This article was originally published on June 25, 2020.
Black Freedom is a group of mostly young, mostly Black advocates, and they might be one of the most visible activist groups in Columbus right now. They’ve been reported on in the Columbus Dispatch, Spectrum News, and 10TV, and several local organizers have spoken out about them.
In fact, they heard so much from other activists and organizers that Black Freedom announced they would be “taking a back seat” to others leaders in the movement on June 25. The day before, Columbus Freedom Fund, a community bail fund, posted on Facebook advising protesters to avoid the group’s actions and said that one of the groups leaders had threatened to shoot a Black woman for disagreeing with Black Freedom’s approach.
Before the group’s announcement, most people on the street seemed not to know who Black Freedom is or where they came from.
Despite the public visibility, Black Freedom is a brand new activist organization, co-founder Mark Granville Jr. said.
“We all just kind of met through all some of the chaos during the protest,” he told Matter News on June 12. “I don’t think the majority of us knew each other before the death of George Floyd. I believe it was Friday and Saturday, we figured out a way to bring together a group that could do something powerful.”
A combination of the group’s visibility in media, newness and message have found many protestors distrustful of the group’s actions.
Although being newly formed, Black Freedom often found themselves at the front of many protest marches, other protesters reported. They often led large groups through the city, even having dialogues at the statehouse.
Yet, their methodology has attracted distrust from many protesters.
Diamond Crawford said she was marching up High Street near OSU campus, and Black Freedom at the time was leading the group.
“Those [people] led us to slaughter,” she said. “We were marching up High Street, then they disappeared. Next thing I knew, the police had boxed us in on all sides.”
“I saw [Earl] at the protests the day before [on May 30],” protester Deion Genesis said about Black Freedom’s leader Jones. “He went up to the cops and shook hands. He said something like ‘We need to do work on the inside to make a change.’”.
“I saw them talking with police for long lengths of time during gatherings of protestors at the statehouse,” Tiera Suggs, a protestor, said. “The day the curfew was lifted, [Black Freedom], after talking with police, came to speak to the crowd. They said a few things about BLM before telling everyone they should just go home. It was 8 PM.” Suggs said that the crowd didn’t agree with leaving at 8 PM, and they stayed out marching past midnight. The actions brought Suggs to check Facebook for more information about Black Freedom, but she said she was verbally attacked when she tried to ask more questions in their Facebook group.
Right now, many protesters and organizers are advocating for large changes in policing, such as defunding or disbanding police departments.
Black Freedom doesn’t agree with defunding or disbanding police at all.
“Abolishing or defunding the police, I believe that they’ll always find a way to fund the police… I understand where some people are coming from, but do believe that the police will get funded somehow,” said Granville.
More longstanding justice and activist groups said they have concerns about Black Freedom.
“They came out of thin air. Although the organizing community has our differences, we will show up for each other,” said Charlie Stewart of the Black Queer Intersectional Collective. “None of us know who these people are, and we haven’t ever seen them before.” Stewart also said that Black Freedom has taken jabs at the effectiveness of other activist groups.
“The fact they would take a meeting [with Columbus police] without talking to any other activist groups, and while they’ve been talking against other activist groups, was pretty disrespectful,” Stewart continued.
Showing Up for Racial Justice, BQIC and other local black activist groups have advocated staunchly for defunding CPD.
In a video, Jones, Black Freedom’s leader, is seen walking with police on May 31, six days after the killing of George Floyd. He tells the camera, “Show the world, Columbus Police is marching with us.”
However, many people report still being gassed, maced, and attacked by police, mere blocks away while that video was recorded.
A few days later on June 8, Black Freedom and representatives from Columbus Police Department met at the police headquarters. Granville, one of Black Freedom’s co-founders, said that the meeting had been live-streamed for transparency, but the is only publicly available video is with Deputy Chief Jen Knight and Jones outside of the police headquarters after the meeting.
“We met the police while marching through Columbus and requested a meeting to figure out the best way to help the cause,” said Granville.
Black Freedom also met with Columbus Police on June 17th. They reportedly served CPD with a contract to sign demanding police reform. The list is similar to the eight policies outlined in the #8cantwait campaign, but it was presented after Mayor Andrew Ginther announced they’d be adopting the #8cantwait strategies to police reform. According to WOSU, CPD had already been practicing four of the eight reforms before the protests had started.
Columbus Police Department said the department has met with many groups in Columbus.
“The Columbus Division of Police has met and continues to meet with a number of community groups including Black Freedom, as well as BREAD, NAACP and more,” Denise Alex-Bouzounis, spokesperson for CPD, said in an email on June 12. “Our goal is to engage in positive dialogue for meaningful change in community-police relations.”
Both Black Freedom and CPD deny having a paid relationship.
Black Freedom’s seeming affinity for cops has led people to question the group’s motives, but Columbus isn’t the only city where this is happening. In a recent Twitter thread, there are more than 200 responses of people in cities all across the country, expressing their concerns that the protests in their cities have been intentionally hijacked and made more benign, possibly by outside agents.
Historically, governments and other entities have used similar tactics to derail civil rights movements. In the 1960’s, the FBI’s “COINETELPRO” program — abbreviated from counter intelligence program — spied on and infiltrated people as high-profile as Martin Luther King Jr. and attempted to influence or discredit the civil-rights movement. The FBI also used agents provocateur — a person who encourages illegal activity in order to get a conviction — within the Black Panthers. Some even believe the Baltimore branch of the Panthers was founded by an agent provocateur, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Black Freedom’s closeness with police and message are raising lots of questions among activists. With protests continuing for the foreseeable future, those questions remain.