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How a New Wave of Black Activists Changed the Conversation

“We wanted to bring attention to that we’d had a set of demands, calling for dramatic and radical action, and this death was on their hands,” Montgomery said. They began planning the rally in Powderhorn Park, which included evening calls to persuade City Council members of the rally’s importance and police abolition’s potential. They enlisted powerful people to put pressure on the City Council, including the writer and director Janet Mock. Mock called Jenkins. “I said, I know it’s hard to be the only trans woman in the room, but I know you support this and the work is essential,” Mock told me. “And we’ll have your back if there’s any pushback or criticism.”

Organizing work, by nature, is built on years of relationships. It is deeply personal, which means it tends to include conflict and trust issues. In the wake of the Floyd protests, when the group received a staggering $30 million in online donations — $19 million to Black Visions itself and $11 million to its partner organization, Reclaim the Block — the money, intended to bolster efforts on the ground, instead threatened to undermine them. A group of young Black organizers created avatars in the black-white-yellow motif that read, “Where Is the Money,” a riff on the “In Defense of Black Lives” icons that were adopted during the protests, and they demanded information about the outside funding the organization received. As Carruthers, the Chicago activist, told me over the phone, “People giving in this moment aren’t trying to disrupt the organizing, but the reality of capitalism is that it is patriarchal and inherently anti-Black.” She continued, with a sigh, “Money is always going to be a device that both enables us to obtain material things and reproduces fears and exploitation and conflict. Especially when you introduce it in a space with people who have been chronically underresourced.”

In late June, Black Visions held a public meeting over Zoom to address the concerns raised by their community over the donations. At the meeting, there were Spanish, Somali and American Sign Language interpreters on hand. Songs, including “33,” by the rapper noname, played while people filtered in. The meeting quickly hit capacity. A diverse mix of concerned local attendees showed up, including members of the First Universalist Church, Black Immigrant Collective, Somali Human Rights Commission, Minnesota Youth Collective and Million Artist Movement, as well as local residents, local business owners and several young activists whom I met with on a rainy day the previous week.

Montgomery began the meeting with an apology to the young Black activists. She recognized that the collective had been slow to distribute funds to them, even as many of them had been the ones to come into direct contact with the police — clashes that Black Visions had mostly refrained from engaging in, although it had received vastly more attention and money. An urgent appeal to Black Visions for help covering the cost of supplies like gas masks, protective gear, food and bail had gone unanswered, leading to a significant portion of the current animosity. A 20-year-old activist in the Zoom meeting named Van Covington summarized the frustrations: “The power imbalances between these two organizations that raised $30 million, the followers on Instagram and the simple power that is present is very hard to ignore. I am angry. The other Black youth I work with are angry. The other Black organizers are angry.”

Montgomery responded, “We were not as intentional about the ways we were caring for and tending to our relationships and community, and that is where we really [expletive] up. But I am committed to transforming this harm.”

The group had opened up an informal application process for grants and had been dispersing money in $2,000 increments to people who applied for support. But some people at the meeting felt that amount was too little, given the millions the organization had received. The chat running alongside the video was full of comments like “this is performance” and “this feels censorish.” Noor explained that Black Visions hoped to also use the resources to create what she described as a “Black-led movement ecosystem.” (There’s a precedent for what Black Visions imagines in the Borealis Philanthropy, which helped to fund and fortify a number of influential groups after Ferguson.)

The meeting ended with a promise to continue to offer clarity around financial plans. Since then, the collective has announced a $3.1 million fund for mutual aid and legal funds, as well as grants for Black artists, grass-roots organizations and projects that aim to develop nonpolice models for safety. But the meeting was a test of Black Visions’ value system: Would it be able to address the advantages created by the attention and influx of resources while also benefiting from it? Could it practice restorative justice within its own community, even as it advocated for it nationally? For the group, abolishing the police also means abolishing systems of dominance that are created by uneven wealth distribution and competition. This was already being challenged. Although Montgomery maintained her composure during the call, she canceled our interview that evening, and the next morning, when we met, she still seemed exhausted.

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