Patrisse Cullors is nationally and globally known as a co-creator of the viral hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the social justice movement she launched with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi in 2013, following the vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin.
Today, as Executive Director of BLM, the 37-year-old Los Angeles native continues to battle police and vigilante violence, and the systemic oppression of Black people. This election cycle, her efforts as a grassroots organizer and political strategist helped mobilize voters nationwide.
Cullors is also a multihyphenate whose liberation mission dovetails with her artistic passions. She’s an artist who holds an MFA; an educator, author (“When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir,” co-written by poet and journalist asha bandele, became a bestseller in 2018), not to mention an emerging actress, screenwriter, producer and more.
Cullors recently signed a multi-year, multi-platform deal with Warner Bros. Television Group to develop content and produce original programming. These days, her latest project is the new YouTube Originals series, “Resist,” a 12-episode documentary that premiered November 18 and can be viewed for free exclusively on Cullors’ YouTube Channel.
ESSENCE recently spoke with Cullors by phone about everything from her series and activism, to her hopes for the nation post election.
ESSENCE: This spectacular docu-series follows you and fellow organizers fighting Los Angeles county’s $3.5 billion jail expansion plan in 2018. It also examines mass incarceration, cash bail, unlawful arrest, and over-policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods. What would you like audiences to take away from it?
Patrisse Cullors: I want audiences to watch and then be called to action. Mass incarceration, the issues around cash money bail, mental health and criminalization are not just a Los Angeles issue, this is happening across the country. There are some amazing organizers [here] doing such incredible work. I want people to take notes and feel like they can transform the system that they come from.
ESSENCE: I see that “Resist” is part of the new #YouTubeBlack Voices Fund, dedicated to amplifying stories of Black creators. It’s produced by Blackpills and Pulse Films, and distributed by Wild Bunch Television. The team includes dream hampton. How did it all come about?
PC: This was my first filmmaking project. I am an executive producer along with dream hampton, Mervyn Marcano, director Tani Ikeda and many others. I first met dream in 2010, then later in Detroit at her home when she was working on her film, “Treasure.” [“Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story”]. And then we linked up again during the Ferguson Uprising.
Actually, this series goes back to 2017. So what you’re watching is really the beginning of the coalition JusticeLA and organizers on the ground that would stop this $3.5 million jail plan. In the last few months, YouTube got ahold of the series and wanted it to be a YouTube Originals.
ESSENCE: “Resist” spotlights grassroots organizers and the cause of Black and human rights. Do you think more people have become empowered as an outgrowth of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives?
PC: Absolutely. I think BLM and the Movement for Black Lives has really created an ecosystem where people know and feel like they can take action now. To challenge the system that has oppressed communities for so long. And what we’ve created is part of American democracy to stand up and fight for what’s right.
ESSENCE: What are your thoughts on the 2020 presidential election outcome?
PC: This election was historic for so many reasons, but one of the primary reasons was because Black folks came out en masse to vote out white supremacy. We witnessed millions of Black people show up even before Election Day to get out the vote, either through early voting, mail in voting. And we witnessed young Black people in particular ensure that Joe Biden/Kamala Harris was the ticket that we got. So I’m just really proud of the work that we’ve done as Black people. And I’m so proud of our movement that made it our duty and priority to get out the vote this election cycle. It just showed the power of our work. The work we’ve done for seven years inside of Black Lives Matter, but the work we’ve done for hundreds of years as Black people to keep trying to steer this ship in the right direction—the ship being America. While 73 million people did vote for a white supremacist, a bunch of us did not. And we’re gonna have to work to heal the pain of racism. But I believe we can. We’ve done so much. I just feel so proud of us.
ESSENCE: Are you hopeful for the nation?
PC: Absolutely. I am optimistic and hopeful.
ESSENCE: Are there challenges as a movement leader?
PC: I don’t go anywhere by myself. I have 24 hour security and that’s not necessarily from being like, good famous, but getting death threats from white supremacists. I know we’re surveilled by local law enforcement, and have been [surveilled] by some other agencies, for sure. In these last few years what’s been most concerning is the issue around vigilante violence. Alicia and I were [recently] visited by the FBI letting us know that they had raided the home of a known white supremacist and our names were on the list that he had. Those are the types of things that feel most disconcerting for me.
ESSENCE: How do you handle such pressures?
PC: I have a very strong team—family, staff and security who have my back, who support me. And I have a therapist that I talk to often. I’m a big fan of therapy. Every Black person should have access to therapy and mental health care, it’s really important.
ESSENCE: Do you have a faith practice?
PC: I don’t have a religious practice, but I’m a big fan of praying and connecting with my ancestors. My grandmother, Vina Patten, just passed away. She was 89. My father died early, but his mother lived a long life, thank God.
ESSENCE: Condolences on your loss. Let us say her name in homage. Did you and your grandmother talk about your activism?
PC: She was so proud of the work that I’m doing.
Watch the official trailer for the YouTube Originals series, “Resist.”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.