Friend, Foe or Fraud? Shaun King on the Accusations Against Him, Rihanna's Diamond Ball, DeRay and More

Photo: Leon Bennett (Getty Images)

By now, Shaun King should be used to the drama.

After all, the accusations King has faced are legion. People have accused him of not being black, of being a government operative inserted to dismantle the movement, of being an egomaniac who centers himself in the movement, a plagiarist who co-opts the work of black women, a bully who uses his influence and large following to silence those who question him, a fraud who starts multiple activism ventures that never come to fruition—and the biggest most frequent accusation: a thief who benefits financially from the fundraisers he promotes.

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The activist, writer, and community organizer generates chatter wherever he goes and in whatever he does, but this time, it’s different.

This time it involved Rihanna.

The Teflon Don of Black Lives Matter

Shaun King is not your average activist.

With over 1 million followers on Twitter, 1.9 million on Facebook and 1.3 million on Instagram, his social media presence is undeniable. He is one of the more prominent personalities on the internet, and he has been an outspoken voice attached in some way to every large moment in the Movement for Black Lives since the death of Mike Brown.

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“The bigger your audience, the easier it is for you to be a target,” King told The Root.

He leverages his following to call attention to issues that are at the forefront of the national conversation on race, racial justice and criminal justice reform. With just as many fans as he has enemies, he is, at times, a polarizing figure when it comes to these issues.

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Yet, despite this polarization—and the allegations—each time his credibility is called into question, like a Teflon Don, King has been able to dodge any real blowback. Instead, he has received praise and numerous accolades for the work he has done bringing attention to important social justice and criminal justice issues.

In 2016, after some vigorous debate among the nomination committee, he was selected as an honoree for The Root 100. In March, BET presented him with the Social Movement Award at its 2019 Social Awards. He even has the endorsement of presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had King introduce him at his campaign kickoff in Brooklyn earlier this year.

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Then along came singer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Rihanna, who announced King would be honored for his efforts at her annual Diamond Ball, a charity event she puts on to raise funds for various organizations.

This latest honor set an even larger target on King’s back, and his detractors immediately took to social media to beg the singer not to give him the honor—one they said he did not deserve.

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This time, the accusations would reach a fever pitch, and even big names in social justice like DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie would get involved in what would turn into a back-and-forth of finger-pointing mere hours before King was set to take the Diamond Ball stage.

Cyntoia Brown, a Meltdown, and an Apology

The accusations that resurfaced when Rihanna wanted to honor King were the same that had come before: They echoed those that came even as recently as January of this year, when King was openly accused of raising money in the name of Cyntoia Brown and not accounting for it—a charge he vehemently denies. There are no tweets on his account to substantiate those claims, but those who accused him on Twitter claim that he simply deleted the tweets. The usually unflappable King was bothered by the accusations and responded on Twitter, demanding his accusers either delete their tweets or face legal action.

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He was then accused of targeting black activists; specifically, black queer writers and activists.

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In an interview with The Root, King said the accusations stick “because it’s juicy. It’s ugly. It’s damaging. But it’s not true. It hurts when I’m trying to help other families.”

Two of the accusers, activist Clarissa Brooks and journalist Ernest Owens, say they were specifically targeted by King and received emails threatening them with legal action if they did not delete the damaging tweets—tweets both say had been deleted long before King came after them.

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The damage had been done, however, and King had already put both their names out on his timeline for all his followers to see. (King would later delete the tweets threatening them with legal action.)

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After being accused of attempting to silence black women and members of the LGBTQ community, King wrote a public apology to Brooks. In it, he said that he did not wish to silence black women or members of the LGBTQ community, but “my actions have clearly betrayed my heart this past week and I regret that tremendously. At the moment in which a single Black woman feels intimidated by my actions, I’ve clearly made a mistake. Period. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been wronged — I still have a responsibility to use my influence in a way that never causes harm.”

Brooks saw his letter as a nonapology.

