Posted on February 1, 2022

The Murky Finances of Black Lives Matter

Sean Campbell, New York Magazine, January 31, 2022

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. {snip}


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.


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.)