Patrisse Cullors on Making Mistakes
Trymaine Lee: (CROWD CHANTING) Over the last decade, there have been few phrases that have become more loaded and perhaps more important socially, politically and culturally than “Black Lives Matter.’
Archival Recording: (CROWD CHANTING) Black Lives Matter first coined by three African American women in response to George Zimmerman's acquittal.
Lee: (CROWD SHOUTING) Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag on Facebook in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. (CROWD CHANTING) Soon, Black Lives Matter was more than a hashtag. It was a declaration of what we had always known that our lives matter.
Archival Recording: (CROWD CHANTING) The Staten Island sidewalk where Eric Garner died, moments after the news broke.
Archival Recording: There will be no indictment filed against Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting and death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Lee: (CROWD SHOUTING) It was a demand as much as a plea. Black Lives Matter had become a movement. Then, came 2020 and the pandemic tore through America, disproportionately impacting the Black community.
And in the midst of all that, three white vigilantes murdered Ahmaud Arbery. (CROWD CHANTING) Police shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her own home. And then when a Minneapolis officer squeezed the life out of George Floyd on camera and for the world to see, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded.
Archival Recording: Tonight, anger in the streets across America.
Archival Recording: Massive crowds gathering again to protest the death of George Floyd in cities from coast to coast.
Archival Recording: (CROWD CHANTING) Cries of “Black lives matter” and “Hands don't shoot.” (CROWD CLAPPING) In Washington, crowd stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to Black Lives Matter Plaza in front of the White House.
Lee: As people fill the streets around the country and around the world, what had already been a powerful force in social justice soar to new heights. Support for the phrase reached an all-time high.
Archival Recording: (CROWD CHANTING) The largest day of demonstrations for George Floyd yet.
Lee: People who had never gotten involved were going to protest. Some even posted black squares on Instagram in solidarity. And all of a sudden, corporations were eager to show they were on the right side of history. (BACKGROUND VOICES)
Black Lives Matter became a catch-all for any protests anywhere, calling on police accountability, or disavowing white supremacy. Black Lives Matter became a shorthand and a lightning rod for right-wing politicians and political adversaries at the highest levels of government.
Archival Recording: (CROWD CLAPPING) Many of those who are spreading violence in our cities are supporters of an organization called the Black Lives Matter or BLM. (CROWD BOOING) It's really hurting the Black community. It's hurting the Black community. This is an unusual name for an organization whose ideology and tactics are right now destroying many Black lives.
Lee: By design, Black Lives Matter is a decentralized movement. But there is an actual Black Lives Matter national organization, one that was founded by Alicia Garza, Ayo Tometi and Patrisse Cullors back in 2013. There are dozens of local Black Lives Matter groups all around the country, some that are affiliated with the national group, and many that are not.
The national organization is called the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. And in 2020, Patrisse Cullors was the only founder left and she was in charge. When the donation started pouring in, in record numbers, after the murder of George Floyd, a lot of the money went to the foundation. In fact, according to documents shared with the Associated Press, the foundation received $90 million.
Archival Recording: But some serious questions are now being raised about the group's finances, especially after $90 million was raked in in 2020, with many local groups saying they haven't seen a dime.
Lee: Some local Black Lives Matter chapters criticized the foundation, saying the national group should spread the wealth around, and that there wasn't transparency around where the money was actually going. Other people and groups outside the Black Lives Matter network heard that $90 million figure and were incensed.
Archival Recording: Brother Ali, Joshua Williams, and many other political prisoners from the Ferguson movement are incarcerated, or have been, and still have received no assistance from Black Lives Matter.
Lee: Shortly after the foundation disclosed their fundraising numbers in 2021, Ferguson activist Tory Russell stood alongside Michael Brown's father, Michael Brown Sr., to demand support.
Archival Recording: What kind of movement are we building where we're saying “Black lives matter,” but the freedom fighters and the families are being left behind? Where's our restitution? Where is our organizing? Where is our building of a movement?
Lee: The Foundation says it did give away almost a quarter of that $90 million in 2020 and spent less than 10% on operational costs. But by then, 10 prominent Black Lives Matter chapters had publicly pulled away from the national organization, citing concerns over the way Patrisse Cullors and other leaders had handled the money. Then, Patrisse’s personal finances became a topic of conversation.
Patrisse Cullors: Homes that I bought directly support the people that I love and that I care about.
Lee: Here is Patrisse speaking about her real estate purchases with Marc Lamont Hill on the Black News Channel back in 2021.
