SALT LAKE CITY — The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn tens of millions into the streets to participate in protests taking place every day since May. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag has been used by millions of social media users to call attention to cases of police brutality since 2013, and hundreds of groups bearing the name have materialized in nearly every major city in the United States. But if you look for a headquarters, a national spokesperson or a unified mission for the cause, you won’t find anything.
The decentralized nature of Black Lives Matter has caused confusion over what it actually stands for, said Stefahn Rich, 30, the owner of Stef’s Place, a barbershop in Salt Lake City.
“There’s this misconception that it’s a particular organization,” said Rich. “Or, it gets portrayed as a cause of a small group of people, when it’s all of these communities, all of these people and organizations fighting together.”
Customers at Stef’s Place who donate $100 to Black Lives Matter receive a $150 gift card to use toward haircuts, shaves and other services. But since there is no centralized Black Lives Matter organization, Rich lets patrons choose between three institutions that accept donations: Utah’s chapter of the ACLU, the NAACP legal defense fund and Campaign Zero, a nonprofit dedicated to ending police violence.
“To me, it means they support the movement that Black lives actually do matter and they are very much endangered and threatened, not just by police and government, but every day by people around them,” said Rich.
Some recoil from Black Lives Matter because Patrisse Cullors, one of the women credited with starting the movement, described herself and her co-founders as “trained Marxists.” Others are apprehensive about the stance on the family held by one of the most visible organizations, the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Their website, BlackLivesMatter.com, says they are “queer-affirming” and seek to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.” Still others think they can’t say they support Black Lives Matter unless they agree with abolishing the police.
But according to Alvin Tillery, professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, none of these ideas are foundational to the movement as a whole. With hundreds of locally organized groups, the movement does not have a singular identity, and there are no solutions to discrimination and policing that everyone agrees on, he said.
That fractured nature can make it difficult for media to represent the movement in an authentic way. While journalists tend to look for a spokesperson, a website and a number to contact, many of the grassroots groups organizing demonstrations have none of the above.
The fact that the movement has no leader could ultimately be its downfall, said Tillery. But in many ways, it’s a strength. Because there is no centralized leadership, there is a place within the movement for everyone who believes there is a problem with race and policing — no matter their own race, age or political party, Tillery said.
“If you support Black Lives Matter, it means you understand there’s a need for police reform, that you recognize there are systemic inequalities around race, and you support any range of solutions, from diversity training, to defunding, to abolition.”
A decentralized movement
Three women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, are responsible for coining the phrase Black Lives Matter and mobilizing demonstrators following the 2013 acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin. According to USA Today, Cullors created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag after Garza first used the phrase in a Facebook post.
The hashtag has been instrumental in raising awareness and spreading information, said Simon Howard, a professor of psychology at Marquette University in Milwaukee who specializes in prejudice and discrimination.
“It’s basically cyberactivism. Everyone can play a role because not everyone feels comfortable protesting or being in the streets,” said Howard. “It’s not the end all, but we see how monumental it is when people all over the world are tweeting #BlackLivesMatter and protesting anti-Black police violence in counties like South Africa and France.”
Cullors and her co-founders wanted the movement to be decentralized so that people would be motivated to step up locally to fight for change in their own communities, Howard said. But the lack of formal structure makes it difficult to find reliable information about the movement as a whole because each community leader may have a different point of view.
BlackLivesMatter.org is a Wordpress site with links to a handful of articles and a couple tweets. Many news sources reference BlackLivesMatter.com, the website for a group called the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which is not a formal nonprofit. Registered 501(c)(3) Thousand Currents partners with the organization to provide the “legal and administrative framework to enable BLM to fulfill its mission,” according to its website.
The Black Lives Matter Global Network did not respond to the Deseret News’ requests for comment.
While the Black Lives Matter Global Network has 16 affiliate chapters in cities such as Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, there are hundreds of other local Black Lives Matters groups across the country that don’t associate with the network, including several Utah-based Black Lives Matter chapters.
The leaders of several Black Lives Matter groups in Utah say they are frustrated that most people assume there is a single organization. While Lex Scott, the founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, works closely with the leaders of Northern Utah and Southern Utah chapters, a different group called Black Lives Matter Salt Lake City has separated themselves from Scott and the events she leads.
