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At Black Lives Matter house, families are welcomed into space of freedom and healing

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Andre Clements, left, and his wife, Vickki Willis, dance to music during a welcome dinner for the annual Families United 4 Justice Network Conference, hosted by the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation at its mansion in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Willis said her son, Alteriq Pleasant, died in 2022, while in custody at Cook County Jail in Chicago. (AP Photo/Jae C.
Andre Clements, left, and his wife, Vickki Willis, dance to music during a welcome dinner for the annual Families United 4 Justice Network Conference, hosted by the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation at its mansion in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Willis said her son, Alteriq Pleasant, died in 2022, while in custody at Cook County Jail in Chicago. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Photo Gallery

STUDIO CITY, California (AP) — Some of the mystery and controversy shrouding a sprawling Los Angeles-area property owned by a national Black Lives Matter nonprofit have dissipated for dozens of families grieving a loved one killed by police.

The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation Inc., which was widely criticized last year for purchasing a $6 million compound with donations that followed racial justice protests in 2020, hosted the families for a dinner at the home this fall. The event coincided with an annual conference in southern California, where hundreds who are affected by police violence meet to find support in their journeys to healing, accountability and justice.

More than 150 dinner guests, including some who previously accused the foundation of using their loved ones’ names to raise tens of millions of dollars over the last decade, were not just fed and sent on their way. They were given tours of the gated property that has six bedrooms and bathrooms, a swimming pool, a soundstage and office space.

“It was laid out, it was beautiful, it was welcoming,” said Beatrice X Johnson, co-founder of Families United 4 Justice Network, the grassroots social justice group that convened the Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 conference.

She is an aunt to Oscar Grant, the young Black man fatally shot while restrained on an Oakland, California, transit station platform in 2009, and is married to fellow Justice Network founder Cephus X Johnson. The two are affectionately known as Uncle Bobby and Auntie Bee within the community of families — and they once counted themselves among the skeptics of the BLM foundation’s decision to purchase the property.

“There’s been a lot of controversy around this spot, even with families,” Auntie Bee said in an interview after the dinner. “The families wanted to see this place. That’s a no brainer. And who else would be invited to dinner there, if not the families impacted by police?”

As many of these families gather nationwide for another holiday season with empty chairs at their dinner tables, the BLM foundation says the Studio City home will continue to be a refuge for those grieving loved ones killed in incidents of police violence. It’ll also continue to serve as a campus for the foundation’s Black artists fellowship.

They officially call it the “Creators House.”

“I personally call it a home for freedom, because it is where Black people’s gifts and talents can be nurtured in order to flourish,” said Shalomyah Bowers, a BLM foundation board member.

“It’s where we’ve kept our activists and organizers safe. It’s where we plan and organize outside of the confines of white supremacy. And it’s where healing happens,” he added.

For nearly two years, Bowers and other board members have faced intense scrutiny over the foundation’s finances — a scrutiny accentuated by revelations that the $6 million property had been purchased with little input from the movement’s grassroots organizers or families of police brutality victims, whose names rallied the larger movement. After revealing in 2021 that more than $90 million in donations poured into the foundation following worldwide protests over the murder of George Floyd, the latest nonprofit tax filings showed the foundation with $30 million in assets.

In recent interviews with The Associated Press, the foundation continued to defend itself against accusations of mismanagement of its funds.

“I was telling the families that were here, when foundations purchase property, folks laud it as an achievement and a safe investment that builds wealth for the sake of the mission, which is pushing out money to the community,” Bowers said. “But when a Black foundation does it, when we do it, it’s unwise and ill-informed.”

That’s not the crux of the criticism that had come from families, movement supporters and staunch opponents. In 2022, grassroots racial justice activists from all over the U.S. filed a civil lawsuit against the foundation in a California court, alleging leaders had engaged in fraud and broke an agreement to turn over the donated funds to local organizers. In June, a judge dismissed the complaint filed by Black Lives Matter Grassroots Inc., after finding the plaintiffs failed to prove their allegations.

As the dust settled, the foundation sought to reframe the property as part of a larger history of Black activists and artists creating spaces of safety and liberty that are harder to find in white-owned or white-run spaces. Houses of worship and restaurants have featured prominently in historical narratives of Black civil rights leadership and artists movements.

But other kinds of real property, too, served as hubs for organizing resistance and creating art, music, literature and political thought. During the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, overlapping with iterations of the Black struggle for civil rights, the Harlem YMCA was considered a living room for the Black artists movement. Renowned Black novelists Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison often stayed or worked from the Y. The Black Panther Party purchased buildings and homes that served as safehouses and centers for their community survival programs.

That legacy is not lost on Osayi Endolyn, the inaugural artist-in-residence for the BLM foundation’s Black Joy Creators Fellowship. She curated the families’ dinner at the Studio City house, with the help of Shenarri Freeman, a Black chef and restaurateur known for her vegetarian and vegan cuisine, and Brittney Williams, an accomplished private chef who cooked the protein dishes.

“There have always been, you could call them, third spaces, where folks could gather to plan to organize, to rest, to retreat,” said Endolyn, a James Beard Award-winning writer, editor and producer widely known for her work in Black food traditions.

“When we look at so many different symbols of Black resistance, of civil rights, of liberation movements, there’s always some kind of art story being told,” she said.

And that’s the story Endolyn wanted to tell at dinner. The menu included jerk pork, scotch bonnet roasted chicken and grilled suya steak, a dish from West Africa. They also provided baked beans, collard greens, mac ‘n cheese, potato salad, maple buttermilk cornbread and hibiscus lemonade.

It was all a hit with dinner guests.

“Being here, knowing that someone cares about these families and that the families are not left behind, is a really, really good feeling,” said Yolanda Price, whose stepson Jeffrey Price Jr. was killed in a 2018 crash involving a Metropolitan Police Department vehicle in the nation’s capital.

“It lets people know that they are not left behind,” she added.

By the end of the dinner, guests young and old danced to music curated by DJ Francesca Harding. And a sense of trust was bridged between the movement’s directly impacted families and the foundation that has stewardship over BLM’s multimillion dollar endowment.

“Black Lives Matter was a mystery,” said Uncle Bobby, who helped convene the dinner under the banner of the Justice Network’s “Love Not Blood Campaign.” In 2021, the campaign received a five-year, multimillion dollar grant from the foundation.

“Many said, ‘We deserve this.’ We were able to break bread together with the foundation, to claim it as ours.”

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