On Shaun King
A movement is only as strong as its integrity. Part of our collective work is to protect this integrity, even when, or especially when, doing so is uncomfortable or hard. It is in this spirit that I write, to address a lapse in integrity within the activism community so glaring that to be silent is to be complicit.
We never aim to replicate the power dynamic of the system we are up against — a system that embraces a devious lack of transparency, willingly sacrifices the vulnerable to protect itself, and replaces truth with convenient lies. Yet Shaun King has done just that.
Shaun has followed a uniform pattern over the years, a pattern that has compelled me to speak up, again. This is not the first time I have done so, and I am not alone. Johnetta Elzie and I were in a previous public disagreement with Shaun about issues of transparency and ethics that ended in his apology. Shaun also deleted all of his tweets and noted that he would focus on journalism and would not engage in attempted organizing or fundraising. Importantly, he made this commitment to others both publicly and privately. It is clear now that he did not keep those commitments and after a brief hiatus, re-emerged and began engaging in the same behaviors that caused the last public conflict.
It is important to note that Shaun’s journalism has done some good by bringing attention to stories that may have gone under-reported or overlooked. But the person who paints your house before he steals your car has still committed theft.
This is also not a demand or desire for purity, the mythical status of flawlessness that does not exist. Integrity, on the flip side, means that we model relationships rooted in trust, consistency of values, and a demonstrated willingness to grow.
I tried previously to engage offline to resolve these tensions, but his behaviors did not change. There is a formula that he employs when people ask questions or highlight contradictions: issue an unconditional denial, attack the character of the person asking questions, argue that white supremacists are attacking him or his family, respond only to the least salient of all points raised, then issue a statement akin to an apology.
But he does not often answer any of the questions or offer any resolution of contradictions raised, but instead, deflects. What’s more, he often bullies and intimidates those who ask questions at all, turning his ire especially at Black women, attempting to scare inquirers into silence.
When asked about the repeated organizations and lack of transparency on funding, he has replied noting that “failure is not fraud,” as if to suggest that questions raised do not warrant serious responses simply because he may have been an ineffective leader. But at a point, those who attempt to lead but consistently demonstrate that they cannot effectively lead should stop. We have reached that point with Shaun.
I have seen many people, against their better judgment, defend Shaun. I know because I was once one of those people. We are all apt to defend own decision-making, especially about people. But the love for our people must be greater than the love of any one person. Shaun has continued to thrive because many people cannot believe that they have been duped, used, or taken advantage of.
I have also seen people know the truth and choose to be silent, defend actions they know are indefensible, or suspend all logic in order to not disrupt previous public statements. When behaviors and actions are no longer exceptions but a pattern, we have to question motivations, judgment, and intentions. His choices are so sweeping and brazen in their manipulation that they compromise others, compromise the collective work, and compromise a shared sense of integrity.
With few exceptions, I have largely stayed out of public disagreements within activism and organizing, even when I have been the focus of people’s frustration. In general, I now realize that many have mistaken my silence for surrender or support. My reticence stemmed from the advice from elders that told me that disagreeing in public would distract the collective space from the work at hand and only empower those against whom we fight, notably white supremacists.
But I also now realize that shying away from public conflict does not end the conflict — it often just replaces public disagreement with private contempt, empowers and expands space for perpetrators to continue to do harm, and distracts considerable energy from important work that may be underway. I believe that our public discussions and disagreements, especially when rooted in a larger commitment to the work at hand, are things we can all learn and grow from and that we should make few, if any, decisions based on the reactions of those who will never likely be on our side.
It is my hope that Shaun refrains from attempts at organizing and fundraising furthermore, that he will keep the commitment he made in 2015.
[Understanding The Patterns]
The goal is to provide an analysis of the demonstrated patterns that Shaun has used over the years to garner trust, build a following, and attempts to organize.
*Justice Together (2014/2015)*
Shaun invited me to be a board member of Justice Together, one of the first organizations he began after the initial 2014 protests, focused on ending police violence. I accepted, while noting that we needed to have a conversation about fundraising and finances because Johnetta Elzie, my friend and colleague, and I were mindful about anything we attach our names to that included fundraising.
Shaun led the organization, its chapters, and had primary communication with its members. There were no regularly scheduled updates and the board did not interface consistently with organization volunteers or finances.
Shortly after the launch phase, I began to get emails from volunteers/members, who expressed a range of concerns about Shaun’s leadership: being silenced within the organization slack group(s) or removed wholesale when they disagreed or challenged him, slow or no communication regarding plans, and being asked only to amplify his specific ideas and no others. I forwarded the specific concerns to him so that he could address them. He told me he’d addressed the concerns and largely dismissed them as little more than the opinions of disgruntled volunteers or trolls who had infiltrated the groups.
1. When people disagreed, they were removed from the group or it was stated that they were white supremacists or trolls.
Then, two former classmates of mine reached out to me separately, that I did not know were in chapters of Justice Together. They relayed similar concerns and also asked me where was the money going that had been raised. When I asked Shaun, he again dismissed the concerns as those coming from trolls. I told him that I would be stepping down from the board. Concerned members of Justice Together began e-mailing board members directly which created a board-wide e-mail thread where it became apparent that no board member knew about the financials of the organization.
