Shaun King was furious.
The author and life coach turned activist has been one of the most prominent online voices in recent months, as protests of police impunity that began in Ferguson, Mo., spawned demonstrations in cities across the country. For those following the ever-growing roster of names of black men and boys killed by police, he has been one of the essential follows.
But his latest tweet storm, published Monday afternoon, was not about a new police shooting. In fact, it was about an old one.
For King and many of the other activists who have been some of the driving forces online behind the Black Lives Matter protests, the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice last November as he played in a park near his home was one of the most difficult of the many anecdotes.
For many of the most vocal activists, that Tamir was a child and that his shooting was captured on grainy camera footage makes this case the most difficult to stomach. When extended video of the shooting — which showed Cleveland police tackling Tamir’s sister to the ground as she ran to his dying body — was released late last year, one of the top protest organizers in Ferguson texted to tell me it had made him physically sick, imagining what he would do if his younger sister was wounded and he was tackled while trying to help her.
So when a new court filing in the Rice family’s civil suit against the city of Cleveland revealed that Tamir has yet to be buried and that his mother was, at least temporarily, living in a homeless shelter, King was incensed.
“Absurd!” he insisted to me in a direct message on Monday afternoon, especially, he noted, because just months earlier an army of online samaritans had raised almost $60,000 for the Rice family.
So where had all of that money gone?
Timothy Kucharski had been one of two attorneys representing the Rice family for several weeks when he got a call from a friend in early December, asking about an online fundraiser he was seeing in the Rice name.
Created on the Web site YouCaring.com, thousands of dollars were pouring into a fund for the Rice family. But Kucharski had never heard of King — one of the fund’s primary organizers — and Rice’s mother told him that she was unaware of the fundraiser.
As the fund surpassed $27,000, Kucharski contacted law enforcement as well as YouCaring.com directly, asking that the assets being donated to the fund be seized and held for the Rice family. He contacted King, who has previously used his social media following to raise money for victims of police shootings and natural disasters and who insisted that his plan was always to give the money to the family. As they went back and forth, a number of Twitter users — led in part by right-wing blogger Charles C. Johnson — began insisting that the fundraiser was a scam and demanding it be halted.
Online fundraising has become commonplace in these racially charged police death cases. Hundreds of thousands were raised for both the family of Michael Brown and for the legal defense of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson. Within hours of six Baltimore police officers being charged in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, a legal defense fund had been created and was being heavily promoted by the local police union.
Even as the confusion spread over whether or not King’s pledge drive for Rice was legitimate, the fundraiser still ended up netting almost $60,000 — money that, at the request of the Rice family attorneys, was seized by the court.
The court set up a trustee to manage the funds, placing all the money into Tamir Rice’s estate, meaning any withdrawal would require a judge’s ruling. Rather than being gifted the money directly, the Rice family would now have to apply for each disbursement.
“I never touched the money, I never had control over any of the money,” Kucharski said.
Not long after the money was handed to the court-appointed trustee, the Rice family shook up their legal team.
Kucharski and David Malik, a well-known civil rights attorney in Cleveland with a history of winning settlements from the Cleveland Police Department in use-of-force cases, were out. They were replaced by Benjamin Crump, who has represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and Ohio-based civil rights attorney Walter Madison.
According to people who’ve spoken with both the Rice family’s former and current legal teams, the shake-up stemmed from a number of disagreements. The new legal team felt as if the Rice family had been unnecessarily shielded from the media, a detriment to their ability to create public awareness of the case. The Cleveland attorneys felt slighted, that they had been ditched for higher profile attorneys without local ties and knowledge.
After concluding their service, Kucharski and Malik filed for attorney’s fees and were paid a combined $23,700 from the estate fund, according to court documents. Several other small disbursements have been made from the fund, to cover things including funeral costs and securing Tamir’s body — which has yet to be buried.
According to Doug Winston, the court-appointed trustee of the Tamir Rice estate, there is currently about $23,000 remaining in the Cleveland-based estate, but that money is restricted for specific purposes and cannot be used freely by the family at its own discretion — despite the fact that many had donated to the fund under that assumption.
“Technically it’s not their money, it’s the estate’s money,” Winston said. “Distributions from the assets of an estate have to meet specific guidelines, so to say that they would have free disposal to the money in this account would be inaccurate.”
As those tens of thousands of dollars linger in Tamir’s estate, Cleveland awaits news about whether or not the officers involved in the boy’s shooting will be charged.
City officials handed the investigation over to the county sheriff’s department, which has vowed to conduct a thorough and independent probe. On Monday, the Rice family held a news conference. Almost six months after the shooting, they said, they are tired of waiting.
“Less than a second, my son is gone,” said Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, during the news conference on Monday. “I want to know how long I have to wait for justice.”
In the meantime, the Rice family has continued to struggle.
“The incident has shattered the life of the Rice family,” the family’s legal team said in a court document filed Monday. “In particular, Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, has since been forced to move to a homeless shelter because she could no longer live next door to the killing field of her son.”
Samaria Rice does not remain homeless, however. According to her current legal team, she has moved along with her other children into a modest apartment in Cleveland, where they have been since April.
A New York Times video piece on the Rice family captured their move-in, with Samaria smiling as she unpacked boxes of belongings — including a pair of blue jeans she had purchased for Tamir just before his death.
“When I think about black mothers and all that they have to do to keep their families together, everyone always expects them to be strong and when anything goes wrong, they are accused of being bad parents,” said Madison, one of the Rice family’s current attorneys. “As stressful as life was before the death of Tamir, this woman has had the death heaped on her, the violent killing of her son, by those who are here to protect us. Not only is she betrayed, she is confused and emotionally shattered … but she has to keep pushing for her other three children.”
As of Monday evening, the Rice family was still residing in that small apartment, described by someone close to the family as “sparse” in its accommodations, amenities and decor.
“I am heartbroken. … She is a wonderful woman with a terrific family and she deserves so much more,” Kucharski said Monday night, later adding, “I’m more than happy to be part of the solution. I’d like to help Samaria … I still care about her as a human being … whether I was the right attorney for the case or not.”
In the meantime, King and other online activists created a second fundraiser, coordinated through Crump’s Florida-based law firm, money that will be directly available to the Rice family.
“This time we have it in writing that these funds go directly to her with no impediment,” King said.
By noon Tuesday, $25,000 more had been donated in Tamir’s name.
“Tremendous!” Madison said. “Yesterday when we woke up, there was $300 or $400 in [Samaria Rice’s] account. In one day’s time, she has experienced human touch via computer, love through all of the donations, and it was so overwhelming for her that a 30-minute conversation she and I had, for 28 of the 30 minutes she just sobbed with joy.”