A self-described “artist, organizer and freedom fighter” who seeks to reform America’s allegedly racist jail-and-prison system, Patrisse Cullors was born in Los Angeles in 1984. When she was a child, her father was incarcerated numerous times for drug offenses. In a February 2015 interview with Vice.com, Miss Cullors said that at age 16 she “came out as queer,” “was kicked out of home,” and subsequently formed close connections with “a bunch of other young queer women of color” who, like her, were dealing with the challenges of “poverty [and] being black and brown in the USA.”
Identifying strongly with the famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Cullors traces her impulse toward activism back to 1999, when her older brother Monte was allegedly beaten by a group of L.A. deputies while he was in their custody. At age 18, Miss Cullors began volunteering with the Bus Riders Union, a public transportation advocacy group organized by a Los Angeles-based think tank known as the Labor and Community Strategies Center (LCSC). A few years later, the Center hired Cullors to train high-school students in political organizing tactics. Cullors herself was trained to be an activist by former Weather Underground leader Eric Mann. She worked for LCSC from 2001-12.
In 2011 Cullors was a guest speaker at the annual Left Forum convention in New York City.
In 2012 Cullors earned a degree in religion and philosophy from UCLA. She thereafter completed a fellowship at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership (at Kalamazoo College), where she: (a) organized and headed a think tank on “state and vigilante violence,” and (b) produced and directed a theatrical piece titled “POWER: From the Mouths of the Occupied,” which accused the U.S. of perpetrating “state violence” and “genocide” against African Americans.
Also in 2012, Cullors became interested in a civil-rights lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that gangs of deputies in the L.A. Sheriff’s Department had been systematically beating and abusing inmates. Before long, Cullors and five likeminded friends began organizing protests against these alleged transgressions. As membership in her group grew to more than four-dozen people, Cullors named it Dignity and Power Now (DPN). She continues to serve as a lead organizer for the group. Dedicated to “protecting incarcerated people and their families in Los Angeles,” DPN today is sponsored by the L.A.-based nonprofit group Community Partners. DPN is also a front group for the Marxist-Leninist Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO).
In 2013 Cullors collaborated with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi to co-found Black Lives Matter (BLM), an online platform designed to stoke black rage and galvanize a protest movement in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a white man who was tried for murder and manslaughter after he had shot and killed a black Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin in a highly publicized February 2012 altercation.
On April 18, 2013, Cullors spoke at a Los Angeles rally titled “Urgent Call to Defend the Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro.” The event was rooted in the belief that “right-wing elements backed by U.S. imperialism are attempting a coup against constitutional rule in Venezuela.”
In one of her more high-profile undertakings, Cullors in the fall of 2014 led a group of some 600 fellow BLM protesters in a “Freedom Ride” from St. Louis to Ferguson, Missouri. Their purpose was to protest a white Ferguson police officer’s recent killing of an 18-year-old black male named Michael Brown.
Cullors is committed to fighting what she calls “the current system” of “white supremacy” and “anti-blackness” that inflicts “state violence” on African Americans. As she told The Feminist Wire in December 2014, she views BLM as a vehicle for promoting “major policy” geared toward “decriminalizing Black lives,” “reducing the law-enforcement budget,” and forcing some police departments to be “disbanded or abolished.” “With a reduction of law-enforcement money,” Cullors elaborates, “we can then be putting it back into Black communities”—i.e., into government programs that provide “black folks” with “jobs,” “housing,” and “healthy food.” Moreover, she vows that until “a victim’s bill of rights” is passed to protect blacks from abuse by police officers, she and her fellow activists are “gonna shut shit down.”
In May 2015, Cullors characterized the recent protests and riots in Baltimore—which erupted after a local black criminal named Freddie Gray had died under disputed circumstances while in police custody—as “Black Spring” demonstrations akin to the massive “Arab Spring” actions that had threatened and/or toppled a number of Middle Eastern regimes beginning in 2011. “Black Spring,” she said, “is about really looking at this moment, as not these isolated incidences.… Black people are not a monolithic group, but what we are facing is something that’s extreme—and that’s poverty, that’s homelessness, that’s higher rates of joblessness, that’s law enforcement invading our communities day in and day out—and we are uprising. And so this Black Spring is about really talking about a national uprising.”
