As Black Lives Matter Evolves, Some Question Leadership Moves

Some activists worry about a move away from a decentralized structure

As Black Lives Matter has grown and evolved since its founding, and particularly amid the dramatic events of this year, some friction has developed over how to organize and lead going forward. Last week, a group of local BLM chapters announced they would be stepping away from an organization known as the Black Lives Matter Global Network, citing concerns about transparency and consolidation of power.

Many activists aligned with Black Lives Matter see BLM as a broad, decentralized movement, rather than a specific institution with a clear executive in charge. There is coordination between organizations and local groups, but power and authority is diffuse, and based on collaboration, an approach sometimes referred to as “leader-ful.”

“In terms of strategy—and this is very real that we have to be honest about this—it makes it harder for those who are against us to do what they did in the ‘60s, which is to target one leader,” Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, told Politico in July.

But as a new level of attention, money, and power coalesced around Black Lives Matter in 2020, critics say a more traditional, hierarchical structure has begun develop within the BLMGN. In an open letter published by the ten local chapters leaving the national organization, the groups cite concerns that triggered their departure, particularly a perceived lack of support of local groups from the national body, and the naming of activist Patrisse Cullors as executive director of BLMGN.

The break-away groups say they do not have access to funds raised by the main BLM body, and that the creation of BLM Grassroots, an entity ostensibly intended to help on-the-ground activists has, in their opinion, actually served to alienate street-level activists and organizers from the core operation.

“We became chapters of Black Lives Matter as radical Black organizers embracing a collective vision for Black people engaging in the protracted struggle for our lives against police terrorism. With a willingness to do hard work that would put us at risk, we expected that the central organizational entity, most recently referred to as the Black Lives Matter Global Network (BLMGN) Foundation, would support us chapters in our efforts to build communally,” the letter states. “We remain committed to collectively building an organization of BLM chapters that is democratic, accountable, and functions in a way that is aligned with our ideological values and commitment to liberation.”

The signatories to the letter, which include BLM chapters in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Diego, and Oklahoma City, also allege that Cullors acted inappropriately by naming herself executive director, and say that the local chapters had no opportunity to offer input on the selection of anyone for that role.

Los Angeles-based Cullors, one of the three women recognized as co-founders of Black Lives Matter, has been a part of the movement since 2013. Her co-founders, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, both moved away from day-to-day operations of Black Lives Matter in 2018, though remain involved with the movement.

When she stepped into the job, Cullors appears to have anticipated that there would be push-back to her actions from some, but expressed confidence in her decision.

“This July, I assumed the role of Executive Director for the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the umbrella organization for our global movement,” she wrote in a statement on the organization’s website. “Many close friends and colleagues affirmed that no one was better-prepared for the job. But when I stepped forward in response to the call of my community and family, there were other voices to overcome. These voices caused me trepidation initially, as I took up the mantle of our necessary evolution. Even as I reminded myself that Black women in leadership have always faced disproportionate scrutiny, taking on the onus of our successes and failures was a great deal to bear. And while I anticipated much of the pushback and conflict I have faced, I have still had to come to terms, in my own way, with the weight and implications of accepting this amount of responsibility.”

Throughout history, many movements born out of protest have encountered similar tensions as they grow and factions can begin to form, with different ideas about how to best move toward a shared goal.

“It’s almost a truism that movements will [fracture] over time,” Princeton political science professor Omar Wasow told Politico. “It’s exceedingly hard to hold movements together over the long haul.”

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