The rise and fall of Shaun King, former Black Lives Matter darling

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On Nov. 6, 2015, Justice Together all but disappeared after founder Shaun King told members via email that he was shutting it down. The now-defunct social-activism group—which, at its peak popularity, boasted members in all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., as well as 35 international chapters—had one single, unrealized objective: End police brutality in America.

King, 36, was executive director of Justice Together since its Aug. 28 launch, and a highly visible figure in the Black Lives Matter movement. Passionate and charismatic, he projected the image of a man devoted to seeking justice for victims of police violence. King’s work as senior justice writer for New York Daily News demonstrates as much; he rose to prominence in September 2014 after reporting in grave detail on the death of unarmed black teen Mike Brown, who was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. This newfound visibility earned him thousands of followers on social media, people he would later invite to join Justice Together.

But 14 months after he became a fixture in the Black Lives Matter movement, King’s questionable behavior began to raise red flags for members of the organization. From August to October 2015, Justice Together members said, he became evasive and defensive when they sought direction about when and how to mobilize. Many members were surprised when King unilaterally disbanded the organization, undoing much of their hard work in the process.

This action inspired 30 Justice Together state directors, who call themselves JT30, to publish an open letter on Nov. 13. They called out the discrepancy between King’s public persona and the man behind the computer screen.

They called out the discrepancy between King’s public persona and the man behind the computer screen.

King did not respond to NTRSCTN’s multiple requests for comment via email about JT30’s allegations.

Five former JT30 state directors who worked closely with King, as well as two former members of “Justice. That’s All.” (JTA), a previous activist organization he founded, told NTRSCTN that he didn’t hold himself to the same standards—namely, transparency and accountability—that activists aim to hold police and government institutions. Instead, multiple sources shared similar stories of a man who kept members in the dark until Justice Together’s abrupt end.

Justice Together was never meant to be a boots-on-the-ground organization in that its members would attend protests. Instead, the group’s initial strategy was to act behind the scenes, according to emails King sent members. Regional chapters, led by multiple directors in each state, would gather information on local law enforcement agencies and then work to change policy and end police brutality.

At least, that was the plan.

The self-promoter

“Y’all ready? Let’s go,” King said, before launching into a lengthy series of tweets that detailed the Aug. 9, 2014, scene where Wilson killed Brown. “Minutes after Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown, a very, very effective cover-up plan began to protect Wilson and shame Mike Brown.”

King focused on a detail cited by St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar—who claimed Brown was 35 feet away from Wilson’s vehicle at the time of death, and therefore presented a reasonable threat to the officer’s life—to cast significant doubt on the official police account. According to King’s assessment, Brown was 148 feet away from Wilson’s vehicle, distance that challenged the officer’s claim that the killing was justified. (King based his theory on images of Canfield Drive, where Brown died, comparing measurements from Google Maps and those taken by his on-the-ground contacts in Ferguson against figures reported in the media and provided by law enforcement.)

Although the U.S. Department of Justice determined that Wilson should not face criminal charges in its report released March 5, 2015, it said Brown ran 180 feet away from Wilson’s SUV, based on blood spatter at the scene. Still, the DOJ concluded that Brown turned around and charged Wilson, and that the 12 shots he fired at the unarmed teen were not “objectively unreasonable.”

“The rabbit hole of lies they have spun is amazing,” King wrote. “But they cannot make up their own facts. Follow me for a minute. It’s real.”

King burst into the national spotlight in August 2014, after relentlessly tweeting criticisms of Ferguson police and the systemic injustice against people of color in America.

Daily Kos hired King as a justice writer in October 2014, and he joined Daily News a year later. There was no doubt that his work as a citizen journalist was impressive, and that his online following was growing. King’s first post for the political blog shot to the top of its “recommended” list before King had even been introduced, according to Daily Kos editors. He was talking, and people were listening.

But JT30 told NTRSCTN that instead of mobilizing members to end police brutality, King mostly used the group to promote himself, regularly asking them to share articles he wrote for Daily Kos and Daily News.

“The message that was sent to me, and others, was the only activism and work that was valuable to [King] was his own,” said Jasamine Pettie, a former Texas state director and civil engineer who was serving in the U.S. Air Force when she joined Justice Together. “We're kind of disposable.”

Other members had similar criticisms of King. 

“He seemed to constantly aggrandize himself and his work,” said another former Justice Together member who spoke to NTRSCTN under condition of anonymity, citing professional reasons. “[King] consistently made references to his grad-school career, his writing career, overcoming the challenges of parenting kids from pre-K to high school in the midst of all this social-justice activism he was doing—it went on and on.”

Similarly, Brandale Randolph, a former Massachusetts state director and executive director of nonprofit organization Project: Poverty, was blunt about his experience with King during his time at Justice Together. “Essentially, Justice Together was about [King]. It wasn’t about stopping police brutality,” he told NTRSCTN.

Randolph viewed King as a “narcissist” who only wanted to increase his Twitter followers, rather than effect genuine change.

“You rarely saw him tell us to tweet links to a post written by anyone other than him,” he said, referring to writers like New Republic’s Jamil Smith and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie. “Everything that he tweets almost is about him, leading to his articles.”

After the dissolution of Justice Together but before JT30 published its open letter, Crystal Miller, a former Virginia state director, elaborated on members’ major issues with King via Twitter:

The ‘bottleneck’

In its Nov. 13 open letter, JT30 claimed that King neglected his duties as executive director of Justice Together. He insisted on managing all aspects of the organization, and refused state directors’ requests for him “to delegate tasks and responsibilities to ease his workload,” they wrote. According to Sheri Rubin, a former Illinois state director, King admitted to her that he was a “bottleneck.”

“He was the only one who had access and control to everything, and that becomes unsustainable when you’re trying to run an organization of that size,” Rubin, who worked closely with King in Justice Together, told NTRSCTN via Google Chat.

She said any small administrative tasks, such as email-address changes or invitations to Slack, a popular collaboration and chat tool, had to go through King, which inevitably led to delays.

“All the information that we had on the organization’s plans came from Shaun,” said Jared Ware, a former Oregon state director. “All the direction that we were allowed to have came from Shaun. And we really couldn’t take direction or give direction that wasn’t okayed by Shaun.”

The five former state directors interviewed by NTRSCTN, who had never met each other in person, described instances when King avoided questions about Justice Together’s direction.

“We were told to ‘trust the process’ and that work was happening ‘behind the scenes,’ but we were never privy to specific details regarding the process of King’s work,” said Miller, the former Virginia state director and attorney who volunteers legal services for women’s shelters.

However, according to the five former directors, King never explained what “the process” was supposed to be.

King wasn’t just a bottleneck when it came to mobilizing the coalition, JT30 said; they claimed he never provided answers, either. When state directors requested instruction from King on how to mobilize—whether that meant meeting with volunteers or auditing the police—they said he repeatedly told them to wait. Members of JT30 who spoke to NTRSCTN said they neither understood the delay nor the reason for the wait.

When members began questioning King, they claimed he was evasive, responding to them by citing his track record of successes with previous organizations and fundraisers, the apparently constant attacks he received from racist, right-wing antagonists, his workload with Daily Kos and Daily News, raising a family, and attending grad school.

“It was Shaun’s reaction to the questioning—the genuine curiosity about what it was we were embarking on, what we were being asked to do—that began to turn myself, and I’ll say others, off,” former Texas state director Pettie said.

The waiting game didn’t work for most Justice Together members, particularly those in Massachusetts. The eight directors there consisted of lawyers and nonprofit executives, people who weren’t new to social-justice activism. (Randolph, for instance, has been involved in the fight against police brutality since the Los Angeles Police Department killed his younger brother, Brayland, during a May 11, 2005, police raid on a friend’s house. His family ultimately sued the LAPD in 2010; the case was settled out of court.)

So when the eight Massachusetts directors met for the first time in July 2015, they concluded that they had the power to make meaningful change in no time.

“We realized that we had direct connections to police chiefs, commissioners, state representatives, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts [Karyn Polito] … and to other organizations,” Randolph told NTRSCTN. “We could have really done a lot of things and made a lot of impact really quickly.”

From July through September 2015, Randolph said the eight Massachusetts directors wanted to act while they could still influence the state legislature’s decision to push for Boston police and state troopers to wear body cameras. But when they reached out to King, Randolph claimed, he blocked their efforts and told them not to act despite the opportunity.

“To this day, we do not know why he didn’t want us to begin work here, in Massachusetts, with the people we had, to do things we thought we needed to do to stop police brutality,” Randolph said. “We think it was a control issue.”

The former Massachusetts state directors left Justice Together in September 2015, after which Randolph said King completely removed them from the organization’s Slack group. Justice Together continued without a Massachusetts chapter.

And its sudden disappearance wasn’t the only thing that caused members to raise their eyebrows.

“King has failed to explain why ‘JusticeThatsAll.org’ appears on [statements to donors] when volunteers intended to donate to ‘Justice Together,’ JT30 said in its open letter, referring to King’s defunct grassroots organization Justice. That’s All. (JTA).

The other organization

On Nov. 19, six days after JT30 asked King to clarify why JusticeThatsAll.org appeared on donation statements, the organization got an answer from JTA instead:

JTA added that JT30’s experience reflected in its letter was “nearly identical to how [JTA] dissolved”:

JTA’s letter details what it called a “history of organizational mismanagement” that could potentially hurt the Black Lives Matter movement if King wasn't held accountable. It claimed that, much like Justice Together, JTA was originally meant to be a “decentralized” movement, with collaborative leadership rather than a single figurehead. JTA said King was not transparent when it came to finances, often failing to verify accounting for the organization. He also dismissed and silenced criticism from JTA members as coming from “trolls,” it added.

Without direction from King, Sarah Brink, a former JTA member from Oakland, California, took it upon herself to launch a project on behalf of the organization in November 2014, while it still existed.

Following the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Wilson on Nov. 24, 2014, Brink said, St. Louis riot police reportedly gassed MoKaBe’s, a local coffeehouse that opened its doors to protesters as a “safe space.” The alleged police misconduct hadn’t been picked up by media outlets, so Brink used Storify to compile social media accounts of what happened; it included video and a timeline of events to refute St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson’s claim that police did not intentionally gas MoKaBe’s. After she wrote press releases and launched a small media blitz, the story was eventually picked up by a local blog and covered in alternative weekly Riverfront Times.

Had King shared Brink’s work for JTA to his large following, it may well have made national headlines. But that didn’t happen.

“I did actually ask Shaun to publicize that within Justice. That’s All, but I never heard back from him,” she said.

Like Justice Together, JTA was short-lived. Established in August 2014, it was gone by the end of December of that same year, according to Brink. JTA members interviewed by NTRSCTN said they didn’t see the organization’s demise coming, and rejected King’s claim that it simply evolved to become Justice Together.

“A month after Mike Brown was murdered, Shaun began preparing to start a justice organization called ‘Justice. That’s All,’” according to ShaunKingTruth.com, a site King launched on Nov. 19, 2015, which includes essays that address criticisms against him, point by point. “This organization eventually became named ‘Justice Together.’ They are not separate organizations, but an evolution of the same charity.”

But former JTA members, including Ebony Washington, fervently denied this.

Washington repeatedly asked King to refund her donation, for an undisclosed amount, around the time of JTA’s dissolution in late December 2014; but she said he refused, and accused her of lying about the funds.

Nearly one year after JTA’s closure, however, Washington and other former members finally received their refunds. The receipts they received, however, said “Justice Together.”

