How To Fight Racism on Turtle Island

REVIEW: 'An Abolitionist's Handbook' by Patrisse Cullors

BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors / Getty Images
June 5, 2022

Patrisse Cullors does not care what you think about her slush fund, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. "Even an anti-capitalist organization will still have to deal with money—sometimes quite a bit of it," the self-described Marxist writes in An Abolitionist's Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World. "Be as transparent as possible—but make no apologies for salaries and other expenses."

Unfortunately, this is the extent of the BLM cofounder's financial advice in her new book, a how-to guide for aspiring abolitionists. If you're looking for tips on how to raise tens of millions of dollars in charitable donations and funnel $970,000 to an LLC owned by the father of your child and $840,000 to your brother's security firm, you will have to look elsewhere. Ditto for readers eager to learn how they can leverage their activist careers to accumulate $3.2 million in real estate, including a $1.4 million Malibu compound and an Atlanta-area "custom ranch" fitted with a private airplane hangar.

Instead, much of Cullors's advice could readily fit in a self-help book on the discount rack at a Barnes & Noble: "Say Yes to Imagination," "Allow Yourself to Feel," "Forgive Actively, Not Passively." While the injunctions might seem anodyne, Cullors believes these practices will help activists usher in a future without prisons, police, and courts. "Mind, body, and soul should be calibrated before you take over the world," as Cullors puts it. In a way, the book is reminiscent of Jordan Peterson's bestseller 12 Rules for Life, except it's for people who want the country to burn.

While Cullors's charitable self-dealing has made her a controversial figure, her abolitionist movement is still a big tent. Worried about pollution? Ecologist magazine says the U.S. military is one of the world's largest polluters. Concerned about so-called animal rights? Uncle Sam subsidizes the meat and dairy industries. Think Spotify is making too much money off the hard work of garbage indie rock bands? U.S. courts protect the predatory behavior of record labels and streaming services, so you should be an abolitionist, too.

Ultimately, for Cullors, the United States is a "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" and incapable of reform, so abolitionists must resist its hold on every aspect of society, including your morning coffee. "Start your day by making your own free-trade pour-over in a handmade coffee pot?" Cullors asks her readers. "It's still connected to white supremacy."

Before you accuse Cullors of speaking in abstractions, though, she makes clear that her hatred of America is grounded in facts. We lead the world in arms exports. We have the largest prison population. We fight wars. We enslaved people. That's all on top of the United States' "active genocide of the indigenous people of Turtle Island" (the BLM term for North America). To put it simply, we've had "400 years of sadism."

Speaking of sadism, did I mention Cullors's prose? In a section about the power of incisive writing, she points to James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni's "hot knife of words continually slicing through the butter of ideas like racism, white supremacy, and social justice." There's a line about how if you're careful with the "fire" of conflict, "the heat can nourish you." "Center" is her favorite verb, so on every other page someone or something is centering something else.

There's also the typical therapeutic and social justice language that a reader with a trained eye can navigate, but I invite anyone to figure out what this means:

Our practice toward grounded responsiveness offers a model for both our personal and our movement relationships. We can choose to center our values over our reactive vitriol. We can choose to be in community and model a new approach toward naming requests.

Readability aside, the book's biggest weakness is the dissimilarity between Patrisse Cullors the wise abolitionist educator and Patrisse Cullors the hack political activist.

The author who calls on readers to fight the U.S. government is the same person who hosted a party at BLM's $6 million L.A. compound, which the organization secretly purchased with an influx of cash after George Floyd's death, to celebrate Joe Biden's election victory in 2020. The writer who advises activists to "respond" rather than "react" called New York magazine's coverage of her organization's profligate spending "right-wing disinformation" and said black media outlets that picked up the reporting were not "actually black." And the author who says abolitionists should "practice accountability" failed to file her organization's federally mandated 990 tax documents and called charity transparency laws "triggering" and "unsafe."

In other words, she's no Nancy Brophy, the 71-year-old author of How to Murder Your Husband, who was convicted last month of murdering her husband. But maybe that's an unfair standard—most writers can't live up to all their guidance. And on the issue of accountability, at least, maybe Cullors practices it in less publicized ways:

There are multiple times in my life where I have been accountable for the harmful conditions that were created in a dynamic. The moments when I have been accountable are the moments when I feel more present for connection. It is a truly amazing moment when you hold yourself accountable and find the peace on the other side.

Here's to hoping Cullors continues to hold herself accountable for the harmful conditions that were created in a dynamic, feels more present for connection, and finds peace on the other side.

An Abolitionist's Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World
by Patrisse Cullors
St. Martin's Press, 288 pp., $26.99