Posted on December 15, 2020

Six Months After Mass Protests Began, What Is the Future of BLM?

The Economist, December 12, 2020

“When there’s a chance to make change, we must be ready to take it,” says YahNé Ndgo, a singer and activist with Philadelphia’s chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM). Events over the past six months, she says, have brought a rare chance to shape national affairs. Protests flared across America after footage spread of the death of George Floyd, an African-American who was choked for nearly nine minutes by a policeman in Minneapolis in May. By one count over 8,500 civil-rights demonstrations have taken place since.


Does this amount to a new wave for the civil-rights movement? BLM looked bereft before the summer. Several activists say the national part of their movement had lost its way. Ms Ndgo, who is critical of national leaders, says it had become “a shambles”. Local chapters were passionate, but focused mostly on holding rallies in response to violent incidents by police. BLM boasted of its grass-roots organising and decentralised, leaderless structure. But critics say that proved messy, bureaucratic, slow-moving and ineffective.

Patrisse Cullors (pictured), one of BLM’s three co-founders, bluntly blamed her movement’s “half-drawn blueprints and road maps that led to untenable ends”, as well as its lack of funds and vision. Black people, she wrote in September, had “paid dearly” for these shortcomings. Better focus and organisation were needed.

Some of that has changed. {snip} Within a month of the protests, BLM’s national network had to scramble to offer a first round of $6.5m in grants—far more than ever before—to city chapters, gay-rights groups and others.

{snip} Vastly larger promises and sums followed as employee and corporate donors, as well as rich individuals, joined the gift-giving. Donations to BLM-related causes since May were $10.6bn. Exact sums received will be known when the central body overseeing BLM spending publishes its finances (confusingly it relies on another entity, a “fiscal sponsor”, the Tides Foundation, to oversee its books). A leading figure talks of “incredible financial growth and capacity”, and a huge surge in “the number of folks who want to throw down with us”, meaning long-term partners.

Another change, the restructuring of BLM, could turn out to be just as significant: power is to be centralised. Ms Cullors has stood up as the boss of BLM’s Global Network Foundation, which she calls the “umbrella organisation” for the whole movement. In taking responsibility, as she says, for the “onus of our successes and failures”, she appears to be claiming leadership of the once leaderless movement.

That is because the foundation will control funds, dishing them out to officially recognised BLM city chapters through another new body called BLM Grassroots. The foundation is also moving away from doing mostly on-the-ground work. For example, it is pressing Congress to pass legislation, known as the Breathe Act, that would order a big increase in federal spending on public housing. {snip}


All that is appealing if the movement is to be more effective than just a protest outfit. But the changes have upset radicals, such as those who prefer the idea of abolishing capitalism over making banks work better, or who reject electoral politics as intrinsically ineffective. On November 30th representatives of ten city chapters, including large ones from Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia and Washington, said they rejected the recent changes as an undemocratic, secretive power-grab done without the backing of most BLM members.


The schism between the two camps is unlikely to end, but it is also doubtful that the disgruntled ten chapters can lure more to their camp. Nobody owns the BLM trademark. Nor can anyone say convincingly what counts as an official chapter of the movement. That means both camps are free to go on operating. Much will depend on who has more resources to help activists or mount bigger campaigns. If the money keeps flowing to the foundation that Ms Cullors runs, then her more-organised vision for BLM may emerge stronger.