Black Lives Matter’s $6M Studio City home puts executives on the defensive

LOS ANGELES, CA – No, insists Patrisse Cullors, former leader of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation: Despite allegations of financial irregularities, neither she nor anyone else in leadership misused millions of dollars in donations .

But in an interview with The Associated Press, Cullors acknowledged that BLM was ill-prepared to handle a tidal wave of contributions following protests over the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. said the foundation was slow to build. the necessary basics.

She and others offered insight into the pains of growing an organization that went from an idea to a global brand, almost in an instant.

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“On paper, it sounds crazy,” she said. “We use that term a lot in our movement, meaning we build the plane by flying it. I don’t believe in it anymore. The only regret I have with BLM is wishing we could have take a break for one to two years, do nothing and just focus on infrastructure.”

Recent revelations that the foundation paid $6 million for a Los Angeles resort in 2020 sparked a torrent of criticism and chatter on social media. The Studio City property — featuring a house with six bedrooms and bathrooms, a swimming pool, a sound stage and offices — is meant to be both a meeting place and a campus for black artists.

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A Google Maps image of the Laurel Canyon home that was allegedly purchased by Black Lives Matter for $6 million.

Some criticism has come from BLM supporters like Justin Hansford, director of Howard University’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. He said buying the property could be weaponized by opponents of the movement, causing potential donors to turn away from black-led social justice organizations: “That’s the thing you don’t want not lose sight of.”

Cullors defended the purchase. “We really wanted to make sure that the global network foundation had an asset that wasn’t just financial resources,” she said, “and we understood that few Black-led organizations have property. They do not own their property.”

Cullors said she made mistakes and even regrettable choices that didn’t foster trust. She admitted to using the BLM property twice for personal gain.

But the 38-year-old best-selling author and artist has angrily and categorically denied accusations she personally benefited from during the six years she led the BLM foundation, including media reports that she bought homes for her himself and his family members.

“The idea that (the foundation) received millions of dollars and then I hid those dollars in my bank account is absolutely false,” she said. “It’s a false narrative. It hurt me personally and professionally, that people accuse me of stealing from black people.”

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BLM first appeared as a Twitter hashtag after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. The following year, the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, saw the movement emerge into the political realm.

Along with BLM co-founders Alicia Garza and Ayọ Tometi, Cullors is committed to building a decentralized movement governed by consensus. As donations and support grew, an array of local BLM chapters transitioned into a nonprofit organization.

The BLM protests the summer after Floyd’s death in May 2020 became the largest mobilization of a movement in US history. Cullors said she became the foundation’s full-time executive director that year, responsible for ensuring it had the organizational infrastructure to handle the massive influx of donations and that it would use the resources to pursue its mission.

A little over a year ago, the foundation announced a fundraising of 90 million dollars. The announcement prompted sharp criticism over access to donor funds, as well as broader calls for openness from activists from several local BLM chapters and families of victims of police brutality who had rallied At the move.

Cullors acknowledged that a lack of transparency about the foundation’s board and staff led to the perception that things were not right. And when the organization was transparent – ​​revealing that it had raised millions – the reaction was not what it expected.

“I thought practicing radical transparency with black people would have been well received,” she said. “What didn’t help getting it published was that there aren’t enough people allying with us on this. We weren’t the only organization that got millions of dollars. .”

Then Cullors resigned as director of the foundation to work on personal projects – a departure that was long overdue and unrelated to any alleged impropriety, she said.

In addition to promoting his latest book, “An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World,” Cullors is focusing on the Crenshaw Dairy Mart. He’s a former convenience store in Los Angeles that has been turned into an artists’ collective and gallery, which intersects with his activism on criminal justice issues. Cullors is also well into a multi-year programming development deal with Warner Bros.

In the year since his resignation, the BLM foundation has not hired new leaders or publicly discussed plans for cash still in its coffers.

Two veteran civil rights organizers who were announced last May as the foundation’s interim top executives said they never began serving in that capacity, citing in a statement the inability to reach a agreement with the BLM Board of Directors on the scope of their work and their decision-making. authority.

It was only earlier this month that the foundation announced a new board, which executives say will expand in the coming months.

And only recently has the foundation caught up on its financial filings: In California, where it was found to be behind in submitting required charity disclosures from 2020, the state’s charitable trust registry now shows that the foundation is up to date.

Records show a small number of people responsible for the foundation. A 990 filing submitted to the IRS from January to June 2020 lists Cullors as an unpaid executive director and sole employee of the foundation. At that time, still under the fiscal sponsorship of a well-established charity, the BLM Foundation reported no income, assets, contributions or expenses.

The filing lists only two board members, including Shalomyah Bowers, president of Bowers Consulting, a company that has provided operational support to the BLM foundation for two years.

In a phone interview, Bowers said the organization has been working since Cullors’ departure to sort out its infrastructure. He said the organization had undergone an independent financial audit which, along with the expected release in May of its latest 990 filing, will show that “nothing unacceptable or harmful has happened” with BLM’s finances.

“We are now a foundation that is deeply dedicated to investing in organizations that are committed to doing the work of abolition (and) that are committed to building black power,” he said.

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Cullors is far from the only black activist to resist questions about her money, motives and leadership. Civil rights elders often speak of attacks, both inside and outside the movement, intended to discredit or halt social change.

On Saturday, Candace Owens, the black conservative political pundit and opponent of the BLM movement, arrived uninvited with a camera crew at Cullors’ Los Angeles-area home. In an Instagram video shared with millions of followers, Owens said she was there to film a documentary about BLM’s finances and ask questions about the foundation’s ownership (which isn’t at the same address as Cullors house).

“The constant harassment, online and offline, that I have experienced is unacceptable and dangerous,” Cullors said.

Still, legitimate questions of liability shouldn’t be discounted, said Garza, the BLM co-founder who hasn’t been involved with the BLM organization after 2015.

“I think it’s important to be transparent about what’s really going on,” Garza said. “And my assessment is that because there was a lack of response (to questions from the audience), especially from the global network foundation, it allowed people to fill in the blanks.”

She added: “If there’s an irregularity (in the foundation), we should talk about it. I don’t think we should sweep that under the rug, but we haven’t established it.”

Cullors knows she gave an opening to criticism when she released a statement denying suggestions that she had lived on the Studio City property or enjoyed it for personal gain. She later admitted to the AP that, during a four-day stay at the property, she used the compound for purposes that weren’t strictly business.

She said that in January 2021, while seeking refuge in the property amid threats to her life, she threw a small party to celebrate the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The rally included about 15 people, including members of the BLM Los Angeles chapter and other prominent supporters of the movement, she said.

And in March 2021, she hosted a private birthday party for her son at the property, for which Cullors said she intended to pay a rental fee to the foundation. The foundation confirmed that it charged him and said it was reviewing its policies to prevent such uses in the future.

Cullors said, in hindsight, she shouldn’t have used the property that way.

“I think back on it and I think it probably wasn’t the best idea,” she said.

By AARON MORRISON Associated Press