In early April 2021, Ziploc bags filled with rocks and Ku Klux Klan flyers were thrown on lawns and dropped on street corners around Huntington Beach, California. “White civil rights!” one flyer read. “Our Ancestors settled the land, established the country, made the laws — we’re the majority, why shouldn’t we control our destiny???” Word began to circulate on social media that there would be a “White Lives Matter” rally in front of the Huntington Beach Pier on April 11 at 1 p.m.
Southern California’s Orange County has a century-long history of white supremacism. Klansmen patrolled Anaheim in white hoods and robes during the 1920s; in 1993, a Los Angeles Times headline asked if Huntington Beach was the “skinhead capital of the country.” Today, fewer than 2 percent of its residents identify as Black. But Tory Johnson didn’t care. He started Black Lives Matter Huntington Beach after the murder of George Floyd. He and his fellow protesters were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. He went to jail for marching then, and he wasn’t going to let a racist rally occur in his city unchecked.
Johnson, who moved to Huntington Beach at 26 and worked temporary gigs as a security guard, began mobilizing a counterprotest to the “White Lives Matter” event. He blasted out a press release: “White supremacy is not welcome here and we will do everything possible to prevent this rally and defend our community from racist terrorism.”
Two days later, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the organization that placed itself at the front of the movement for racial justice, issued a statement of its own via its co-founder and executive director, Patrisse Cullors. “We want to make it abundantly clear that Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and the Black Lives Matter Grassroots do not support counterprotesting,” the statement said, implying that such action might be dangerous. “For that reason, we are not supporting or affiliated with any counterprotests you may hear about being organized in Huntington Beach (or anywhere else, at any time).”
Even though Johnson’s group has “Black Lives Matter” in its name, it is not an officially recognized chapter of the larger organization, and it receives no logistical or financial support. Still, Johnson was taken aback that the Global Network would disavow his plans. “To be a grassroots organizer trying to stop a freaking KKK rally in a city — why would you try to stop that?” he asks. After Cullors’s statement, Johnson says, organizations like the NAACP began to pull their support. He worried that white supremacists would notice that his position was weakening and feel emboldened.
Johnson went ahead with his counterprotest. That morning, he put on a black suit, tie, durag, and mask, evoking the image of a SoCal Malcolm X. Cullors had different plans for the day: At about the same time, she was urging her followers to join her online for “F*ck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free,” a streaming event sponsored by UGG, the California* boot company. Described as a “worldwide electric slide,” the performance would feature sets from half a dozen DJs and invite “everyone around the globe to move together, united by a groove and the freeing act of dancing.” Johnson traveled to the Huntington Beach Pier, where he stared down white supremacists with Aryan Brotherhood tattoos who were shouting racial slurs and making Nazi salutes. Around the time that Johnson was hurried into a private car and driven from the protest out of concern for his safety, Cullors could be found live on YouTube. She resigned as executive director six weeks later, saying she wanted to concentrate on other projects, including books and a production deal with Warner Bros.
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.
Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University and the executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, was one of the many who were compelled to go to Ferguson and help local activists during the unrest there. He gives Cullors, Garza, and Tometi credit for their work in creating a global rallying cry. “They were able to reach the audience that the actual Ferguson protesters never could have reached. There are a lot of people in the media who only lifted up that story because they felt that these particular, charismatic Black women were the leaders of it.” But Hansford is rankled by the prominence they have attained.
“They tell a story that makes it seem like the creation of their hashtag was the start of the movement,” Hansford says. “I don’t think they have directly told lies about their role, but they have a really inflated sense of self-importance in terms of the movement.” He adds, “Imagine that during the civil-rights movement you had the SCLC, you had the NAACP, you had the Urban League — and imagine some group just called themselves Civil Rights Movement, Inc.”
As the story goes, Black Lives Matter got its start in 2013 in an Oakland bar. Garza was drinking bourbon when news broke that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of murder charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and she took to Facebook to express her grief. “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter,” she wrote. Her friend Cullors replied with a missive of her own, closing with #BLACKLIVESMATTER.