Cullors: I'm not renting them out in some Airbnb operation. And you could speak to so many other Black people and Black women particularly that take care of their families, take care of their loved ones, especially when they're in a position to.
Lee: In April of 2021, The New York Post published a story detailing the four homes that Patrisse had purchased since 2016 for an estimated total of $3 million. Patrisse is a best-selling author and has multiple deals with media companies, and there was no suggestion at all that she used any money from the foundation to buy the homes.
The foundation told The Associated Press that Patrisse received $120,000 in compensation between 2013 and 2019. Patrisse says she did not take a salary as executive director. But as a leader of the movement, she took some heat for these visible markers of financial success.
Patrisse stepped down from her role as executive director of the foundation last May. But just last month, she and the foundation were in the news again. New York Magazine broke the news that the foundation, under the direction of Cullors, had purchased a $6 million property in Los Angeles. Patrisse and the foundation say that the property, which has a mansion with seven bedrooms, a pool, soundstage and office space was to be used as a media creation space, as well as a safe house for activists.
The story also mentioned that some of Patrisse’s family members were employed by the foundation, her brother as head of physical security, and her mother and sister had provided cleaning services. These new revelations, especially the multimillion-dollar property, have ruffled feathers within the movement again.
The foundation plans to release its 990 financial records next week, to give the public a chance to see their inner workings. But of course, it's not just those inside the movement who would be critical. Black Lives Matter and Patrisse, in particular, have become a target for racist and the far-right, with enemies who've burned Black Lives Matter flags, threatened her life, and weaponized the movement and these messy money matters to try and tear it all down.
Archival Recording: And yet we have major corporations out of weakness or fear, or whatever reason, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to them. These are fools. These are fools. (BACKGROUND VOICES)
Lee: Right-wing media has led the way.
Cullors: This morning I woke up to Candace Owens being outside of my house, with a news crew.
Lee: This past weekend, conservative commentator and outspoken Black Lives Matter critic, Candace Owens, who is also a Black woman, showed up at Patrisse’s personal home to confront her.
Archival Recording: We're working on a documentary talking about all the funding pertaining to Black Lives Matter. Obviously, we know that Patrisse and a lot of the founders purchased million dollar homes in white neighborhoods. They also purchased a Black Lives Matter property. So we went to the --
Lee: (BACKGROUND VOICE) Candace Owens said the main objective was to talk about the $6 million property. And she said she thought the address she went to was that property, not the home where Patrisse and her family actually live, which is in a totally different location. Both women talked about the incident on Instagram right after Owens was asked to leave Patrisse’s property.
Cullors: She was actually asking about the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation property. And for some reason, it seems like she thought my house was that. It's unacceptable and it's dangerous that anybody, any stranger come outside of my house. But it's really unacceptable and dangerous when Candace Owens, another Black woman, who is actually working as a part of a right-wing agenda, comes outside of my house with cameras.
Archival Recording: Patrisse is pretending to be scared because she knows that this Black Lives Matter life is falling apart, and she doesn't know what to do. I mean, people are aware of the scam of this Black Lives Matter. She's intentionally --
Lee: For those trying to get a handle on this story, it can be extremely hard to distinguish between attacks from people who arrive in bad faith, right? Those who always wanted to see the movement fail. And from those within, who legitimately support and believe in the cause, and want it to succeed, but who also want answers and accountability, has this all been one big smear campaign? Was there actual wrongdoing?
Patrisse Cullors has rarely talked about the controversies swirling around Black Lives Matter and her own involvement in it. But today, she's ready.
Cullors: I'm a human being that made mistakes that want to change, want to challenge those mistakes, and want to learn from those mistakes. And I think what's been hard is feeling like there isn't room and space for that.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. On today's show, Patrisse Cullors reflects on accountability, criticism, and nearly 10 years of Black Lives Matter.
Cullors: My name is Patrisse Cullors, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I am an abolitionist and artist, grown up doing community organizing and community art. And I'm best known for being one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, but also the former executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.
Lee: You know, Patrisse, it's hard to imagine that it's been 10 years since George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin. It sounds still crazy to even say that. It was around the time when, you know, you co-founded Black Lives Matter as a hashtag. And I wonder in the years that have passed, how life has changed or evolved for you. I'd imagine there's some friends, some enemies, and life might look a little different. Talk to us about the evolution of your life and how things are different today, maybe different today than they were then.
Cullors: Yeah. I mean, 10 years ago, I was 28 years old. And 10 years ago, I was not a global figure. I was a grassroots organizer, who was doing the best to try to change the material conditions for Black people here in Los Angeles County. And I saw that there was a gap in our movement, and many of us did, it wasn't just me. There was, you know, thousands of young Black folks who were really interested, and having a new conversation around Black liberation, and wanting to challenge some of the old school ways of doing things.
