HARDtalk| Black Lives Matter Co-founder Patrice Khan-Cullors
Jane Fonda and Patrisse Khan-Cullors on the Sobering Realities of Racism
Outspoken and unconventional, these brazen women are beacons of change who refuse to conform. As they dare to do the impossible, encouraging young visionaries to break—not just push—boundaries, they inspire people around the world to fight for what they believe in. Here, Jane Fonda and Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Khan-Cullors open up about the evolution of civil rights activism for our 2019 #WomenWhoDare series.
Jane Fonda: When were you born?
Jane:God, you've missed everything. I was almost onto my second husband, or my third by then!
Patrisse:[Laughs]That's what my dad told me very early on—they kind of knew that I was going be an activist, so my dad would always tell me, you know, "You missed this whole generation of people who did this.”
Jane:You missed it, yeah. Let me tell you something. I didn't miss it, I was around then, and it's very different.
Patrisse: What makes it different?
Jane:It's like an existential thing now, it's like our whole way of life has been threatened.
Patrisse: I wanted to ask what was your impetus in joining movements? What drove you to that? I know that you talked about your own family's history, but what about you?
Jane:Well, it was the Vietnam War. I was living in France, and the French had already been there. So, they had their war in Vietnam, and they knew we couldn't win, and it was an interesting thing for me, as an American, to listen to [the French] talk. I just felt, I can't just stay here and listen to this, I have to go back and be part of it. And, as you probably know, once you begin to study one issue, everything else—race, imperialism, capitalism—everything starts to come into question: economic issues, the fact that we don't have that economic democracy. But it was when I read your book, "When They Call You A Terrorist"—when Trump was elected—that I realized that white supremacy is closer to the surface than I had ever realized, and I thought, "Man, I better understand this more." You think you know, you think you understand, but if you're white, you don't really. And so I very deliberately have been studying, and I read your book, and it really moved me, and I called you up.
Patrisse: I thought it was a joke. June [my assistant] was like, “Jane Fonda wants to talk to you.” And I was like, “What?”
Jane: I'll tell you what, I did the same thing with The [Black] Panthers back in 1970. I called David Hilliard up in Oakland, but it didn't go as well, because things were different. First of all, he was a man. One of the things that is so potent about Black Lives Matter, is that it's women-led.
Jane: People don't know that, the press doesn't say that, but, you know, when I started getting copies of these flyers that are being put out by Black Lives Matter about how activists take care of themselves—self-care. Who does that?
Patrisse: It's our job.
Jane: The Panthers wouldn't do that, you know what I mean?
Jane: I was just a bougie whitie back then, but, you know, we're developing a real friendship. I don't feel like you're judging me, although there's a lot to judge. I mean, it's hard when you've been privileged all your life to really understand, to try to understand what it means to go through what people of color go through. I feel that you welcomed me into that journey, that I can turn to you for help, and I didn't feel that back in the '60s and the '70s.
Patrisse:This is what I admire about you. For someone who's literally an icon, celebrity, rock star, not only are you so down to earth, but you’re always interested in learning and being more educated, and it was a huge honor to receive that call, and to be building with you. My friends laughed, they were like, "You just talked to Jane Fonda on the phone?" Yeah! But we have an authentic relationship, and that's what I've felt from you from the very beginning. It's so funny because at the United States of Women [Summit], when we spoke on stage together…
Jane: It was a weird experience for me because the moment I said, "Because I'm white," I got a “Preach, Jane!” It was like, I'm not used to this.
Patrisse:You turned into Auntie Jane overnight. They're like, “Auntie Jane got that word!” We're in a moment where, I think especially for black folks in particular, it is so necessary to hear from white people being honest about power and privilege. Because we're living under a government, and a presidency, that has allowed white supremacy to go rampant and has allowed it to be the law of the land. To hear white folks say, "No, it's unacceptable, and I'm going to resist it like my life also depends on it, because it does." I think you really exemplify that—to do it front of, what, 5,000 people, mostly women of all races and sexualities and genders, and I think that sort of solidified our relationship. It was like, "Okay, we're in this, and we're in this together".
