Who Owns the Movement, and Where Are They Taking It?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

As funders of the nonprofit industrial complex, the one percent of one percenters literally own what most of us call the movement. Last summer the “Ford Foundation and anonymous donors” pledged to invest $100 million to “strengthen the next generation of social justice leaders… in what many call the Movement for Black Lives.” Do we want to go where the owners of this movement are taking us? Is there any other destination or way to ride?

Who Owns the Movement, and Where Are They Taking It?

By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

For more than a generation now the accepted wisdom, whenever people aim to tackle some societal problem has been to join or start or seek employment with or volunteer for this or that nonprofit organization. It’s just the way Things Are Done. It’s worth noting that our First Black President began his professional career with the nonprofit industrial complex.

Now that the presidential election no longer takes up all the air in every room, it’s time to pay closer attention to the present and future of the peoples movement in the US, namely who owns it and where the movement’s owners are taking it.

Back in August 2016 it was announced that the “Ford Foundation and Anonymous Donors” were helping marshal $100 million dollars for “...field-building activities that strengthen the next generation of social justice leaders.  Specifically, the collaborative effort supports the infrastructure, innovation and dynamism of intersectional Black-led organizing that have become integral components of what many call the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL).”

This is not $100 million from small donors. It’s100 million in big chunks from big people who have never been shy about letting recipients of their largesse know exactly what they expect for their cash. It’s $100 million from the one percent of the one percent, who intend to pick choose and fund the next generation of black leaders, just as they did with the old ones. What activists have come to call “the movement” has in large part been the creature of its one percenter funders. This is the essence of the nonprofit model of social justice activism, and it’s why, as Warren Marr put it, NonProfits Can’t Lead the 99%.

Where the new movement’s owners and their chosen leaders want to go is anybody’s guess. The only thing we can be certain of is that revolutionary changes will not be on the agenda. $100 million can bankroll a lot of careers and organizations going in a number of different directions. One early fruit of this collaboration is a partnership between the Movement For Black Lives and J. Walter Thompson whose clients include corporate criminals Nestle, Shell Oil, and the US Marine Corps, among many others. Last month they premiered the beta version of a web site that’s supposed to tell you the location of the nearest black business.

The myth that black folks ought to be able somehow use our “black buying power” to save or spend our way out of oppression has been discredited many times, most notably by Dr. Jared Ball. But it’s one of those fairy tales one percenters really like, so it’s an obvious place to sink some of that money.

A December 30 Left Voice article by Julia Wallace and Juan Cruz Ferre levels that and some other reasonable criticisms of where the owners of the Black Lives Matter Movement seem to be taking their contraption. They correctly observe that for our people, economic justice requires an end to the capitalist system that drives gentrification, that needs privatization, and that gave birth to racism as we know it.

But the Left Voice alternative to M4BL’s boosting of the same old nonprofit industrial complex as the custodian of our movement is forming a “united front” against Trump, getting into the streets, and waging demonstrations, traffic stoppages and strikes in communities, streets and workplaces. There are lots of problems with this.

For one thing, there is pernicious and well established North American tradition of protest as empty pageantry. Think back to Malcolm X’s depiction of the 1963 March on Washington as a picnic on the mall. Now think forward to antiwar and climate and a hundred other permitted marches in front of state capitols and through canyons of empty office buildings on days when there was no business to disrupt. Though young activists have begun to break from this tradition with traffic stoppages and other tactics, we’re a long way from being able to shut down the critical infrastructure of cities and states.

The technical term for those kinds of actions are strikes and general strikes, respectively. In the absence of deeply rooted organizations supported by membership dues, email lists of millions, or at least hundreds of thousands, Left Voice’s talk about the use of the strike as a weapon capable of shutting down the prison state is transparently delusional.

I’m not saying the strike is the wrong weapon. There’s a very good reason sympathy strikes, non-economic strikes and general strikes are illegal in the US. All of these are illegal because they’re naked and unambiguous exercises of people power. The unfortunate truth is that our movements are nowhere near being able to pull those off, and we’ll never get there unless we can first build some new kinds of organizations to replace the movement’s abject dependence upon the nonprofit industrial complex and its corporate sugar daddies. When the Black Lives Matter people can organize health care workers teachers or Uber drivers in some town, that’ll be time to talk about the strike as a weapon.

Baby steps first. The only way we can begin to take the movement back from the non profits and their one percenter sugar daddies is to pull together local bodies funded by dues and voluntary contributions of members, so that they can pay staff and conduct the peoples business responsible to nobody but the people. This is only a new idea inside the United States. It’s the way Things Are Done everywhere else on the planet.

The only people I know who are intent on doing this right now are some of the left activists in the Green Party, who are committed to taking and remaking it from the bottom up and the inside out, making it member-financed, internally democratic and explicitly socialist party that can secure scores and hundreds of meeting places in every state, and pay local organizers to do what has to be done.

We’re finally past the stage when we simply say that it’s time to start taking our movement back from the nonprofit industrial complex without clear examples of how this can be done. Some of us have a plan, and we’re all over it.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com or via Twitter at @brucedixon.