Ashley Finley, one of the founding members of Black Lives Matter Salt Lake City, said she used to organize with Scott’s group, but she saw a need in the community for a chapter that would call for the eventual abolition of police as well as focus more on queer and trans-affirming work. She and her fellow organizers started the group in June and their Instagram page already has more than 12,000 followers. However, Finley said the main thing that distinguishes her group from others in Utah is that they intend to join the Global Network.
“Blackness is not a monolith, neither is activism,” said Finley. “If one group doesn’t fit your personal ideals, there are many different groups you can explore.”
Scott said she doesn’t want to “bash” the Global Network. She acknowledges they have done good things, but she doesn’t think she should have to report to their authority.
“I feel more comfortable running independently because I have control over what our chapter does,” said Scott, who made it clear that her group has no political affiliations, is not involved in advocacy related to family structures and does not promote any kind of economic theory, such as Marxism.
“We may have some different ideals that don’t necessarily match with them. That doesn’t make them bad people, but we have some different ideologies.”
Jacarri Kelley, who lives in Roy, runs the Northern Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter and does not affiliate with the Global Network either. Kelley said there is a lot of confusion about the name, but she has chosen to stick with it because the message of Black Lives Matter is powerful.
“I can’t stand how people are using the movement now, how they’re using Black Lives Matter when they are looting or destroying public property,” said Kelley. “At the end of the day, we shouldn’t have to change the name. For Black people, it’s empowering. Whenever I have a youth event and they say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ just seeing the pride in their eyes, that’s what I live for.”
Howard believes that misconceptions about the movement ultimately stem from a lack of information.
“People are fearful of Black Lives Matter, largely because of the word Black,” said Howard. In an American context, the word “Black” typically has a negative connotation, like when someone says “Black music” or “Black neighborhoods,” Howard said.
“If I’m ignorant, if I don’t know or have knowledge about a particular person or organization, what’s filling those gaps is the negative stereotypes associated with blackness,” said Howard.
The Black Lives Matter Foundation, created by R. Ray Barnes, a 67-year-old music producer who lives in Santa Clarita, California, has been another flashpoint for controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter name. Barnes started the foundation 2015, after his wife’s ex-husband was killed by Los Angeles police. He said that the foundation has raised a few hundred thousand dollars over the past five years, and its main activity has been supporting and telling the stories of Black veterans through the Peaceful Warriors Foundation. Recently, Barnes’ independent foundation has made headlines because corporate donors have allegedly confused it with the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which also calls itself Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc. on its website, even though Barnes owns all URLs related to the name.
Barnes said he is cooperating with the Charitable Trust of California on an investigation to sort out discrepancies. In addition, Barnes said he has received cease and desist orders from the states of New York and Florida, despite his claims that he has never solicited donations in those states.
“It’s a whole lot of confusion,” said Barnes.
While Barnes said the ultimate goal for his foundation is to help create unity between the police and the community, he has no connection with any other Black Lives Matter groups. He does not organize marches, and he does not agree with defunding the police. While he expressed frustration over the confusion between his organization and others, he said there is not necessarily any animosity between them.
“To be in a feud, you have to be in touch with someone. I’ve never spoken with anyone from those organizations,” said Barnes.
Tillery said splintering is normal in a movement. Black Lives Matter can be compared to other social movements seen in the U.S. and Europe since the 1980’s, like the Green Power movement and Occupy Wall Street, which also had a horizontal membership and leadership structure, he said. These movements stand in contrast to the African American civil rights movement, which was led by people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Without a central figure who can act as a strong negotiator, it’s hard to create lasting change on a national level, Tillery said.
“I’m worried that we’re going to have this mass wave of protests and a lot of people who want to make reforms, but no one with the moral authority to carry this movement to victory,” said Tillery. “There’s all of these steps beyond getting people to go and march and demand the arrest of officers, and it doesn’t seem like BLM has that stuff figured out. And that’s very consistent with other movements.”
At the same time, Tillery is impressed by the sheer number of people, especially millennials and members of Generation Z, that the Black Lives Matter movement has mobilized.
“This is an exciting time in America,” said Tillery. “There’s tremendous opportunity, but movements are messy.”
Rich agrees that this is an exciting time for the country. He says his barbershop is a place of community and conversation, and over the past few months, he’s had many opportunities to discuss racial issues with his customers.
“There’s not really a cut and dry way around it. People just need to keep fighting, keep their foot on the gas” said Rich. “Everybody has a different opinion and different outcomes that they would like to see, but I don’t think that that detracts from the movement.”