“What will you do to save black lives?” asked Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cullors, an artist and activist against police brutality, spoke to a packed audience of students, professors and guests in Page Auditorium about anti-black racism, injustice and social responsibility during an event Wednesday. Her talk, which was followed with a question-and-answer session with audience members, was hosted by the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, the Center for Multicultural Affairs, Duke University Union Speakers & Stage and many other student and administrative organizations. Cullors emphasized the issue of safety, questioning whether or not black people can feel safe on Duke’s campus and in the United States.
“I was asked earlier today, when I met with some Duke faculty and administration, do I feel unsafe here?” she said. “And I think the better question for black students that are here [is], ‘Do you feel safe here?’”
A single student near the front answered with a somber “no.”
“What safety exists here—and I mean here at Duke, but I [also] mean in the U.S. in particular—if we do not create that safety ourselves?” she added.
Cullors’ talk came five days after a poster advertising the event was . This sparked heated student reactions, including a gathering of more than 100 students, as well as a message to all students from Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, reassuring students that administrators “genuinely care.”
When asked about the defacing, Cullors responded that she knew about the incident and “took it very seriously.”
“There is a difference between a shooting happening at your school, and someone defacing a flyer. But the allowing of defacing a flyer and nooses on trees leads to shootings inside schools,” she said.
Addressing the black students in the audience, she asked, “How can you feel safe if that’s even a question you have to ask me?”
Cullors did not shy away from criticizing Duke, recalling a “history of racist incidences” that the University has endured. When asked how Duke could work to dismantle oppression in North Carolina and Durham, she offered a blunt response.
“You would need to cease to exist... I’m being serious. Institutions like Duke were built on the backs of anti-black racism, the genocide of indigenous people,” she said. “And the first place institutions like Duke must go to is, what have we done to contribute? How has our existence actually allowed for the death of black people? We have to be honest about that, and most of us don’t want to be.”
During her talk, Cullors said that Black Lives Matter is a growing, global movement bringing to light injustices that had previously been ignored. She cited the increased national dialogue surrounding police brutality as proof of this trend, adding that “freedom for us means freedom for everyone.”
Cullors also asked the audience to shout out the names of those who died at the hands of “the state,” and to speak the names of those who have subsequently fought for injustices against these victims.
Cullors’ visit to Duke was timely, sophomore Feruth Kidane said, because there has not been sufficient leadership for racial issues on campus.
“It was nice to have someone, a face, a leader from above, that came. We haven’t had strong leadership at Duke from faculty or from teachers or professors, so it was nice to see someone older than us come and help us mobilize. It gave us direction,” she explained. “I think it’s the students’ responsibility to keep [the movement] going.”
The evening ended with a back-and-forth chant in which the audience, repeating after Cullors, made a declaration to fight for freedom.
“It is our duty to fight for 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,” Cullors and the audience chanted.
She received a standing ovation.