Shaun King’s evolution as an online watchdog against racism and police brutality
Daniel Borden and Alex Michael Ramos would probably not be facing prison time were it not for Shaun King, the controversial activist, organizer and citizen journalist whose efforts led to their capture.
The two men were caught on video assaulting 20-year-old DeAndre Harris, a black man, during the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Harris sustained a spinal injury and severe head lacerations from repeated blows with a metal pipe and wooden boards.
In the months that followed, King mobilized his then-combined 2.26 million Facebook and Twitter followers to identify the unnamed attackers, posting screenshots of their faces online and crowdsourcing information about their jobs and whereabouts.
In August, after a two-day trial, Ramos, of Georgia, was convicted of malicious wounding and sentenced to six years in prison. Borden, a Ohio resident, was convicted of malicious wounding in May and is scheduled to be sentenced in October.
“If one person has been pushing for justice the most, it’s King,” Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira wrote of King’s efforts in the case.
Indeed, since Borden and Ramos’ arrests in August 2017, the 38-year-old husband and father has been praised widely for helping identify them. King was among six activists to receive the inaugural Humanitarian Hero honor at the 2018 BET Awards in June and delivered a commencement speech at the City University of New York the same month.
Meanwhile, his social media following has jumped to nearly 3 million on Twitter and Facebook, platforms he’s used most recently to publicize details from the Sept. 6 shooting death of Botham Jean, an unarmed black man killed in his own apartment by white off-duty Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger.
“Even though I’m interested in these individual people being held responsible, part of what I’m trying to do is to send a message to say, ‘If you mistreat people, there are other people like me who will help hold you responsible for it,’” King said in an exclusive interview for Tuesday’s episode of Mic Dispatch. “The system doesn’t do that work for us. So we have to do it ourselves.”
In official terms, King has been a citizen journalist for just over four years, but he’s quickly grown from being a popular blogger for the liberal political forum Daily Kos to a columnist for the Intercept and sought-after speaker known for revealing and publicizing incidents of racism and police brutality.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Questions surrounding King’s ethics and journalistic accuracy have dogged his work. In May, he helped publicize false sexual assault allegations against a white Texas state trooper made by a 37-year-old black woman, who claimed the trooper promised to let her go if she performed sexual favors on him after he pulled her over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.
Footage from the trooper’s body-worn camera seems to disprove anything improper took place. The officer in question declined Mic’s Sept. 7 request for an interview. But the Texas Department of Public Safety referred Mic to a previously issued statement in which the agency expressed outrage “that anyone would make such a despicable, slanderous and false accusation against a peace officer who willingly risks his life every day to protect and serve the public.”
King said he deleted all of his online posts regarding the false allegations. He also published an essay about why he believed the accuser and reached out to the trooper personally.
“I apologized to him, person to person,” King said. “I felt like he had been done wrong by this person — and I had, too.”
Still, this wasn’t the first — or only — time King had gotten the facts wrong. He acknowledged to Mic that he’s shared multiple allegations of police brutality with his followers that he had not first vetted himself.
That appears to have been the case in July 2015, when King allegedly retweeted activist Rachelle Smith after she shared the wrong name of a transit police sergeant seen on video pepper-spraying a crowd of mostly black people leaving the Movement for Black Lives convening in Cleveland. The attendees had reportedly tried to prevent police from arresting a black teenager outside the conference venue.
“At first, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad,’” Sean O’Neil, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority commander who was misidentified as the officer who sprayed the protesters, said in a Mic Dispatch interview. “But then I see how, on social media, things spread exponentially. And then when I see Shaun King [had retweeted it], I knew he was quite a visible and quite popular activist online.”
O’Neil — who added the police sergeant in question was right to use pepper spray to disperse the protesters — has a private Twitter account, which he used to contact several users who were circulating his name, including King.
“I’d reached out to all of them to say, ‘Hey, look, this is not me,’” O’Neil said. “’Here’s the proof. Can you retract and apologize? I mean, come on, you’re messing up my life, and my family’s.’
“All of them did [apologize], except for [King],” O’Neil added.
In his Mic Dispatch interview, King said he could not recall this incident or O’Neil’s story. He did, however, write a Daily Kos blog post about it that did not include O’Neil’s name.
“Here’s the danger: If someone else misidentifies him and then says, ‘Person A is Sean O’Neil and he did Action B,’ and then I retweet that, that’s a problem,” King told Mic Dispatch. “I’m not the type of person that’s slow to acknowledge a wrong or apologize for something. Even with this specific instance, if I had anything to do with that, I regret it. One, I don’t want to be wrong, and I definitely don’t want to misidentify anybody.”
