The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has sparked protests around the world in response to the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed by police during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota on the 25th of May 2020. Floyd’s death was a reminder of the racial-ethnic divide not only in North America, USA and Canada, but also in the United Kingdom where protests are still taken place in the month of June.
BLM started as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, an off-duty white community police officer who shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, in Florida in 2013. Soon to be co-founder, Alicia Garza took to Facebook to write a long post which ended with the statement, ‘Black Lives Matter’. BLM became a movement when another unarmed teenager, Mike Brown, was shot multiple times in Ferguson Missouri. This led to protest world-wide, as well as BLM’s first organisational work, Ferguson Freedom Rides labour day weekend. By 2015, BLM became a chapter-based organisation. According to Alicia Garza, ‘the genesis of the organisation was the people who organised in their cities for the ride to Ferguson…. those people pushed us to create a chapter structure. They wanted to continue to do this work together and be connected to activists and organisers from across the country’.
The message of BLM is quite familiar from the 1960’s and 1970’s protest of the Civil Rights Movement Era, in particular, the Black Power protests. The slogan “Black Power” is revolutionary in itself. It was the first time Black individuals ‘tried to hold America accountable to its most democratic promises and dared to suggest that justice for black people would be the beginning of a radical overhaul that would free everyone at the bottom of society.(1) In this sense, the legacy of black power is seen in BLM as millions of people have taken to the streets and online social networking sites in solidarity against police violence towards black people.
Leaderful Practices in a Leaderful Movement
One of the most criticized parts of BLM is the organisational structure. The co-founders advocate for group leadership, one that forgoes a central figurehead leader to make decisions on behalf of the group or to represent it. In fact, the BLM national website states that there is a leaderful structure where there are many leaders within the organisation. According to an interview with Patrisse Cullors in 2016, ‘the consequence of focussing on a leader is that you develop a necessity for that leader to be the one who’s the spokesperson and the organiser, who tells the masses where to go, rather than the masses understanding that we can catalyse a movement in our own community’.
BLM’s organisational structure challenges the narrative of having a top-down, male dominated leadership structure. However, many conflicts have arisen as it is often difficult to identify whether actions are related to BLM, or not, as different individuals and groups use the name. The biggest contributors to this confusion are the media who often mistake anyone representing BLM with the global BLM network. Hence, there are groups ‘with no connection to the network’s chapter structure or its leadership, and no connection to the myriad organizations that legitimately fall under its larger banner’.(2) This results in many fluctuations as to what BLM stands and individuals appropriating the movement’s stance without understanding the movement.
Contrary to belief, however, there is an organisational structure that exists where prospective chapters must submit to and assessment, and they must commit to the organisation’s guiding principles in order to be affiliated with the national organisation. These 13 guiding principles describe how the organisation is committed to creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive. This includes restorative justice, Empathy, Loving Engagement, Diversity, Globalism, Queer Affirming, Trans Affirming, Collective Value, Intergenerational, Black Families, Unapologetically Black, and Black Women.
In addition, if you are an affiliated chapter you are listed on the BLM website. Currently, there are 15 affiliated chapters listed on the BLM website. In 2018, BLM’s four year report listed over forty affiliated chapters with some about to join. There could be many reasons as to why there are fewer chapters today and there is a possibility in the coming weeks that these chapters may resurface. I argue that the current wave of protest has sparked up a new generation of leaders who could potentially look for ties to the global BLM network and or take up leadership roles that were once formed in inactive affiliated chapters.
Perhaps, a suggestion would be to not criticize BLM’s leadership structure, but to embrace this leadership style that has in fact benefited the global BLM organisation in many ways. One particular issue is understanding the funding within the global BLM network. In social movement scholarship, much attention has been given to how movements use social media for mobilisation including the impact of funding through online communities. However, other forms of resources are neglected through movement studies although it is important to understand all forms of resources especially in a social movement organisation like BLM that tends to have supporters globally.
