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Secret $6 million home has allies and critics skeptical of BLM foundation's finances

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A group of Black Lives Matters leaders are facing questions about the purchase of a $6 million home in Southern California. It was bought with donations made to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, also known as BLMGNF. This transaction is raising questions about how the social justice organization is using donations.

Sean Campbell wrote a story about the home that appeared in New York Magazine this week. He's an investigative journalist and adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School and joins us now. Welcome.

SEAN CAMPBELL: Thanks for having me on, Ailsa. I really appreciate it.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So before we get into the story of this home purchase, can you just very quickly tell us the difference between Black Lives Matter and BLMGNF?

CAMPBELL: So Black Lives Matter is the name for modern civil rights movement that we currently have. The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation is a separate autonomous entity that is run by various people and has its own connections. It's a bit of a problem that this organization has become associated as the name of Black Lives Matter when the two are totally separate. There's the movement where local activists and anyone who agrees with the statement that Black lives matter, and then there's this organization that's honestly been collecting the majority of the funds.

CHANG: OK. Well, to give people an idea of the amount of money that this foundation, BLMGNF, has collected, you say that they've previously reported something like $90 million in donations in 2020 and spent about 30 million of that by February of 2021 - this house being one of the purchases. When it comes to the $6 million house, like, what are leaders saying to justify why they spent so much money on it?

CAMPBELL: Yes. It's a very luxury property. So I can tell you the Global Network Foundation justified the purchase as a space where Black creatives could come and create their art and influence things for the movement. They also, in a memo that I obtained later, wanted to use the home as a safe house when people were feeling threatened or receiving death threats, other things. That was their justification for this.

CHANG: Well, what do some local chapters of BLM think about these justifications? Like, have any of them made statements about this real estate deal?

CAMPBELL: So I can say I haven't seen any formal statements just yet, but leaders that I've spoken with for some chapters - they're upset. They feel like these resources could have been put to better use. They could have been done more efficiently. I know Tory Russell in Ferguson - he's been working with Mike Brown Sr., who is father of the slain Mike Brown Jr. whose death sparked the protests in Ferguson in 2014. He's been struggling to get $1.2 million for a community center that would have the opportunity to provide safe housing or housing for some of the activists he's seen go homeless.

CHANG: One of the leaders you say knew about this purchase is Patrisse Cullors. She took to Instagram, and she absolutely denies that she misused any funds. She wrote, in part, quote, "I want to be clear - while I will always see myself as part of the BLM community, I am no longer in leadership, and I am not a part of any decision-making processes within the foundation. I have never misappropriated funds." To be fair, is it possible that this house is exactly what BLM leaders say it is; it's a safe house that's also a space for Black creators?

CAMPBELL: To be fair, we could say that. I could also tell you that I know that the house is monitored by Patrisse Cullors' brother, and he is paid with BLM funds, and that they've been in regular contact with Patrisse Cullors about the use of the property while not having that same information available to other activists within the organization. Patrisse wasn't just aware of the home, she used it. She used it for her own personal YouTube channel, where she shot a number of videos, which we discuss in the publication, including conversations with Melina Abdullah and Alicia Garza on the patio of the property.

CHANG: Well, on Twitter, you wrote, quote, "this one has been heartbreaking" and that "Black Lives Matter is a statement of fact that is larger than one organization." Can you tell me why you felt the need to post those words?

CAMPBELL: 'Cause it's true. The fact of the matter is, you know, when I have these conversations with activists and leaders, like, it hurts. It hurts for me even, honestly, to report this as a Black person that's experienced a lot of the things that the network is purporting to be working against. Yeah, it hurts.

And it hurts me that some people might try and twist this in ways that this organization is somehow standing in for the movement as a whole, which is absolutely false. Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation is a separate entity, has its own leadership. That is not the movement. And I would like that to be the takeaway for anyone who reads the story and anything else and any other problems they have.

CHANG: Sean Campbell is an investigative journalist and adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School. He also writes for New York Magazine. Thank you very much.

CAMPBELL: Thank you. I appreciate you having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kathryn Fox