Patrisse Cullors, No Longer a Leader of BLM, Charts a New Course

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There are few people in Los Angeles who straddle the worlds of political activism, Hollywood and art the way Patrisse Cullors does. A co-founder of Black Lives Matter — the movement that arose following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, after he killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin a year earlier — she went on to write a best-selling 2018 memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist, in 2018. “That was the height of when Black Lives Matter was being called a terrorist organization,” she says. Cullors also became a writer on the Freeform show Good Trouble that led to an overall deal with Warner Bros. TV Group in late 2020. That same year, Cullors — through her work as an artist, she has presented performance pieces at the Broad and Hammer museums — co-opened an art gallery, Crenshaw Dairy Mart, in a former convenience store in Inglewood.

#BlackLivesMatter originated as a simple and sincere declaration of the value of Black life, something police departments, politicians and even the general public have historically needed to be reminded of. Its influence and power exploded — and in many quarters was embraced — in 2020 after the police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, and Cullors’ profile rose along with it. A highly visible proponent of defunding police departments, she was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2020 and over the years has aligned herself with such names in the entertainment world as Kendrick Sampson and Tessa Thompson (the three were among the writers of a 2020 open letter to Hollywood calling for the industry to divest from anti-Black content and invest in Black creators) to America Ferrera and Chelsea Handler (who appeared with her on a Nov. 19 election night YouTube special).

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Today, though, Cullors — who grew up in Van Nuys — is embracing a new chapter. In May, she stepped away from her role as executive director at the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (the operating organization behind the mostly decentralized BLM movement), not long after a flood of public criticism and harassment over her personal spending choices as a self-proclaimed “trained Marxist” resulted in threats to her safety and, she says, put her mental health in danger. She began treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder that July.

She is now releasing her second book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World, due out Jan. 25 from St. Martin’s Press, geared toward giving the next generation of activists tools for abolishing racism and other inequalities. An intentionally accessible, non-academic blend of personal anecdotes and the broader history of abolition’s role in this society written with the next generation of organizers in mind, Cullors uses the past to make sense of our present world, and leaves a trail of insights for readers so that they might be able to reimagine the ways in which we organize ourselves for social change and for systems change in the future.

“What Patrisse’s book is so powerful for is that it’s really investigating how we shift our relationships to each other. How we shift the way that we treat each other, the way we support leadership, and people who take on leadership roles in our communities,” says Alicia Garza, Cullors’ fellow BLM co-founder along with Opal Tometi. “It dives into the practical nature of what it means to be in relationship to each other in ways that are healthy. And that isn’t just theoretical. It’s based on her experiences and the practices she’s engaged in for many, many years as a change maker, and that was before Black Lives Matter. I think part of why this book is necessary right now, is because in a lot of ways, her practice predates social media. It predates this iteration of movements. And it really takes social change out of what a lot of us know it to be right now and asks us to drill down in a different way.”

Patrisse Cullors at Crenshaw Dairy Mart - Credit: Photographed By Erik Carter
Patrisse Cullors at Crenshaw Dairy Mart - Credit: Photographed By Erik Carter

Photographed By Erik Carter

In the book, Cullors offers practical advice (respond, don’t react; practice accountability; use art to challenge this country’s systems) and more theoretical questions like, “Do you have an idea of what your ideal community looks like?” and “How are you getting free?”

Handler (whose 2019 Netflix documentary Hello Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea explored how white privilege impacts American culture) says she respects Cullors’ “boldness and certitude with her examinations of the BLM Movement and of abolition, subjugation, and representation.”

“One of the most amazing things about Patrisse is all of the information that she gives you, even on her social media channels — all the books, all the definitions and explanations of words and phrases that white people a lot of times are scared to examine on their own, or don’t think they have the knowledge to even ask questions and then have the fear of saying something stupid,” Handler continues. “She has a very astute way of bringing the subject matter to a point where you’re willing to learn and it’s easy to soak up from her and understand, because it’s a tricky dynamic.”

Says Cullors: “What I felt like was missing was a sort of layman’s guide on how to be an abolitionist, how to see abolition even beyond policing and imprisonment, and as a culture which has a culture of punishment, how do we challenge that culture, not just by challenging law enforcement and mass incarceration, but also challenging how we behave, how we’ve digested punishment as a norm and as the only way to be in relationship to other human beings.”

Cullors says her own definition of abolition has changed over the past few years. “When I first started doing abolitionist work, I definitely was solely focused on, ‘We need to end the police state, we need to end the prison state,’” she says. “But as I evolved as a community organizer, as an artist, I also realized, ‘Wait, how am I behaving as the police? How am I responding as a judge?’ and recognized that we only understand accountability through the lens of a criminal legal system. And accountability doesn’t actually happen [there]; accountability happens in community when we are in relationship to one another, and to build relationships takes a sort of intention and a slower kind of process. I think especially since leaving and exiting the Black Lives Matter organization, I’ve recognized that the way I understand abolition is doing it small-scale, starting in my own neighborhood and own community.”

Looking back on the rise of BLM as a successful, genuinely resonant international movement, it’s clear, too, that using the hashtag eventually became a shorthand for progressive politics, lazily deployed by some people to virtue signal their wokeness to the Black American public. Virality has at once benefited and challenged the organization.