Jane:You know, I've traveled a lot around the world, and the third world, and one of the things that I've learned is, it's easier to understand—for example, misogyny, women being treated like cattle—when you're in a country where it's totally blatant. That's when you think, "Okay, oh I get it." One of the gifts that POTUS has given us, is things are so blatant and bad, that things that were underground before, at least for white people, have come to the surface now. It's like oh my God, I now understand that we can't really be a full democratic country, a healthy country, as long as we have the legacy of slavery and race. We can't, and I'm not sure that it would've hit me before November 2019. Isn't it awful to say, I'm grateful for the lesson.
Patrisse: Of course.
Jane:But we all have to do it together.
Patrisse:For the last decade, many activists across Los Angeles county have been trying to stop a .5 billion jail plan. A plan that would be a woman's jail and a mental health jail. We tried everything: we lobbied our elected officials, we held protests, we did everything and we realized, "Oh they're not budging on this, so we need to take it to the people." We did a poll ahead of time, sort of to see what people want to see, so I started Reform L.A. County Jails, the pact, and we've been gathering signatures since March, we just completed our signature gathering. We have gathered over 230,000 signatures, we've registered over 10,000 people to vote in a short amount of time, and this is gonna be on the March 2020 ballot box.
I told Jane, you know, "We're gonna do this initiative." And she goes, "I want to help. I've been studying around jail issues and prison issues." Jane has done more than help, I mean Jane's been an ambassador of Reform L.A. Jails initiative. She's gone out door knocking, she's gone out gathering signatures, she's held dinners in her home around it. I mean, she's literally been a huge collaborator with me on this project. I think we've been able, for the first time in history, in Los Angeles County history, to popularize a jail fight and a conversation around ending mass incarceration.
Much of the work of this ballot initiative is gonna do three things, it's going to force our county to do a study, to look at who's inside these jails, given that 47 percent of the people inside jails are pre-trial. Half of the prison population has a mental health illness that they're battling with. So, why are we jailing them? Why aren't we trying to figure out other places that they could get the support and care they need? Then it would do two other things, it would give the current civilian oversight commission of the sheriffs' department subpoena power, and investigative power. So, Jane when we met, she said, "How can I help?" And she was really honest. A lot of people, especially celebrities, say, "How can I help?" And then it doesn't always come through.
Jane:Between Ava Duvernay's documentary,13th,and Michelle Alexander's bookThe New Jim Crow, and other books that I've been reading, I've realized that mass incarceration today is the way that the leaders, the rulers, the powerful white folk have of getting rid of black people: putting them in jails, marking them as felons, so that they can't get public housing, they can't even vote, they can't get food stamps. It's very difficult to get a job when you have to check the felon mark, so it's something that destroys their lives forever. Then, while they're in the jail, they're working just like slaves making clothes that we wear, and we don't even know where they come from, but often they come from prisons, from people of color in prisons making these things, working like slaves. I just felt, I've gotta ... What do I do, what do I do? It's a very difficult problem, for all kinds of reasons, to address, and then I read [Patrisse's] book, and I thought, "Well she may know. She's got this issue in her DNA." Because, you know, her brother, it's been really hard for him with mental illness and jails. So, for me, it was a way to be able to do something about this thing that was just making me not be able to sleep, and the fact that I didn't really understand. I mean, I knew that people of color more disproportionately were being put in jail. I didn't realize that it was a very deliberate, strategically worked out policy. Right down to local police forces.
When Patrisse told me about the Reform L.A. ballot measure she was working on, I wanted to join up. You know, I've canvassed and done these things for 45, 50 years, but it sure helps to have a hit TV series and a hit movie (Book Clubhad just come out), so when you go to a farmers market to ask people for signatures, it really helps.
Patrisse: Yes, I'll give you my signature. [Laughs]
Jane:But you know, I've had to really learn about this issue, of LA jails, and become more granular about it, and that's an ongoing process. So, I'm really grateful for that.
