Birth of a Movement

Patrisse Cullors All SaintsPatrisse Cullors seizes the moment to remind the world that Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matters founder Patrisse Cullors’ journey into activism began at a young age.
In 1999, then-16-year-old Cullors began raising money to help her brother Monte, who was arrested after joyriding in his mother’s car and evading police.

According to Cullors, Monte, while awaiting trial, punched a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy and immediately put his hands up to surrender. But instead of simply taking him into custody, several deputies brutally beat him so badly that he later woke up in a pool of his own blood.

“I didn’t really become aware of the abuse inside the system until I was 16,” Cullors said on Sunday while speaking at All Saints Church in Pasadena. “My brother, who was four years older than me, was arrested, was incarcerated inside the LA County jail where he was almost killed by the sheriff’s [deputies]. They beat him, they tortured and brutalized him. This was my awakening, and I was compelled to action. I sought out mentors, established a network, and over the period of 11 years I learned the craft of community organizing.”

After her brother was sentenced to 40 months in state prison, Cullors raised $10,000 and hired a lawyer who managed to get her brother’s sentence reduced as part of a plea bargain agreement.

Ten years after her brother was sentenced to prison, her father died in a homeless shelter after spending several stints in jail during her childhood.

Both her father and her brother’s incidents occurred during times when filing criminal charges against police officers and sheriff’s deputies was rare, even though by that time four LAPD officers had been tried in the beating of Rodney King in 1992, with three being acquitted and jurors unable to reach a verdict on the fourth. In a federal trial the following year, shortly after the Los Angeles Riots, two of the officers were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights.

Today, state-sanctioned violence against black people has continued, but the reaction to it — largely due to the advent of social media and instant information access — has changed dramatically. As Cullors spoke at All Saints, activists in Baltimore were dancing in the streets celebrating criminal charges being brought against six officers in connection with the in-custody death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died on April 19, one week after he suffered a spinal injury after being taken into custody by Baltimore police officers.

The death of Gray, whose arrest was recorded by a cell phone camera and went viral, touched off riots on April 28, just hours after Gray’s memorial service.

But Gray’s death came after other high-profile incidents in which unarmed black men were killed by police officers.

Perhaps the most shocking of these events occurred on April 4, when Charleston, South Carolina Police Officer Michael T. Slager was arrested and charged with murdering Walter Scott. The incident, which was captured on a cell phone camera and surfaced on the Internet, clearly showed Slager shooting Scott in the back as the unarmed Scott attempted to flee following a traffic stop.

“We stand in solidarity with the people in Baltimore and the millions of black people across the country who are tired of poverty, racism and state-sanctioned murder,” Cullors said at All Saints Sunday.

“We recognize anger, fear, despair and outcry as not just normal, but rather encouraging responses against a system that has offered silence, repression or death,” she said.

According to Cullors, the six officers in the Gray case — three of whom are African American — were only charged because people were out in the streets demanding some type of accountability. In most cases like this, no charges are filed against police officers.

“Every 28 hours a black person is being murdered by the state. Some people have said in January it was every 18 hours,” Cullors said.

With braids flowing over closely shaved hair and an endearing smile, Cullors comes across as affable. But when she begins speaking about the issues, it’s obvious she is a force of to be reckoned with, determined to bring about change.

Those efforts continue at weekly events. For instance, on Saturday afternoon, members of Black Lives Matter closed down part of Fairfax Avenue and Third Street in Los Angeles when 50 members sat in the middle of the intersection to show their solidarity with protesters in Baltimore.

Cullors earned a degree in religion and philosophy from UCLA. She is also a Fulbright Scholarship recipient and in 2007 she was named the Mario Savio Activist of the Year.

Cullors and others demanding accountability won a major victory in December when the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to create a civilian oversight panel to oversee the county Sheriff’s Department.

Cullors and others demanding accountability won a major victory in December when the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to create a civilian oversight panel to oversee the county Sheriff’s Department.

“We live in a county that is the biggest jailer in the world, housing anywhere from 17,000 to 20,000 people inside its eight facilities. This is not just a national problem; it’s a local problem.”

