The Corrupting Influences of Money, Power, and Ego in the Black Lives Matter Movement

By Ashleigh Shackelford

In our activism and revolutionary self-reflection, we rarely talk about the growing pains of wanting liberation, how to get that liberation, and what we need to survive on the way to seeking that liberation. Historically, we’ve seen the Black Power Movement infiltrated, divided, and hindered by CointelPro, white supremacist tools (money and power), and unchecked egos. But when can we, individually and collectively, step back and address our personal motivations within Black liberation and recognize how we may be attributing to our movement not moving forward?

It's imperative to recognize that we can be contributors and perpetuators of tools and facets of white supremacy. And that’s some hard shit to swallow. Point. Blank. Period. As Black folks, it’s not our fault that we are oppressed, violated, murdered, and erased. We only have so much control over our lives and our trajectory but we have to recognize that the allure of money, power, and access is a hell of a white supremacist drug.
We all want money to be comfortable, to look good, to be happy, and to create a better living situation for families that we’ve never been able to experience. We all want power because some of us have never had the agency to be seen as powerful or worthy. Unfortunately, some of us want power to challenge systems that oppress us but also want to recreate those systems in other ways through privileges we have yet to check. We all want access because we’ve been systematically, interpersonally, and internally denied access to health care, education, food, clean and safe environments, body autonomy and choice, and/or emotional well-being.

But how do we decolonize our need to have these things, especially when they’re offered to us as an illusion by white supremacist agents? There are activists with large followings and name brands (generally folks with a lot of privilege – gender, sexuality, presentation, education, etc.) that get opportunities to get jobs, speaking engagements, media coverage, and invitations to events. And a lot of those same forerunners within the Black Lives Matter Movement* (not the organization) are folks who happen to be opportunists and focused on infiltrating a system while trying to benefit from it financially, representationally, and/ or egotistically.

At what point can these representational leaders be checked and accountable for their behavior? When can we have honest conversations with these same folks that are given platforms to discuss Black Liberation but refuse to listen to the same folks they represent? When can we talk about who is chosen to keep having these conversations for us? When will we know the true motives of the folks who get the most representation and platform? How do we also check the folks that are within our personal networks when there’s no audience to watch, no Twitter screenshots, and just internalized pain within our smaller communities?

Is it about access to liberation and if we know we can change the world? Do we fall victim to the idea that freedom is impossible to access within our lifetime? Do we try to navigate the system without challenging it more because we don't think we can ever do enough? Are some of us thinking we can exploit a system while also benefiting from it financially because we can't destroy it now anyways? Are we more caught up in opportunity and money than we are with true liberation because it’s easier? And can we even admit it when we are?

These same components of white supremacist capitalism – money, power, respect, access, opportunity – that we seek to gain are the same systems that violate us. Phantoms of white supremacy can and do exist within our activist work and our internal struggle. It revolves around our personal accountability and our private and interpersonal behaviors affecting our liberation and our community building. And it's hard to separate what we need, what we want, and what's necessary to get everyone liberated while still giving ourselves/folks the capacity to be complicated.

Ask yourself:
  1. Do you truly believe liberation is possible? 
  2. What power structure do you want to see if you choose to dismantle our current systems? 
  3. What role do you want to play in dismantling this system and what role do you want to play within the new system? What form of power is required within these chosen roles?
  4. What are you willing give up to dismantle oppressive power structures?
  5. Do you truly understand that decolonization starts internally? Are you willing to be vulnerable and accountable enough to recognize your own interpersonal/internalized oppressive behavior? Are you willing to resolve and move forward from those behaviors and thoughts because we need each other?
Addressing how our activism, ego/human nature, and white supremacist systems all coincide when we discuss how to go about true liberation. And really, what is true liberation? Could you imagine a world rid of white supremacist patriarchal and capitalistic power, which in turn meant that it would eliminate gender roles/expectations, misogyny, transphobia, queerphobia, ableism, fatphobia, colorism, anti-Blackness, and classism? Is it possible to make liberation a reality without destroying everything we know? Do we honestly believe that violence, destruction, and reconstruction are not a part of the implementation of liberation? We cannot lend ourselves to our oppressor's moral conscious if they do not have one. Therefore we HAVE to understand that we will never be liberated without physical, emotional, structural, theoretical, and internal destruction of the society and anti-Black systems we currently know. We have to believe and trust that liberation is always possible regardless of how figurative it sounds. We will win. But in the words of Lauryn Hill, “How you gon’ win if you ain’t right within?”
We have to start the conversation(s) about where the Black Lives Matter Movement* (not the organization) is going and how we can address these realities that have been present historically within Black liberation tactics and efforts. It is imperative that we self-reflect to get free. It is imperative that we can effectively address these issues within our social circles, families, activist networks, and with our community to get liberated. In the words of the powerful Assata Shakur: We have nothing to lose but our chains.

*Black Lives Matter Movement refers to the present overall Black liberation effort. This is not to be conflated with the specific Black Lives Matter organization or its chapters but rather to recognize that our holistic efforts to get free have been justifiably and erroneously inserted under an umbrella term of ‘Black Lives Matter’ (to reflect the revolutionary hashtag #blacklivesmatter created by the founders of the Black Lives Matter organization). It has made it confusing to decipher between who’s associated with specific Black activist organizations (i.e. BYP, MAU, Dream Defenders, Million Hoodies, etc.) versus who’s associated with general Black liberation, but my references are specific to the movement overall and not towards any specific chapter or organization.

Photo: cdrin/Shutterstock

Ashleigh Shackelford is a radical Black fat femme queer writer that resides in Baltimore, MD. Ashleigh is a pop-culture enthusiast, a community organizer at Black Action Now, and the founder of a body positivity organization Free Figure Revolution. She is currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in African American Studies at Morgan State University.

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