#DBC: When They Call You a Terrorist
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Welcome to Demystified Book Club (#DBC), a new segment where we talk about the books we’ve been reading that we want to share, discuss, and promote.
When They Call You a Terrorist has remained vividly in my mind in the weeks that I’ve read it. I’ve struggled to write a piece about it since then, but for awhile I couldn’t figure out how to. Often when I write about books I relate them to my own life and what I personally connect to. And I do connect in many ways with Patrisse Khan-Cullors, the author of this memoir (co-written with asha bandele)—such as the difficult and confusing process of growing up, finding your place within your family and community, and fitting in at school.
And yet there’s so much that is alien to me. I grew up as a suburban white girl in the Midwest with the patent belief that cops were good, and that they always fulfilled their role to protect the public. I rarely saw them, really, except for occasionally on the road and when they came to my middle school for DARE. They didn’t patrol my neighborhood, harassing kids and intimidating and jailing people for little or no reason. I didn’t (and still don’t) know anyone who’s been in jail or prison, forced to work for pennies for corporations.
I grew up believing that I wasn’t racist. And it’s only been within the last few years that I’ve become aware of just how deeply my internalized oppression and white privilege run. I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, which is one of the most segregated cities in America (and where a recent police shooting took place). And yet, I had no freaking clue what was going on just a few miles away. That’s white privilege. You don’t have to know or care, because it doesn’t directly affect you. Because it happens to “them.”
That’s white privilege. You don’t have to know or care, because it doesn’t directly affect you. Because it happens to “them.”
And so, Patrisse’s memories of childhood play out very differently from mine: “For a long time I see them, the police in their cars, but I do not understand them, what role they play in the neighborhood. They do not speak to us or help guide us across streets. They are never friendly. It is clear not only that they are not our friends, but that they do not like us very much. I try to avoid them, but this is impossible, of course. They are omnipresent.”
When her younger brother and his friends are hassled by the cops, she writes: “[My brother and his friends] will be silent in the way we often hear of the silence of rape victims. They will be worried, maybe, that no one will believe them. Worried that there’s nothing that can be done to fix things, make things better. Whatever goes through their minds after being half stripped in public and having their childhoods flung to the ground and ground into the concrete, we will never speak of this incident or the ones that will follow as Van Nuys becomes ground zero in the war on drugs and the war on gangs, designations that add even more license to police already empowered to do whatever they want to us.”
And she states about her own and other black pre-teens’ experiences: “And for me, too, it started the year I turned twelve. That was the year that I learned that being Black and poor defined me more than being bright and hopeful and ready. I had been so ready to learn. So willing….Twelve, and childhood already gone. Twelve, and being who we are can cost us our lives. It cost Tamir Rice his life. He was a child of twelve. And the cop who shot him took under two seconds, literally, to determine that Tamir should die.”
“Whatever goes through their minds after being half stripped in public and having their childhoods flung to the ground and ground into the concrete, we will never speak of this incident or the ones that will follow.”
Patrisse also talks about her experiences with the police as an adult. The scenes she describes are jarring and terrifying, particularly when involving her brother, who has schizoaffective disorder. He is jailed (and denied medical attention) for having an episode on the street, and then is somehow charged with terrorism for his outburst. Later he’s wheeled into a courtroom, incoherent and tied down like an animal. Patrisse and her family are outraged that he’s not being medically treated. And it’s only when the judge comes in, sees him, and agrees about the inhumanity of the spectacle that he’s wheeled back out again.
Patrisse also shares the shock and horror she and many others felt when George Zimmerman, a notoriously violent man who previously made 46 calls to the police reporting suspicious activity of black males, was acquitted of killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. That’s when Patrisse plucked the phrase a friend had written in a social media: Black Lives Matter.
It’s such a simple statement, isn’t it? How could anyone argue against it? And yet people do argue with it and the movement Patrisse and others started, even as officers continue to murder unarmed black kids and adults with impunity. In the white world, many still find ways to blame the victims or look the other way—and even get annoyed when they’re forced to see. I’ll never forget when a close family member of mine disparaged Beyoncé and her “Formation” video for being too political: “Why’d she have to do that?” he asked with disgust.
Along with Trump’s reign and the rise of neo-Nazism in the US, it’s clear that white people can no longer remain blind to all that’s happening.
Along with Trump’s reign and the rise of neo-Nazism in the US, it’s clear that white people can no longer remain blind to all that’s happening. Not if they claim to care about basic human rights, particularly the right not to be mowed down by someone who will escape punishment because he or she wears a badge. Or to not be woken up in the middle of the night and thrown of your house without a warrant, as Patrisse herself was when the cops said her husband “fit the description” for someone they were looking for. As she writes:
“Close your eyes and come close. Try to imagine this with me: You are a graduate student whose work is in Chinese medicine. Your dream is to be a healer. And maybe while you are sleeping in your wife’s bed, which is in a cottage that is part of a cooperative village where artists live and children come for free painting classes, maybe you are dreaming that you are saving a life, and in the midst of that dreaming, you are yanked out of bed by armed men dressed in riot gear, who possess no warrant, who have snuck into your bedroom through an unlocked back door. Their only reasoning is that you ‘fit the description.’ And who exactly gave that description? What other proof did they have? How did they know you were even sleeping in that bed, since the cottage is not in your name but your wife’s? How is this different from tactics used by the SS, the KGB, the Tonton Macoutes? And who is the real criminal, the real terrorist, and how will they be held accountable? To this day, the stench of these questions lingers, the stench of rotting meat unaddressed, unanswered.”