Earlier this month, Los Angeles native Patrisse Cullors, one of three activists who cofounded Black Lives Matter in 2013, became the unlikely subject of a profile on the celeb-centric real estate news website Dirt.com. Alongside photo-heavy—and envy-inducing—articles about Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s “lavish Encino mansion” and Awkwafina’s “slick Bel-Air contemporary,” was a piece about the activist-artist-professor’s “Topanga Canyon compound,” which she reportedly purchased for $1.4 million.
The article spawned outrage in the right wing meme-osphere, where people began claiming without evidence that she was siphoning BLM donations to fund her extravagant lifestyle (not that $1.4 million exactly buys extravagance in L.A. anymore).
The scrutiny intensified on April 10, when the New York Post ran a story detailing several properties Cullors owns with her spouse, BLM Canada cofounder Janaya Khan. The piece chronicles what it calls a “real estate buying binge” that includes four homes purchased over the course of five years: a three-bed, one-and-a-half-bath Inglewood home for $510,000 in 2016; a four-bedroom residence in South L.A. for $590,000 in 2018; a three-bed home on several acres in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers for $415,000 in 2020; and, most recently, the Topanga “compound” that was the subject of the Dirt.com story.
The Post‘s article questioned how much Cullors was making from the activist organization she cofounded—Black Lives Matter Global Network later disclosed that she’s made $120,000 for her work since 2013—but the movement certainly isn’t her only source of income. In 2018, Cullors published the best-selling book, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, and just last fall she signed an overall production deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. As an associate faculty of social environmental arts practice at Arizona’s Prescott College, Cullors also earns money as a speaker and panelist.
Cullors’s compensation for her memoir and the Warner Bros. deal are also unknown. But, according to Bookscan, the company that tracks book sales figures, the paperback alone of When They Call You a Terrorist has sold 27,878 copies. Since that figure represents only about 60 percent of total sales, the actual number of books sold is closer to 50,000.
Publishing insiders described Cullors’s 2016 book deal with St. Martin’s Press as “major,” which one top literary agent tells Los Angeles is industry code for an advance of “anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million.” Likewise, while the Warner Bros. payday was undisclosed, the agent estimates it also brought in $500,000 to seven figures, which doesn’t include any projects Janaya Kahn—who signed with CAA in July—may be working on.
“All in all, it certainly seems reasonable that she’d have income from these deals of at least a million the last couple years,” the agent says. “And as anyone who has ever bought a house knows, you generally only have to put down ten percent. So while BLM could be generating tons of money for her, based on this information it could be generating zero and she’d still have the money to do what she’s done.”
On Instagram this week, Cullors dismissed the coverage as a white supremacist effort to discredit her and the BLM movement, even to put her in harm’s way by revealing where she lives. In an opinion piece in Cullors’s defense, fellow activist and Los Angeles contributor Jasmyne Cannick wrote, “Nowhere is it written that if you care about and fight for Black lives that you have to live in squalor and poverty. That you are not allowed to get educated and move up in the world.”
She added, “In all of the chatter about what Patrisse is doing, what’s not being talked about is the fact that she actually works. That she has jobs. Jobs that pay her and just like you or me would do, she’s investing her money and taking care of her family.”
Still, Cullors has continued to field questions about her socialist bona fides. In an April 15 interview with Black News Tonight, reporter Marc Lamont Hill asked if the homes represent “a contradiction between your expressed politics and your lived practice.” Cullors called the critique “wanting,” and said her investment in her family is in line with her investment in Black people.
“The way that I live my life is in direct support to Black people, including my Black family members, first and foremost,” she told Hill. “And, for so many Black folks who are able to invest in themselves and their community, they choose to invest in their families, and that’s what I have chosen to do. I have a child, I have a brother with severe mental illness that I take care of, I support my mother, and I support many other family members of mine. And so I see my money as not my own, I see it as my family’s money as well.”
A rep for Cullors declined a request for comment from Los Angeles.
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