What Terrorism Is & Isn’t, with Patrisse Cullors

“Terrorist” first rang in my ears upon being politicized at 18, a young immigrant from the Philippines trying to make sense of the U.S.

I didn’t know much about geopolitics but this I knew: I was vehemently anti-war and after 9/11, the scale of militarization and violence brought on by the U.S. in the Middle East unsettled me. Suddenly, “terrorist” became synonymous with Muslim.

Power was a concept that always intrigued me and in my mind, it was a huge indicator of who/what gets to label another person, country or entity as the enemy.

It doesn’t matter that you’ve committed countless acts of terror, explicitly or insidiously, towards other countries, or that you’ve orchestrated regime change in your favor across the globe — at the end of the day, whatever your posturing in the geopolitical sphere is, you have the final say.

Last week, a 25 year-old Moro (Muslim) human rights activist from the Philippines was detained and tortured at San Francisco International Airport. Jerome Succor Aba was invited by church and human rights groups in the U.S. to speak, until Customs and Border Protection agents stepped in and robbed him of his rights and humanity.


CBP agents accused Aba of being a terrorist, a communist. Twenty-two hours later, after being detained, tortured, held incommunicado and denied access to a lawyer, he was sent back to the Philippines.

I think about all of these things after finishing Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele’s book When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (Shop your local indie bookstore). I think about how the word “terrorist” has been historically used to label people whose actions challenge the status quo. How the term strips the accused of their own struggles for justice, how it erases the context of their suffering in the first place.

In the book, Cullors recounts being called a terrorist in 2016:

There was a petition that was drafted and circulated all the way to the White House. It said we were terrorists. We, who in response to the killing of that child [Trayvon Martin], said Black Lives Matter.


The members of our movement are called terrorists.
We — me, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, are called terrorists.
We, the people.
We are not terrorists.
I am not a terrorist.
I am Patrisse Marie Khan-Cullors Brignac.
I am a survivor.
I am stardust.

I read about Cullors childhood in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, her and her family’s struggle with the police at a young age. How white supremacy and racism plays into the treatment of black bodies by the police. That instead of looking to the police or the state for protection, the institution itself has historically been the cause of devastation, violence and death.

A nine-year old Cullors is witness to the first police harassment her brothers Monte and Paul experience, who were 11 and 13 years old at the time. In an alleyway near their apartment building, the police roll up and throw her brothers and their friends up on the wall for no apparent reason other than being black.

They make them pull their shirts up. They make them turn out their pockets. They roughly touch my brothers’ bodies, even their privates, while from behind the gate, i watch, frozen. I cannot cry or scream. I cannot breathe and I cannot hear anything.

To know how early this vicious cycle perpetrated by the state and the police is heartbreaking. To read Cullors’s accounts of Monte and Paul’s experiences, followed by their silence — “in the way we often hear of the silence of rape victims” — is maddening. This occurrence is followed by many more, as Cullors herself is arrested at 12 years old, in middle school where most of the kids were white and smoked weed to cope.

During this time, she meets Gabriel, her biological father with the sweetest and gentlest soul. He has battled drug addiction and in his recovery, she basks in his warmth and strength even amidst many setbacks. That it’s not him, but again — the vicious cycle of police and poverty.

But of course Black Los Angeles in 1984, the year of his [Gabriel’s] discharge, is experiencing rates of unemployment that rival those for Black people in apartheid South Africa. When the economy begins to bounce back, African Americans are extraneous material, discarded, unconsidered in the emerging tech revolution. When Silicon Valley first emerges, it might as well be a Nordic country for all its homogeneity, into the communities of those who were legally and willfully excluded from the paid labor market.

But what is at the ready for us, and on every corner, is access to underground drug markets and all the violence, that comes when brothers on the street, or presidents of nations, are defending their territory. My father, Gabriel Brignac, had no territory to defend, only trauma and depression to manage, along with a habit until the day I die he picked up as a serviceman. Surges in Americans’ preferred drugs of choice seem to always align with what is available in the region our nation is invading.

Reading about Cullors’s life is an intimate portrayal of many opposing forces — of poverty and abundance, of pain and resilience, of violence at the hands of the police and the depth of love within families and communities. It is the story of a survivor, of a daughter and a sister whose strength carried her family beyond the most harrowing experiences at the hands of the state.

Cullors reveals the intricacies of how our own system and institutions work: to uphold white supremacy and to maintain the status quo that continues to oppress black people, indigenous people and people of color. How it is even more tightened by capitalist structures, which squeezes the life out of many lives and communities.

What Cullors imparts is an undeniable grasp for love and justice, the will to heal and transcend barriers no matter how high they are. That in spite of her trauma, she illuminates and inspires hope.

We are stitched back together, our Brignac clan and company, a patchwork community brimming with possibility in a small LA apartment ruled by a tiny Creole woman with a fourth-grade education who survived Jim Crow hatred and vicious rapes and unconscionable poverty and brutal domestic violence so she could sit on the other side of it more than she ever did, that at the end of the day, from love we come. To love we must return.

It’s been months since I finished the book, and still I can breathe in Cullors words as if I was still in those pages. Maybe it’s because many of us are all still living that reality, and since the book was published many more black people have been the victims of police violence and brutality. Stephon Clark, a black man who was in his own backyard in Sacramento, was fatally shot 8 times in the back by police. I don’t understand how people enraged at this kind of treatment and violence can be labeled as “terrorists.”

And then there’s Aba, called a “terrorist” himself in spite of his work as a human rights activist. It seems like the new working definition of the word now is anyone non-white who fights for their right to live and thrive, seemingly a threat to white supremacy.

As a non-black Filipino immigrant, the urgency of saying Black Lives Matter is stronger than ever and just as the Asians 4 Black Lives professes, we [Asians] understand that our liberation depends on the liberation of Black people, and that our dreams are directly linked with those resisting militarism, war and state repression around the world.

From Cullors:

And if ever someone calls my child a terrorist, if they call any of the children in my life terrorists, I will hold my child, any child, close to me and I will explain that terrorism is being stalked and and surveilled simply because you are alive. And terrorism is being put in solitary confinement and starved and beaten. And terrorism is not being able to feed your children despite working three jobs. And terrorism is not having a decent school or a place to play. I will tell them that what freedom looks like, what democracy looks like, is the push for and realization of justice, dignity and peace.

Justice for Jerome action (SFO)

* * *

img_1027When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir 
(Shop your local indie bookstore) by Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele
St. Martin’s Press (263 pages)
January 16, 2018
My rating: ★★★★★
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir


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