In 2015 as well, Cullors openly acknowledged BLM’s Marxist influence, proclaiming on video: “We actually do have an ideological frame. Myself and Alicia [Garza] in particular, we’re trained organizers. We are trained Marxists. We are super versed on ideological theories.” In the same video, Cullors revealed that for more than a decade she had been the protégé of mentor Eric Mann, a communist revolutionary and a domestic terrorist who in the 1960s and ’70s was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. Mann trained Cullors in Marxist-Leninist ideology and the tactics of political organizing.
In March 2016, Fortune magazine named Cullors and her two BLM co-founders to its list of the “50 of the most influential world leaders.”
In 2016 as well, Cullors married the Canadian social activist Janaya Khan, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto. Since then, Cullors has sometimes been referred to as Patrisse Khan-Cullors.
In an August 2017 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cullors said that BLM would never talk with President Donald Trump because he was akin to Adolf Hitler: “We wouldn’t as a movement take a seat at the table with Trump because we wouldn’t have done that with Hitler. Trump is literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country — be it racism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia…. And if I’m thinking about what I want my children to know in 30, 40, 50 years, I want them to know that I resisted a president at all costs, because this president literally tried to kill our communities, and is killing our communities.”
In an August 2017 interview with MSNBC, Cullors argued that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Said Cullors: “David Duke and the white supremacists who showed up to Charlottesville [the site of a recent Virginia rally that included some self-identified neo-Nazis], that is Trump’s base. And that base is not isolated. It’s not — it’s directly related to Trump’s policies and the policies that have continued to harm and kill black people and our allies. I think we’re seeing a movement of white nationalists rising up because they’ve been emboldened by Trump and his government…. And hate speech, which is what we’re seeing coming out of white nationalist groups, is not protected under the First Amendment rights.”
In a January 2018 interview with Democracy Now!, Cullors described how, under the tutelage of the aforementioned Eric Mann, she had become a trained organizer with the Labor/Community Strategy Center (LCSC), which she identified as her “first political home.” LCSC characterizes its philosophy as “an urban experiment” that aims to use community organizing to “focus on Black and Latino communities with deep historical ties to the long history of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, pro-communist resistance to the U.S. empire.” The Center also lauds the work of the U.S. Communist Party, “especially Black communists,” as well as the Party’s support for “the great work of the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, Young Lords, Brown Berets, and the great revolutionary rainbow experiments of the 1970s.”
When she was asked in an April 2018 interview to discuss the skillset required to build a successful movement,” Cullors replied: “I went through a year-long organizing program at the National School for Strategic Organizing (NSSO), and it was led by the Labor Community Strategy Center,” a progressive civil rights organization founded by Eric Mann. “We spent the year reading, anything from Marx, to Lenin, to Mao, learning all types of global critical theory and about different campaigns across the world, and most importantly every day, five days a week we were out on the ground actively recruiting people into the organization we were in, as a way to learn how to bring people in, how to keep them in an organization. There’s an entire skillset to this.”
In addition to her work with BLM, Cullors is also active in a network called Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), which teaches black activists how to help build a “black social justice infrastructure.”
Addressing the Democratic National Convention’s virtual party platform meeting on July 27, 2020, Cullors, in the name of the “fight for black liberation,” exhorted the Democratic Party to make “sea changes” to its platform and to adopt a variety of radical legislative measures including the closure of all federal prisons and immigration detention centers. Her remarks also included the following:
“Until and unless our leaders become signatory to the BREATHE Act — to legislation that eliminates the federal government’s ability to give multi-million dollar grants to militarize police forces; dismantles punitive [agencies] like ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], Border Patrol, and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency]; ends the use of surveillance systems being used to target protesters; and bans the use of police agencies to suppress political dissent — the Democratic Party of today will be remembered as the party of complicity. The party that refuses to sacrifice its own creature comforts and material securities to ensure it walked the walk. So before you leave today, I want you to answer this question for yourselves: Which side of history is my party actually on?”
