Headshot of Patrisse Cullors

Patrisse Cullors Co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement Speaks with MCPHS Community

Headshot of Patrisse Cullors

On October 22, the MCPHS Center for Campus Life hosted a live virtual discussion with Patrisse Cullors, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Founder of grassroots Los Angeles-based organization Dignity and Power Now, and leader of Reform LA Jails’ “Yes on R” campaign, a ballot initiative that passed by a 73% landslide victory in March 2020. Cullors was named one of Time magazine’s 2020 100 Women of the Year and is the author of the New York Times bestseller When They Call You a Terrorist.

The virtual event, a question-and-answer type forum focused on the systemic inequities faced by Black, Brown, and other people of color, especially in healthcare. Cullors opened the event by saying,

“It’s been such a wild time to be alive, to be witness to both the global pandemic that is COVID-19 but also the pandemic of systemic racism. I’m grateful to be in conversation with all of you to talk about how systemic racism impacts the healthcare system. Black Lives Matter has been having a conversation, oftentimes about police violence and police terror, but also about how the lack of an adequate healthcare system in this country impacts all of us and impacts Black lives in particular.”

Black people, said Cullors, are impacted the most by healthcare inadequacies in the United States. She pointed to several examples, including the mortality and morbidity rates of Black mothers, the high rates of Black people dying from COVID-19, and the disproportionately Black population in American prisons—where access to adequate healthcare is a huge issue. “I think it’s important,” she said, “if we’re going to talk about COVID-19, and we’re going to talk about the healthcare system, to actually zero in on the people who are being most impacted and most marginalized by the healthcare system. And that’s people who are living inside U.S. cages: the jails, and the prisons, and the detention centers. We haven’t talked about that community enough when it comes to healthcare or lack of healthcare.”

Tackling this problem is of great importance to Patrisse. Her organizations have spent months fighting in her native Los Angeles County to push the healthcare system to focus on currently incarcerated people. Not only are prisoners being forced to risk catching and spreading COVID-19, but many of them shouldn’t be there in the first place, she says. She wants government to reassess who should be incarcerated; she points out that so many people are in jail because they can’t pay a bill or because they are mentally ill. “We have a lot of people who are in jail because they’re poor or they’re sick.” Layer a global pandemic on top of these people’s inability to properly do social distancing and get good healthcare, and it’s clear that “they are being undermined in their humanity.” Patrisse is currently leading a lawsuit in LA County to enforce action. And she told the student audience, “As you all are thinking about your field, and what you’re going to do with your own advocacy, I want to encourage every single one of you to look into your local county jail system and prison system to see how they’re dealing with COVID-19 in the jails and prisons.”

The session was then opened up to questions. The first one cut right to the point: How has healthcare been impacted by racism? Said Cullors:

“Every single institution that currently exists that is led by local, state, and national government is predicated upon anti-black racism in particular. That means that in the healthcare system, the people who are going to be most seen as inferior, most seen as unable to determine their own destinies, have been and are black people. We can look to the case of Henrietta Lacks. We can look to cases of eugenics.... My father, who spent half his adult life in and out of prison, ended up dying of a heart attack—not because he didn’t take care of himself, but rather because the state didn’t take care of him.”

Our healthcare system is one, Patrisse says, that “has not prioritized black bodies, but that has exploited black bodies.”

Another question dealt specifically with how to address Black mother mortality rates. Patrisse spent time working on this very issue for two years after the birth of her child; she herself experienced negligence in the healthcare system when she was pregnant.

“Number one,” she says, “we have to educate the hospitals we’re working with, and we also have to educate the elected officials that we’re working with." She wants to change how healthcare providers relate to black bodies, and she wants to change policy, too. Her second point zeroed in on the overuse of C-sections on Black women. Patrisse has nothing against C-sections in appropriate, emergency situations. But they are overused, she said, particularly on Black women, and they have led to maternal mortality and morbidity. And “number three,” Patrisse continued, “every single hospital around the country must have the same standard of care for everybody. And that doesn’t exist right now.”

One audience member asked about how healthcare workers can help fix the lack of trust Black people have in the healthcare system due to decades of inequity.

“It takes time to build trust,” responded Cullors. “Just be a kind, loving, generous healthcare practitioner.” She also encouraged healthcare educators to be honest and upfront in acknowledging that racism exists in healthcare. It is vital to create a space to have these difficult conversations and for people to tell their stories. She added that access to healthcare must not be based on income—or the lack of it. “Every single one of us should be calling for universal healthcare.”

Another participant asked how White people might be able to use their White privilege to help effect positive change. “I really encourage white folks who are trying to figure out their white identity to link with anti-racist white organizations and spaces that are very interested in unlearning their whiteness and their racism and relearning anti-racism,” Cullors replied. “That is a big place where white people can start.” She emphasized how powerful it is when a group of people come together and commit to anti-racist practices. She also encouraged all people to read lots of books. She pointed to some powerful memoirs, from her own When They Call You a Terrorist to Charlene Carruthers’ Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements to her Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza’s upcoming The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart.

Patrisse spoke a bit about the Black Lives Matter movement in general. She says, “Our movement is not a new movement.... It has been around for hundreds of years. It just happens to be called Black Lives Matter in this iteration.” This iteration began around the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin. Cullors and her cofounders realized that while the country seemed to have this idea that we were “past racism,” the acquittal proved that the racism on the 1960s and 70s persisted. Cullors also spoke also about responding to those who say the movement is somehow divisive. Her point is simple but powerful: Black Lives Matter advocates for Black lives. It is not meant to divide anyone. And to those who say that “all lives matter,” she says, “We all know that all lives matter. When we say ‘black lives matter,’ we are saying that all lives will matter when black lives matter.”

And, finally, when asked to reflect on the turbulent summer of 2020, Cullors said her biggest takeaway is an inspiring one: “Not even a global pandemic will stop people from fighting for their lives.”

To learn more about Patrisse Cullors and her ongoing work, you can visit her website.

Photo credit: Giovanni Solis