Patrisse Cullors cries when she remembers the fear she felt while checking into treatment for a mental breakdown, how she prayed during the entire ride to the facility.
“I really thought I was gonna die,” said the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. “I thought I was either gonna get killed by a crazy white supremacist — you know, they’re gonna show up to my house — or I was gonna kill myself. I was really preparing for death.”
Cullors had endured threats and criticism for years, but the turning point came in April 2021, when news outlets reported that Cullors had been on a personal “million-dollar real estate buying binge.” She was denounced by the usual critics on the right. But the stories also generated anger from inside the movement, including from family members of people killed by police.
Cullors denounced the reports as misleading but stepped down from the Black Lives Matter Global Network a month later. Five weeks after that, in July, she entered treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now, six months since that day, Cullors, 38, is still recovering from the experience and says she’s still committed to Black lives. She’s also full of insights regarding what went wrong (and what went right) during her years in leadership. But instead of reaching out, she’s turning her organizing talents inward. She’s getting herself together.
“When the larger construct that you invested in abandons you, where do you go? I think that’s what I’m really trying to figure out right now,” Cullors said. “I’m in this place where I’m trying to heal what happened while also making sense of it.”
Black Lives Matter began as a rallying cry on July 13, 2013, after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Alicia Garza, an Oakland activist, posted what she called a love letter to Black people on Facebook, writing, “Our lives matter.” Cullors, a friend of Garza, replied with the now ubiquitous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. New York activist Opal Tometi then used the words while building a digital network of community organizers and antiracism activists.
The simple phrase struck a nerve, allowing Cullors, Garza and Tometi to rally other activists and form the Black Lives Matter Global Network with chapters nationwide.
Black Lives Matter took on an urgent meaning in 2014 when an unarmed Mike Brown was gunned down by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. BLM now described a movement, not just the namesake organization or the numerous like-minded groups protesting under the Black Lives Matter banner.
The movement and global network broke through in 2020 following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Millions of dollars flowed into the network and polling showed that, for the first time, most Americans expressed some support for the movement.
By then Garza and Tometi had left to lead other organizations, but Cullors stayed on, determined to build out the Black Lives Matter Global Network infrastructure to meet the moment, to corral a loose network of organizations under one umbrella.
It wasn’t easy. The Black Lives Matter Global Network was made up of grass-roots organizers and being decentralized was a major strength; there was no one leader for critics to target and decisions were made, ideally, with group input. But that loose structure made it harder for the organization to move quickly. It was also a barrier for funding.
“I come from flat models, where we all do the work and there’s no hierarchy,” said Cullors, who started out in the arts and local organizing. She now sees value in a hierarchy, “that’s rooted in collaboration but is very clear on roles and responsibilities.”
She hired a nonprofit services leader, the Tides Center, to manage the organization’s back office and accounting. Then in a controversial step, Cullors assumed the role of executive director. Lastly, she created two arms of the organization, the Black Lives Matter Political Action Committee to engage in politics and BLM Grassroots to oversee the organization’s chapters.
The sudden reorganization exacerbated simmering tensions within the group. In December 2020, 10 local chapters calling themselves the BLM10 published an open letter claiming that Cullors became executive director “against the will of most chapters and without their knowledge.” They also claimed that chapter organizers had been prevented from informing the direction of the group and that most chapters had received “little to no financial support from BLMGN since the launch in 2013.”
Four months after the open letter, the New York Post reported that since 2016, Cullors had spent an estimated $3.2 million on four properties, three in the Los Angeles area and one outside of Atlanta.
A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.
“As protests broke out across the country in the name of Black Lives Matter, the group’s co-founder went on a real estate buying binge, snagging four high-end homes,” it read.
The story noted the $90 million the Black Lives Matter Global Network raised in 2020 and questioned how much Cullors earned as its head. Other outlets, including the Washington Times and Fox News, published similar stories within days. The takeaway for many readers was that she had purchased property using movement money.
In fact, Cullors did not purchase the properties with funds from the BLM Global Network , which reported she had received only a total of $120,000 since the group’s inception in 2013 and nothing after 2019.
She points out that she has had two lucrative book deals, one of which produced a New York Times bestselling memoir in 2018. She signed a production deal with Warner Bros. in 2020 to develop programming “for children, young adults and families.”
Cullors has another deal with YouTube, does public speaking, operates an art gallery in South L.A. and teaches at Prescott College, a private liberal arts college in Arizona.
“One of the biggest dreams for Black folks is land and home ownership,” Cullors said. “I knew that in order to have a certain level of stability I wanted to own a home and I also wanted people in my life to have access to home ownership. It means that I’ve co-financed homes, and I’ve supported folks to be on the path of home ownership. This isn’t new. Black women are often the primary breadwinners and supporters of our family members and community members.”
A conservative group called the National Legal and Policy Center ultimately took credit for investigating Cullors’ finances using public records and releasing the information to media outlets. The damage, however, was done.
In the aftermath, Samaria Rice and Lisa Simpson, both mothers of sons killed by police, released a statement calling on Cullors, the organization and other activists under the Black Lives Matter banner to “step down, stand back, and stop monopolizing and capitalizing our fight.”
Simpson, whose 18-year-old son Richard Risher was killed by Los Angeles police in 2016 in the Nickerson Gardens housing development, held a news conference outside of a South L.A. property owned by Cullors.
“Black lives don’t matter. Your pockets matter,” she declared.
“Y’all come into our lives and act like y’all got our back and y’all want to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Simpson continued. “But after we bury our children, we don’t see B, L or M, but y’all out here buying properties.”