William Farrington for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Activists make the case for 'a world without prisons' in new Black Lives Matter memoir

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Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, authors of the new book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, are self-described “prison abolitionists.” And they hope their book will inspire readers to consider a society where jails aren’t necessary.

“I would like us to use our collective imagination to begin to imagine a world without prisons,” Bandele told Colorlines editorial director Akiba Solomon earlier this week during a conversation hosted by The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The Strand Bookstore. “There are places on this planet where prisons don’t exist. There are cities in India where there are no handcuffs. Those things actually exist, and if we do anything with this book, it’s to ask you to begin to imagine what that world might look like.”

Khan-Cullors, a cofounder of the Black Lives Matter hashtag and subsequent movement, called upon acclaimed journalist and author Bandele to compose the memoir. The pages reveal the racial profiling and police brutality that Khan-Cullors and her family have experienced, the circumstances that led to the formation of one of the most controversial civil rights movements, and the way in which her narrative of black liberation has been branded as “terrorism.”

St. Martin's Press

Khan-Cullors’ heart was molded for the movement at an early age as she watched the way her brother Monty, who has Schizoaffective Disorder, was broken down by the prison-industrial complex. She believes that being “caged” exacerbated his mental issues and compounded them with PTSD.

“Not everybody with mental illness gets treated the same and when you’re poor and black, your mental illness is often times treated late,” Khan-Cullors said. “In a lot of ways my brother should have received intervention much sooner than he did, and the only intervention he ever received was police. The only intervention he ever received was prisons.”

Bandele echoed what Khan-Cullors said by explaining that the first police agencies in the United States began as slave patrols. She believes there is no reform possible for police departments because “every single way we see police behaving now is exactly what they [were] created to do.”

William Farrington for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The two activists also discussed “gender justice,” which stresses the importance of not devaluing the leadership of women. Khan-Cullors referenced black history icons such as Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer to demonstrate how the work of black women has often been overshadowed by men. “There is still this overwhelming discourse about wanting black male leadership,” she said. “And we have to stop that.”

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is currently available here.

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