Prominent Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King recently earned wide praise after feeding a tip to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office that led to an arrest in the December killing of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes in Houston.
But not everyone was impressed.
Several other racial justice activists took to Twitter to question whether King had followed through on the $100,000 reward he and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt offered this month for successful tips and to raise old claims that he had mishandled fundraising efforts in other high-profile cases. King quickly hit back, insisting he and others had raised that money and paid off the tipster.
But he didn’t stop there. Rather than simply refuting the critics, King soon turned to legal threats that were notable to other activists because of whom King singled out: young, black and, in at least two cases, queer writers and activists.
“If you have posted publicly that I have ever spent or stolen a single penny I’ve raised for families in this movement, I am opening a legal case against you,” King tweeted Wednesday. “This is a complete fabrication.”
King’s aggressive response has splintered the activist community, with some backing his right to defend his reputation and others questioning why he would go after other African American men and women who have advocated for similar causes.
“This was a heavy-handed and unnecessary act by someone claiming to be committed to justice and uplifting Black people,” tweeted Clarissa Brooks, a black, queer community activist and recent Spelman College graduate who received one of King’s cease-and-desist letters. “I am not a malicious person and I do not appreciate being accused of trying to destroy anyone.”
Known for his aggressive Internet vigilantism, which led to the arrests of white supremacists in Charlottesville and his pursuits for justice in cases of police violence against black Americans, King has also long been subject to scrutiny from others in liberal activist circles. That’s largely because of his immense influence on Twitter, where he boasts more than 1 million followers and because his campaigns for justice frequently include promoting financial campaigns for families.
The Dec. 30 fatal shooting of Barnes was exactly the kind of case in which King often gets involved. At first, witness accounts indicated that the suspect was a white man, causing fears that the 7-year-old girl was the victim of a hate crime. By the next day, King was galvanizing his enormous base to action.
“URGENT. ALL HANDS ON DECK,” he tweeted Jan. 1, before releasing a description of the suspect as offered by police and offering a reward for tips leading to the arrest.
Days into that search, King received a tip he thought was promising: the mug shot of a man who looked strikingly similar to the sketch released by police.
“We’ve had 20 people call or email us and say he is a racist, violent [expletive] and always has been,” King said in a since-deleted tweet, naming the man and including his photograph. “Just tell me everything you know.”
As it turns out, the man he named, Robert Cantrell, had no connection to the case. King deleted the tweet after that became clear, but the damage had apparently been done. Cantrell’s niece, Hailey Cantrell, told KTRK that King’s suggestion that her uncle may be a person of interest in Barnes’s death resulted in threats directed at the family on social media. “I just want everyone to back off,” she said.
King has issued no retraction or apology on Twitter.
That left him open to criticism after police on Jan. 6 announced that they arrested two other suspects, black men who have told police Barnes was not the intended target — and especially after King threatened legal action against others for their tweets.
“So [Shaun King] can falsely accuse individuals on his platform and when found to be wrong he is offered forgiveness but others aren’t deserving of the same grace? The double standard he is creating will only hurt causes he wants to help,” one activist identifying herself as Kate K wrote in a widely shared tweet Wednesday.
The tweets that led King to hire attorneys and start issuing legal threats involved a claim that he might be a “cop” because he fed information directly to the Harris County sheriff in the Barnes case and other suggestions of improper fundraising or financial benefits from Facebook ads, all of which he denied.
King singled out Brooks for a tweet she sent suggesting that he had previously mishandled a fundraiser for Cyntoia Brown. Brown was recently granted clemency by the governor of Tennessee for a life sentence she was serving for killing a man as a teenager, despite insisting she was a victim of human trafficking. King said he was never involved in any fundraising for Brown.
Brooks said she deleted the tweet once she saw “King tweeting that he would be suing people for tweeting about him” last week. But on Tuesday, she said she received an email from King and his attorneys asking that she issue a retraction. King said on Twitter that Brooks’s tweet “hurt” and that it “spread across the Internet and took on a life of its own.”
King did not respond to questions from The Washington Post. But Merritt, his attorney, defended his handling of the situation. He told The Post that comparing Brooks’s claim about the Brown case to King’s incorrect tweet about Cantrell wasn’t fair.
“The similarity between the statement he made based on the evidence that he gathered, based on witnesses and, most importantly, that he believed to be true at the time, is night and day from posting a comment that you know to be false designed to discredit this individual,” Merritt said. (Brooks has said that her tweet was also posted in good faith.)
Merritt didn’t answer questions from The Post about the $100,000 reward. Writing for Black America Web on Thursday, King said the money came from nine donors and was given to the tipster, who wished to remain anonymous. “What did you think we were going to do?” he questioned. “Hold an event like this person won the lottery where we present them a big check and balloons fall from the sky?”
King has faced scrutiny for his handling of fundraising since at least 2015, when his national profile was elevated in the months following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
In a December 2015 Daily Beast article titled, “Where Did All the Money Shaun King Raised for Black Lives Go?” journalist Goldie Taylor scrutinized various fundraising efforts headed by King dating back to his time as a pastor at Courageous Church, a megachurch he led in Atlanta. For example, Taylor reported that while, as a pastor, King had claimed to have raised more than $1 million for Haiti disaster relief in 2010. The Miriam Center, a Christian mission and beneficiary of the funds, reported that $540,000 had been raised. The center also said it had received only a grant of $200,000, the Daily Beast reported.
But as King told the Daily Beast at the time, “People need to understand that failure is not fraud.”
Earlier in 2015, The Post’s Wesley Lowery sought to figure out where the $60,000 raised by King and others for the family of Tamir Rice had gone, after his mom said in a legal filing she was temporarily homeless and Rice had yet to be buried months after he was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer. As it turned out, attorneys representing Rice’s family had been unaware of the fundraiser. The money King and others raised was seized by the court, turned over to the estate and various restrictions limited how the family could access it. King told The Post in 2015 he thought the situation was “absurd.” Additional funds raised by King and others were eventually used to assist Rice’s family with housing.
King has passionately defended his efforts, most notably in a Medium blog post published the day after Christmas 2015, in which he insisted none of the fundraising efforts he ever promoted for black families were ever linked to his bank accounts or in his name. Merritt reiterated the position on Wednesday.
“Sometimes these internal squabbles, I believe they honestly come from a sincere place of wanting to see justice done. And so it’s unfortunate to see this descend into litigation between people,” he said. “But I think Shaun has a right to protect his brand. If he allows his character to be assassinated, he won’t have the ability to help as many people.”
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