LOS ANGELES (CN) — The internecine struggle for control of the Black Lives Matter organization spilled into a Los Angeles courtroom on Wednesday for arguments on a motion to dismiss a lawsuit against the current leadership on free speech grounds.
The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in September 2022, accuses the head of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Shalomyah Bowers, of using the world-famous organization as his "personal piggy bank" by siphoning off more than $10 million from donors, as well as stealing control of the organization "through a series of misrepresentations and unauthorized backroom dealings."
Plaintiff Black Lives Matter Grassroots, a sort of satellite organization run by Melina Abdullah, a longtime progressive activist who founded the LA chapter of Black Lives Matter (or BLM) filed the lawsuit. In a declaration filed earlier this month, Abdullah said that the former leader of BLM (and one of its three co-founders), Patrisse Cullors, had been "positioning" Abdullah to take over the organization after Cullors stepped down but that Bowers maneuvered to gain control, eventually locking her out of BLM's digital platforms and social media accounts, which Abdullah had been routinely posting on and using to organize.
Since its inception a decade ago, Black Lives Matter has been among the most influential — and controversial — political and social movements of the day. It has pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable for left-leaning voters, urging governments to "defund the police" and "end white supremacy," and helping to popularize such words as "woke" and "intersectionality," a term once confined to the halls of academia.
Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag, inspired by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the lethal shooting of Trayvon Martin, and for years was a largely decentralized movement, with little infrastructure or administrative know-how. After cities erupted into violent protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder by Minneapolis police officers, donations began to pour into Black Lives Matter, which had by then incorporated itself as Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. The $90 million windfall was more than the organization could handle and by 2021, local BLM chapters and family members of the victims of police killings were demanding greater transparency.
Cullors, serving as executive director of the BLM Global Network, became the subject of intense scrutiny and it was reported that she owned a number of houses which were collectively worth more than $3 million. It was around this time that Shalomyah Bowers was brought in, initially as a consultant. A month later, he was promoted to deputy executive director. Cullors stepped down in May 2021.
"Within months," Black Lives Matter Grassroots claims, "Bowers had run [two] well-respected advocates out of the organization. Through a series of misrepresentations and unauthorized backroom dealings, Mr. Bowers managed to steal control over GNF as the sole Board member and officer."
The defendants — the BLM Global Network Foundation, Bowers, and Bowers' consulting firm — filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on anti-SLAPP grounds, a legal tactic often employed by news organizations to block lawsuits meant to dissuade free speech. They argued most of the activity challenged in the civil complaint — BLM Global Network's fundraising, donating and social media messaging — were protected speech.
"It’s the essence of their complaint," said Byron McLain, the attorney representing the BLM Global Network Foundation, during Wednesday's hearing. "Using funds, making representations to the public and using social media — the issues are with transparency, as to how my client is using their First Amendment rights."
Todd Trumper, an attorney representing BLM Grassroots, said the complaint isn't about free speech, but about fraud.