While Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists have already made an indelible impact on the 2016 presidential race, its founders have consistently made it clear that they do not plan to endorse candidates. So when a little noticed new committee calling itself Black Lives Matter PAC LLC registered with the Federal Election Commission late last month, it came as something of a surprise.
Did this signal a shift in strategy for the grassroots racial justice movement?
Kenny Murdock, a former aide to then-Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) and host of a St. Louis radio show called the Murdock Report, told ThinkProgress that he and a small group of Missouri activists registered the PAC, hoping to add “a branch on the tree of Black Lives Matter that’s bending toward the sun of social justice.”
CREDIT: The Murdock Report
The PAC’s aims are ambitious. “We want to spent money on education materials, candidate-based materials,” Murdock explained. “A lot of voters go into the voting booth, care nothing about those judges…the systems of justice that oppress them, that produce tickets whenever they walk,” he said, referring to the notoriously predatory ticketing practices that have disproportionately impacted people of color in numerous St. Louis county municipalities. According to Murdock, the group plans to start in Missouri and neighboring Illinois, and then build a national network from there.
And unlike the BLM network, Murdock expects the Black Lives Matter PAC will endorse political candidates at the local and federal level.
How will it raise the money needed to build a national organization? Murdock said he plans to ask professional athletes. “It’s good, since they have capital,” he explained, adding that “money is starting to come in” already. The group has not yet been required to file any campaign finance disclosure reports.
But while forming a PAC is easy — anyone can register one for free by completing a short form — building that into an impactful political force is no simple task. A ThinkProgress review of the Federal Election Commission’s 2013-2014 data, found that of the 9,383 registered political action committees (including lobbyist/registrant, leadership, and unauthorized PACs), just 5,362 received even a penny receipts that two-year period. Of those that did raise any money, the median haul from 2013 to 2014 was less than $55,000 — possibly enough to play an important role locally but well below what it likely costs to make national splash. And as a traditional PAC (as opposed to a super PAC like American Crossroads), Black Lives Matter PAC can only accept a maximum of $5,000 annually from each donor.
Murdock said he and his colleagues started the BLM political action committee “because we saw BLM might have been missing a nuance it needed. Unfortunately today, our politics is somewhat a plutocracy. We’re not playing their game, as Barry White said.” He said he intends to reach out to the national organizers of the movement, but rushed to register the PAC when he got word that some pro-law enforcement activists in St. Louis were trying to co-opt the name. Now, he noted, “we look forward to having better conversations with the other branches of our family tree of social justice.”
As it turns out, another individual registered a little-noticed super PAC in August which also used the Black Lives Matter name. The Black Lives Matter super PAC was created by Tarik Mohamed in New York City, though it does not appear to have done anything yet and the homepage URL listed in its paperwork leads only to a GoDaddy “This Web page is parked” placeholder page. Mohamed also registered an I Can’t Breathe super PAC last year that has so far has also been mostly dormant and was officially warned by the Federal Election Commission for its apparent failure to file any required 2015 disclosures. Mohamed did not respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about his super PACs.
But is either committee actually affiliated with BLM? Not in any official sense, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told ThinkProgress. In a phone interview, she sounded a cautious note about groups that seek to use the movement’s name for political activities. “Our folks have said to us is we don’t want to endorse candidates, but to push system of democracy to another level… That’s where we’re headed,” she explained. “I have a lot of respect for people who want to do different things. But I have questions: Who are they connected to, what are they gonna do with that?”
Garza embraced the idea that people like Murdock and Mohamed could contribute to the broader movement. “Everybody has something to contribute,” she said. “The idea is not that we should all be doing the same thing. In history of social movements, they were many different planks and impact from all of them.”
Is the movement worried about the reality that just about anyone can start a political action committee or local organization and say they are Black Lives Matter?
Garza believes while the “level of trendiness” of the BLM name has caused some confusion regarding which efforts are and are not really part of the Black Lives Matter movement, impostors who are not aligned with the movement’s values will likely be pretty obvious and their efforts will “fall flat.”
“The thing about ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a moniker is it feels like people are pretty clear on what it stands for and what it doesn’t,” Garza said. “When people act out of alignment with our network and our principles, it doesn’t go very far. If people are trying to do nefarious things under the name, it quickly gets checked. And that speaks to the saliency of what people really want — to be part of a movement that has integrity and is pushing the edges of what is possible.”