Cullors wanted to get involved with the energy and outrage of the moment, and she joined others in creating a protest group called Justice4Trayvon. She had nonprofit connections but was inexperienced in activism, according to community organizers in California at the time. Keyanna Celina, a longtime organizer, recalls an early meeting that Cullors attended in Los Angeles. “She was not talking logistics, about what we were going to be doing out in the streets,” she says. “She was talking about what people should be hashtagging.”
After arranging a protest in Beverly Hills, Cullors, along with Garza and Tometi, resurfaced the following summer in Ferguson, now branding their effort as Black Lives Matter. Ashley Yates, an activist originally from St. Louis, remembers encountering two of the three there. “No one really was clear on what they were there for. No one
was really even clear on who they were,” she says. But #BlackLivesMatter began building momentum on social platforms, then exploded with the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. Yates moved to Oakland the next month and became a part of the group’s inner circle.
From the beginning, Yates says, local activists raised concerns that national groups like the one Cullors, Garza, and Tometi were forming might take credit for their work. The issue came to a head in July 2015, when hundreds of activists traveled to Cleveland State University for a conference to discuss the future of the movement. According to Yates and another person familiar with the incident, at a closed-door gathering of about 30 people, organizers confronted Cullors, saying she and her co-founders needed to do more to correct media reports that their organization was orchestrating the movement.
Yates says she later pressed Cullors, Garza, and Tometi on the matter privately. “They said, ‘It’s not really us; the media’s doing it, and we can’t help what they do.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, but it came out of your mouth.’ ” Yates has since broken with Black Lives Matter at the national level over what she sees as a deeply troubling lack of financial transparency. (She also had a personal dispute with another high-ranking member of the organization, a girlfriend she accused of abuse.) “I funneled so much money to BLM,” Yates says. “Silly me.”
Fledgling nonprofits that have not yet been recognized by the government as tax exempt often make temporary use of what is called a fiscal sponsor in order to process donations and handle other administrative tasks, giving up a percentage of the incoming funds in exchange. In 2016, the Black Lives Matter founders partnered with a sponsor now called Thousand Currents, and its official filings give a window into BLM fund-raising over the years. Thousand Currents’ revenue increased dramatically after taking on the organization, from $1.7 million in the year ending June 2015 to $6.6 million a year later. In the fiscal year concluding just after Floyd’s 2020 murder, revenue shot up to $86.9 million.
At one point, BLM agreed to pay Thousand Currents 15 percent of all funds raised. The typical industry rate is between 5 and 10 percent, according to Candid, an information service that reports on nonprofits. After the 2020 surge in donations, BLMGNF switched fiscal sponsors to a division of the Tides Foundation, a larger organization that says its fee is 9 percent of revenue and less for groups with contributions exceeding $1 million. (In a statement, Thousand Currents says the sponsorship transition began in 2019 and that it has given away 45 percent of its most recent BLMGNF revenue to social movements.)
BLMGNF has never been a model of fiscal clarity, and even people close to the organization find its arrangement confusing. Over the years, there have been nonprofit and for-profit arms. The BLM Global Network Foundation is distinct from the dissolved BLM Global Network, which is distinct from the BLM Action Fund, BLM Grassroots, and the BLM Political Action Committee. Tides sponsored an effort called the BLM Global Network Project and replaced it with the BLM Support Fund. BuzzFeed News reported in 2020 that Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other corporations nearly donated $4 million to an entity called the Black Lives Matter Foundation before realizing it had no connection to the group started by Cullors. (The look-alike charity, in fact, advocated “bringing the community and police closer together.”) Thousand Currents later acknowledged to BuzzFeed that it had made similar errors in its tax records. “On the face of it, it does not necessarily sound nefarious,” says Jacob Harold, a former CEO of GuideStar and the co-founder of Candid. “It definitely sounds messy, on multiple levels.”
Without much in the way of formal filings, gleaning information about BLMGNF’s finances requires piecing together information from a variety of sources. According to legal and governance experts, some of the patterns that emerge are cause for concern. Aside from BLMGNF, Cullors has started or helped lead several other organizations, including three related to criminal-justice reform and prisoners’ rights: Dignity and Power Now, JusticeLA, and the Justice Teams Network. According to filings, money sometimes flows between the organizations. For instance, in 2018, the Justice Teams Network received a $400,000 grant to support work for JusticeLA. From its website, JusticeLA looks like an autonomous entity, but users who click to donate are directed to a PayPal account for Dignity and Power Now.