And so, you know, you would see that the birth of a deep conversation around what is a true racial reckoning. Many people think, you know, 2020 was that racial reckoning. But it's been a decade of people mobilizing and organizing Black people across, not just this country, but the world to challenge anti-Black policies and anti-Black framework.
Lee: And how have you been changed? Obviously, the language around the movements of change. The participation has changed, right? The advent of social media, and hashtags, and the way we go about organizing. You know, let’s set you as an organizer aside. As a person, how have you been changed by this experience?
Cullors: Oh, you know, I have been rearranged. You know, this has been a decade of a lot of social upheaval, a lot of challenges, a lot of change, a lot of clarity. There's been a lot of excitement and joy. But there's also been a lot of hardship. When you make movements, when you build movements, it takes thousands of people to do it. And that often means lots of mistakes are being made, lots of amazing decisions as well.
And I think one of the things that I've been thinking about in this last year specifically is how do you make mistakes in public without being crucified for them. Because we're human beings, I'm a human being, and we make mistakes. And then I think the job of making a mistake is actually learning from it, and being, you know, called in and say, “Hey, like, this is the way to do this better. Here's the team to help you do that.”
So I've been really longing for that. You know, just to be honest, Trymaine, I've been longing for a conversation around how Black movement leaders are seen as humans that make mistakes. And that, for me, at the very least, you know, I'm a human being that has made mistakes that want to change, want to challenge those mistakes and want to learn from those mistakes. And I think what's been hard is feeling like there isn't room and space for that.
Lee: Certainly, some of this come with the territory, especially as an organization, putting a lot of money, a lot of shame right in front of the cameras. But with all that, do you think you've been given the grace to be a human person who is still trying to move through all this?
Cullors: Some people for sure, you know, because there's a difference between sort of the public, you know, and how the public is treating me. And there's a difference between how people like in my circle that I love and trust. And so, yeah, there are some people. I was just texting a good friend of mine. You know, she was sharing some feedback for me, and I was listening, and she was like, “I love you. I'm not gonna abandon you. We're here. I know how hard it is right now for you.” And then, you know, then there's Candace Owens showing up to my front doorstep.
Lee: That's a whole different chapter. That's something else.
Cullors: Yeah, you know, but I think that there's not been a fullness in the grace. And you know, folks get to feel all the feeling they should. People should feel all the things that they need to feel. And also, we haven't had this moment in history yet. This is the moment in history where, you know, people are challenging movement leaders and decisions they make, and you know, challenging the way we do things. And it's par for the course.
And I'm looking forward to the point where it's not a media circus anymore, where there's more nuance, where there's more care and love and generosity, and this process, and where I can be accountable in a way that feels important, you know, and feels tender and necessary.
Lee: When I hear you talk about a conversation with someone close to you, and they say, “You know, I'm not going to abandon you, right?” Abandon is a heavy word. It's right with emotion, the feeling of being abandoned.
Lee: Along this process, have you felt abandoned in any way by people that might have surprised you?
Cullors: Yeah. You know, it's hard to talk about these things because it's, on the one hand, like, I get, you know, my social capital. I get my success. I get sort of, you know, the ways in which I'm seen all of the world. And I'm still impacted by, you know, behaviors and the way some folks show up. So, yeah, I definitely have felt an abandonment.
But, you know, I want to say I think I want to give grace too. I want to give grace too because I think we just don't know better yet. I don't think we and I put myself in it to like, you know, there’re mistakes that I've made where I was like, man, should I have known that I was gonna be a mistake, if I look back, like, you don't know what you don't know. And my hope right now is that we can start to put pieces together, you know.
And Tremaine, at the end of the day, like, the reason why I started doing this work almost 22 years ago when I was a young person is because I saw what my mother went through as a single mother. I saw what my brother went through as someone with severe mental illness being beat up by the police and almost killed by them. I knew what it felt like to be a young queer woman being raised poor, and you know, working class neighborhood. And I wanted to change that. And that's still what I believe in.
And I know the history of how, you know, movements are pitted against each other. I've read about it. I know the history of how movements are attacked, and how people inside those movements are attacked, and now I'm living inside of it. And some of my mistakes are being weaponized against me and also the entire movement. And that's truly disappointing to see us fall into that as well.
Lee: You know, there are people who will hear this and some were going to arrive in bad faith anyway.
Lee: Some will arrive in good faith and want to hear you speak, and want to understand the evolution of the movement, the evolution of you, and addressing some of the concerns that people have.
