Posted on November 8th, 2022
Last week, a coalition of 26 Black Lives Matter Grassroots chapters filed a lawsuit against their sister nonprofit, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.
The more than two dozen chapters accused the GNF executive Shalomyah Bowers of “siphoning” more than $10 million from donors.
In the days since the suit was filed, a question has nagged at some observers: How might this family feud distract from the movement’s deeper message?
To understand this tension, we must first understand the structure of BLM.
In general, the movement is loose – highly decentralized. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Ayọ Tometi planted the seeds nearly a decade ago, in 2013, in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
But there’s also GNF, a nonprofit foundation and legal entity. GNF is responsible for raising funds and directing financial support toward the BLM Grassroots chapters, which engage in the “on-the-ground work,” according to the suit.
This is where the BLM conflict lies: between the administrative arm and the grassroots arm.
Pressure had been building for years. Cullors stepped down from her position as the executive director of GNF in May 2021, following months of criticism from some grassroots chapters over shifting leadership structures. Garza and Tometi had already disaffiliated from the group.
Bowers has denied the accusations leveled in the suit, saying in a joint statement with the board last week that they’re “harmful, divisive and false.”
In a story published on Sunday, the Los Angeles Times columnist Erika D. Smith summarized the concerns that some Black Americans have in light of the recent BLM news.
“Black lives matter and always will. But I fear Black Lives Matter, the movement, will never matter as much as it once did,” she wrote.
To further explore this unease, I spoke with Justin Hansford, a professor at the Howard University School of Law and the executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What do you make of the recent BLM controversy?
Things are always going to be dicey when movement leaders suddenly have millions of dollars. That’s not really part of the narrative of being a civil rights leader – that you become a millionaire.
For people who are genuinely committed to the movement – who are giving all their time and energy and resources to the movement, who have gotten tear-gassed and have gone to jail – it’s got to be disconcerting to see two main phenomena right now.
The political establishment is essentially deciding not only to ignore but to go against what people have been saying by calling to increase police funding. And then there seems to be lots of money being thrown back and forth between different leaders. It’s got to be disconcerting.
In May 2020, who would’ve envisioned that, two years later, this would be the outcome? Nobody who went into the streets hoping to find justice for George Floyd or to defund the police could have anticipated that, in September 2022, this is where we’d be.
What are the pitfalls of sudden financial growth?
When sudden financial growth happens, organizations have to be prepared to find the expertise needed to handle that growth responsibly. Sometimes the way that people talk, there’s this notion that we can do everything ourselves. So, if somebody’s a great speaker and organizer, then they also should have great accounting skills. There’s no reason to assume that people are prepared for that influx of money just because they’re excellent protest leaders.
If we go back to the mid-20th century, civil rights groups had specific organizational structures. No one person was expected to respond to or deal with everything. So, it’s a particular challenge. But it’s not an insurmountable challenge, because there are experts out there who can help. But you can’t expect people to be all things at all times.
Is the movement’s credibility at stake?
When the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation gave an accounting of its finances earlier this year, I thought that the movement’s credibility was definitely at stake, because it was the first time people had ever really questioned where all the money went. It was one of those situations where people across the country were shocked to hear the news.
This time, we’re mostly talking about infighting, which I don’t think will have as big of an impact. In my view, this news is much less of a bombshell. In a lot of ways, the infighting was inevitable, given the information that came out earlier. Tens of millions of dollars were sitting out there. It was inevitable that there would be infighting over that news.
That’s one of the biggest tragedies about this whole thing: We have to spend so much time talking about what feels like gossip instead of talking about what’s happening with police violence, which hasn’t stopped.
How is the deeper message of BLM still crucial?
The protests in 2020 were unprecedented in US history. All those people made their voices heard, and as a society, we’re still reeling from that. There’s been backlash, and the political establishment hasn’t really responded to those people. BLM, as a movement, isn’t finished.
Not only has there not been a political solution to the problem. There’s been backlash in both political parties. Republicans and some Democrats have basically thumbed their noses at BLM. There’s a lot of unfinished business. I don’t think that the movement is dead.
I think that the summer of 2020 is the most important political moment in our country’s history since the civil rights movement. It’s framed everything that’s come afterward. Even the whole anti-“critical race theory” panic is a response to what happened in 2020.
There’s always been a conflation of BLM, the organization, and the broader movement. I want to be very clear that I’m talking about the broader movement. The infighting happening now is a sad chapter in the history of BLM. But I think that the broader movement has much more to say about police violence and race in the US.