“The apology he wrote was a lesson in gaslighting to fix his image,” she told The Root. “It exemplifies the grace we give to black men but not black women. He should still be held accountable for the money he raised for Cyntoia even though he deleted the tweets. I saw the tweets, and other people did too. He was more concerned with his public image than he was for the harm he did.”

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‘A Public Accounting’

In that same public apology post, King said that on March 1, he would release “a public accounting of every dollar I’ve ever raised for families in the Black Lives Matter Movement, along with statements of support from them clearly stating that I have never” taken funds that he has raised.

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That March 1 public accounting never materialized, despite many calling him out about it on Twitter.

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King told The Root, “For each issue that I’ve ever raised money for, there is not a family, there is not a charity or organization that I’ve raised money for in this movement that has either privately or publicly said they did not get the money. It’s all fabrication. As public as I am, as much scrutiny as I’m under, if this was real at all, I would be in so much trouble.”

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Asked recently why that accounting never showed up in March, King told The Root he was advised by a crisis communications company to not talk about it because each time he did, it made it worse.

“Every time there is something very public about me, it gets bad,” he said.

King said that from January to August, things were pretty quiet, but with Rihanna’s announcement came more accusations, and this time, people were listening—influential people, as well as people King was trying to do business with, including political candidates King was trying to support.

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Where previous accusations simply died down and disappeared over time, this time, the allegations weren’t going away and they began affecting his ability to do the work he wanted to do.

“It’s a lot, you know?” King said.

In early August, he announced the launch of a political action campaign to flip the Senate from conservative control to Democratic control. He helped form the new PAC to fundraise for Senate candidates in 23 different states—a separate entity from his Real Justice PAC, which focuses on criminal justice reform and getting progressive prosecutors elected; the new PAC—called Action PAC—is focused on Senate races.

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King said when he made the announcement, “influential people” on Twitter came out against him and called Action PAC a scam. King said he and his colleagues “honestly never saw that coming.” The previous accusations against him were reiterated, and he was accused of creating Action PAC as another means of stealing funds from unwitting people.

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“People doubled down on it. Thousands of people said it was a fraud, it was a scam, it was a grift for me to make money on the side and get rich,” King said.

He said he was accused of preying on people’s fear of Donald Trump.

“We had multiple candidates that we have planned on endorsing who said that their campaigns were too fragile and asked ‘hey, can you hold back on endorsing us?’” He was told that the “negativity” could be damaging to their campaigns.

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A Diamond Ball Backlash

Shortly after the introduction of Action PAC, it was announced that King would receive Rihanna’s Diamond Ball honor.

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“Every time I get an award, there is a huge public backlash. When I got a BET award, there was a huge public backlash,” he told The Root.

King said the assumption is that he gets these awards without any of the organizations doing their homework and researching him. He said that he has actually worked with Rihanna’s organization before, behind the scenes on fundraising and public messaging.

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The accusations picked up steam again, and the backlash was strong enough that King was moved to reach out to a small group of 20 friends and ask for their help in combating the negative messaging about him on Twitter and other social media platforms.

“It boiled over in a way that has been very damaging,” King said.

His podcast had been working to get advertisers, but when the accusations surfaced again, those advertisers pulled out, according to King. He also claims he had multiple speaking engagements canceled because “people that they think they can trust say I’m a scam artist.”

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Now, King said his advisers told him to go forward with a public accounting of all the money he had raised for various families and causes, as a means of quashing the fraud accusations.

King released the 72-page report on Aug. 31. In it, he said he has raised $34.5 million since the Black Lives Matter movement began. The report “was authored by Tamika Mallory, Co-Chair of The Women’s March and Co-Founder of Justice League NYC; Becky Bond, partner at The Social Practice; Tiffany Hawkins and Allan Boomer, financial experts with Momentum Advisors; Rob Smith, attorney and executive for The Justice Collaborative; David Mitrani, attorney for Sandler Reiff; and Lee Merritt, civil rights attorney—with the support of CPA and tax attorney Richard Bell,” all of whom know King personally and are either currently working with him or have in the past.

