When George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in 2013, three women decided not only that they’d had enough, but that they needed to take action. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi went on to found the Black Lives Matter movement, which now has 40 chapters led by members all around the world that work on combating violence inflicted on black communities.
Khan-Cullors spoke about the movement at Bovard Auditorium on Tuesday evening for an event sponsored by the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, Sol Price School of Public Policy and the School of Architecture. José Richard Aviles, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in social work, moderated the event.
Aviles spoke with Khan-Cullors about her identity as a queer black woman, systemic racism, environmentalism and the future of Los Angeles, as well as her latest book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.
Khan-Cullors is currently a student at USC working on getting her Master of Fine Arts in the Roski School of Art and Design. She emphasized that there is a need to differentiate between the Black Power and Black Lives Matter movements.
“A big part of starting Black Lives Matter for Alicia, Opal and I was to challenge the norms of the Black Power Movement,” she said during the discussion. “I think a lot about the March on Washington [in 1963] where they did not allow women to speak, literally. Women were banned from speaking, where they didn’t allow [civil rights activist] Bayard Rustin to speak because he was gay. And so what does it mean to not just challenge that, but forge a new path for us and for queer folks and for queer black and brown folks?”
Khan-Cullors is also the founder of Dignity and Power Now, a Los Angeles-based organization working to end state violence and mass incarceration. She received the Sydney Peace Prize in 2017 for her work with Black Lives Matter and was named a Civil Rights Leader for the 21st Century by the Los Angeles Times in 2015.
“For white people, I think the goal of accountability is incredibly important, it’s not just in the apology, or the word, or the phrase; it’s in the practice,” Khan-Cullors said. “And for those people who have ever been harmed, or anybody that betrayed you or you feel dissed by someone, they can say sorry all they want, but how they act in the future feels and is more important.”
Mayal Peter, a School of Architecture alumnus who was in the audience, said that Khan-Cullors’ talk spurred an important discussion on how community-building can be improved.
“It was very much about being in public spaces and how we live together really comes into play with that, so I was interested to see how that would come up,” Peter said.
Khan-Cullors finished the discussion with an optimistic look toward the future.
“If we can save Los Angeles, I bet you, bet you, bet you that we can save the world,” Khan-Cullors said.