The Ms. Q&A: Patrisse Cullors is Fighting for Institutional Investment in Black Lives

“Criminal justice is the biggest human rights issue in the U.S.,” Carroll Bogert, president of the non-profit criminal justice news platform The Marshall Project, declared from the stage Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Humanitarian Symposium. “Why do we think civil rights happened here, and human rights happen somewhere else?”

That was the question at the center of a wide-ranging conversation between Bogert and E. Tendayi Achiume, assistant professor of law at UCLA Law School and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, and Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Los Angeles is a City for CEDAW, even though the U.S. has yet to ratify the treaty calling for worldwide gender equality. “That can be applied to criminal justice reform,” Achiume noted, “and that is a global issue where the U.S. is far behind.” Building criminal justice reform efforts around a “shared language” of human rights, she added, can help “race activists connect with the movement outside.”

That’s the language Cullors speaks with her organizing efforts. “When we started Black Lives Matter, we were very clear that we wanted an international frame,” she explained, adding that the BLM Global Network now extends to places like Brazil and the United Kingdom. “Black Lives Matter wasn’t go to be African American Lives Matter.”

Cullors is also founder and chairperson of the Reform LA Jails movement, which has seen recent success in a city where, according to the activist leader, 17,000 people are in prison daily because they can’t afford to post cash bail. The coalition fought the construction of new jails in Los Angeles County for 15 years—and officially, just this year, put a halt to a $35B jail expansion plan.

But the campaign to stop cash from flowing into the construction of new prisons in LA was “never about jail facilities,” Cullors explained. Instead, it was “always about the investment.” Halting budget expansions for prisons, she noted, is one way of “reversing the [city’s] divestment from people of color.” That’s why the big fight now ahead of the Reform coalition is a ballot measure campaign moving money away from jails and passing it on, instead, to mental health care services.

“Someone imagined a jail cell,” Cullors reminded the room. “Someone imagine a siren. And then they came to be, and we came to think that they had always existed.”

Cullors, of course, is interested in imagining a new way forward that looks entirely different—and she talked to Ms. after walking off the stage Friday about what comes next in the work of making it possible.

We’re coming up on 2020, and there’s all these conversations right now about what’s a political agenda that serves people in the right way. What’s a local agenda? What do you think a political framework that does center black lives and black liberation would look like in this current moment?

Well, I think, you know, this conversation around abolition and reparations is critical for how we are talking about what’s needed for black liberation. You know, Black Lives Matter Global Network launched a campaign called What Matters in 2020—really calling on, I would say, not just the presidential candidates, but also, you know, elected officials, appointed officials across the country to really look at, um, what it would take to consider a black agenda. In 2016, when Black Lives Matter really took, you know, an a aggressive approach to challenging the presidential candidates about discussing Black Lives Matter; this is sort of the evolution of that.

We’ve really identified, you know, what are some key issues that black people are thinking about? Obviously police brutality, criminal justice reform, issues around maternal mortality and morbidity, economic justice, queer and trans rights is the kind of the center of what black people are thinking about around how we get free. It’s not, I don’t think, hyperbolic to say what you’ve been saying for the last six years—which is, when black people get free, everybody else gets free. The work of changing the very fabric of this country is going to take really looking at the history of the oppression of black people and the divestment from black communities and what it would look like to reinvest into these communities.

I also really loved the idea of applying a human rights framework here and also even at that local level, like in our communities. From your experience, having done all this organizing that you’ve done, what does it look like in practice to have that human rights framework at the center of an organization or a campaign that might be really hyper-locally focused or you know, a county campaign, or absolutely presidential campaign?

I think for us here in Los Angeles, as we’re leading a much of the work around changing the criminal justice system—is being brave enough to have a conversation about what does it mean that our system here in Los Angeles is the largest jailer in the world, that it has really been the blueprint and a lot of ways for other jail facilities across the country, that our Sheriff’s department, you know, is a Sheriff’s department that is riddled with corruption and a culture of violence. And that isn’t an anomaly, right? That is the culture at most law enforcement agencies.

It really begs a question around the use of jailing and the use of policing if these sort of two apparatuses weren’t really created, you know, to rehabilitate—which we know they weren’t, jails and prisons were created after the emancipation of slavery and police were created during slavery to patrol black people—and so we have to have a historical conversation. I think when we have that historical conversation, both at the local level, it gives us an opportunity to talk about what’s happening across the country, and also what’s happening across the globe.

I think a lot of people are talking about disruption and disrupting systems and, you know, you talked a lot, too, about imagining new systems. What does a political system look like that would serve people?

Well, I think it’s twofold. You have to think about infrastructure and institutions as what creates systems, but the infrastructure institution also creates culture. So we got rid of Jim Crow, but we didn’t get rid of Jim Crow hate, right? We got rid of slavery, but we didn’t get rid of the idea that black people shouldn’t be still be subjugated, still be in chains, still be controlled.

We have to change the culture—and as we create every new system, we should be created in a way that is based off of the dignity and the humanity of individuals, and the collectives and the people they come from. When we’re thinking about institutions: the institution of imprisonment is not an institution that is about dignity, not an institution that is about freedom. It is literally about control and subjugation and punishment. We need to imagine a new system, one that is about healing and that it’s about dignity, but it’s about reconnection. It’s not going to come inside of caging a human being.

Much of what we talked about on the panel is like there’s other places that are doing it. We can learn from those other places. There was a time when this country wasn’t inhabited by white colonizers. There was a time when the idea of policing or caging human being was not on the table. They’re there. We have context for being able to change what we have right now in the U.S. and in LA in particular, but we also have present context. We have places and countries and people that are doing it.

As you’ve built Black Lives Matter into this global network, what would you say are some of the greatest takeaways about how to build transnational movements? How can folks in one place support folks at another and how do they come together?

I think every time we’re doing local work, it has to have an international implications. The local work that I’m doing, I’m never thinking—oh, this is just going to help the people of Los Angeles. I know that the people of Los Angeles are from around the world, so it’s going to help people from around the world. I know that what Los Angeles does has national and international implications.

The work we’re doing here—and I’m going to use this term that I’ve talked about, I didn’t coin it, but I’ve talked about in a lot of my writings—is we have to create a non-reformist reformance. We are reform movement until revolution, but a non-reformance reform is the idea that you are going to reform an institution by not making it stronger. Non-reformance reform is something like, you know, take a half of the police budget and give it towards schools—not reform that would actually enhance the police. It’s like body cameras, right?

We’re not interested in giving more money to law enforcement to do a job that is about harming and violated communities. We’re interested in taking away that power so that we can put power into places that will empower our communities.


Jonathan Chang contributed reporting.

About

Carmen Rios is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. and has spent over a decade raising hell in feminist media. Her work has been published by outlets like the Atlantic's CityLab, BuzzFeed, ElixHER, Feministing, Girlboss, Mic, MEL and Everyday Feminism; and she also spent six years writing and editing for Autostraddle, was a founding blogger and activist with the SPARK Movement and was the inaugural managing editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. Carmen is additionally a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine.