The loudest voice in the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t go to protests. He works in silence, alone in a room with the door closed. He is told the story of police brutality in America via email, Twitter, and Facebook by thousands of strangers. Mothers and fathers plea that he avenge the murders of their daughters and sons; trolls tell him to stop race-baiting.
“Every day I get people who want me to tell a story of their loved one,” Shaun King told me. “Sometimes I don’t respond at all. I’m just not able to. Other times I respond and say I’ll look into it, then I forget.” That day, he had published a story about Radazz Hearns, an unarmed 14-year-old girl shot 7 times by New Jersey police, and another about a white Massachusetts man who attacked 7 officers and remained unharmed.
King, a justice writer at the liberal site Daily Kos, gets 50,000 likes, retweets, and replies on social media every day, and 500 emails—everything from questionable police reports and photos of teenagers killed by police to story tips and death threats. The notifications on his phone are turned off. His 5’11,” 170 lb-frame is slouched into a booth at The Varsity, a fast food joint blocks away from his home in Atlanta. He's sitting, ironically, in the one room of the restaurant with the TV set to Fox News. On King’s loose white t-shirt is a sketch of Heisenberg, Walter White’s kingpin alter ego on Breaking Bad. It's like a wink to King’s haters, but no one seems to recognize him.
“I am very much trying to agitate America,” he said.
When King speaks about his work, he leans forward, staring through thick-framed black glasses at the ketchup and mustard bottles on our table. His voice, deep and confident, stresses words as though he’s delivering a sermon or about to land a punch. “I’m trying to break through the noise and make these stories known in a way that they’ve never been known before. I know that in order for a story to make the mainstream news, I have to tell it loudly. Often. Abrasively. And sometimes telling it that way makes it newsworthy and puts it on the radar of people who can do something about it.”
To follow @ShaunKing is to be sucked into the new civil rights movement. He is a reporter, but he is not objective; he doesn’t pretend to be. His tone isn’t polished, but emotional; a 140-character blitz of hard returns and CAPs and the occasional expletive. Listen, listen, listen to what I’m about to say, he’ll tweet, before explaining why it was impossible for Sandra Bland to turn a plastic bag into a noose or why the officer who shot Walter Scott was a stone-cold killer.
King believes policy change is the best available option to reduce police brutality. Last week he launched Justice Together, an organization meant to tap into the “huge volume of dormant frustration” and tackle the issue at what he believes is its root: America’s 20,000 local police departments. He said the group will build coalitions across the United States to identify local police problems and lobby local politicians for change. King estimates 50,000 have signed up, many of them by way of his social media channels. The board of directors boasts powerful names like actress Gabrielle Union, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, and protester DeRay Mckesson.
Yet one year after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson and King’s methodical coverage of it gained him national prominence and 179,000 Twitter followers, as the movement has matured and grabbed the attention of presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, and countless hashtagged names later, King is not satisfied. He likened the number of unarmed Americans killed by police to the worst years of lynching.
“What I’m really pissed about and shocked to be honest with you, is after this past year it’s not getting better,” he said. “It’s getting worse. And it’s never gotten more coverage, it’s never had more eyes on it. There’ve been some small policy victories, tiny ones, but we’re on pace to have more people killed by police this year than last year.”
Unlike more visible activists, like the blue-vested Mckesson, King exists mostly digitally, and he often says things (and names names) those on the ground might not dare. This sometimes cavalier tone, along with the choice details he’s shared about his private life, have pushed right-wing bloggers to spend years digging into his past, looking for skeletons.
“Man, it’s so infuriating,” King said, shaking his head.
He has never been punched like this before, though. A few days after our interview, the conservative site Breitbart published King’s birth certificate, suggesting that his father is white and that he has been lying about being biracial for years—a Rachel Dolezal 2.0. The Daily Beast reviewed Kentucky public records to confirm that the father’s name on the certificate was that of a Caucasian man. Then, CNN host Don Lemon reported that an anonymous family member of King told him that both King’s parents were white.
The Breitbart story also dug up old accusations: that King lied about being attacked by a white mob in his Versailles, Kentucky, high school in 1995; that he lied to Oprah to get a scholarship at Morehouse College; that he lied about a car accident that required 400 stitches to his face; that he lied about how many children he has.
King initially brushed off the attack as a conspiracy of white supremacists, a group threatened by the growing political power of Black Lives Matter activists. But the next day, he responded by unleashing dozens of tweets about his race: “If you have known me from when I was in elementary school at Huntertown Elementary until now, you've known me as black or bi-racial.” “Out of LOVE for my family, I've never gone public with my racial story because it's hurtful, scandalous, and it's MY STORY.” “Every single person who knows me BEYOND Twitter, beyond trending topics and HIT PIECES, knows I have never lied about my race."
“The fact that Shaun even had to justify himself…” Daily Kos Executive Editor Susan Gardner said. “We hired him for his work and he’s done a tremendous job for us. I don’t know his personal story. I didn’t know it until this all came up. I don’t feel it’s anybody’s business. He’s doing the work he’s doing.”
It was too late. The story had spread to mainstream publications like The New York Times and trended on Twitter. It was King’s worst nightmare—he was the story. (Well, mostly. He tweeted this in the maelstrom: “Since I'm trending I might as well tell you about this police officer who passed out when denied bail for murder.”) For a moment, it felt that his credibility was on the line, that he could suffer a Dolezal-like crash.