I think the benefit that I can bring here is that I'm white and I'm famous. Famous is important because it calls attention that may not be paid, and white because it's important for white people to say, "This is my fight, too." It may be black people being incarcerated, but it affects my life, my society, my town, my city, and my country. It's important that we reach across age and gender and race, and stand together. Strength in numbers, that's how we're gonna win across the boards. So, I think that's what's important about me standing with Patrisse, is that I'm white and famous. Not that I'm old, I don't think that plays much of a role. I feel like a complete newbie. [Patrisse] is my teacher. I wish I could say, "That's right, I'm this seasoned activist who knows just what she's doing." No, I don't.
Patrisse:That's what I love about you, as well, is that you're constantly striving to evolve. It doesn't happen to a lot of people in this country, to be honest.
Jane:It really doesn't. So what have you learned from me?
Patrisse: Tenacity. You don't give up. You're like, "What are we gonna do next? How do we make that happen? What's the way forward? Let's solve that problem." I have that personality, too, but it's very different to see it in someone a generation above me, and to see how focused your are. When you're on a mission, you're on a mission. There's nothing that's gonna stop it and it's helped me, in the moments where I've felt like, "Oh, shit. Are we gonna get these signatures? What are we gonna do next?" Talking to your, or sending you an email, and you responding, "That's a bummer, but let's move on to this." There is clarity and tenacity that comes with wisdom. I don't think it comes with age, necessarily. There's a sense of wisdom that I really lean on, and I've really lent on, I don't know if you know that, but it's been very comforting. But also there's a strength in it, too, that's like, "Okay, Jane says we're gonna do this, we're gonna do this."
Jane:This is a not a time to be tame. I've been around 80 years, and so it means something when I say that, 'cause I've been through some pretty hairy times. I've been called a terrorist, too, just like [Patrisse], only it's different—again—when you're white, and famous and you're called a terrorist. There are things you can do [in response] that you can't do if you're not famous and black. Well, you are famous. Before you were famous.
Patrisse: Yeah. [Laughs]
Jane:This is a time when have to pull out all our bold genes. We have to take leaps of faith. I'm a big believer in taking leaps of faith. You don't always know the answers. You don't always know how it's gonna turn out, but you have to just go with faith, that this has to be done.
Patrisse: You know, when we started Black Lives Matter, now five years ago, that was in a time where Obama was the president. A lot of folks at the very beginning kind of criticized us, like, "Guys, we don't really have to talk about that anymore, you have your black president." And five years later I'm so grateful for that movement. It has actually set the tone for many of the rest of these movements, right? That we have to protest, we have to hit the streets, we have to resist, and we have to say the things that sometimes people are afraid to say.
I think Black Lives Matter was that phrase that people were afraid to say, and now it's everywhere. Now people get, "Oh, this is why they said Black Lives Matter, this why they're saying Black Lives Matter." And that these movements, we're here for the long haul. The resistance didn't start with Black Lives Matter, there's been a resistance movement in this country for 500 years, and I think we are a part of that legacy. And that is, it's an honor, it's an honor to be a part of that legacy.
Jane:Think of what it means, that we have to even say, "Black Lives Matter." I mean, how horrible that we have to say that:oh by the way, there's part of our people that matter. We've learned, I think, a big lesson that all of us in the movement are going to bring forward, is that no matter who is president we can't.. what's the word?
Patrisse: You can't stop. You can't become politically lazy.
Jane: That's why I love Jerry Brown. When he was elected in the '70s, he said, "Hold my feet to the fire, force me to do it. Make it so that I have to say to the people who don't agree with us, 'I can't help it, look at what my constituents are saying'."
Patrisse: Yes, we have to have strong elected officials, but the only way we have strong elected officials is if we have a strong movement. If we are holding those elected officials to the fire, we are empowering ourselves to do so. An elected official without a movement is not the greatest elected official, because they're going get co-opted by what happens inside the senate, or congress, or an assembly, or even in local politics. We are so important in the equation of changing history, and changing the world.
Video: BBC World News Hardtalk Co-Founder Black lives Matter Patrisse Khan-Cullors Speaking
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