The organizations are linked through a person named Christman Bowers, who has also gone by Shalomya Bowers. He is listed as Dignity and Power Now’s chief financial officer and as the treasurer of a local political committee, Reform LA Jails. In 2019, while working on an ultimately successful ballot initiative, Reform LA Jails collected more than $1.4 million in contributions. More than half was paid out to just four recipients. The group sent more than $270,000 to Bowers’s consulting company, as well as some $211,000 to Asha Bandele, a friend of Cullors’s who co-wrote her memoir. About $205,000 went to a company Cullors operates with her spouse, Janaya & Patrisse Consulting. And about $86,000 was paid to Trap Heals LLC, an entertainment, clothing, and consulting company started by Damon Turner, the father of Patrisse Cullors’s child.
Bowers has signed tax documents as the deputy executive director of BLMGNF, and he is the treasurer of Black Lives Matter PAC. In 2020, the PAC paid Trap Heals nearly $150,000 for production work on the livestream of an Election Day event. That’s more than BLMGNF has paid for all of its Facebook ads promoting civil rights. (Bowers and Turner did not respond to requests for comment.)
I described the activity to Jeffrey Tenenbaum, a nonprofit lawyer in Washington, D.C., with nearly three decades of experience. “The transactions at issue certainly raise eyebrows and potential red flags,” he said, cautioning that he was offering a general assessment of the law in this area and hadn’t reviewed the details of the transactions. He said they could run afoul of state and federal prohibitions on self-dealing and transactions among related parties.
The deals could have reasonable explanations. Close interactions among people in the nonprofit world are inevitable, especially in a niche like racial justice, compliance experts say. Kevin Scally, an executive at Charity Navigator, an organization that assesses thousands of nonprofits, says that groups are best off practicing “radical transparency” when they are under intense scrutiny and have experienced public conflict. Cullors and her network of contacts have a paltry record of disclosure, and they often attack the motives of those who criticize — or even question — them on financial matters. Bandele, for example, said it was “sexist” and “racist” for me to ask about the spending of Reform LA Jails in 2019. (For the record, I am a Black man, raised by a single Black woman, and police have pointed guns at me.)
The lack of transparency creates an opening for political opponents. In April, the New York Post reported that between 2016 and 2021, Cullors purchased four homes worth nearly $3 million, fueling speculation that she was using the Black Lives Matter movement to enrich herself. There is no evidence that Cullors used money sent to BLMGNF to purchase personal property, and a spokesperson told the paper that she had received only $120,000 in compensation between 2013 and 2018 and was not paid a salary from 2019 on. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cullors noted that she has multiple outside sources of income, including two book contracts, a media-production deal, and paid speaking arrangements. (She also described media coverage of her purchases as not just “a character assassination campaign but a campaign to actually get me assassinated.”) As a rebuttal of the Post story’s more sinister implications, it’s persuasive. But touting her many avenues for earning money sits poorly with some in the movement who have lost the most.
One of the costliest consequences of poor transparency is that relatively small disputes can explode into public dramas that threaten to undermine the greater cause. On July 25, 2016, police officers in Watts shot and killed 18-year-old Richard Risher, and afterward, Risher’s mother, Lisa Simpson, got involved with the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter. At one protest, Simpson and other activists camped out in front of Los Angeles City Hall to call for the resignation of the police chief. Melina Abdullah — a co-founder of Black Lives Matter L.A. and a co-director of BLM Grassroots, a tier of officially recognized chapters — stood next to Simpson and gave a passionate speech calling on people to donate $5,000 to help pay for Risher’s funeral. “The last thing a grieving mother needs to be thinking about is how she is going to pay for her son’s funeral,” Abdullah said. “To even speak those words is a trauma every single time.”
Simpson says she never received any funeral money from the organization. She’s currently paying week-to-week to rent a room in a motel for herself and her 13-year-old child. Although her dispute involved the Los Angeles branch of Black Lives Matter, she named Patrisse Cullors and other activists at the national tier in the public letter that she wrote with Samaria Rice in March 2021. “We never hired them to be the representatives in the fight for justice for our dead loved ones murdered by the police,” the mothers wrote. “The ‘activists’ have events in our cities and have not given us anything substantial for using our loved ones’ images and names on their flyers.”
