Ferguson tried to warn us.
For America, Ferguson, Missouri, has always been a barometer of Black life. During the 1960s, when race relations in the country were frayed, Ferguson was a sundown town where Black people dared not drive once nighttime came. By the time Michael Brown walked into the convenience store on Aug. 9, 2014, Ferguson demographics had shifted entirely. White flight changed the St. Louis suburb to roughly 67% Black, and Brown committed the egregious sin of walking in the street while melanated. An encounter with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would leave Brown dead, and the next night, Ferguson was on fire.
The protests were as violent as Brown’s killing, and out of the ashes came this message: There would be no more Black death without consequences. You will feel us now.
Darren Seals tried to warn us.
“BLACK DEATH IS A BUSINESS.” That was how Seals, a former Ferguson activist, used to make sense of the financial windfall and the galvanization of Black faces that converged on his city shortly after Brown’s death.
Seals would argue that Black Lives Matter as an organization was nothing more than a money grab with a catchy hashtag used to seize the moment and capitalize on Black pain. Seals would argue, before his untimely and horrific death, that these people weren’t with Ferguson from the beginning, so why were they here now?
During one of his videotaped messages, he had this to say about the group: “This Black Lives Matter shit is blowing up and as it’s blowing up, you’re not hearing about Mike Brown anymore. … All you’re hearing about is Black Lives Matter now. They took the energy away from Ferguson.”
“Cops ain’t stopped killing here since Mike Brown died, and what Black Lives Matter doing about it? They just collecting checks. I ain’t heard of them paying for no funerals. I ain’t heard of them starting no programs for the youth, building no centers. Nothing. So we back at square one, back where we started. No justice, no nothing.”
Ferguson tried to warn us that the Black Lives Matter organization was not the sacred cow that it appeared to be. Since the hashtag’s founding in 2013 by three Black women — Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — as an answer to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, there have been questions surrounding money. Garza and Tometi are not affiliated with the business side of Black Lives Matter, but they do host speaking engagements on behalf of the hashtag. Garza heads Black Futures Lab, and Tometi founded Diaspora Rising, which calls itself a Black new media and advocacy hub, according to The Associated Press. Only Cullors was affiliated with the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation until May 2021.
So let me try and explain it so it all makes sense: Cullors, Garza and Tometi created the hashtag that would later go on to encapsulate the movement. Cullors would go on to head the foundation. But there are also local Black Lives Matter groups that aren’t affiliated with the foundation, which appears to be the national organization that’s raking in all the money.
And that is where the story about stories begins. There have been stories, several of them, wondering where all of the donations have gone. In 2020 after George Floyd’s death shook the nation to its core, the Black Lives Matter foundation took in $90 million. There have been questions surrounding what the money was spent on, if anything, and how that helps the community the organization has mined.
And then there was a bombshell dropped earlier this week that the foundation took some $6 million of donation money to secretly buy a mansion. And not just any mansion: a spread in Southern California with “more than 6,500 square feet, more than half a dozen bedrooms and bathrooms, several fireplaces, a soundstage, a pool and bungalow, and parking for more than 20 cars,” according to New York Magazine, which broke the news. Because everyone knows that the Movement for Black Lives — a movement that rose to prominence on the deaths of unarmed Black men, women and children by police — needs multiple fireplaces.
This latest news comes after a 2021 report that Cullors purchased four homes throughout the U.S. for some $3.2 million. Cullors would later announce that she was stepping down from her position at the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.
What is telling here is that somewhere between the fight for Black lives and the pull of celebrity, things changed, lines got crossed, and accountability and transparency got skewed. In a lengthy Instagram post, Cullors argues that the magazine’s reporting on the purchase of a secret mansion is both “sexist” and “racist,” but she doesn’t explain how. This is actually a common refrain from the former foundation head whenever confronted with questions about finances, or really anything for that matter, and it works like this: You either fully accept everything happening within the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, which apparently includes filming a cooking show using the mansion’s kitchen, or you are a tool of white supremacy being used to shut down one of the largest Black organizations fighting for Black life.
She claims that the mansion was purchased as a “space where those within the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF) and broader movement community could work, create content, host meetings and foster creativity.” So it was basically a WeWork for BLM, although no one can point to any work that was actually done there. Cullors also noted that she is no longer affiliated with the foundation but did claim that all of this would be cleared up once the organization releases its tax documents ― which, according to the original report, never mentioned the SoCal mansion.
Earlier this year, New York Magazine found that Cullors’ connections to other fundraising efforts runs deep. One group she’s been linked to is Reform LA Jails, which reportedly collected more than $1.4 million in 2019. From the January article:
“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.”
The group also reportedly sent “some $211,000 to Asha Bandele, a friend of Cullors’s who co-wrote her memoir,” and another $270,000 to the consulting company of Christman Bowers, who “has signed tax documents as the deputy executive director” of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation ― which reportedly had $60 million in the bank as of early 2021.
None of this is to claim that there was any wrongdoing on the part of Reform LA, Cullors, or anyone else affiliated with those organizations, as they were most likely paid for their work, but it does point to profit being made off of Black death. This is the byproduct of Black death when there is no one there to shepherd the guilt payoff. And that’s exactly what it is, a payoff to absolve companies for not caring before Black death became national news.
With the advent of the Black Lives Matter foundation and other organizations like it, companies now have a place where they can dump money or create partnerships and absolve themselves of their corporate responsibility. Black Lives Matter Inc. is a business, and the business appears to be coddling those complicit in Black death. No longer do companies need to atone for their wayward hiring practices or for collectively turning away from the killings of Black men, women and children. Now, they can be completely absolved with a hefty donation to the movement.
Like when the footwear company Ugg and the Hammer Museum sponsored Cullors to throw what can only be called the dumbest dance party ever, titled “F*ck White Supremacy, Let’s Get Free” — which featured a call for everyone to Electric Slide white supremacy away.
But Samaria Rice and Mike Brown Sr. and several other parents who lost their children to police violence tried to warn us that the trickle-down financial effects of the Black Lives Matter movement weren’t reaching any of those suffering through the loss of their loved ones.
After learning that the Black Lives Matter foundation received some $90 million in donations, Brown Sr. and other activists demanded a share of the proceeds.
“We’re asking that Black Lives Matter leadership funds $20 million to Ferguson organizers, organizations, and community foundations to do the work,” said Tory Russell, co-founder of the International Black Freedom Alliance, in a video with Brown Sr. “We’re not begging for a handout; we’re coming for what we deserve.”
“What kind of movement are we building where we’re saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ but the freedom fighters and the families are being left behind?” Russell said. “Where’s our restitution? Where’s our organizing? Where’s our building of a movement?”
As of last year, Brown Sr. said he had only received $500 from any Black Lives Matter organization despite the millions of dollars raised in his son’s name.
Meanwhile, Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, responded to news of the $6 million mansion in a Facebook post: “Smdh. I tried to tell you all. People will use your pain for their own gain and really think it’s OK.”
Later that same day she posted: “My baby boy needs justice. He’s not your hustle.”
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