The Daily Beast published a lengthy story yesterday which looks closely at activist Shaun King’s history of fundraising for progressive causes and projects. The story is long, in part, because there are so many projects he has started but, in many cases, not finished. At a minimum, the story makes a case that Shaun King is a spectacularly bad manager of both talent and funds. But the piece suggests there could be something worse than bad management happening here.
When Shaun King and progressive journalist Benjamin Dixon launched an ambitious multimedia reboot of Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, last February, it was celebrated across social media by prominent voices, including Susan Sarandon, Michael Eric Dyson, and Megan Mullally. A month later, the company boasted on Twitter that it already had “multiple angel investors” and more than 30,000 subscribers contributing $5 per month for students and $10 a month and up for the general public…
But 14 months after launching, almost none of what King promised to build has appeared and the site has struggled with issues that alienated many subscribers. The headquarters and television studio was quietly shuttered last summer, and all Atlanta-based staffers laid off. The mobile app disappeared for over a year, and the “full news site” displays branded The North Star apparel for sale alongside relatively scant original journalism.
King told me in an extensive email exchange for this story in early April that The North Star’s stumbles, including the dearth of deliverables promised, can be chalked up to the same overzealousness that has been the downfall of his other projects—the result of his tendency to take on too much, too soon…
But seven former employees of The North Star—three of whom spoke anonymously out of fear of reprisal by King, and six of whom were told they had to sign nondisclosure agreements to receive severances—said the issue was less King’s over-ambition than his absenteeism, insistence on absolute control, and radical incompetence…
While it should be noted that no criminal or civil charges have ever been filed against King, the story—in the words of former employees of The North Star—was one of “self sabotage” by him, and “really shady f**king business” with “a liar & a fraud.”
This is far from the first time questions have been raised about King’s fundraising practices. Last September, Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson wrote an equally lengthy piece on Medium in which he described how he’d once defended King himself but had gradually learned that was a mistake:
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.
As with the current Daily Beast piece, McKesson’s basic allegation is that King fundraises for one project after another but rarely delivers much of what was promised to investors. Generally speaking, King’s response to all of this is that while it’s true many of his projects have failed, that doesn’t make him a thief. And yet, when asked to account for funds he raised for specific projects, King refused to answer.
King also did not respond to my question about the report’s omission of a $17,500 grant to Justice Together, the anti-police-brutality organization he disbanded in 2015. King cited the grant in this Facebook post from 2015 and in emails he sent to Justice Together board members the same year. The money is further confirmed by a 2015 IRS filing from the Proteus Fund, the grant-giving organization. ..
King’s auditors wrote that when he abruptly and unilaterally shuttered Justice Together in 2015, he “refunded 100% of the donations made.” But a representative from the Proteus Fund, which provided the $17,500 grant, told me that King never returned that money. Nor did he submit the mandated report explaining how the funds were used to support justice work. King did not respond to a question about that disparity.
Also omitted from the report is a $10,000 donation made to Justice Together by David Heinemeier Hansson, a former member of the organization’s board, which he told me “had no resemblance to any legitimate board in terms of responsibilities and insight.”…
King did not respond to a question about the missing $10,000…
In all, the phrase “King did not respond” appears in the story 10 times, though not all of them deal directly with fundraising. Some deal with the departure of former employees, many of whom were asked to sign NDAs in order to receive a small severance package.
King has made his name by highlighting criminal cases involving apparently racial injustice, most recently the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. But King’s elevation of cases to greater public attention has also had its share of problems. Last year he suggested a white man in a pickup truck was responsible for the shooting of a 7-year-old black girl who was killed in a drive-by attack. It turned out the man in question was a witness but not the shooter. King did back off his false claim (and claimed he didn’t care about the race of the shooter) but by that time the man he’d named was getting death threats.
And in 2018 King claimed a Texas police officer had “kidnapped & raped” a black woman after pulling her over for a traffic stop. He named the officer he said was responsible. But body camera footage of the full traffic stop showed the officer, Daniel Hubbard, had done nothing wrong. Shaun King wrote a piece on Medium admitting that Officer Hubbard was actually “very professional and patient throughout the ordeal.”
Between his false allegations on social media and his repeated start-up failures, it’s amazing that Shaun King is taken seriously by so many people.