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When They Call You a Terrorist: the extraordinary memoir by a Black Lives Matter founder

Patrisse Khan-Cullors' harrowing and yet uplifting work demonstrates that collective organising is the only thing that has truly changed the world for the better, and the only thing that ever will

Tanisha Anderson. Miriam Carey. Sandra Bland, Shelly Hilliard, Shelly Frey. Before discussing When They Call You a Terrorist – the extraordinary memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement – it feels important to list these names. They are some of the many women killed at the hands of American law enforcement officers, but whose names have too rarely frequented national headlines – the final indignity of those who die due to the recklessness and ruthlessness of the state, to be wilfully ignored by history.

However, thanks to the outstanding efforts of Khan-Cullors and her peers, their lives will not be forgotten anytime soon. The author, along with fellow activists Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, has created a platform for protest which even the president of the United States could not ignore.

It must be stated at this point that this platform, most visible online through the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, was  born from patient and painstaking grassroots work. Khan-Cullors’s name has been conspicuously absent from much of the discourse about the movement – and it is striking that she and her co-writer, Asha Bandele, do not once mention DeRay McKesson, the man  many keen Twitter users would most readily associate with the movement.

The overshadowing of women’s work by men is nothing new in the history of political action. Yet it feels particularly jarring here since a continual criticism of Black Lives Matter is that it is not clear what the protesters ultimately want; were Khan-Cullors handed the microphone more often, many would quickly see that she and her peers have a carefully-considered vision for societal improvement.

One of the most striking things about this book is that by the time Black Lives Matter is first discussed at length, we are already halfway through the text. The effect is that the reader then sees Khan-Cullors’s activism as a logical response to the policies, most notably the prison-industrial complex, that have hounded black communities for much of her early life.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Photo: Getty

Her brother was assaulted by the local police department, enduring acts that would later widely be described as torture; indeed, Khan-Cullors draws a compelling parallel between his treatment and that of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the US army in Abu Ghraib. Elsewhere, Khan-Cullors tells us the story of Gabriel Brignac, her biological father, who spent much of his life in and out of jail for drug possession before dying of a heart attack aged 50. In many ways, Brignac is the book’s most tragic figure: a warm and generous soul who would have had a far greater chance of happiness in a more compassionate society, or perhaps merely one where he had been born white.

There are many devastating scenes in this book, but maybe the most horrifying is when Khan-Cullors is invited home by  her best friend, over on the side of town where most of the affluent white people live. During the meal, Khan-Cullors realises that her best friend’s father – by her account a kind, gentle man – is the slumlord responsible for the dilapidated home in which she and her family live, and which has not had a working refrigerator for a year.

Galvanised by these events and the deaths of black people under police supervision,  Khan-Cullors co-founds Black Lives Matter. The movement’s efforts are often greeted with hostility and suspicion at best, and intimidation and violence at worst. Indeed, the book’s title refers to a petition presented to the White House, which submitted that Khan-Cullors and her fellow protesters were terrorists – an accusation, she notes, which has been made throughout history of black people seeking equal rights. The book does not spare the reader with a cathartic conclusion but ends with the election of Donald Trump, a grim indictment of those who were not vigilant or politically active enough to prevent his ascent.

Meanwhile, Khan-Cullors is careful to hold herself to account, concerned that she was too naive to see Trump coming and worried that she did not give trans women of colour enough of a platform at the early Black Lives Matter protests. This humility, alongside her exceptional commitment to social justice, provides the greatest cause for optimism in this harrowing and yet uplifting account: her compelling belief is that collective organising is the only thing that has truly changed the world for the better, and the only thing that ever will. 

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician

When They Call You a Terrorist
Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Canongate, 272pp, £16.99

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game