not only know that we have been ren­dered dis­pos­able because of our lived expe­ri­ence — which few lis­tened to — but also from data and final­ly from those ter­ri­ble, viral images of Black girls being thrown bru­tal­ly out of their seats by peo­ple who are called School Safe­ty Offi­cers, for the crime of hav­ing their phones out in the class­room. Monique Morris’s report­ing will tell us about the 12-year-old girl from Detroit who is threat­ened with both expul­sion and crim­i­nal charges for writ­ing the word Hi” on her lock­er door; and the one in Orlan­do who is also threat­ened with expul­sion from her pri­vate school if she doesn’t stop wear­ing her hair natural.

Twelve.

And for me, too, it start­ed the year I turned twelve.

That was the year that I learned that being Black and poor defined me more than being bright and hope­ful and ready. I had been so ready to learn. So will­ing. Twelve, the moment our grades and engage­ment as stu­dents seem to mat­ter less than how we can be proven to be crim­i­nals, peo­ple to be arrested.

Twelve, and child­hood already gone.

Twelve, and being who we are can cost us our lives.

It cost Tamir Rice his life.

He was a child of twelve. And the cop who shot him took under two sec­onds, lit­er­al­ly, to deter­mine that Tamir should die.

Tamir Rice. Twelve.

Twelve, and out of time.

From When They Call You a Ter­ror­ist by Patrisse Khan-Cul­lors and asha ban­dele. Copy­right © 2018 by the authors and reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of St. Martin’s Press. 

PATRISSE KHAN-CUL­LORS is an artist, orga­niz­er and free­dom fight­er from Los Ange­les. A co-founder of Black Lives Mat­ter, she is also a per­for­mance artist, Ful­bright schol­ar, pop­u­lar pub­lic speak­er and an NAACP His­to­ry Mak­er.ASHA BAN­DELE, author of the best-sell­ing and award-win­ning mem­oir The Prisoner’s Wife and four oth­er works, has been hon­ored for her work in jour­nal­ism, fic­tion, poet­ry and activism. A moth­er and a for­mer senior edi­tor at Essence mag­a­zine, Asha serves as a senior direc­tor at the Drug Pol­i­cy Alliance.
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