Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag marking the death of Trayvon Martin and the failure to find justice after his killing. In the years since, Black Lives Matter has grown into a movement with international recognition and power. It’s always important to remember that Black Lives Matter is a movement but also a political ideology and a complex web of organizations. The movement has inspired millions to protest police violence. The ideology has influenced American politics for the last decade, and the organizations have pushed for social justice and policy.
Now, one of those core groups, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, is the subject of a recent report about its finances, specifically its purchase of a $6 million home in Malibu, California, under the guidance of the group’s former leader, Patrisse Cullors, ostensibly as both a safe house and as a space to film social media videos. The story, published in New York magazine, has fueled questions about the foundation’s judgment and whether it’s still a credible voice in the BLM movement. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with investigative journalist Sean Campbell, the reporter behind the story. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: When you tried to talk to the founders of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, how receptive were they to talk to you? How did people respond when you wanted to reach out, and what did you tell them you were writing about?
Sean Campbell: They were not receptive at all, I would say, especially early on. So I learned about the home purchase. I had learned that a man named Dyane Pascall had purchased the home. Dyane Pascall was a financial manager for Patrisse Cullors’ consulting firm and also [for] the father of her child. I was like, well, this seems odd. This is a nearly $6 million purchase in cash. The person at question was not the kind of person who would just have $6 million lying around, so things seemed strange there.
I asked them questions. I laid out, basically, here is what I have for how the home was purchased, who purchased it, the dates that it happened, and questions on how the home was used. I also knew from sources that there had been coordination with a security hub that Black Lives Matter was using to monitor property where Patrisse Cullors’ brother was the head of the security, monitoring not only that home but also other properties that we believe she purchased with her own funds. And there were also nondisclosure agreements that we had also seen that had the names of people who were working maintenance, like pool, lawn care, and housekeeping. Her mother had a nondisclosure agreement for a housecleaning contract. So these are family members, and also her sister—we saw an NDA associated with her as well. So these are people, her direct family, that were tied closely in with this home, and these were all part of my questions—how was it used, how did you guys use this, why is the only place we’re seeing this used is Patrisse Cullors’ personal YouTube channel, and some other questions.
And the first response that I received was actually not even sent to me directly. It was sent to one of the head lawyers at New York magazine, Vox Media, from Patrisse Cullors’ lawyer, saying that my questions were defamatory and also that they would like another 24 hours to respond. Now, after that initial contact and that 24-hour extension, which we agreed to, I learned that that immediately sent them into a damage control mode, where they had to figure out a reason to explain the existence of this house. And through those conversations and also the memo, I had confirmed that the house was purchased with BLM funds and they weren’t even certain exactly how it was going to fit in legally with their finances, and also explaining just how they were using the resources in and around the home.
Now, after that or through those conversations that I believe took place, that I know took place, and the memo, part of their strategy was to delay talking to me and seeing if they could break the story with another newsroom, or in some way announce information that would deflate the story. That was actually the language that was used in the memo, finding a way to deflate the story. They’ve had a gathering with other media, especially within the Black media. I was not invited to that gathering. I was not a part of any of those conversations. So since then, I’ve not had any contact in terms of disclosing additional information or been invited to any of those conversations.
Some of the pushback from supporters of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and even some of their members has been, look, lots of other large nonprofits purchase buildings as an investment. Why is Black Lives Matter doing that so problematic? Why does that seem to be something that’s worth scrutiny when lots of large nonprofits purchase real estate? What’s your response to that sort of pushback?
When I reached out to experts about this, why might this be a problem, I think the biggest one is that this home was on the books for over a year, 17 months, and the only reason it became well-known was because I had asked them about it. And up until that point, it was only used by Patrisse Cullors and Melina Abdullah, who were connected within the organization, and for Patrisse Cullors’ personal YouTube channel, as far as we know. It wasn’t like this was being utilized for a number of reasons. There were actually members of the organization that were very surprised to learn of the existence of this home.
So when you talk about any of these other groups, when they make a purchase like this, it’s known. It’s talked about. So there hadn’t been any of that. So that’s an issue right there. And when I talk to experts about this, that’s one of those things where they’re just like, well, that raises a lot of questions—when you have a security force that’s headed by the brother, when you have staff for the home also related to Patrisse Cullors, when you have not very many people knowing about it, when you also have it being used for a personal YouTube channel. All of these are nonprofit resources seemingly being utilized by a private individual. Now, that’s not kosher with nonprofit governance. Nonprofits can own property and they can use properties for the mission of the nonprofit, but a nonprofit can’t buy property for a private individual or buy property and resources specifically for the use of a private individual.
Another thing, too, is that when we’re talking about order of priorities, when you look at the address on the filings for the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, it is not a physical address or an address that is a building. It is a mailbox in Oakland. So if you’re talking about purchasing property, any of those other organizations, they have other buildings that are office spaces that they at least lease, rent, etc., before they go about buying multimillion-dollar properties. There’s a question as to how those properties were being used.
And there’s also just the dedication of resources. It has been a known problem within the Black Lives Matter movement that many of the activists who are doing on-the-ground work—they’re so passionate for it, and this doesn’t pay much—that they are going homeless. They’re going hungry. And they’ve approached the organization about this. Not only have they been asking, “How is the money being used? Are we going to be seeing any of this money?” they’ve said, “We have people that don’t have homes.” When you have all these other issues within the movement and money that’s honestly being collected off the work of people within the movement, how are those funds being used?
And when we talk about the Red Cross, or about purchases of property with Doctors Without Borders or the ACLU, the people who work for those, the doctors, the lawyers, they aren’t facing homelessness at the level or extent that we’re seeing with people who are working in activism within the Black Lives Matter movement.