LOS ANGELES – No, insists Patrisse Cullors, former head of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation: Despite allegations of financial irregularities, neither she nor anyone else in the leadership have misappropriated millions of dollars in donations.
However, in an interview with The Associated Press, Cullors acknowledged that BLM was ill-prepared to handle a tidal wave of donations following the 2020 protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. She said the foundation was slow to build up the necessary groundwork.
She and others offered insights into the growing pains of an organization that went from idea to global brand in almost no time.
“It looks crazy on paper,” she said. “We often use this term in our movement, meaning we build the plane as we fly it. I don’t believe in that anymore. The only thing I regret about BLM is that I wish we could have taken a year or two off to just not do any work and just focus on infrastructure.”
Recent revelations that the foundation paid $6 million for a Los Angeles site in 2020 sparked a flurry of criticism and chatter on social media. The Studio City property — including a six-bedroom, six-bathroom home, swimming pool, sound stage and office space — is intended to be both a meeting place and campus for black artists.
Some criticism has come from BLM supporters such as Justin Hansford, director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. He said the property purchase could be armed by opponents of the movement, which could make potential donors shy away from Black-run social justice organizations: “That’s the thing you don’t want to let get out of hand.”
Cullors defended the purchase. “We really wanted to make sure the global network foundation had an asset that wasn’t just financial resources,” she said, “and we understood that not many Black-run organizations own property. They do not own their property.”
Cullors said she made mistakes and even made some regrettable decisions that didn’t inspire confidence. She acknowledged that she had twice used the BLM property for personal purposes.
But the 38-year-old bestselling author and artist angrily and adamantly denied allegations that she personally benefited from the six years she ran the BLM Foundation, including media reports that she had bought homes for herself and her family members.
“The idea that[the foundation]received millions of dollars and then I hid those dollars in my bank account is dead wrong,” she said. “It’s a false narrative. It affected me personally and professionally that people would accuse me of stealing from black people.”
BLM first appeared as a Twitter hashtag following the acquittal in 2013 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 surge into the political arena.
Along with BLM co-founders Alicia Garza and Ayọ Tometi, Cullors pledged to build a decentralized movement ruled by consensus. As donations and support grew, a number of local BLM chapters transformed into nonprofit organizations.
The BLM protests in the summer following 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 this year, with the task of ensuring it had the organizational infrastructure to handle the massive influx of donations and would use the resources to further its mission.
A little over a year ago, the foundation announced a $90 million fundraiser. This announcement prompted sharp criticism over access to fundraising, as well as wider calls for openness from activists in several local BLM chapters and from the families of victims of police brutality who had joined the movement.
Cullors acknowledged that a lack of transparency around the foundation’s board and staffing led to a perception that things were not right. And when the organization was transparent – revealing it had raised millions – the response wasn’t what it expected.
“I thought practicing radical transparency with black people would have gone down well,” she said. “What didn’t help about the release was that we didn’t get enough people to band together for it. We weren’t the only organization to receive millions of dollars.”
Then Cullors resigned as director of the foundation to work on personal projects — a departure that had been long-planned and had nothing to do with alleged shortcomings, she said.
In addition to promoting her latest book, An Abolitionist’s Handbook: 12 Steps to Changing Yourself and the World, Cullors is focusing on Crenshaw Dairy Mart. It’s a former Los Angeles supermarket-turned-artist collective and gallery, which overlaps with their criminal justice activism. Cullors is also in a multi-year program development deal with Warner Bros.
In the year since her resignation, the BLM Foundation has not hired new leadership or publicly discussed plans for money remaining in its coffers.
Two veteran civil rights activists who were announced as interim executives for the foundation last May said they never began to serve in that capacity, citing in a statement a failure to reach an agreement with the BLM Board of Directors on the scope of their work and decision-making authority.
Just earlier this month, the foundation announced a new board, which executives say will grow in the coming months.
And just recently, the foundation caught up on its financial records: In California, where it was found to be in default in filing required disclosures for charitable causes beginning in 2020, the state register of charitable foundations now shows the foundation is current.
Records show a small number of individuals responsible for the foundation. A 990 filing filed with the IRS for January through June 2020 lists Cullors as the unpaid director and sole employee of the foundation. At the time, still under the tax stewardship 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, who is president of Bowers Consulting, a firm that has provided operational support to the BLM Foundation for two years.
In a telephone interview, Bowers said the organization has been working to get its infrastructure in order since Cullors left. He said the organization has undergone an independent financial audit which, along with the expected release of its latest 990 filing in May, will show that “nothing improper or reprehensible has happened” to BLM’s finances.
“We are now a foundation that is deeply committed to investing in organizations that are dedicated to the work of abolishing abolition (and) building black power,” he said.
Cullors is far from the only black activist to withstand questions about her money, motivations and leadership. Elders in the civil rights struggle often speak of attacks, both inside and outside the movement, aimed at discrediting or halting social change.
On Saturday, Candace Owens, the black conservative political pundit and opponent of the BLM movement, arrived uninvited with a camera crew at Cullor’s Los Angeles home. In an Instagram video shared with millions of followers, Owens said she was there to film a documentary on BLM’s finances and to ask questions about the foundation’s property (which isn’t at the same address as the home from Cullors).
“The constant harassment, online and offline, that I have experienced is unacceptable and dangerous,” Cullors said.
Still, legitimate accountability issues should not be dismissed, said Garza, the BLM co-founder who was no longer involved with the BLM organization after 2015.
“I think it’s important to be transparent about what’s actually happening,” Garza said. “And my assessment is that because there was no response (to public questions), particularly from the global network foundation, it allowed people to fill in the gaps.”
She added: “If there is inappropriateness (in the foundation) then we should talk about it. I don’t think we should sweep that under the rug, but we didn’t find that out.”
Cullors knows she gave critics a shot when she issued a statement dismissing suggestions that she had lived on the Studio City property or used it for personal gain. She later admitted to the AP that during a four-day stay at the property, she used the premises for non-business purposes only.
She said that in January 2021, while taking refuge amid threats to her life at the property, she threw a small party to celebrate the inaugurations of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. About 15 people attended the gathering, 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 intends to pay a rental fee to the foundation. The foundation confirmed it had billed her and said it was reviewing its policies to prevent such uses in the future.
Cullors later said she shouldn’t have used the property like that.
“I look back on it and I think that probably wasn’t the best idea,” she said.
AP writer Donald Thompson in Sacramento contributed.
Morrison is a New York-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.
https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/05/09/the-ap-interview-blms-patrisse-cullors-denies-wrongdoing/ BLM’s Patrisse Cullors denies wrongdoing