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Police are investigating after Bucks County business owners received extortion letters that claim to be from Black Lives Matter Philly.
The local BLM chapter immediately clarified they had nothing to do with the notes. Received by at least two Newtown, Pa., businesses, the letters threaten violence or arson if proprietors don’t make donations to the activist organization.
“Black Lives Matter is calling you out,” the letters read, according to screenshots provided to Billy Penn. “We want you to donate money to us, anything over 500.00 is good.” Threats follow, saying that that if funds are not donated [sic], “We will burn your bussiness to the ground” and “put you out of bussiness for good.”
Shops and restaurants in the suburban town have been receiving them since Aug. 8, and as recently as Aug. 13, according to the Newtown Township Police Department.
“It’s so obvious it’s not us,” said Devren Washington, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Philly. “But slowly but surely, a lot of people from outside Philadelphia started messaging us, yelling at us.”
Washington said he’s seen notes like this before during his three years with the group, but it’s happened more often this summer, after the movement that brought out tens of thousands to protest racism and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
BLM Philly is one of a few dozen local chapters affiliated with the national organization by the same name, which was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman. Philly’s chapter was started in 2015.
“It would happen more…when there’s a campaign happening, or us demanding something,” Washington said. “That’s part of the backlash that can be expected at that point.”
Trying to contain the vitriolic backlash
As the letter circulated in suburban Facebook groups, BLM Philly tried to clear things up.
“The letters are attempting to extort donations from these businesses under the threat of arson or other kinds of violence,” reads a Monday post on its FB profile. “Obviously we didn’t write or send these letters.”
The group has so far gotten a dozen or so messages about the fake letters, Washington said. Some informed the organization the notes were circulating and asked if they were real. Other recipients, assuming they were real, lashed out.
“Let me tell you something you pieces of shit,” one of the messages read. “You all are racist… i dare DARE you to come to my town and start some shit.”
The owner of La Stalla Restaurant confirmed to Billy Penn that he received one of the letters, but declined to comment further.
Newtown Township Police also declined to comment, but the department website confirms an ongoing investigation:
“Newtown Police responded to a report of two suspicious letters delivered by the U.S. postal service to two separate local businesses in Newtown Township. Both incidents were seeking the donation of funds to a cause listed on the letter and threatened harm to the establishment for failure to comply. Both incidents are being investigated by the Newtown Township Police and the Postal authorities in cooperation with the District Attorney’s office.”
So who sent the notes? Washington’s not sure — although he thinks it’s a local chapter of some white nationalist group.
Fake notes are not new, but sending them through U.S. mail is
This letter is the first time Washington can remember a threat purporting to be from BLM has been sent via U.S. mail.
In June, a note emblazoned with the Black Lives Matter logo circulated in Upper Darby calling white men, women and children “the enemy,” saying the sender “will not stop until ALL white people are sent to re-education camps.”
Other individual instances of fraudulent fliers have previously been distributed in South Philly, stuck in rice and left on people’s doorsteps, Washington said.
“For me, it’s to be expected,” he said. “On the list of things that scare me the most, it’s pretty low on the spectrum.”
He is worried about the backlash, however. “It’s the justification for a lot of hate, which turns into violence,” Washington said. “I could easily see that for Black people in Newtown, things could get bad for them. That’s what I worry about.”
If any city businesses receive such a letter, the Philadelphia Police Department said they should file a police report. But on behalf of BLM Philly, Washington doesn’t necessarily recommend that.
“What those investigations turn out to be are opportunities for [police] to investigate [Black Lives Matter] itself,” he said. ” It’s not something we would advocate for communities to do.”