Lee: There are people who would say that, you know, “We don't feel too bad for you, Patrisse,” You know, $90 million pouring into an organization, allegations of misappropriation of funds, a $6 million crib in California somewhere, a lack of transparency. There are people who’ll say, “You know, we don't feel bad for you.” You know, some will see you as a grifter. How do you address an event? It's a big one. How do you begin to address it? Because I know the last several months have been really difficult.
Lee: And you've been trying to be transparent now. But how do you address that?
Cullors: You go one by one, and just give people the answers that are true. And people will make what they make of it. All I can do is be honest and share, and own the things that I think like, hey, yeah, I wouldn't have done that now that I have more information. Actually, I stand by that. You know, I stand by that truth.
I think, at the end of the day, what has happened, Trymaine, is so much of the understanding of social movements, especially Black social movements, is deeply misunderstood. Being a part of a Black social movement is having security culture. It’s, you know, sharing information in a way that doesn't harm you or the people around you.
And everything I did, you know, inside of BLMGNF when I was there, around resources, was to support Black people and support the movement. And it was also to ensure protection and safety for people because of all the white supremacist attacks both online and offline. And that's something that's been woefully underreported. And I think, without reporting about how serious these attacks have been, then a lot of decisions are misunderstood and out of context. And that, to me, has been really unfortunate.
Lee: After George Floyd's death, a tsunami of funding comes through BLM, some $90 million, right, to support the movement and support different organizations under your umbrella. And I wonder, first, was that a shock, just the amount of money coming in? And then secondly, like, were there checks and balances in place to make sure that the funding was being directed in the proper ways?
Cullors: Yes, it was a major shock. It was also a lot of like, “Oh, wait, I did not see that coming.” You know, contrary to what, you know, has been reported, much of the funding that came in was from individual donors. That was a lot of white guilt money. There's a lot of white folks being like, “We just got to put the money.”
Lee: That’s the best I could give. $90 million gives us a lot of good. They could give.
Cullors: Yeah. And BLM was still figuring out what is its infrastructure, you know? So I was really called back in to help do that work. And I did a lot of that labor, I did a lot of that framework. And I've left BLM, but a lot of that infrastructure was being built to figure out where do we go with this.
And folks who are listening should know this. There are groups that build infrastructure for three to five years before they become public. And they raise money, and they take their time. We didn't have that luxury. We were building the plane as we fly it. And frankly, in the position I'm in now, what I will be teaching, you know, the next generation of young Black leaders is don't build the plane and fly it. It's not worth it. Because the standards in which we are criticized and scrutinized is very different than white nonprofits. We undergo a different set of standards. I did realize that. I knew that theoretically, I didn't realize that.
As you know, we moved forward with building the infrastructure, while paying people, you know, I can't sit and build infrastructure on my own. You have to pay people to do that. You know, we had programming going on. And it was my mandate, you know, that we get money to the ground and we start to resource people. And we brought on, you know, people to help us identify organizations that should be resourced because they're in the movement ecosystem.
Lee: And at the same time, as this money is coming in, you know, you become the foundation's director. How was the decision made?
Cullors: Well, it's a little tricky ‘cause I was already on paper, the executive director, because for a nonprofit, you have to sort of name who's going to be the executive director. And because I'm one of the founders of it, it made sense for me to be the executive director. So I stepped into that role. And I'll be honest, I was begrudgingly. It wasn't like, “Yes, I want to be the executive director.” I was like, I am the last co-founder. You know, the organization is transforming. We need to have formal leadership and I stepped into that role.
Lee: Did that $90 million help make the decision for you?
Cullors: No, actually not in the ways that people would think. What helped make that decision for me was understanding that if we had that much money, we needed infrastructure so that everything that’s happening now wouldn't be happening.
Cullors: So like, this is, Trymaine, kind of my worst nightmare when the money started coming in. It wasn't me looking at people being like, “Yes, we have all this money.” It was me looking at people like, “More money, more problems.” Literally, this is like we're not ready for this, but let's get ready for it because we're here now. And I felt like I was in the position to be able to help make that happen.
Lee: So I'm arriving at this conversation skeptical, right, of the reporting that's been about you and the organization, but also of you and the organization coming in like, okay, humans are going to be human, right? Humans are going to be human no matter whether you respect them, like them, doing the good work or not.
And I want to ask you straight up, was some of that money that came in the $90 million ever blended with your personal money? Because some of the allegations were that there was some funny blurring of the lines there, which is concerning to a lot of people who believe in even what you're doing, they're still a little concern.