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The auditors said they tracked five years of fundraisers that King promoted, beginning with August 2014 after the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and concluding with August 2019. They reached out to the families involved or their attorneys to obtain statements that could clear King of any malfeasance. They looked into his relationship with both Real Justice PAC and Action PAC and confirmed that, while King receives no compensation at Action PAC, he received “only a modest income of $4,166 per month (without benefits)” from Real Justice.

King’s tax records for the last five years were also examined, and the auditors were given “full unlimited access to all of” the King family’s “checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards, retirement accounts, and money management software.” This included data going back more than 10 years.

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The report concluded that there is “absolutely no evidence that Shaun has ever inappropriately accessed any funds that he has raised.”

“We searched and we asked. Not one single family, charity, cause or campaign said Shaun was ever compensated, directly, or indirectly, for his online fundraising. In fact, it appears that with the exception of his compensation through Real Justice PAC, Shaun has received zero compensation for the fundraising he promoted,” it read.

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The report outlines some 66 fundraisers as well as money raised through Real Justice PAC, and includes testimonials from those the money was raised for, denying that King received any compensation or portion of the funds.

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King’s ‘Biggest Achievement’

The report has been criticized by King’s detractors, who have accused him of having his “friends” create the report and vouch for him when he should have chosen an independent third party.

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During an interview with SiriusXM’s Clay Cane on Sept. 5, King addressed this criticism, saying that his goal was to get the report done “efficiently and quickly.” He said they could have gone with a third party, but he provided those who worked on the report with “full, unfettered access” to five years of his tax returns, bank statements, emails, and social media postings.

“If somebody wants to take this information and pass it through another filter of their own, please do it,” he said.

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Detractors of the report say that while King provided information on a large number of fundraisers, there was plenty he left off the report as well.

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On Sept. 3, Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst for Rewire News, tweeted and asked why King had left off money he got from his affiliation with HopeMob, a fundraising site he helped to create that predated GoFundMe.

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“Also, there appears to be a bold-faced lie in the introduction to @shaunking’s ‘independent report,’”she wrote. “They looked at his 2013 tax returns and claim he hasn’t received a penny of compensation. What about the $160,070 he was paid in 2013 for HopeMob? Did that not warrant a mention?”

King addressed that on Cane’s show as well.

“That was over a period of a few years. What people are seeing in that report of a $160,000, they’re saying, ‘Oh my God, that organization only brought in $160,000, but it all went to Shaun.’ That money was literally given to us by a grant for me to build HopeMob and do HopeMob for me to be able to have that as my primary employment. Every dollar that came into families went directly to families. We raised millions of dollars for families for the three years that we led HopeMob,” he said.

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Gandy responded to that answer on Twitter on Sept. 5, saying “So... @shaunking really did go on @claycane’s show and either lied or admitted he committed tax fraud. I will explain. 1. The report specifically says that they looked at his 2013 tax returns, so not just Black Lives Matter from 2014 and on. 2. The HopeMob 990 is from 2013.”

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King told The Root that he considers his fundraising to be his “biggest achievement.” It’s a source of pride for him, and the accusations are hitting him where it hurts. He said he considers claims that he is stealing money from anyone to be “the dumbest...least well-thought-out accusation.”

“If I did that, each time I did it, I would be committing a crime. If I took a dollar from a family that belonged to them ever, it’s a crime. It’s not just shady. If I ever did that, it would be multiple crimes—it would be tax fraud, wire fraud, all of those things. It would violate multiple laws and would literally ruin my life,” he said.

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“It’s the same thing like when people say ‘Shaun is plagiarizing people.’ It’s like, do you not understand that if I plagiarized once, it would ruin my career? That’s a one-and-done offense, and it’s like no, that has literally never happened.

“If any of those things ever happened, it would be criminal, it would be civil, but on Twitter, all of those laws and rules are suspended. Each time you say that about me, you are accusing me of a crime,” he said. “If I were doing this, I would be the first person to be prosecuted for this, and it literally has never happened.”

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Activists DeRay and Netta Jump Into the Fray

On Sept. 12, the day King was set to receive his honor from Rihanna at her Diamond Ball gala, another ripple hit the water.