The day after Simpson and Rice released their letter, Abdullah posted an Instagram video saying that the cause of Black Lives Matter was under threat. “We are all part of a movement that is having an effect, that is in the midst of toppling the evil that is white supremacy,” she said. “And we are winning. And so when they come for us, when they try to criminalize us, when they try to threaten our safety, and when they try to discredit us, that’s because we’re winning.” She didn’t name Rice or Simpson, but some interpreted it as a direct response, and Simpson took offense. No one could oppose the racial-justice movement, Abdullah said at another point, “unless they work for the state or are driven by ego.” Three weeks later, Simpson went to a Black Lives Matter event in downtown Los Angeles, where she shouted profanities and homophobic slurs. “Black Lives Matter is crooks!” she yelled.
“Y’all out here false-flagging in this fight,” Simpson says. “They putting hashtags on our kids, and y’all not even helping us. We homeless, and we can’t get no type of help from this entity.”
Celina, the longtime Los Angeles organizer, finds it rich that Abdullah was recently featured in Levi’s “Beauty of Becoming” marketing campaign. “I think it is important, concerning Black Lives Matter, that they more or less be identified as capitalists,” she says. She references a report by The Nation a decade ago that found a Levi’s contractor had worked to kill a minimum-wage law in Haiti. “They’re vindicated from their role in undermining the demand of Haitian folks in sweatshops for a living wage,” Celina says, “and meanwhile, these BLM folks are claiming to be Marxists and socialists.”
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. “They’re trying to sell people that freedom is easy. You see? You can’t sell police predation and violence as easy.”
In May 2021, not long after the Post story about her home purchases, Cullors announced that she was resigning as BLMGNF’s executive director. Makani Themba, the chief strategist at a Mississippi social-justice consultancy, and Monifa Bandele, then the chief operating officer at the Time’s Up Foundation, were named as her successors. Months later, Themba posted to Twitter that she and Bandele had never actually accepted the jobs: “We were not able to come to an agreement with the acting Leadership Council about our scope of work and authority. As a result we did not have the opportunity to serve in this capacity.”
It is unclear who is currently leading the organization. “The buck has to stop somewhere,” says Vernetta Walker, the CEO of a nonprofits consultancy, who calls herself the Governance Gladiator. “Donors, when they give money to a tax-exempt organization, it is to help further a purpose. And if you’re saying there is no one steering the ship, those funds will dry up pretty quickly, or they should.”
It’s also no longer clear how many chapters Black Lives Matter has, official or otherwise. In the fall of 2020, as the group of ten chapters prepared to issue its call for greater transparency in November 2020, all chapter names were removed from the Black Lives Matter website. A spokesperson for the ten chapters, Kelly Davidson, declined to comment for this article but wrote in an email that discussion of the dispute “does not move the movement forward and it also leads to more harassment and Internet chatter when Patrisse and the global network is the topic of discussion.” The end of February will mark a year since BLMGNF last published details of its finances.
In Huntington Beach, Tory Johnson’s counterprotest was a success: Hundreds turned out to show their support for Black lives, greatly outnumbering the white supremacists. But he is still hurting from BLMGNF’s decision to speak out against him. At the time, when people asked him how they could contribute to the cause financially, Johnson sent them to the Global Network’s website. He wanted to err on the side of caution. Because he had no official tie to the organization, he was afraid that collecting money himself might somehow be wrong.
Since the rally, Johnson has managed to make ends meet, but he’s behind on rent and not sure how long he’ll be able to stay in his apartment. Without the backing of a larger entity, he’s worried about what he’ll do if he experiences some kind of trouble.
He sounds disgusted when he hears about the fund-raising levels BLMGNF has achieved over the years and the comfort experienced by the few at the top. “I don’t tell people what I’m actually going through,” he says. “I don’t tell people how stressed I actually am. But, you know, I actually have to live through all of this.” He pauses to clear his head, and offers a final thought: “They got rich off my back.”
*This article has been corrected to show that UGG is based in California.