On November 10, 2020, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, participated in a discussion with Laurian R. Bowles, Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Davidson College. Even though it was over Zoom, the two women brought considerable energy into the talk. Dr. Bowles mediated questions coming from students and other listeners through the chat, and Cullors responded thoughtfully to each comment and question.
Since the talk came soon after the U.S. presidential election, the opening questions revolved around the novelty of the first black female vice-president-elect and how to be excited that Trump was rebuked while also understanding the problems of a Biden-Harris administration. I think Cullors responded in a refreshingly direct manner to these questions, noting repeatedly that “the work of the people is to keep elected officials accountable” but also acknowledging that, on the BLM side of the discussion, the goal was obviously to defeat Trump, a known, active white supremacist. She made it clear that the BLM movement wishes to work with the Biden administration but also hold them fully accountable for their actions.
Cullors then spent a few minutes discussing strategy:
“When you’re trying to figure out how to advance and support black people, I’m often thinking about, well what’s our strategy to get us closer to freedom? What are my values, and what are my organizational values? Does that match the institutions I’m working with? And if not, how can I push them closer to that? We have to be able to negotiate terms.”
She gave a relative anecdote about how she worked with Los Angeles to get rid of jails in the county, and she made sure to emphasize the strategy behind this move and how it took years to change the conversation around incarceration. I really appreciated how her frankness in her answer to this question was also encouraging. She used her struggles here to motivate others who might be facing similar power struggles.
At this point in the discussion, I really began to notice how nice it was that Cullors and Dr. Bowles kept the conversation more casual. They would say phrases like “you follow what I mean?,” and when both of them read the questions from the Zoom chat, it took a minute sometimes. That now-normal awkward pause was always present when replying to one another, and it was a comfort to know that the awkwardness of Zoom even extended to someone that did something as impactful as co-founding the BLM movement.
One of my favorite questions of the discussion was this question, asked by Dr. Bowles: “What do you recommend for soul-care and racial healing, specifically to sustain the energy to push towards social change?”
I can’t say it better than Cullors’s response:
“#1: Be willing to take a break when you need to. The work is always here. Everything needs a reset. Reset in the ways that make sense for you.
#2: I’m a big fan of therapy.
#3: The way black people heal is inside of community. So doing that safely during a global pandemic is crucial.
#4: Cultivate joy. Critical in this time and forever, especially for black people.”
After that set of questions, the discussion took a more sour turn. Since the chat is open to anyone in attendance, it unfortunately was taken over by Robert Murray and Jonathan—whose last name she didn’t reveal—for “spouting right-wing propaganda and misinformation” about BLM.
Among other questions, the pair asked:
“What steps are you taking to aid the communities who got burned down in your movements crossfire?”
Cullors quickly and rightfully identified this as antagonistic, unhelpful, and unthoughtful. She also called it a “really important teaching moment for students” and proceeded to provide the facts that disproved the statements in their question. Cullors stayed remarkably calm during it all, and she noted that it may be something Davidson wants to look into teaching their students more about. It was a shocking and disheartening moment for me at first, knowing that people from the Davidson community would treat a guest speaker in such a manner, but Cullors turned it into an important point about calling out people in real time when they say outrageous things, especially when they’re falsely representing people and groups.
Although the talk was derailed, I think it ended up being a really beneficial, insightful discussion that taught me more about the BLM movement, the Davidson community, and what individuals can do to build support for BLM in their own communities.