In the wake of the horrific police killing of George Floyd, activists, corporations, and celebrities leaped to donate to the Black Lives Matter cause. They gave millions to the Black Lives Matter Foundation, only later to realize that the foundation is not affiliated with the anti-police Black Lives Matter movement. While the Black Lives Matter Foundation appears to have reaped a fortune from the mix-up, the man who created the foundation insists that the Black Lives Matter movement co-opted his idea, not the other way around.
“I don’t have anything to do with the Black Lives Matter Global Network. I never met them; never spoke to them. I don’t know them; I have no relationship with them,” Robert Ray Barnes, the founder of the Black Lives Matter Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “Our whole thing is having unity with the police department.”
A Black Lives Matter movement spokesperson confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the two groups are “two completely separate organizations” and that the foundation “has nothing to do with us.” The spokesperson insisted, “the Santa Clarita group is improperly using our name. We intend to call them out and follow up.”
Barnes, a 67-year-old music producer in Los Angeles, defended the organization’s name. “No one owns the concept,” he insisted. The foundation owner explained that as a black man, his life had been tainted by painful experiences with police, including the 2011 death of his wife’s ex-husband allegedly at the hands of the Los Angles Police Department.
Barnes claimed the Black Lives Matter movement had “stolen” his name and idea. He argued that the movement is an opaque organization, not transparent about how it uses donations. He registered the 501(c)3 foundation in California in May 2015, after the Black Lives Matter movement had begun to pick up steam during the Ferguson protests in August 2014. Yet the movement’s official name, “Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc” was not registered in the State of Delaware until 2017. The official movement is not a nonprofit — it raises money through a charity partner called Thousand Currents.
The Black Lives Matter Foundation has benefited from the brand confusion as people conflated the two and funneled millions into his charity through GoFundMe, PayPal, or employee donation matching platforms.
“It appears there is a lot of scamming going on, but how can it have to do with me?” Barnes asked. “I had plenty of motivation to create the Black Lives Matter Foundation and the people who were doing Black Lives Matter weren’t interested in a foundation. They never created it. Now all of the [sic] sudden they’re interested in it.”
According to estimates from BuzzFeed News, donors raised at least $4.35 million for the Black Lives Matter Foundation in the first weeks of June. Georgetown University’s a capella group, the Phantoms, raised nearly $1,100 for the foundation, without knowing it had no connection to the movement. Corporations including Apple, Google, and Microsoft raised $4 million for the foundation, and almost delivered the money.
While the foundation is experiencing a windfall from the confusion, it may actually contribute more to social harmony than the official movement.
The Black Lives Matter movement calls for the defunding of police, but the foundation wants to bring police and communities closer together.
“Today, we think most people would agree, that regardless of race, something must [be] done to heal the [rifts] between some communities and the police, and with your help we at BLMFoundation have the very ideas to do just that,” reads the foundation’s mission statement on Benevity, a charity platform used by Apple, Google, and other companies to encourage employee donations.
The Black Lives Matter Foundation supports “Community Organized Programs” to bring police officers and community leaders together for an annual buffet dinner and other events. Barnes also supports distributing bulletins featuring positive news about police for display at local businesses.
“Crime exists now and will forever continue, so we desperately need the services of the police; however, we need the services of good police,” Barnes wrote about the foundation. “We need police officers that will respect all life equally and apply deadly force only when absolutely necessary. I know this may sound a little crazy, but what happened to warning shots and shooting unarmed fleeing suspects in the leg?”
Barnes claimed the Black Lives Matter movement actually stole his name.
“They took my name and put this ‘inc’ behind it,” he told BuzzFeed News. “They took my name. I own that name. I haven’t stolen anything from them. They have stolen from me. They have lied and been able to profit using my name.”
Since the Black Lives Matter movement was amorphous for so long, Barnes has a strong argument. After all, why should corporations and activists fundraise boatloads of cash for a Black Lives Matter organization antagonistic to police when they could fundraise for a Black Lives Matter foundation dedicated to bringing police and communities back together? After all, the foundation did come first.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.