The Black Lives Matter movement’s history has become something of a legend in recent years. The grass roots protest group was started by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Trayvon Martin’s shooting death, but it did not become prominently known until after the Ferguson protests and the police shootings of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. Rumors spread that billionaire investor George Soros funded Black Lives Matter from the start, but while that’s not true, Soros’ actions did help the movement grow.
Black Lives Matter’s issues also grew since the shooting of Martin. While the movement is commonly associated with protesting cases where white police officers killed black people, their website states they are “broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.” They claim that “state violence” can be equated to diverse issues like black poverty, women’s rights, prison reform, black illegal immigrants, black LGBTQ issues, and black people with disabilities, who they claim “bear the burden of state sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by white supremacy.”
Otherwise, the Black Lives Matter’s history starts with social media and a hashtag. Cullors, Garza, and Tometi came up with #BlackLivesMatter as a way to bring attention to the deaths of black Americans only to have the concept take on a life of its own. Since the movement started as an idea rather than an organization, anyone could claim to be part of Black Lives Matter and represent its supporters. Similar to how the Tea Party movement started as a basic idea only to become organized into well-funded groups, this meant early Black Lives Matter supporters could maintain a diverse set of beliefs yet work together. But as time marched on, just like the Tea Party movement, a solid set of core ideas began to be espoused by those who took Black Lives Matter from a social media protest to an organization which forms rallies and protests across the United States.
The Ferguson protests were the catalyst which launched the previously unknown movement into the glare of the media lights. Some of the Black Lives Matter supporters were being paid $5,000 a month by Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), a Missouri group which came out of ACORN, an activist group driven to destruction by scandal. According to the CS Monitor, ACORN fell into financial ruin after the group was associated with President Obama and ACORN’s efforts to falsely register Democratic voters, among other allegations.
The reason the Black Lives Matter protesters made the news was because they were complaining that MORE had stopped paying them. In response, they started the #CutTheCheck social media trend and started protested at MORE’s office with a sit-in. As it so happens, George Soros was funding the MORE group, so indirectly they were funding the Black Lives Matter groups.
“Our DNA includes a belief that having people participate in government is indispensable to living in a more just, inclusive, democratic society,” said Kenneth Zimmerman, director of Soros’ Open Society Foundations. “Helping groups combine policy, research [and] data collection with community organizing feels very much the way our society becomes more accountable.”
Zimmerman called the Ferguson protests “spontaneous,” claiming that Soros’ money did not give them the “ability to control or dictate what others say or choose to say.” He also claims they “don’t fund protests, per se. In the way we do our grant making, we are continually looking for new voices. It’s a broad array of things—including both immigration and criminal justice reform.”
At the same time, the money provided the ability to organize grass roots organizations way beyond a social media uprising. At the time, Black Lives Matter was just one group among the many others crowding into Ferguson, Missouri, but the financial disagreement with MORE was a stepping stone toward becoming the umbrella group they are today.
One of the groups associated with Black Lives Matter, Millennial Activists United, wrote a letter in which they explained the situation from their viewpoint.
“Early in the movement, non-profit organization MORE, formerly known as the St. Louis chapter of ACORN, and local St. Louis organization Organization for Black Struggle created a joint account in which national donors from all over the world have donated over $150,000 to sustain the movement,” the letter stated, according to the Washington Times. “Since then, the poor black [sic] of this movement who served as cash generators to bring money into St. Louis have seen little to none of that money…. If black lives really matter, justice and self-determination for black people would mean the black community would control [its] own political and economic resources.”
One of the lessons the Black Lives Matter learned from this incident was that they needed to grow financial accountability from within. They also needed to funnel money “into this movement through the hands of black people who are fighting with and for black life.” As the group grew in its influence, George Soros conspiracy theories suggested the liberal investor had dropped millions directly into the hands of the group’s leaders. This was not true, since the Black Lives Matter founder did not directly receive any money from Soros or his organizations, but Soros had indeed given millions to a diverse set of liberal and progressive groups.
“I can’t really speculate on what leads to rumors, but it is wrong,” said Zimmerman when the Daily Beast asked about the rumor that Soros gave $33 million to fund Black Lives Matter. “I don’t even know where one begins to reconstruct something like that. How and where somebody would tally up those [donations] and somehow combine them with Black Lives Matter—I don’t know.”
The Open Society Foundations spent more than $826 million in 2014 and some of that money went to groups working on “issues arising out of the Black Lives Matter movement.” The OSF also helped the Black Lives Matter founders connect with celebrities who could help their cause. Ms. Tometi may be one of the Black Lives Matter founders, but under this umbrella group she operates the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a group which received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Soros in the past.
In the end, Black Lives Matter supporters says the organization works because it’s based upon a shared ideal, not the source of the funding. Kassandra Frederique, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance (which receive millions in Soros funding every year), works with Tometi and she says the strength of the movement all comes back to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
“I think #BlackLivesMatter’s success is because of organizing. This was created after Trayvon Martin, and there has been sustained organizing and conversations about police violence since then,” Frederique told the Washington Times. “Its explosion into the mainstream recently is because it connects all the dots at a time when everyone was lost for words. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is liberating, unapologetic and leaves no room for confusion.”
Unfortunately, some believe the impact being made by Black Lives Matter has only led to social confusion. For example, Black Lives Matter activist Cherno Biko claimed the United States feels like a “war” since black people are being “murdered by police,” yet the New York Post reports the movement has increased the very type of deaths they’re trying to prevent.
“Thanks to the Ferguson Effect, blistering anti-law-enforcement rhetoric and sometimes fatal attacks on police have made cops timid, if not terrified. The result? A murder explosion that, ironically, is killing the very black people whom Black Lives Matter claims to champion,” claimed the report. “Year to date, homicides are up 8.3 percent in New York, 19.2 percent in Chicago, 51.5 percent in St. Louis and 52.5 percent in Baltimore…. Yes, some police are overzealous, twitchy-fingered and — surely — racist…. But the notion that America’s cops simply are gunning down innocent black people is one of today’s biggest and deadliest lies.”
What do you think about Black Lives Matter’s history? Where do you think the movement should go from here?
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)