2. We (still) do not know how much money was raised or spent.
This set into motion a series of emails amongst the board itself that would eventually lead to the end of the organization.
On July 24, 2015, Shaun sent out an email that said that Justice Together had raised “a little over $11,000” in two hours. A few months later, on November 9, 2015, in the midst of questions about the funds, he e-mailed volunteers saying that Justice Together only raised “a little more than $9,000” online; a $10,000 donation from a board member; and a grant for a podcast for $17,500
In a post on November 20, 2015, he says that he returned 100% of the donations raised, a total of $9,723. But what about the $10,000 donation and the $17,500 grant? These amounts suddenly stop appearing in all records.
3. It is not clear that taxes were ever filed for Justice Together.
When asked to provide the organization’s IRS Employee ID Number in July 2015, he simply did not reply. He did, however, supply it in November 2015: 47–3708562.
To date, it is not clear that Shaun filed the appropriate taxes for Justice Together, as there is no 990 form available for public review from the IRS website.
4. A majority of state directors detailed their experiences with Justice Together.
These were not isolated experiences. The majority of the State Directors of Justice Together wrote an Open Letter explaining their thoughts on the end of the organization and it can be read here.
5. Shaun unilaterally disbanded the Justice Together board in the midst of questions being asked by the board.
After questions began to surface, Shaun sent an email officially disbanding Justice Together with no notice to the board members. He then removed all names of board members from the site. The Board learned of these actions as everyone else did — publicly.
6. The challenges with Justice Together were foreshadowed by the other organization he began and disbanded immediately beforehand, Justice, That’s All.
Former members of Justice, That’s All wrote an Open Letter detailing their experiences. You can read it in full, here.
*August 30, 2019 Accounting Report*
Shaun noted that he would make a public accounting on March 1, 2019. He, however, waited to release any statement re: finances until August 30, 2019. This statement raised more questions than answers.
1. The panel was not independent.
Independent would mean that the panel was comprised of people who did not have a previous relationship with Shaun. Each of the people on the panel had a relationship with Shaun.
Rob Smith is an editor for the Fair Punishment Project where Shaun King was the Writer in Residence.
David Mitrani works at the firm representing the PACs.
Becky Bond is the co-founder of Real Justice PAC.
Tamika Mallory, of the Justice League NYC, is in the report as someone for whom Shaun has raised funds.
Lee Merrit coordinated a set of the fundraisers with Shaun and is listed as one of the lawyers hired to potentially sue Clarissa Brooks.
When asked why the panel was assembled by his friends, colleagues, or co-workers, he noted that having people he knew, as opposed to an independent audit, was the most “efficient” way to get it done. You can read and listen to that interview, here.
2. He did not “raise” millions. He took credit for other people’s work.
He has previously made statements that he has raised millions since the movement began. In 2015, Shaun said that he’d raised $500,000 since the protests began. In 2017, he said he’d raised over $5 million since the same timeframe. Now, he is saying that he raised $34.5 million since 2014.
How does he get to $34.5 as the number he raised?
He takes credit for 100% of all funds raised for any fundraiser whose link he has ever posted online, in an e-mail blast, or re-tweeted.
For instance, $20 million of the $34 million is from the fundraiser started by Charlotte and Dave Willner that raised $20 million for immigration organizations and broke the fundraising record on Facebook. The origin of this fundraiser has been widely reported.
This would be akin to me saying that I fully paid your child’s college tuition because I posted the link to the college fund. Or that I raised millions of dollars in one minute because I amplified the latest fundraiser for The Red Cross.
This is not a report, it is a list of links to all of the fundraisers that he said that he has amplified in the last 5 years.
He knew that this logic was misleading, at best. In 2015, he defended himself against claims that he misappropriated funds from those meant for Bree Newsome. Yes, the following quote is written in the third person, but it is written by himself. He wrote, “In total, $125,705 was raised from 4,943 people. Shaun estimates that his efforts were probably responsible for somewhere near a relatively small $15,000 of the total amount raised.” But now, in the latest “report” he takes credit for 100% of those funds raised.
3. The numbers do not add up.
If you take the total amount listed in the statement and match it against the numbers in the actual fundraisers that have been linked to, there are two different amounts.
For instance, the Dakota Access Pipeline — Cash item listed in the August 30th statement is at $388,000 but the link listed has the amount at $378,402. This is one of many misattributions in the report.
4. Real Justice PAC paid for ads to highlight the report.
Real Justice PAC and Action Pac, whose funds are supposed to be going to support electing prosecutors across the country and fighting racism, respectively, paid for ads to amplify the statement about Shaun’s personal fundraising on social media.
These ads are not related to either of the stated purposes of the PACs.
5. The August 2019 Report claims to represent finances since 2013 but skips over 2013 data.
Notably, the report states that Shaun’s 2013 tax returns were reviewed as a part of this analysis. The statement then notes that he has only ever received “a modest income of $4,166 per month” as a part of Real Justice PAC as if this is the only compensation he has ever received. He has consistently said before that he has never received any compensation and this report highlights that his previous statements were untrue.