Cullors: Of course. No, it's not. And I want to say something, though, even before I answer that question. I should have taken a salary from Black Lives Matter because it would be less confusing for people. And I regret that I didn't. But I didn't because, one, I didn't plan on staying as ED forever. I was, like, I have a lot of different jobs. I literally have five different jobs. And I was, like, I'm going to come in, I'm going to support this organization. You know, we'll pay other people to do this thing. This is going to be like my volunteer work. And then I'm gonna go out. I'm gonna leave. And that didn't happen.
So I think that has been really challenging. Because people who work for organizations, Black-led organizations, they deserve to be paid. They deserve to have equal compensation. We have, you know, all these conversations about equal pay for Black women. That should be happening inside movement too. And I don't like that I didn't lead in that way.
But as I said, like, I thought I was doing a service. Like, here it is, here's what's going on. This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to be here for a year or two, and then I'm going to bounce. And I thought that would make sense to people, and it hasn't.
Lee: We'll call it a mess. How much of this mess is a result of those kinds of naive decision-making errors? Honestly, you know, white supremacy does white supremacy does. We don't ask these questions to a lot of people that are pulling a lot of money and doing all kinds of things. We just don't question them the way we're questioning you.
Cullors: ACLU didn't get question for the hundreds of millions of dollars that they poured in in 2016. And I love the ACLU team. Like, this is not a diss. But I watched hundreds of millions of dollars get poured in in 2016 and nobody questioned them. They were valorized.
But I think it's mostly the right-wing narrative that has created a narrative that the mistakes that we made are mistakes that Black people make. The mistakes that we made are not what Black people make. The mistakes we made are what people in leadership make, people across leadership. And the way that the right-wing media specifically has characterized the mistakes are truly anti-Black. They are about this idea that Black people, especially Black women don't know how to manage money, don't how to manage funds, don't know what to do with money.
And the reality is if any organization received tens of millions of dollars in one to two months’ time, everybody would be trying to figure out what you do with it, what infrastructure you create, what kind of bank accounts, what kind of investments you should be making, where did the resources go. Every president, CEO, executive director would be having the same questions and making similar mistakes, because you try things, you say, “Oh, that didn't work,” then you try something else, “Oh, that worked.” And that's the way it works when you're actually building an institution.
And so I think that's really important for people to hear. The mistakes that were made were not mistakes that Black people make. It's mistakes that leaders make and then they should be able to learn from them and keep building.
Lee: We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, I asked Patrisse about that $6 million mansion, the one at the heart of this latest firestorm.
Lee: You know, at the center of when most recent storms around this was the magazine article that came out, talking about the $60 million crib in California. And for some reason, you know, that really, really, really just seemed to like enraged people.
And I don't know if it's the idea that Black people are undeserving, that Black executive of that organization shouldn't be able to have such riches and enjoy such riches for their community, for their organization. Or if it just seems like a bridge too far, like this don't seem like a headquarters. It sounds like a crib that you're staying in and enjoying, and having private events at. But that $6 million crib at the center of this, it really just kicked off fireworks. And I want to ask you what was done wrong around it?
Cullors: Yeah. It's a property. So it's more than a house, it also had a soundstage.
Lee: The $6 million had to better be more than just --
Cullors: Exactly, yeah. It's actually like a proper property. There was a lot of thought that went into that. So that it has office space. It has a soundstage. It had a studio. It has a home and it has a community garden it. And I think where I can be accountable is I would have, in retrospect, had more people be a part of the conversation.
BLM Grassroots leadership didn't know about the buying of the house. It wasn't because I was keeping it a secret. It was like lots of organizations do this. They are ED and their staff that go look at properties, they buy. This was an investment, as you know, with cash dollars. If you don't invest in that, and something, they aren't as valuable. And so, having real estate is very valuable for an institution.
It's not my personal real estate. It's not Patrisse Cullors’ real estate, it's the organization's real estate. And we bought it in the middle of the pandemic. We knew that it needed some repairs, and it needed fixing, and you know, that it would need to be shared. But we also knew, Trymaine, that the minute we shared the information with the public, that the right-wing media would do what they always do and they always did. Because the right-wing media doesn't have any sense or care for people’s security or safety.
That is the primary reason why the house wasn't shared widely publicly, because we had to make sure there was serious protocols around it, serious security protocols. And for someone who has been not just doxed, but people who showed up to my house, not just recently, but ever since I've been doxed last year, you know, I've received death threats. I've gotten calls from the FBI about those death threats. I was very concerned like, you know, once we open this to the public, that's a responsibility.
