Higher education

'We have nothing to lose but our chains,' #BlackLivesMatter organizer speaks in Iowa City

Cliff Jette/The Gazette

Social activist and artist Patrisse Cullors leads the crowd in a chant of #x201c;Black Lives Ma
Cliff Jette/The Gazette Social activist and artist Patrisse Cullors leads the crowd in a chant of “Black Lives Matter” as she takes the podium at a Monday night lecture hosted by the University of Iowa’s University Lecture Committee at the Englert Theatre. Cullors is a co-founder of the viral Twitter hashtag and movement #BlackLivesMatter.
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IOWA CITY — Her lip quivering, Patrisse Cullors’ heart sank.

It was 2013, and she was in a motel room on a website, waiting for the news of George Zimmerman’s verdict. Guilty, or not guilty, in the killing of Trayvon Martin — a black 17-year-old who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer while on his way home from buying candy at a convenience store.

“Not guilty, and they say not guilty, and they continue to say not guilty until they say, ‘not guilty of all charges,’” Cullors, 32, of Los Angeles, recalled for a packed audience of hundreds in the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Monday night. “And I start to cry. And I don’t cry just for Trayvon. I cry for black people. I cry for this country and our world.”

And through her tears, Cullors said, her spirit rose up with this revelation.

“If we allow this, if we allow ourselves to go silent, if we sweep this moment under the rug, they will continue to kill us and think it’s OK,” she said.

So what next?

“I went on social media, because that’s what our generation does,” she said. “And I’m reading, and I’m like, yep, that’s right. Nope, that’s not right.”

And then a friend’s post stopped her.

“She closed it off, ‘black lives matter,’ ” Cullors said.

Within a second, “Hashtag. Black lives matter.”

“That moment of spontaneity, I’m reminded, oh, I organize, I know how to do this,” Cullors said. “Let’s take this, these three words, and let’s build a movement.”

And so it began. The “Black Lives Matter” movement. Rooted in real life or death events and fueled and organized through social media and online connections, this current version of the historic movement has revived nationwide debate, discussion and action on race relations and tensions.

But Cullors, speaking as part of the University of Iowa’s theme semester “Our Lives Online,” urged the audience, “This is a movement, not a moment.”

“And movements don’t happen overnight,” she said. “They happen with time. They happen with vision.”

Cullors talked about how social media propelled the movement and shaped it as a 21st century vehicle for social change. She referenced Twitter hashtags that sprung up in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death in a jail cell in July 2015.

One, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody, had thousands begging the world not to believe reports they commit suicide, Cullors said.

“We’re eulogizing ourselves,” she said. “Imagine thousands of black people on the internet, grieving, and trying to remind the world of our humanity.”

That online grief spurred on-the-street action.

And touching on a chain of events that played out in the months that followed — specifically the continued white and black shootings, often at the hands of police officers — Cullors brought the audience to today.

“To 45, I’ve been calling him,” she said of President Donald Trump.

Cullors admitted, “I’m very frightened.” She pointed to pipeline projects Trump has OK’d, his proposed wall with Mexico, his suppression of free speech, and his immigration ban, and she charged her audience to unite in stopping Trump.

“All of our movements must join at this time,” Cullors said. “We have power. We have the ability to change and steer the ship. We have to join our movements.”

Many in the audience cheered Cullors and the empowerment she offered, peppering her with questions about local issues and politics, including proposed legislation to stiffen penalties against protesters who shut down the interstate.

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Although one questioner prodded her about why she didn’t mention the black-on-black violence in places like Chicago. That man was booed — another audience member even threw something — and Cullors answered him by explaining why the question is “deeply untrue, deeply offensive and deeply racist.”

She challenged him and others to ask different questions, to become introspective. When the man continued to fire back, Cullors threw up a hand and said, “Nope. I’m not doing it.”

And then closed out the event as is common in the black lives matter movement.

“It is our duty to fight with our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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