For her part, Rachelle Smith wrote a formal apology to O’Neil via a messaging service on LinkedIn, the career networking website where she found the commander’s name, photograph and occupation. Smith’s tweet, which she has since deleted, had been shared “thousands upon thousands upon thousands of times,” she said in a Mic Dispatch interview.
“I think [mistakes happen] in every area, but it’s definitely something that we should be cognizant of, something we should be careful of, and something we need to own up to,” Smith said.
Elsewhere, King has faced scrutiny over his fundraising efforts for victims in the cases he’s publicized. Journalists and activists have raised questions about what happened to money he raised for victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Others pointed to funds he raised for the family of Tamir Rice — who was killed at age 12 by Cleveland police in 2014 — with some insinuating King mismanaged both charities and has not given the victims the full amounts. King has vigorously denied these accusations in the press.
But despite these missteps, something was noticeably different and more deliberate about King’s work regarding the Charlottesville incident. Instead of releasing information in a rapid succession of tweets and Facebook posts — as he has been known to do — King took his time, enlisting the help of strangers online to scrutinize an influx of photos, videos and screenshots from the social media accounts of people he suspected of participating in Harris’ assault.
“Within minutes, people volunteered from across the country — just regular, everyday people,” King said. “Accountants, librarians [and] not people in law enforcement.”
An increased attention to detail — including the use of shared web folders that were labeled for suspects’ tattoos, birthmarks, ear shapes, beards and hair color — led to positive identifications and eventual arrest warrants for Borden and Ramos, King said. While some activists in the past have criticized King for what they say is a constant, near-traumatizing barrage of videos and images of black people being brutalized on his social media accounts, he has earned praise from other activists for his recent work.
“Shaun is a courageous fighter for those marginalized by the state and vigilantes,” Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, said in a statement to Mic.
King said he considers the Charlottesville investigation to be his most important work of the last four years. And it’s work that he plans to continue, having recognized the benefits of getting facts right and the potential costs of getting them wrong.
King has since carried his Charlottesville success into other viral cases. He brought massive public attention to Aaron Schlossberg, a New York City lawyer caught on video in May berating workers at a Midtown, Manhattan, sandwich and salad restaurant who were speaking Spanish to each other and to customers.
“Honey, I’m calling ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]!” Schlossberg barked at the employees, implying — without evidence — that they were undocumented and living and working in the United States.
King’s posts about Schlossberg were retweeted and liked tens of thousands of times. Two days after the videos gained global attention, Schlossberg’s private law firm was reportedly kicked out of its rented office space.
“[Before, someone] could say something horrible, do something horrible — and if we don’t find who they are, they pay no price for it,” King said.
King said he has been involved in social justice causes since he was president of student government at Morehouse College, the historically black school for men in Atlanta. After he graduated in 2001, King pastored a church he’d founded in the city. He has since helped launch an award-winning charity that raised money for victims of natural disasters, as well as fundraisers for families of police brutality victims.
King has also parlayed his popular brand of citizen journalism into gigs as a contributor at the Daily Kos and the New York Daily News.
“I feel good about the work that I was doing, and there was very little pushback [compared] to what is it like now,” King said in the Mic Dispatch interview about his writing stints.
But increased visibility for outing bad actors in law enforcement, politics and education has also come with professional and personal costs. In addition to allegations about mismanaged fundraising efforts, a conspiracy theory pushed by far-right media in 2015 asserted King was actually a white man pretending to be black — an accusation King responded to by explaining in an essay for Medium that his mother had conceived him with a black man who was not listed on his birth certificate.
“You know we’ve had, at this point, probably several hundred death threats across the years, and it just causes you to count the cost,” King said. “I think the hardest thing is, my wife, my mother-in-law [and] even my oldest daughters have all at one time or another asked me to stop doing this work.”
In August, King tweeted that an “anonymous troll [had] weaponized New York’s Department of Child Services against [his] whole family by filing false reports of neglect and drug use by [their] children.” At the time of King’s Mic Dispatch interview, the department’s probe was ongoing. King said he believed it was a hoax.
“I thought I’d seen it all,” he said. “The report was so outrageous. It appeared that whoever called to report it, they don’t even live in New York.”
But King added he has yet to to allow pushback, threats and criticism deter his work.
“People see me as someone who’s going to help them hold somebody responsible,” he said. “I’m doing the best that I can, every day. It’s just, you know, our country is deeply problematic.”
Check out episode 19 of Mic Dispatch above — only on Facebook Watch.
Correction: Sept. 19, 2018