There are two branches of activism…
Julian Wan: BLM Protestors, Cincinnati, OH, USA, 2020 (Unsplash)
From New York Magazine:
There are, broadly speaking, two branches of activism. There are on-the-ground, grassroots organizers like Johnson, who work locally, passionately, with little money, often risking their lives and livelihood through their protests. And then there are the larger, more professionalized national groups with corporate donations and fund-raising power, whose high-profile leaders can garner lucrative speaking gigs and book deals. Tensions between the two paths have existed at least since the American civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. But social justice and modern civil rights have become increasingly fashionable in the ten years since Trayvon Martin’s death, and more money than ever has flowed to the most visible groups. They have reaped tens of millions of dollars, while some local organizers stretched themselves to the brink of homelessness. Even as national groups have made overtures to work more closely with community organizers, activists in the latter camp have become concerned that their work is being co-opted by profiteers. This decades-old divide now exists in extreme form within Black Lives Matter. It is simultaneously a decentralized coalition of local organizers who eke out progress city by city, dollar by dollar, and an opaque nonprofit entity, well capitalized and friendly with corporations, founded by three mediagenic figures — Cullors and her co-founders Alicia Garza and Opal (now Ayo) Tometi.
Some local activists contend that little of the money raised at the national level makes its way to their organizations or to the families of Black people killed by police. In November 2020, ten chapters of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation issued a public call for greater financial accountability. “For years there has been inquiry regarding the financial operations of BLMGNF and no acceptable process of either public or internal transparency about the unknown millions of dollars donated to BLMGNF, which has certainly increased during this time of pandemic and rebellion,” the chapters’ statement read.
The organization responded to the criticism three months later by releasing, for the first time, some detailed information about its finances. BLMGNF said it had raised more than $90 million in 2020. It incurred $8.4 million in operating expenses, distributed $21.7 million in grants to more than 30 organizations, and retained some $60 million in its coffers. But if the disclosures were intended to quiet dissent, they didn’t succeed. After the report was published, two activists in Ferguson, Missouri — Tory Russell and Michael Brown Sr., whose son was killed by a police officer there in 2014 — posted a video demanding $20 million for local programs and organizers. “The movement that has been catapulted into the limelight has forgotten about Ferguson and the freedom fighters [who] have literally given their lives to the struggle,” Russell said. A few weeks later, in March 2021, two mothers of victims of police violence, Lisa Simpson and Samaria Rice, released a statement calling for BLMGNF and others to stop capitalizing on their suffering. “We don’t want or need y’all parading in the streets accumulating donations, platforms, movie deals, etc. off the death of our loved ones, while the families and communities are left clueless and broken,” they wrote. “Don’t say our loved ones’ names period! That’s our truth!”
The millions raised, coupled with confusion about how money is collected and spent, has created a rift among organizers. Many want better visibility into Black Lives Matter’s finances, even as they fear that right-wing groups will seize on even the appearance of mismanagement to discredit their work. Despite the risks, some figures in the movement are beginning to speak out about the disconnect between local activists doing the day-to-day labor of supporting families, opposing unjust politicians, and coordinating protests and the public’s perception of a monolithic movement.
Dr. Kwasi Konadu, a professor of African history at Colgate University, says that corporate money has fueled local activists’ distrust of national civil-rights groups for decades. “The funding has a way of managing the direction and even the leadership of these movements, and Black Lives Matter is no different,” he says.