And so there's a value, and going slow and making sure you have all your ducks in the row before you share things publicly. And I get that many people learned about the property in Studio City from a New York Magazine article, which that sucked, that must have sucked. And that was a sucker punch, along with all the litany of articles that have been written to discredit me and the organization, and so many other people.
Lee: You know, I want to talk about the threat of right-wing media, and you know, your safety. But before we get to that, there's one thing to receive the criticism, and the obvious hate from the right-wing. But there are people who believe in the movement as you do.
And there have been chapter leaders in organizations across the country who believe in the mission of Black Lives Matter who said, “You know, this is another example of how we've been cut off, a lack of transparency, but they're buying $6 million properties, when we're asking for funding to continue the good work that they allegedly support.” What do you say to those chapter leaders and those organizations across the country who say, “We've been left out in the cold while they're, you know, enriching themselves?” And I know, you've said it wasn't enriching yourself, it’s for the movement, but this is what they're saying.
Cullors: It's not true. I mean, I just have to, like, stop that. Because, one, BLM, once we received all those monies, we did transition into primarily a foundation. And it was, you know, BLMGNF as the foundation and BLM Grassroots as the folks who are chapters, who are doing the on-the-ground work.
You know, it's unfortunate. I hate that people feel that way. One organization could only do so much, just like one leader can only do so much. It's going to take all of us. And sometimes I believe it's easier to criticize people than really understand the fullness of what's happening. But so many folks received a lot of resources.
Lee: How do you respond to those critics within the organization, especially those chapter organizations who say you haven't been transparent enough? You're no longer in leadership at BLM foundation. But how do you respond to those who say they demanded transparency and they didn't get it?
Cullors: I think there's a difference between transparency and then protecting security culture in organizations. I've thought about this a lot because for the request to have BLM be fully transparent actually makes BLM more vulnerable and makes the people who are inside BLM more vulnerable. There was an attempt to be transparent with where the money went by the impact report. That impact report didn't land well.
And then there was a flurry around where did the money go. And it was, like, “Wait, it's right here.” I think that part of the issue has been and was that there wasn't a clear sense of, you know, how do we talk about this money. It would have been great if I had coordinated, not just me, but if a bunch of us have coordinated, “Hey, all these Black-led organizations got a bunch of money. What are we doing with it? How are we talking about it publicly?” And that didn't happen.
We didn't do it in coordination, and we sort of did it in a silo and that really impacted us. And I think at the end of the day, like, the bigness of BLM also makes it confusing. Like, should it be focusing on this? Or should it be focusing on this, or shouldn't it be focusing on this? And much of the work that I was doing when I was still there, was trying to really build a framework around the evolution of the organization.
Lee: You know, one of the more legitimate concerns that I've heard for a long time, it seemed legitimate to me, given the size and scope and how big organization grew, was the chapters felt isolated. They didn't feel like they were getting enough support. Do you think that you all, in your tenure, handled the chapters well at all? I mean, that was the one that came up earliest to me. People were coming to me, early, years ago saying like, “We're out here, we feel alone. We're not getting resources. We don't know what's going on.” Is there any legitimacy around the handling of the chapters?
Cullors: Absolutely. But I will say it in a way that is like, none of us were getting supported. You know, early days of BLM, it was very hard. It was a big challenge. Our primary focus was direct action. So that was hard on people's bodies, on people's psyches. And we were trying to give as much resources as we could, while also having a national organization, and staff and resourcing. So it was a conundrum. It was tricky.
Those are age-old conversations. Like, you can talk to NAACP. You could talk to folks who led SNCC. Like, the national and the local, like that is an age-old contradiction. That's not easy to contend with. But nothing was ever done from a malicious place or an intentional place of not supporting people. It was just everybody needed support.
Lee: I know that there have been some families of police violence who feel like, you know, they were abandoned by Black Lives Matter. Had there ever been any promises to these families? How do you respond to those concerns of the families who say, “Yo, we're here, you know, in the aftermath, but then we feel, you know, left alone?”
Cullors: Yeah. While I was still at BLM, we spoke with a lot of families. We have a lot of courageous conversations and a lot of, you know, push to support. And people will see, you know, family foundations that we supported. Post me leaving, that's a conversation for BLMGNF. But while I was there, we had really strong, and honest, and loving conversations with families.
Lee: And I guess in that same thing, I always wonder, you know, what are the expectations. We've seen other movement leaders criticized by some of these families, and some of these folks are in deep, deep pain, right? And they're reaching out in activists and organizers. And the people who support them have been the only people there supporting them. So I can only imagine it's a really tricky balance there.