King’s supporters saw the accusations as an attempt to tarnish his integrity—and, by extension, his cause. “The intent is to have a chilling effect on the work,” Mckesson told me. Arguably the face of the movement, Mckesson has suffered countless trolls who, as he told The New York Times, know where he is at all times. “Shaun has been a consistent voice of truth,” he said.
Michael Skolnik, an activist who has known King for years, told him to punch back against the accusations. “He has kids, man,” he said. “You got to come home to a kid, and your kid just wants to play with you and smile and be a monster. And meanwhile, you’re being attacked by real-life monsters.”
On blogs and in his book The Power of 100!: Kickstart Your Dreams, Build Momentum, and Discover Unlimited Possibility , King has recounted at length the three spinal surgeries, ruptured disks, and fractures that he sustained in the beating. He has clarified the confusion about his children: he has three by birth, two by custody and adoption, and has had foster children and nieces and nephews stay with him.
After the Breitbart story, a classmate defended King on Facebook saying that he was jumped by a dozen “big white farm boys,” while an old friend wrote that he was “beaten to a bloody pulp by a mob” and that the city covered up the incident. Even King’s wife Rai (pronounced “Ray”), who has been with him since she was a teen, wrote a defense of her husband: “There’s no spray tan, no fake Black hairstyles, no attempt to make himself appear any more ethnic than he already does.”
The internet mob, including Montel Williams, wasn’t satisfied. It demanded that King just answer a simple yes or no question: Are you biracial?
In a piece published on Daily Kos titled “Race, love, hate, and me: A distinctly American story,” King explained that when he was younger, his mother, who is white and lives in Kentucky today, told him that the man on his birth certificate was not his biological father. She said that his actual father was a light-skinned black man with whom she had an affair. By middle school, King identified not as biracial, but as black. His friends were black, his girlfriends were black. That was it.
“Until this past week, never has anyone asked me who my father was during these 35 years of mine,” he wrote. “It occurs to me now that I’ve never asked anyone that question either.”
It’s only in the hours between 6 p.m. and before his children go to sleep that King powers down his technology. This is time reserved for family (he has five kids ages 2, 6, 8, 13, and 15), dinner (before we met he was at the legendary soul food spot Mary Mac’s), and television (he loves Netflix’s Daredevil, a show about a superhero fighting police corruption). After his wife, a first grade teacher, goes to bed, he works for a few more hours.
On the night of August 9, King tweeted that he was going to sleep early, as Monday was the first day of school for his wife and kids. A few hours later, though, he was in bed with his laptop, and iPhone, and iPad, texting and direct messaging as his wife slept next to him.
How had an officer shot a black man in Ferguson on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death? Gunshots interrupted a live CNN segment with Ferguson’s interim police chief. There were photos of a white officer standing above the bloody, handcuffed body of a black man.
King couldn’t believe it. Somehow, a day of calm remembrance had devolved into chaos. He stayed up all night sifting through tweets about pepper spray and gunfire, and exchanging messages with people on the ground. Skolnik told him that a young man had been shot; protester Tony Rice sent him video of police over the body.
“When you’re in the middle of a storm, it can be really hard to have a 360 perspective,” he said. “So I see myself as kind of like an ultra-informed outsider. I try to exist outside of it so that I can see it and understand it.”
“When you’re on the ground and things are happening in real time, you want Shaun King to retweet you,” Skolnik said. “You want the message to get out. When there’s tear gas or there’s smoke bombs or there’s pepper spray or gunshots and you’re trying to tweet, you don’t know what is happening outside of your own cell phone.”
The official story: Police said four plainclothes officers drove towards 18-year-old Tyrone Harris Jr. with their lights flashing, when he shot at them. The officers got out of the car and chased him. He was critically wounded.
“To this day, we don’t really know what happened,” King said. “We see that he had a gun, but we don’t know. Police said he shot at them, but we don’t know. We don’t know.”
King has likened the hunt for his racial identity to the manhunt for Assata Shakur, a Black Panther and the first woman on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorist” list. He tweeted a “truth bomb” of one of her quotes: “The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us.”
Typically, King reports death threats to the police and FBI, and to Twitter and Facebook when relevant. His home address has been published. Twice this month, he said, someone broke into his parked car. Last week, after the Breitbart story, he received six death threats on one day. He has since doubled his life insurance policy and temporarily moved to a different home. He told GQ that he bought an extra gun for the house and installed cameras on his property.
In direct messages and emails King told me he was trying not to slip into a funk, and that he was beat beyond words. He wrote: “The last week has been one of the craziest weeks of my life. Adversity absolutely teaches you who your friends are. Although I've experienced some random opposition in the past year, this was clearly a coordinated attack designed to discredit and undermine me and the movement in general.”
At The Varsity, I asked him if he was afraid.
“Yeah man, I am,” he said. “I try to take every precaution that I can. I assume that almost all of it comes from nameless, faceless people. But I’m also keenly aware that it only takes a tiny percentage of people who decide that I am a big enough problem that they need to take it from online to offline.”
The questions about King’s race will linger. His skin is not dark enough and his answers are not definitive enough to silence his doubters. But such is the reality when the question is about who your mother slept with 35 years ago.
King is the embodiment of racial tension in America. As a teenager he was beaten for being black. Now trolls attack him by calling him white. Those who think King has to be black for what he’s saying to have any credence are likely those who claim that instead of Black Lives Matter, we should say All Lives Matter. The race of the loudest voice in this movement is inconsequential. What matters is what he’s saying.
“I intend to rile people up,” he said. “To get people to care. And that’s hard. People are deeply apathetic, and to get strangers to click, to get them to read, to get them to know a name, you have be extreme to even do it.”