In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that interrupted speeches by Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush over the last month, voices on social media, right-wing blogs, and even general-interest sites have pointed to a conspiracy involving liberal billionaire George Soros and a very specific amount of money: $33 million.
“The Soros-funded #blacklivesmatter movement is a big problem for the Democrats,” The American Thinker’s Thomas Lifson wrote this week.
Some of those rumors have gone mainstream, even making an appearance on Fox News’s ratings powerhouse The O’Reilly Factor in late July.
“So who’s funding Black Lives Matter? One of the big donors seems to be George Soros, our old pal, who gives big money to affiliates of Black Lives Matter—groups that do direct business with them,” host Bill O’Reilly said in a July 28 segment. “Also giving money directly to the group [are] entertainers Jay Z and Beyoncé.”
O’Reilly’s guest was Kelly Riddell, who wrote an investigative report for The Washington Times this year about Soros’s charity’s ties to left-wing organizations.
Black Lives Matter is “a group that was started by three women that work at Soros-backed organizations that are into community organizing, into kind of riling up activists,” she said. “They are all—all of these organizations, from a certain standpoint—are funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. I found that within one year, George Soros dedicated $33 million to these types of organizations.”
“So $33 million from Soros to agitators who are organized to disrupt,” O’Reilly said. “And then the national convention for the Republicans in Cleveland seems to be a target.”
But a director at Soros’s Open Society Foundations says the billionaire did not give money to Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, the three activists who rallied together on Twitter in response to the death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer.
“I can’t really speculate on what leads to rumors, but it is wrong,” said Ken Zimmerman, the director of U.S. programs at Open Society Foundations. “I don’t even know where one begins to reconstruct something like that.”
The three women came up with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag to bring attention to the deaths of young black Americans, and the phrase gained prominence with the police killings of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray.
Now, as The Daily Beast reported last week, “Black Lives Matter” is an umbrella term for a decentralized network of everything from blogs to in-person meet-ups—like movie nights or lectures—to protests to Facebook pages, making the task of pinpointing the number to $33 million impossible.
Some writers speculated that Soros’s years-long fundraising for Hillary Clinton may tie his charity directly to the shutdowns of two Sanders speeches in the last month. Soros has raised $2 million in PAC money for Clinton’s campaign this year, and Sanders has recently gained considerable ground on the former first lady in the polls.
“This story is not about George Soros as a person but merely an exploration of what role he and pro-Hillary Clinton activists have within the BLM protests of Senator Bernie Sanders,” The Huffington Post’s David Pakman wrote last week.
But Zimmerman said Soros isn’t in the business of paying for protests.
“We don’t fund protests, per se,” Zimmerman told The Daily Beast. “In the way we do our grant making, we are continually looking for new voices. It’s a broad array of things—including both immigration and criminal justice reform.”
Open Society Foundations spent more than $826 million in 2014. Riddell’s report in The Washington Times details $33 million in domestic expenditures on social justice issues, largely to broad-issue charities. About one-eighth of the $33 million went to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit whose goal is to end the war on drugs.
“I think a lot of people think [the protests] were cooked up in a lab or something,” said Zimmerman. “It’s just not true.”
As The Daily Beast reported last week, the founders of Black Lives Matter did not know that the two local activists who interrupted Sanders’s speech would do so until after the event. The protesters, Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, claimed no official ties to the movement until the day of the event.
Zimmerman said his organization has donated money to groups working on “issues arising out of the Black Lives Matter movement.” OSF helped organize a talk with the hashtag’s cofounder Patrisse Cullors and actor Danny Glover, a spokesperson said.
But Zimmerman said there is simply no way to directly fund an amorphous movement like Black Lives Matter, even if George Soros wanted to. Zimmerman called the suggestion “rumor stew.”
“How and where somebody would tally up those [donations] and somehow combine them with Black Lives Matter—I don’t know,” he said.