Cullors: Listen, it's more than a tricky balance. The question is like how do you support community of people who've lost their loved ones at the hands of the state, and the state isn't supporting them? Of course, they're gonna feel a kind of way about us and everybody else. Like, that grief is so intense and so severe. And I never want to know that grief. You know, I have a lot of compassion and grace and love for the families. And I've sat and talked with so many of them, and I continue to till this day.
Lee: I have to ask, I know it's been a lot, in terms of BLM, in so many ways, you really are the last woman standing. You're the last of the original co-founders. You're bearing the full weight of most of this on your shoulders. Do you feel alone in this? Certainly, people across the country support you and your mission, but do you feel alone?
Cullors: Yeah, I feel alone.
Lee: Well, you feel alone. It's me.
Cullors: Yeah, I feel alone. It's a lonely road. You know, I think maybe at the beginning of the year, I was much angrier than I am now. I'm just kind of tired. And I'm just hoping that there's grace from the public to just see, like, “Hey, I really did the best I could with what I had. And I did as much as I could with what I had.” And I brought the team on, that I thought could be helpful to, you know, get us to the next stage of organizing our organization.
And I don't want to say I failed. I don't think I failed. But I think I made a ton of mistakes, and I think those mistakes have been used to paint a picture that I failed. But I can't believe that because I know how much work I've done. And I know how much I've done to support and change Black lives. And I also know that, you know, last year, when I decided to step down, I felt like I was distraction from what is a powerful movement. And this has been going down throughout history, where you point out certain leaders, you point out there, you get their vulnerabilities and you exploit it. And that's what has happened.
My vulnerabilities, personally and professionally have been exploited. And that sucks. That really sucks. Because if you look at my track record, and you've seen I've started so many organizations, Trymaine. You know, I've started up to about eight to nine organizations, and every single one is successful and doing well. And the people in leadership are successful and doing well.
But this is the organization that made white people, and government, and police the angriest. And all those people combined have a lot of power. Right-wing media had a lot of power. It had a lot of money. It has a lot of influence, and can shape narratives. And it's deeply unfortunate that this narrative has been shaped, and I hope that history will recuse me.
Lee: Was this, in some ways, inevitable? Black Lives Matter became a catch-all for everything.
Lee: And everyone is doing anything in the name of, you know, anti-police brutality and Black violence. It was inevitable?
Cullors: Yes. I called Angela Davis while everything was happening last year, and we talked multiple times a month. And when I called her in tears, you know, when the first round of attacks happened, she said it was bound to happen. And she was like, “There's so many things that, you know, because social media that didn't exist during their era that we don't know about around the infighting, and you know, how folks treated each other.” But she was like, “It was bound to happen. And you just have to weather the storm and be as accountable as you can be, and be as present as you can be.”
But yeah, it was bound to happen. And I think that, in general, I'm looking forward to helping shore up myself and this movement so that the next time we have these moments, we are more accountable to each other than we are to the right-wing narrative of what's happening.
Lee: So I know you're no longer there, but who is running the organization now? And do you have any sense of, you know, what they're gonna be doing with this money?
Cullors: There's three board members now that were announced I think last week, Shalomyah Bowers, D'Zhane Parker and Cicley Gay. And I don't know what they're doing and the next steps with the org.
Lee: We reached out to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation to ask them this same question. They responded by pointing us to a press release about their growing Board of Directors, and said they'll be releasing more information on how they plan to spend the money in the coming weeks.
You've had a target on you from some internal sectors, but then you have the right-wing, which we know, one, might be dangerous to legacy in some ways and dangerous in your spirit in some ways, right? This other one might be physically dangerous. We know that the white supremacists who pack that side, the one real ill will oftentimes for people like you who are leading movements and pushing for change.
Lee: Talk to us about this last weekend, this last few days, Candace Owens shows up at your door. Talk to us about this experience. What happened?
Cullors: I was at my house, getting ready to actually celebrate Mother's Day with some friends. And you know, a text from my security guard, because I have security, that a news crew was outside my house. And I looked out the window and it's Candace Owens. And I called folks and said, “What do I do?” And people said, “You should go on live and tell people what's happening.”
I think what's confusing about Candace is she's Black woman. So people are like, “Why are you trippin’ on another Black woman showing up, right?” You know, I'm willing to have all these conversations. I think that's important and necessary, and really helpful to have the hard conversations especially around funding and where funding goes. Those are necessary conversations.