“Many of us did not realize that the digital space would be used against us,” adds Cullors. “And so, the digital era has created all of this beauty for Black people, brown people, women, queer folks, trans folks, working-class people, poor people. It’s also been a place that has been used against us to sling misinformation and disinformation. I think we are in a true information war right now.”

Cullors and Grown-ish’s Yara Shahidi at a 2019 event calling for jail reform.  - Credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images
Cullors and Grown-ish’s Yara Shahidi at a 2019 event calling for jail reform. - Credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images

Jesse Grant/Getty Images

That war became personal for Cullors in April 2021, when the New York Post reported that, since 2016, she had spent an estimated $3.2 million on three residential properties in L.A. and one in the suburbs of Atlanta. Conservative group the National Legal and Policy Center took credit for investigating Cullors’ finances and releasing the information to the press; afterward, Cullors says, the FBI informed her that there were credible threats against her life.

“And that to me is the actual story, which is … was the right-wing media trying to get me killed? Of course they were, especially because they are an extension of the police and extension of the very system that I am going after so that we can have a better world and so that a Black woman who owns homes never gets attacked again,” she says. Later, the BLM Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF) said Cullors had only received $120,000 in compensation from 2013 to 2019 for speaking engagements and political education work; amid the uproar, Cullors has pointed to her two book deals as among her sources of income.

“I grew up very poor, and I didn’t see myself or my mother living with the dignity that we deserved. So, as I got older, a big goal of mine was homeownership,” she says. “The attacks on me around the homes I purchased were an anti-Black and also anti-woman attack. It was, ‘Black women don’t deserve shit.’ And so, therefore, how dare you.”

Cullors on the red carpet at the Academy Awards in 2018. - Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images
Cullors on the red carpet at the Academy Awards in 2018. - Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Cullors also has detractors among Black activists. In November 2020, an open letter was published by #BLM10, a consortium of 10 regional BLM chapters, naming several grievances with BLMGNF, citing Cullors’ ascension to the role of executive director as being “against the will of most chapters and without their knowledge” and saying inquiries regarding the financial operations of the foundation’s millions of dollars in donations (some $90 million in 2020 alone) were not met with “public or internal transparency” for years. The letter also encouraged people to donate directly to local chapters. Cullors has said that since the letter was published, four of those chapters accepted BLMGN funding, each receiving $500,000.

Kendrick Sampson and artist Patrisse Cullors attends the "Bedlam" Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Kendrick Sampson and artist Patrisse Cullors attends the "Bedlam" Premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

lya S. Savenok/Getty Images

Cullors also has faced criticism from families who have lost loved ones to police brutality. Many have questioned why more of the foundation’s money hasn’t gone to these families and have felt that their trauma has been exploited by BLM. In an official statement from Samaria Rice (mother of Tamir Rice) and Lisa Simpson (mother of Richard Risher), they named Cullors among a list of other activists whom they asked to stop “monopolizing and capitalizing” off of their losses, citing using their sons’ names and images on flyers as one example. Cullors and the foundation have said that though dollar amounts are not disclosed to the public, they do support families who fall into this tragic category.

Speaking broadly of how backlash —externally and internally — can splinter social justice organizations, Cullors says, “I hope this book can help us intervene on the ways that our movements get torn apart by each other.” As for her decision to step down from BLMGN, she tells THR, “After eight years of being in service of the organization and really of Black people, I was like, ‘It’s time for me to go,’ because I do have an identity. And my identity is I’m not over and my work doesn’t end or begin with BLM.”

When asked if she still feels ownership after stepping away from BLM, Cullors responds quickly: “No. People wanted me to, but I was like, ‘No, I’m ready.’ I’m a multi-hyphenate. And so I really love starting projects and investing in them, developing them, and then seeing them grow … there are so many projects that I’ve started, that I’m no longer at the helm of. And I actually think that’s very good leadership. Nothing gets to evolve if you stay in it, and you don’t get to evolve.”

Cullors says her goal going forward is aimed at the intersection of art, activism and education. At Prescott College, a liberal arts college in Prescott, Arizona, where she teaches, Cullors designed an MFA program for artists that focuses on community organizing and social justice. Last year, the first ever cohort, made up of mostly Black women and non-binary students, creating work on everything from athletics as an exploitation of Black bodies to womb healing and the importance of doulas, graduated.

As for her projects at WBTV, she is at work on docs that will explore the idea of how “landback,” in which Native lands are returned to Indigenous people, can work as reparations for Black Americans and what Black mobility looks like in the U.S. context.

“My art practice and political practice are extensions of my abolitionist views,” she says. “Any project I’m working on, whether it’s art or writing, all my work now with Warner Brothers — what I have framed it as is ‘abolitionist aesthetics.’ The way that white supremacy, the way that the prison system and the police system has aestheticized itself, I want to aestheticize abolition.”

She also is working on a scripted project about cannabis and others that look at the role of Black women leaders “and the toll,” she says, “of living under a system that doesn’t see us, or makes us hyper-visible and also hyper-invisible at the same time.”

Cullors’ new book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World - Credit: St. Martin's Press
Cullors’ new book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World - Credit: St. Martin's Press

St. Martin's Press

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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