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Struggle for control of the Black Lives Matter organization heads to court

A judge tentatively rejected a bid to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Black Lives Matter Grassroots against the Black Lives Matter Global Network on anti-SLAPP grounds.

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.

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"The complaint is based on representations about the transition, what has been done with the money, and misappropriation," said Trumper. "We’re not challenging them for soliciting funds — that’s not the point of the complaint."

The point, Trumper said, was that Cullors and Bowers had told Abdullah that organizational control over BLM would be given to BLM Grassroots. As a result, he said, Abdullah and others refrained from building out the infrastructure of their own organization.

"It wasn’t until 2022 that they realized these were false promises," Trumper said. "They induced inaction on the part of BLM Grassroots. Now they're cut off at the knees. It’s now March of 2023. They could’ve had the infrastructure 2 1/2 years ago."

McLaine countered that although there had been "discussions" about transferring leadership of the organization from Cullors to Abdullah, "nothing was promised." He suggested Bowers and the board members simply changed their mind about Abdullah based in part, according to the anti-SLAPP motion, on "countless allegations of Abdullah’s financial malfeasance, unprincipled decision-making, and a leadership style rooted in retribution and intimidation."

On Wednesday, LA County Superior Court Judge Stephanie Bowick said she would likely deny the motion on the grounds that the activity being sued over did not fall under the protected activity contemplated in the anti-SLAPP statute. She said she would issue a ruling next Wednesday, when the hearing will continue.

Trumper said the anti-SLAPP motion was the defense "grasping at ways to get the case kicked out early, so that we don’t get an opportunity to dig deeper into the organization that they now have."

Dozens of BLM activists showed up to the hearing, filling the tiny courtroom and spilling out into the hallway. All were in support of BLM Grassroots and Abdullah.

"Black Lives Matter is a movement of the masses of people," Abdullah said after the hearing. "Bowers isn’t here. None of the other board members are here. It’s standard practice for them. These are folks that are about their own personal interests and not about the movement. They left this to their lawyers." (Bowers said he and two board members were watching the hearing remotely.)

The dispute, she said, was about "restoring the resources platforms and good name of Black Lives Matter to the people who built it and fuel it."

Bowers hit back at Abdullah in a text message, reading in part: "Melina is the ringleader of an orchestrated defamation campaign against me and the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. She continues to spread verifiably false and outlandish statements about my work, my background and my character in hopes that I will step down. Well, I’m not. I will not bow to her fear and intimidation tactics of false accusations and social media lynching."

McLain said he was "optimistic" that the judge would "make a decision that is supported by the law." He added: "I don’t think whether you’re a nonprofit or a newspaper impacts whether you have freedom of speech and First Amendment rights."

Bowers's case was given an unlikely boost when, in December, Cullors filed a short, 6-page declaration in support of Bowers and the current BLM leadership, saying that it was her decision to turn over control of the organization and its social media channels to Bowers. Abdullah, in her own (much longer) declaration, accused Cullors of a "lack of transparency and honest information-sharing with leaders at the grassroots level who were doing the actual work the public saw and supported."

After the hearing Wednesday, Abdullah said she and Cullors "have a very complicated relationship" and noted that the two had spoken a number of times this year following the death of Cullors' cousin — a death Cullors has blamed on the LAPD.

Abdullah added: "I don’t think the declaration that she wrote in December would’ve been the same in January."

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Categories / Civil Rights, National

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