97 Minutes With Shaun King

The controversial activist asks, “What would Frederick Douglass do?”

Shaun King. Photo: Victor Llorente
Shaun King. Photo: Victor Llorente

By the time we meet, at 11 on a Wednesday morning in December, Shaun King, masterful activator of instant-react liberal anger and would-be digital-media titan, has already retweeted a double-digit string of articles to his 1 million followers on everything from the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the much-critiqued arrest of Jazmine Headley, a Brooklyn mother who was videotaped clutching her 1-year-old at a public-benefits office before police forced her hands behind her back. (“Shame shame shame on this city for the trauma they caused this wonderful mother and baby boy.”)

Sitting at a table in Lula, a cozy Bed-Stuy coffee shop, King is still mulling over that last incident: “I’m just trying to figure out how did she spend four nights in Rikers because she was sitting on the floor of social services?! Sometimes I’m so furious I have to fight tears.” King’s in a hoodie and a brown leather jacket; he has bits of gray in his goatee and a simple silver wedding band on his right hand. He skips coffee in favor of the can of Red Bull he walked in with. In King, a 39-year-old father of five, some see a courageous, unflappable activist. Others see an all-purpose outrage machine. Both sides might agree that he seems to exist almost entirely as a voice inside the internet. But as he sits in front of me, he places his iPhone facedown on the table and, to my surprise, duly ignores it.

King’s online fame began only a few years ago. In 2014, while working as the director of communications for a Southern California environmental organization called Global Green, he got a Facebook message from an old Morehouse College classmate. It was the video of Eric Garner’s killing. “We didn’t even know his name at the time,” he recalls. “If I had to put my finger on one moment, that message changed my life.”

He stayed employed for a couple more months but “never worked another honest day at Global Green.” Instead, King wrote Facebook messages and Twitter threads synthesizing the available information on the Garner case and rallying support for what would become the Black Lives Matter movement. “All I knew was to share the video and to tell the story of what I saw in my own words,” he says. King’s style was clear and clean; its appeal was its simplicity. “I was just writing really matter-of-fact, nuanced Twitter [threads] about what I saw. And I started being shared thousands and thousands of times.”

As King points out, newspapers largely did not have dedicated social-justice reporters on staff then. There was a vacuum for voices of authority, and King, who’d been an organizer, prison teacher, and pastor since his time at Morehouse, filled it. “I’m 35 years old at that time,” he says. “Most of the activists and organizers were teenagers or in their early 20s. Nobody was married with kids. For the first time in my life, I felt like, Wow, I’m almost like an elder statesman.

In August 2016, King and his family moved to Brooklyn, where he started work as a columnist for the New York Daily News (in 2017, he moved the column to The Intercept). He also became a target. “It had been 20 years since someone had said something insulting to me,” he says, laughing. “Now it was racial slurs and death threats, like, every day, all day.” There were bizarre allegations that he was lying about the number of children he had or about needing spinal surgeries after being beaten up in high school. He also recalls an image that circulated: a manipulated family photo that purported to show him aiming a gun at his kids. “My wife and I were horrified,” he says. “We were just thinking, What is this?’’

The biggest controversy came in 2015 when Milo Yiannopoulos published a Breitbart piece claiming that King was fabricating his biracial identity. Yiannopoulos and Breitbart were then still months away from notoriety, and major media outlets like CNN referenced Breitbart’s reporting, which cited as evidence his birth certificate. To end the onslaught, King reluctantly wrote a post explaining his painful reality: “I have been told for most of my life that the white man on my birth certificate is not my biological father and that my actual biological father is a light-skinned black man. My mother and I have discussed her affair. She was a young woman in a bad relationship and I have no judgment.”

Looking back, he says, “They wanted to discredit the movement. It ended up having the opposite effect.” He estimates the scandal tripled his following on Facebook and Twitter.

After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, King found a new use for that following. Soliciting information on Twitter, he managed to identify four of the white supremacists who viciously attacked the protester DeAndre Harris, three of whom have since been convicted; the fourth was arraigned in October. “People started writing me and saying, ‘Shaun, I’m a librarian, I have spare time. Can I help you?’ ” Eventually, King and what he lovingly calls his “group of librarians” began a “rudimentary verification process.” They studied shoes, pants, necklaces, bracelets, man-buns, and moles. One suspect was identified by a (possibly apocryphal) Kurt Cobain quote tattooed on the back of his head. “I was obsessed with this,” King says. “Some nights I wouldn’t even go to bed.”

Publicly identifying bigots is now a semi-regular feature of King’s tweeting. In May, he helped identify Aaron Schlossberg, the lawyer who harassed employees at a midtown salad place for speaking Spanish. I ask if he ever worried he or his followers would accuse the wrong person. “We had the whole conversation in private,” he says. “We saw how messy people were after the Boston Marathon bombing, when they were misidentifying people all over Boston. That could have gotten people killed! We’re all amateurs. We just know that if we got it wrong, nobody would ever trust us to do it again.” In early January, King did momentarily get it wrong. After 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes was killed in a drive-by shooting in Houston, King offered a $100,000 reward, raised through donations, for information leading to an arrest. King ended up passing on a faulty tip to police that the killer was a white man in a red truck. To his critics, it seemed King was fabricating a racial motive in the killing of Barnes. King was also the one to lead police to the right suspects, after a different tipster emailed him the names of the two assailants, who are black.

His fund-raising power has become a touchy subject, with allegations arising regularly, many from black activists, that he’s misappropriated funds. “Anybody who says I’ve ever spent or touched or stolen a single penny from a family I’ve supported from the movement is lying,” he tweeted recently. “And slander is illegal.” In January, his lawyers went so far as to send a letter to Clarissa Brooks, a young activist and recent Spelman graduate, demanding she formally retract a tweet questioning his fund-raising. His response provoked a backlash, with some arguing that he was using his clout to intimidate and silence a young black woman.

A young woman named Shelley, carrying what appears to be a ukulele case, comes up to our table. “I just want to say hey and thank you and I admire you so much,” she says. King thanks her, and she tells him she’s donated to the fund for The North Star, King’s most ambitious project to date. It’s a relaunch of the 19th-century newspaper founded by Frederick Douglass. With approval from Douglass’s descendants and with crowdsourced funding, King hopes to make it a modern social-justice organ (complete, of course, with a podcast network).

“[Douglass] started The North Star because he wanted to abolish slavery — he wanted to change the world. And our goal is to fight back against injustice in the world, be it mass incarceration or poverty or inequity of whatever kind.” These are grand goals King is kicking around.

“Every decision we make,” he says, “as cheesy as it sounds, I’m asking myself, What would Frederick Douglass do? It’s caused me to be a little slower and more careful. I normally charge into something with reckless abandon.” He chuckles. “I have had to repress that urge.”

After Shelley walks out, I ask King, “Do you consider your online presence a persona?”

“Yeah,” he says, now hushed. “I don’t mean it to be that way. But when you’re trying to bust through the noise on social media, you do have to be overt and loud. I wish I could be calm and cool and it’d work the same way. I’m yelling in my mind as I write a tweet. If I’m sitting down in a café with you, I’m not going to yell it. But it’s still me. I am that angry. I am that frustrated.”

*This article appears in the January 21, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Shaun King on The North Star and His Online Persona