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This time it came from well-known activist DeRay Mckesson. Mckesson took to Medium to write a post calling into question King’s integrity and what he noted as a lack of transparency in King’s fundraising and organizing efforts.

While acknowledging that King has done some good for the movement, Mckesson expressed concerns that King never really answered the questions asked of him and accused him of deflecting instead.

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.

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Mckesson’s post spread across the internet and added to the wildfire that was already burning around King. Johnetta Elzie chimed in to say that she helped Mckesson put together his post, as did many other black women.

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Speaking with The Root on Sept. 6, Elzie said, “I don’t appreciate the complete disregard of black women—black women’s feelings, black women’s experience, black women’s intellectual property—and after talking with black women who worked with him at the North Star [in 2018, King relaunched a newspaper started by Frederick Douglass]...the reason I jumped into this conversation in 2019 is because I felt the exact same way in 2015 that these women feel now, based on working with Shaun. I am here to give voice to those women. I am still getting emails from women who want to tell their stories. I feel a responsibility to the movement space to do that,” she continued.

“If we claim ‘trust black women’ and ‘believe black women,’ why does that not apply when it comes to this man in this movement who so many people have come out and said they have been silenced by? If we say we believe black women, why are we choosing not to believe these black women who don’t have large platforms or large followings? Why are we not believing the most marginalized people at this point?” she added.

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King initially responded to Mckesson’s claims on Twitter.

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McKesson responded to those tweets.

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“I was a board member of Justice Together and I spoke out in 2015. I saw his new report and saw the part about Justice Together, and the numbers didn’t add up. Additionally, Netta and I had so many people who had worked for the North Star reaching out to us with their stories and raising questions that I had not thought of. It just made us ask more questions, and that post is the questions that I had. It was important to me to not write something about my feelings because this is not about my feelings, it is about the facts. Based on my analysis and my understanding of the facts, I came to the conclusion that he lacks integrity,” Mckesson told The Root. “I haven’t talked to Shaun since 2015. Shaun texted me when I got arrested in Baton Rouge. We don’t have a relationship. There is no personal relationship. This is not personal. The idea that this is a personal disagreement is both reductive and ignores the fact-based claims that I make. Personal is about one’s feelings. I don’t write about my feelings. I write about my understanding of the facts,” he continued.

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Mckesson said that King’s responses to his post are pure deflection.

“If anything is wrong or incorrect in the facts I presented, let me know,” Mckesson said.

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King alleged that Mckesson had reached out to families that King had helped, an allegation Mckesson denies. King said that by doing so, Mckesson was causing the families to have to relive the trauma they previously went through.

“His responses do everything but refute the facts,” Mckesson said. “He has said a whole lot of things, but he has not refuted anything that I said.”

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King was asked about Mckesson’s allegations at The Information’s Media Bootcamp on Sept. 13.

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King told The Root he believes Mckesson deliberately timed his post to go out on the day of the Diamond Ball.

“I was literally at a hotel with my wife getting dressed and ready for the event, and I offered a very spur-of-the-moment response. We could go through line by line and refute everything he is saying,” King said. “A month ago, the line was ‘Shaun King is stealing money and he’s a grifter.’ People were saying Flip the Senate was a scam, and that these are all hustles for me to get wealthy and all kinds of things. So, to respond to that, we spent three weeks and seven people put their reputations on the line to say ‘Hey, actually, here is everything we found.’ I did not write that report.”

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When the night of the Diamond Ball arrived, King never took the stage. His award was given to him off-camera, and he never stood to make a speech.

King said the point of the report was to cover everything from the start of his role in the Black Lives Matter movement in August of 2014 up through August 2019. Three attorneys, a CPA and two financial experts all “put their names on the line” to say that King had done nothing wrong.

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“If you read that and still came away with ‘I still think he’s stealing from families and people etc,’ then something is wrong with you,” King said.

“If I stopped my life every time these types of accusations come out, it’s all I would ever do,” he added.

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About the author

Monique Judge

News Editor for The Root. I said what I said. Period.