Cullors regularly sets five- and 10-year goals for herself and told the Weekly that in five years she expects to see “authentic” black leadership in all branches of government and more political power in black communities. In 10 years, Cullors hopes to see the prison population cut in half and some law enforcement agencies abolished.

She has recently started Black Spring, which is designed to help African Americans realize that the fight is not only for equality, but for human rights.

Like the Black Power movement of the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has become a part of popular culture, trending regularly on social media, with supporters holding up signs at sporting events and athletes like Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose and NFL receiver Andrew Hawkings wearing shirts during warm ups calling for justice for African-American men killed by police.

The movement started in 2012 after George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch member, was acquitted in murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was gunned down while walking home from a neighborhood store by Zimmerman, who confronted him and asked him why he was in the area.

Cullors was watching Facebook for news on the verdict and was disappointed after learning Zimmerman was acquitted. Instead of going on a rampage, Cullors called on black people to love themselves and on a whim used the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter. Later, she began hashtagging the phrase onto the walls of close friends and allies, who also began repeating it.

The movement caught fire when people began using it after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson last year.

“The movement is going to change the world,” said local attorney Phillip Koebel. “My question is how important is today’s talk to the city of Pasadena and I think the leadership of Black Lives Matters is going to help the Pasadena progressive community coalesce into changing the community. I think if we hold the movement as the positive force that it is it will help us realize a lot of our goals for change.”

Today there are 23 Black Lives Matters chapters, including chapters in Toronto, Ghana and Pasadena.

Patrisse Cullors All SaintsOn March 30, Pasadena Black Lives Matter member Jasmine Richards was arrested and charged with making terrorist threats, trespassing, petty theft, assault and evading arrest days after she participated in a rally coinciding with the third anniversary of the officer-involved shooting death of Kendrec McDade in Pasadena. Richards was arrested hours before she was scheduled to speak at a City Council meeting as one of several members to call for the release of a report on the McDade shooting. Richards posted $36,000 bail and is currently free on bond.

“It’s not just in Baltimore, in Ferguson, New York, in LA, Grand Rapids and Appalachia,” Cullors told the Weekly. “It’s in small towns and big cities. Black people across the country have taken it to the streets, and the call is Black Lives Matter, a very simple phrase. What resonates so much with folks around that phrase is the reality that black lives don’t matter.”

Cullors called the phrase a “pushback” that she said is a challenge that builds upon the imagination of what the country could be if black lives truly mattered.

Locally the Pasadena chapter has been among the small but vocal group fighting to bring civilian oversight to the Pasadena Police Department.

“Civilian oversight is becoming the norm at this point and it should be,” said Mark Anthony Johnson, a member of Black Lives Matter who attended Sunday’s meeting.

In Los Angeles, LA County residents are demanding that the Civilian Oversight Commission of the Sheriff’s Department must have subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify and force the city to turn over important documents. The recommendation was made at town hall meetings designed to present input to a working group that will make recommendations to the LA County Board of Supervisors by the end of the month.

In Pasadena, the idea of civilian control of the Police Department has not been successful. Despite several calls by City Councilman John Kennedy to study civilian oversight, the council has rejected any discussion of the subject.

“Since the murder of Mike Brown communities all over the country have been calling for civilian oversight with power, such as subpoena power and independent investigative power, hiring and firing power. It’s about making those folks understand that their jurisdiction is not separate from the national trends of police violence,” Cullors said.

andre coleman“I believe we are in a movement,” Cullors said. “Everyone said during Ferguson we are in a moment or a movement. Now nine months later, everybody I have spoken with is recognizing the impact of these times.”

André Coleman
Pasadena Weekly

About André Coleman

André Coleman is the Deputy Editor of the Pasadena Weekly


  1. Bilal Ali says:

    The sister has the courage and commitment of Harriet Tubman. In fact, she is possibly her generation’s Harriet Tubman and she has my full support body and soul. Thank You Patrisse for you contribution to our liberation.