On May 14, tensions inside the St. Louis movement for justice reached a critical stage. Some younger protesters felt that more established organizations were hoarding money that should be going toward basic needs. They were successful in demanding that checks be written to seventeen people personally, and the account designed to meet joint needs was emptied. This piece was written in an attempt to understand and contribute to the healthy debate that has followed. –John Chasnoff
In the wake of the internal controversy surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in St. Louis, many have called for a re-thinking of the financial structures governing our dispersal of money. I completely agree that we need a broad-based black-led democratic process around money and around sorting out issues. I also think MIssourian Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) and the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) have gotten a bum rap, along with some fair criticism, for trying to carry on in the absence of such structures.
Democratic structures are not easy to create. Both MORE and OBS have proposed and tried to implement them since the fall: the People’s Movement Assemblies, the model for various Circles with representation on a Steering Committee, the creation of the Action Council, the support for a Black Unity Table etc.
But the movement would not have happened in nearly as successful a fashion if those two organizations had not put all of themselves and their resources on the line, in the process creating and administering the crucial jail support system, raising the money and creating structures for Ferguson October, and more. In the absence of a democratic process, someone had to be the stewards of the money, and many of us have seen the rank theft and embezzlement that can happen in the movement when a non-principled person is given access.
That being said, the criticisms of the Non-Profit-Industrial-Complex and any other top-down approach are valid. The issues around what kind of work gets funded and what does not is crucial. The movement would not have happened without the spontaneous and ongoing protests in the streets, and that work should not be devalued because it is not “organized.” But clearly there is no way to pay everyone to protest. There might be ways to better support that work, the way unions support workers with strike funds. Organizations can be set up to provide social services such as food and housing, unlike MORE and OBS which are oriented toward political action, if they structure themselves to receive and spend money with accountability. We need to sort that out.
OBS and MORE responded to those critiques by setting up processes for others to apply for the money; some of those worked and some did not, partly because new protesters did not have any systems for receiving and being accountable about money. Both orgs were transparent about all the finances, but transparency in the absence of better communication and decision-making structures wasn’t enough.
Maybe OBS and MORE didn’t prioritize these issues enough or be creative enough…I don’t know. I do know that they offered to create better structures once again with those sitting in at the MORE office, but folks just wanted the money. That is the poor choice that I think Jamala Rogers (a founding member of OBS and a signatory on the bank account in question) was focusing on, along with the choice in giving in to those demands. The fact that things got to the place where those choices were even being put forward—that’s on all of us, not just the ones who ended up in a situation we all contributed to.
The point is to avoid blame and to recognize almost everyone’s good will rather than factionalizing. There’s a place for well-thought-out non-profits and for those who dislike them. There’s a place for more traditional resistance and for new models of resistance. There is a role for money in the movement and places money should not be. In fact, there’s a need for all of that and a way to work together, as long as we actualize, in the words of Assata Shakur, our “duty to love one another.”