Trouble Over Ferguson's Unspent Protest Money

by | June 5, 2015

By Stephen Deere

Early last month, a group of Ferguson protesters learned that two long-standing social justice organizations _ Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and the Organization for Black Struggle _ had thousands of dollars in a joint account.

The money, raised through private donations, was supposed to aid protesters by paying for food, travel, gas, meeting spaces and other expenses.

While some of the money appears to have been used for those purposes, about $50,000 was still unspent.

What happened to the money exposed a rift between the numerous protester groups that sprang up after Michael Brown's Aug. 9 death and veteran activists with long-established organizations. It also became fodder for conservative bloggers who claimed that the unrest that began in Ferguson and has since spread across the nation was fueled mostly by outside money and interests.

"Ferguson Rent-A-Mobs Exposed" read a headline on frontpage.com, an online conservative political magazine on May 19.

But Tony Rice, a Ferguson resident and leader of Ground Level Support, a group that helps organize protests and is leading the effort to recall Ferguson Mayor James Knowles, said that characterization was unfounded. "None of that is true," he said. "The only people getting paid to protest are the organizations paying their organizers to organize us."

About a month ago, Rice said, six protesters met with MORE Director Jeff Ordower at a restaurant to support a MORE employee with whom Ordower was having a disagreement.

During that meeting, Ordower mentioned that MORE had $50,000 in an account that "we would like to get out of our hands," Rice said.

"He just brings it up out of the blue," Rice said. "Everybody just looked at each other."

MORE was formed in 2010, after the regional chapter of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) disbanded. Ordower was also the Midwest director for ACORN.

Rice said Ordower told the protesters that the money had come from private donors and was supposed to help support the movement.

Protesters provided Ordower with a list of organizations that should receive some of the money. But he rejected it, Rice said, and then delayed meetings with protesters.

On May 14, a group of protesters from different organizations showed up at MORE's offices on North Skinker Boulevard.

Snippets of video began to appear on Twitter under the hashtag CutTheCheck, showing a group of familiar faces from the protests in Ferguson occupying MORE's offices and demanding that Ordower release the money.

After much discussion, Ordower, who declined to comment on the matter, wrote checks of $2,750 to each of the 17 people.

In the St. Louis American last week, Jamala Rogers, of the Organization for Black Struggle, called the occupation of MORE's offices a "shakedown" in a column titled "Cutthecheck is not a movement."

Rogers, who was a signatory on the bank account, said it was an error in judgment to distribute the money in the fashion in which MORE did. "There is no rationale as to why this group was entitled to the monies over the thousands of people who have been a part of the Ferguson movement," she wrote.

Rogers is a veteran civil rights activist and longtime member of the Organization for Black Struggle, a group that has protested policy brutality and other injustices since the early 1980s.

In contrast to Rogers' column, an anonymous blog post on the Tumblr account of Millennial Activists United, some of whose members occupied MORE's offices in May, said: "There is an insidious strand of racism and white supremacy that exists in this movement and it is called the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. As a byproduct, it provides decent salaries and comfort to many people who are not directly affected by the disparities that they are trying to address."

Rice, of Ground Level Support, did acknowledge that as the Ferguson protest began taking shape, MORE and the Organization for Black Struggle were two organizations set up to take in donations.

At the May meeting with protesters, MORE released a list of payments it had made from the joint account with the Black Struggle group that totaled about $153,000. The largest of those is a $52,815 debt repayment for Ferguson October, which was a series of protests over a four-day period last year.

Other payments covered travel expenses to Selma, Ala., and Washington, D.C., for various individuals, catering company bills and stipends for food and gas cards.

But the list is not an actual bank statement.

"There's no telling how much these two organizations have been taking in since August," Rice said. "We have no way of making them accountable for anything."

(c)2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch