Patrisse Cullors wears many hats. For over 20 years, the trailblazing queer activist, artist, and organizer has been building the creative intersections that define her work. As cofounder of Black Lives Matter, founder of Dignity and Power Now, and founder and chair of Reform L.A. Jails, the Los Angeles native has used her passions to ignite a global dialogue about civil rights and the criminal justice system.
In 2013, Cullors wrote the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in a comment on a Facebook status of cofounder Alicia Garza, who had written about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old who was innocently walking to meet his family, having come from a nearby convenience store. The hashtag took off and morphed into a national coalition to uproot white supremacy, police brutality, and systemic racism against Black people.
Cullors’s fight for social justice began at a young age. When she was 9 years old, she witnessed her preteen brothers become the victim of police harassment as officers needlessly slammed them into a wall. Growing up in L.A. in the 1990s, she saw firsthand the emotional and physical impacts the criminal justice system places on poor communities, especially on her older brother, who was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
Earlier this year, Cullors led Reform L.A. Jails’s “Yes on R” campaign for the Measure R ballot initiative, which passed with 71 percent of the vote. This was the first time in L.A. history that criminal justice reform was taken to the ballot box. Measure R now requires Los Angeles County to invest in rehab and mental health treatment, to grant the Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena power to independently investigate misconduct, and to develop a plan to reduce jail populations. It also calls for a redirect of all cost savings from reduced incarceration to public priorities like drug treatment, housing, and mental health care.
As an educator, Cullors designed a new MFA program in collaboration with Prescott College in Arizona. The Social and Environmental Arts Practice is a two-year degree combining art, social justice, and community organizing. Last year, she completed her MFA at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design.
She’s also an accomplished performance artist and writer, with her 2018 best-selling memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, and as a current staff writer for Freeform’s Good Trouble. Cullors performed a piece earlier this year at Frieze Los Angeles 2020 called “Fuck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free.” The piece was led by Cullors along with a live DJ and dancers with headphones who danced the electric slide.
Cullors is one of the most prominent organizers in the modern civil rights movement, and her mission to protect Black lives, people with mental illness, and incarcerated members of both communities continues to inspire not only this generation but the generations to come.