But you know, I have to draw a line. Like, my family and I must be respected. We must be treated with respect. And you know, Candace could have reached out to the proper channels. I'm not like I'm inaccessible to ask for sit down, and I could say yes or no to that. But I think having white supremacists or people who believe in white supremacists’ ideology show up to my house is really dangerous. And there's been, you know, a lot of online and offline attacks.
And I mean, my home is doxed. So people can forever know where I live now because of the attacks. And that's very scary. That's very unsettling especially because I have a young child. And you know, I know that Candace was also doxed. And I don't see her as an enemy. But I just think it's so important that, you know, people respect people's privacy, and also respect people's health and sanity.
Lee: Patrisse, you might not see Candace Owens as an enemy, but I think she certainly sees you as an enemy. And she said as much about Black Lives Matter and yourself. And from your social media posts as you are live streaming, there was real fear and real tears. And I wonder what scared you most in that moment.
Cullors: Less about Candace and more about her followers. What we've seen every time there’s a right-wing uptick and news media, I receive more death threats. That's what we, you know, see and the security sort of portals that my team looks at. Well, after, you know, Candace came to my house, there were folks online. And I did get a lot of support. Thankfully, a lot of people were like, “Nah, that's where you cross the line. You don't show to people's houses.”
But you know, I got a phone call from someone, a death threat phone call from someone on my phone, I had to block them. You know, emails I've received. So it has real life impact. And I think it's the unpredictability of this moment that’s probably the scariest, not knowing who's gonna be at my house, or who's gonna be following me. This is what modern-day surveillance looks like. And that's really scary because I don't know who all is surveilling me. I don't know how much people know where I'm at, or what I'm doing.
I think, you know, my biggest fear is not surviving this moment. I mean, I just want to be honest, it's not hyperbole. But given the legacy and the lineage I come from, it scares me that I'm not going to survive this moment.
Lee: How much of a blow to the movement do you think all of this is? I mean, Black Lives Matter helps push forward the largest mass movement we've ever seen. And then we see this firestorm around all of these allegations, and you know, the attacks, and you know, the hit pieces and all this stuff. How much of a real legitimate blow or setback do you think all this is to the movement?
Cullors: I don't know yet. I think we get to decide that. I think the movement gets to decide that. We get to decide how these moments shape us. We can either decide that these moments shape us in a way that has us tearing apart at each other. Or we say, “You know what? No, we're not gonna let these people throw you away. And we're going to show up together.” And I think that is the lesson. I don't think we'll really know how this has impacted us for a while. But my desire is that we are able to see through it.
So you know, for folks who lost faith in this work, don't lose faith in the Black liberation movement and Black people. You can lose faith in leaders. That's fine. I've lost faith in leaders, and then I've got my faith back because leaders are human beings. But don't lose faith in the movement because the movement needs all of us. And the movement isn't over. It's never over.
Lee: How do you feel about the future of BLM? You're no longer leading the global network, but how are you feeling about the direction that the organization is going now?
Cullors: I think it's hard. It's a hard moment for BLMGNF and all Black-led organizations under the current political climate. You know, the way movements go is like there's a big surge, and people are really excited about it. And then as that excitement happens, there's a major backlash. We are in a backlash moment. And when you're in a backlash moment, it's very hard to make decisions. It's very hard to decide, you know, where we go and what we do.
And so, I'm sending a lot of love and prayers to the team over there. You know, I know it's not easy for them. I know they just erected a new board. I know they're trying to figure out their next steps. And they're trying to do it with no more co-founders there. And they're trying to do it in the middle of a right-wing media smear campaign, and that really, truly sucks. So I send them a lot of love and I wouldn't wish what's happening to me, personally, and you know, to the organization. On my worst enemy, it's not fair.
Lee: Are you proud of the work that you've done?
Cullors: Always. I'm proud of how I've survived. I'm a Black queer woman who grew up and was raised poor in the middle of the war on drugs and the war on gangs. And I helped, alongside thousands of other Black people, build a movement and build off of a legacy. I am more than proud of the work that I've done. And I don't want anybody to take that from me and I'm not gonna let anybody take that from me.
Lee: I want to thank you again. I know you don't do this often, but I appreciate you came Into America. I can only imagine the weight on your shoulders. You know, everything you've all been through, trying to put in that good work. So I appreciate your time, your insight and your experience. Thank you very much.
Cullors: Thank you, Trym.
Lee: That was activist Patrisse Cullors, formerly of Black Lives Matter. We also reached out to Candace Owens for this story, but she did not respond.
Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod. Or you could tweet me @trymainelee. That’s @trymainelee, my full name. And if you want to write us, our email is email@example.com. That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I.com.
Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.