Additionally, the 2013 tax returns for HopeMob, as previously reported, highlight that Shaun received 40% of all funds raised for the organization as compensation. This fact was ignored in the report.
*The North Star*
The North Star Seems to have followed a similar pattern of starting an effort, bringing in committed people, fundraising and then questionable follow through.
Launched in November 2018 in partnership with a Black independent media host and podcaster Benjamin Dixon, began fundraising to start an effort built on the legacy of Frederick Douglass and liberatory journalism. While there is an online blog and a podcast, there was promised daily news video programming and other content that does not seem to have been published.
It is unclear how much has been raised since the soft launch in November 2018, but with tens of thousands of members paying monthly it is curious there has not been a daily news program as promised.
Several staffers in the initial phases were hired and then laid off, and it is unclear if the Atlanta studio is still in use.
Several former staffers have reached out to me but were afraid to say anything publicly because of non-disclosure agreements that were signed of which Shaun maintains the sole copies. Even former employees who did not sign NDAs that require their silence were afraid to speak out because they did not want him to use his platform against them.
One of the things that was brought to my attention was that Shaun fundraised for The North Star, in part, by saying that white supremacists were hacking the website but this, in fact, was untrue. Instead, the site had been built poorly and just needed better technological infrastructure.
Private ventures and new businesses can be challenging for start-ups. However, an undertaking of this nature in the name and legacy of Frederick Douglass requires a greater accountability and transparency to the movement.
*Flip The Senate*
Shaun announced Flip The Senate , noting that the organization would reclaim the Senate in all 50 states in 2020. But in reality, only 34 of the 100 seats are up for re-election in 2020.
People also quickly noted that if he indeed was focused on the Senate, then people should give money directly to the candidates, and not to an umbrella organization.
Then, following public pressure, Shaun noted that Flip The Senate would direct people to give directly to the candidates. But this was only his public stance, as in e-mails he is still asking for donations to the organization and not asking people to donate to candidates.
Shaun was going to launch a podcast called Red Record. It appears that he was subsuming this under Justice Together as well as working on it separately.
According to Aurielle, he recruited a young black organizer to assist him then lied to her, removed her from the project, and proceeded alone. He used her ideas but then discarded her. She writes about her experiences here.
It is unclear where the money raised for The Red Record went, given that no podcast was ever produced.
In 2011, Shaun began raising money to climb 7 mountains and quit after 4 days. There is a substantive thread on this here.
*Life Goals University*
In 2013, Shaun charged people $49.99 to teach them how to plan their lives. He did not follow through on these commitments, and the comment page highlights the issues people faced.
Silencing Others/Misstating Facts
On January 14, 2019, he sent an email to Clarissa Brooks, a young black activist, noting that if she did not remove a tweet which he understood to be defamatory, he would sue her. An overview of this incident can be found here.
In this e-mail, he noted that he had hired 4 lawyers who would complete the legal action against her: Ben Crump, Ron Sullivan, Lee Merrit and India Sneed.
Ben Crump represented both Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown’s families, amongst others. Ron Sullivan is the Harvard Professor most widely known today because he represented Harvey Weinstein. Lee Merrit has represented several families whose lives have been impacted by police violence.
It is my understanding that Shaun did not actually hire all of these lawyers but instead used their names and his relationship with them to threaten Clarissa into submission.
Many people were concerned about Shaun’s threat to Clarissa, which caused him to offer a statement akin to an apology.
Sherita Cole Dixon, pulled over by a Texas Department of Public Safety Officer, claimed that an officer raped her. Shaun, through his column, helped to turn this into a national story.
When the police department released the body camera footage, it was concluded that she was not the victim of a rape. Shaun, and his lawyer, Lee Merrit, released a statement apologizing.
Jazmine Barnes was a 7-year-old who was killed in Harris County, Texas. Shaun publicly accused Robert Cantrell of the murder and led an online campaign to bring him into police custody.
It was quickly determined that Cantrell was not the murderer and that this had not been properly vetted before it was reported by Shaun as fact.
Shaun reported as fact that Senator Leahy did not have any black members of his senior staff. This was a false statement for which Shaun never offered clarity.
“Organizing” With No Outcomes
Shaun began Woke Folks in 2017 as an online community largely via email and Facebook to share information, spread news, and to serve as “the parent organization for The Injustice Boycott and several other initiatives….” It appears that he did this until this community could be repurposed into The North Star.
If you visit the Woke Folks page today, you will note that it goes directly to The North Star. It was a short-lived project that became a bridge for another project.
Shaun began the Injustice Boycott in December 2016, on the 61st anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as a coordinated effort to boycott cities that engaged in practices against the interests of people of color.
He fundraised for the organization, as people noted that they donated. Needless to say, the organization did not accomplish any boycotts, sustained actions, or have any recognizable impact.
Nearly 80,000 people joined the mailing list for the initiative, but there were no boycotts.
The Injustice Boycott does not appear at all in the most recent accounting offered by Shaun King.