Washington then shared a screenshot of a refund she received (with the dollar amount redacted), and asked why JTA donors were receiving refunds from Justice Together.

One reason why King finally issued the refunds, Washington asserted in her tweets, is due to the mounting public pressure he felt after Justice Together and JTA published their open letters. Prior to the groups’ speaking out, Washington said she tried to get her money back from King, only to be stonewalled in the process.

Indeed, Washington’s initial attempts in late December 2014 to get a refund prompted King to publicly insinuate that she was making false claims—an allegation she found defamatory. As a result, Washington sent King a cease-and-desist letter on Dec. 30, 2014.

 

 

In an essay published to his personal Medium page on Dec. 26, 2015, King said all online donations raised for Justice Together since August 2014—$15,580, he wrote—had been refunded. JTA is not mentioned in that accounting.

King also disclosed $17,500 granted to him by a private organization (Vital Projects, according to his Nov. 6, 2015, email to Justice Together members), which will be put towards producing a podcast called “Injustice.” The project will proceed as planned.

One question lingered, however. Why didn’t JTA members try to hold King accountable for what they claimed was his mismanagement of the organization? Both Brink and Washington said members feared that right-wing trolls would use criticisms against a high-profile figure like King to derail the Black Lives Matter movement.

Although Washington emphasized that “Shaun King is not the movement,” when she spoke out in solidarity with JT30, the trolls still pounced.

The trolls

One risk of speaking out against a visible figure like King is that opponents will try to discredit Black Lives Matter as a whole, activists told NTRSCTN. 

One day after King sent his Nov. 6 email announcing the dissolution of Justice Together, Chandra Cruz-Thompson, a former Indiana state director, discussed her frustration with King’s management of Justice Together using the hashtag #ShaunKingLetMeDown.

In under 24 hours, right-wing opponents of Black Lives Matter hijacked the hashtag, and used it to discredit both King and the movement. Today, it remains a popular hashtag among anti-Black Lives Matter Twitter users.

The open letters from JT30 and JTA criticizing King’s apparent mismanagement and lack of transparency while running both organizations became fodder for right-wing media publications. In a now-infamous hit piece, Breitbart columnist and prominent Gamergate figure Milo Yiannopoulos drew attention to the question of King’s race. Citing evidence from a blogger with white-supremacist leanings, Vicki Pate, Yiannopoulos’ article includes what they both claimed was King’s birth certificate—a document showing two white parents—and accused him of misrepresenting his race.


King refuted the article in a Daily Kos piece published on Aug. 20, 2015, saying that the man on his birth certificate is, in fact, his white stepfather. He said he does not know the identity of his biological father, and has never met him. King added that his family always told him that his biological father was actually a light-skinned black man.

King had faced these kinds of attacks against his identity and credibility long before he disbanded Justice Together; it’s why, King said, he required so much personal information from members. King has repeatedly claimed in Facebook posts, on Twitter, and in emails that he is a target for white-supremacist media figures and troll hackers alike. A cursory search of King’s name on Twitter makes it clear that this much is true.  

But some former Justice Together members said his constant references to online antagonists made them uneasy. In a Facebook post published on Nov. 13, 2015, King said hackers had broken into his personal email account, and claimed to have found messages proving that he and his wife were experiencing marital problems. “Release them then,” he said, calling their bluff.

Despite King’s dismissal of this particular threat, some former members were concerned that hackers had actually accessed their personal information. King’s cavalier attitude in this case seemed to contradict his strict volunteer requirements for Justice Together. He enforced rules that prohibited anonymity of any kind, according to former Texas state director Pettie and former Oregon state director Ware, and required all volunteer members to provide multiple pieces of identification for approval, including photos, emails, addresses, and personal websites.

“We all had concerns about privacy,” Ware, who has worked in education-reform nonprofits for the better part of a decade, said. He added that all 30 state directors who made up JT30 had various concerns they wanted to be addressed, but privacy stood out as the most common.