One current example has been the release of the Netflix original movie called ‘Da 5 Blood’s with Academy Award Black Director Spike Lee paying tribute to Black Lives Matter. The movie is based on a Vietnam war story about the Black experience that follows a group of four middle ages Black veterans returning to present day Vietnam to recover the body of their fallen captain and buried treasure they left behind during the war. In a short scene, a man in a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt announces the donation to a crowd of organisers, who cheer and chant ‘Black Lives Matter’. This less than a minute scene capitalizes on the current donations being offered to BLM. In essence, the understanding of resources is much needed in social movement scholarship as many studies lack the knowledge or understanding of resources in a decentralised social movement.
My research focuses on the global BLM network decentralised leadership style. Since affiliated BLM chapters are autonomous to the national BLM organisation, I look at both the national and chapter level leadership structure. I was particularly interested in the resources allocated to the global BLM network at the national and chapter level. From my analysis, I knew there was greater complexity with the current wave of money being pledge to not only the global BLM network but to other racial justice organisations.
Significantly, the new wave of BLM protest has led me to further identity the complexities of resources allocated to BLM at all levels including those who use the BLM name but are not affiliated to the organisation.
What Am I Funding?
What makes the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest different from before is the movement holding institutions and businesses accountable to its action in this “called out culture”. For instance, on the 2nd of June 2020, the hashtag (#) Blackout Tuesday dominated social media as millions of users took part in posting Black squares replacing the usual barrage of colourful posts and paid-for-ads. Moreover, many businesses began to take part in Blackout Tuesday as well. This led to institutions, businesses, and individuals pledging solidarity with the BLM movement by pledging a diversity package to hire more racial ethnic minorities to their companies. This included Apple pledging $100 million, Google committing to $12 million, Target, announced a $10 million commitment and many other companies as well as celebrities have donated money to racial injustice companies.
In the United Kingdom (UK), the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has pledge £124m towards creative diversity. In addition, footballers have kneeled to stand in solidarity with BLM as well as wear the BLM symbol on their team jerseys. There is also a debate on the English rugby union supporters to stop using ‘The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ song, out of respect to its historical context of opposition to slavery (the song is often accompanied by homophobic gestures). The British Prime Minister insisted that there should not be ‘any sort of prohibition’ on singing the song’. He further states that what ‘people need to do is focus less on the symbols of discrimination’.
For the most part, Blackout Tuesday fuelled many conversations about racial justice through online and offline activism, yet, BLM’s leadership is still questioned. Many people would assume Blackout Tuesday was an organisational tool for individuals to stand in solidarity with BLM. However, some BLM members took to their social media site to urge users to stop posting black squares under the (#) BLM name as it is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information members are using on the ground and online. In addition, GoFundMe froze $350,000 in donations to unaffiliated Black Lives Matter chapters. The representative for GoFundMe stated all funds are on hold as they are working with the campaign organisers to ensure all of the money raised is transferred to the Black Lives Matter movement via their fiscal sponsor. The global BLM network fiscal sponsor is Thousand Currents, which provides the legal and administrative framework to enable BLM to fulfil its mission.
Further, there is a Black Lives Matter Foundation, a separate independent 501 (C) (3) non-profit, which has no affiliation to the actual BLM Global Network. Many donors have mistakenly donated to Black Lives Matter Foundation although the organisations have very different goals. The founder of Black Lives Matter Foundation, Robert Ray has stressed that their agenda is to have unity with the police department.
From the above, there are some issues within the global BLM network,. However, millions of dollars have been pledged to groups focusing on social and racial justice. Funding may not solve all the problems, but it can in fact help with building the organisation platform within the racial ethnic communities that are disproportional disadvantage in many areas. This includes using the funding to secure a bailout fund, voter register drives, community programs for youth and adults, conferences and many other community projects that have taken place in affiliated BLM chapters.
1. Spencer, R.C., 2016. The revolution has come: Black power, gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Duke University Press.
2. Ransby, B., 2018. Making all black lives matter: Reimagining freedom in the twenty-first century(Vol. 6). Univ of California Press.
Ashley Cole @AshleyCherCole is currently writing up her PhD thesis on decentralised leadership in the Black Lives Matter Chapter-Based Organisation at Birmingham City University.