Moreover, Cullors warned that if the Democratic Party did not seize the “opportunity right now to right the course of history,” it would “miss its greatest opportunity” to lead the U.S. to the “true American revolution.”
In October 2020, Cullors signed a production deal with the Warner Bros. Television Group to produce content including animation, scripted and unscripted projects, longform series, and digital projects to be aired on streaming services, television, and film. In an interview with Variety magazine, Cullors said: “Black voices, especially Black voices who have been historically marginalized, are important and integral to today’s storytelling. Our perspective and amplification is necessary and vital to helping shape a new narrative for our families and communities. I am committed to uplifting these stories in my new creative role with the Warner Bros. family. As a longtime community organizer and social justice activist, I believe that my work behind the camera will be an extension of the work I’ve been doing for the last twenty years. I look forward to amplifying the talent and voices of other Black creatives through my work.”
Cullors’ Anti-Israel Orientation
In January 2015, Cullors joined representatives from the Dream Defenders as well as a number of likeminded anti-police-brutality protesters in taking a 10-day trip to the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank. Their objective was to publicly draw a parallel between what they defined as Israeli oppression of the Palestinians in the Middle East, and police violence against blacks in the United States. The other delegates who made this trip were five Dream Defenders (Phillip Agnew, Ciara Taylor, Steven Pargett, Sherika Shaw, Ahmad Abuznaid); Tef Poe and Tara Thompson from Ferguson/Hands Up United; journalist and professor Marc Lamont Hill; Cherrell Brown and Carmen Perez of the Justice League NYC; Charlene Carruthers from the Black Youth Project; poet and artist Aja Monet; and USC doctoral student Maytha Alhassen.
In August 2015, Cullors was one of more than 1,000 black activists, artists, scholars, politicians, students, “political prisoners,” and organizational representatives to sign a statement proclaiming their “solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and commitment to the liberation of Palestine’s land and people”; demanding an end to Israel’s “occupation” of “Palestine”; condemning “Israel’s brutal war on Gaza and chokehold on the West Bank”; urging the U.S. government to end all aid to Israel; and exhorting black institutions to support the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions movement against the Jewish state. Key passages from the statement included the following:
Ties to the Democratic Party & the Anti-Trump Movement
On November 7, 2020 — the same day that several mainstream media outlets declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election — Cullors sent a letter to Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris. Cullors signed the letter “on behalf of the Black Lives Matter Global Network,” and began by congratulating Biden and Harris on their reported victory. She then wrote: “We are requesting a meeting with you both to discuss the expectations that we have for your administration and the commitments that must be made to Black people. We want something for our vote. Without the resounding support of Black people, we would be saddled with a very different electoral outcome. In short, Black people won this election. Alongside Black-led organizations around the nation, Black Lives Matter invested heavily in this election. ‘Vote and Organize’ became our motto, and our electoral justice efforts reached more than 60 million voters. We want something for our vote.”
Cullors then reminded Biden and Harris: “[B]oth of you discussed addressing systemic racism as central to your election campaigns. Both of you also expressed regrets regarding your record on issues impacting Black people.” She closed the letter by writing, “We look forward to meeting with you at your convenience to begin the immediate work of Black liberation. We would like to be actively engaged in your Transition Team’s planning and policy work. Again, congratulations on your win. Let’s get to work!”
Further Reading: “Patrisse Cullors” (PatrisseCullors.com, LinkedIn.com, KeyWiki.org); “Activist Battles L.A. County Jailers’ ‘Culture of Violence’” (Los Angeles Times, 4-14-2014); “We Spoke to the Activist Behind #BlackLivesMatter About Racism in Britain and America” (Vice.com, 2-2-2015); “A Conversation with Patrisse Cullors and Darnell L. Moore” (The Feminist Wire, 12-1-2014).