Members wanted “assurance of the destruction of [their] personally identifiable information” collected by King, according to Pettie.

“With all his constant talking on the Internet about being hacked, it puts us on watch,” she said. “Is that actually true? If you’re being hacked, your information is vulnerable.”

King claimed he destroyed the personal information of former Justice Together members in a Nov. 17 email to the entire organization, but JT30 said he never provided them with verification.

King wrote off much of the criticism he faced as the work of trolls looking to derail the Black Lives Matter movement. While he did face online harassment, King was conflating JT30’s criticisms with racist attacks from his right-wing opponents, state directors told NTRSCTN.

“We were being painted as these bullying trolls that were concerned about [King] stealing money,” Pettie said. “It wasn't that at all. We figured that the best way to prevent someone else from going through this was to basically pen a letter about our experience.”

King blocked many JT30 members on Twitter after they pressed him for answers.

The future

Amid members’ calls for accountability, King launched ShaunKingTruth.com on Nov. 19, 2015. Although the essays published there tackle most criticisms against King, they don’t address the JT30 and JTA open letters directly.

Written in third person, the essays deny allegations that King stole from funds for the families of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Bree Newsome (the activist who removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol). King said he was not involved in setting up the fundraisers, and only assisted with their promotion.

The answers King provide have little to do with JT30’s concerns addressed in its open letter. Most evidence supporting King is focused on accusations made by right-wing media pundits, such as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who accused King of starting fraudulent nonprofits. King rebutted O’Reilly’s accusations of financial mishandling by citing trustworthy sources that vouched for his past fundraising, including civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who confirmed Rice’s family received funds raised with King’s help.

Although King mostly fended off character assassinations, he did admit to mismanaging Justice Together, faulting his busy schedule and the attacks against him in August. However, many other criticisms were left unanswered at the time of publication.

Activists remained quiet about their feelings about King throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, fearing that negative attention towards one of its most visible figures would somehow discredit the fight against police brutality in the U.S.

“Many of us chose not to speak publicly about our disappointment with JTA’s dissolution and King’s mishandling of the organization,” a passage in JTA’s Nov. 19 open letter said, “because we know the forces of white supremacy will attempt to exploit such disagreements to delegitimize the movement for black lives.”

Indeed, that much became clear the moment former members of Justice Together began tweeting under #ShaunKingLetMeDown; white supremacists were swift and buried Black Lives Matter activists’ concerns in all the noise. But from interviews with former members of Justice Together and JTA, as well as the progress made by decentralized organizations, such as Campaign Zero and the Black Lives Matter organization, the movement against racialized police violence and institutionalized racism in the U.S. is about more than one single actor.

For instance, Campaign Zero, an organization founded by high-profile activists Johnetta Elzie and DeRay McKesson, as well as data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe and St. Louis activist Brittany Packnett, embarked on the “behind-the-scenes” work that Justice Together had originally intended to do.

Since its launch in September 2015, Campaign Zero has published two reports as part of its police-oversight campaign. The first report indexes the implementation of bodycams in police departments across America’s 30 largest cities. The second analyzes police contracts that help officers avoid accountability. In comparison, Justice Together aimed to create a 35-point checklist to audit police departments, according to King’s emails. Activists were also supposed to collect data from local police departments, but no action plan was published by the time King decided to fold the organization.

Former JT30 and JTA members who spoke to NTRSCTN are working on moving past their experiences with King, making it clear that they remain steadfast in their goals. The movement is greater than one person, they said.

But more importantly, the activists said they don’t want anybody to repeat King’s mistakes, and hope their experiences serve as a cautionary tale.

“There is a power imbalance between people like Shaun King and volunteers like JT30—it honestly resembles that of police officers and civilians,” said former Virginia director Miller. “Leaders in this movement for unadulterated justice in law enforcement should embody that which we demand from police departments: integrity, transparency, and accountability.

“And, if our leaders are unwilling to embody those ideals, then they are truly disingenuous in demanding that of others.”

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