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Shaun King: The man behind the keyboard

As part of Duke’s Martin Luther King Jr. week commemoration, Shaun King will come to campus Wednesday to deliver a talk at the Reynolds Theater in the Bryan Center. Shaun King, a writer and civil rights activist, is perhaps best known for his extensive social media presence, which he uses to highlight numerous social justice causes such as Black Lives Matter. A testament to his popularity in liberal college circles, tickets for King’s speaking event have been sold out, although interested individuals will be able to watch a live stream of his talk on Duke’s Youtube channel. Despite his popularity and prolific social media presence, King is decidedly a controversial figure—both on the left and the right of the political spectrum. More than just praising King as a paragon of “woke-ness” in our age of digital social media activism, we should take time to critique and ruminate on the many controversies surrounding Shaun King as an activist and leader.

Perhaps most famously, King has faced a number of controversies in his role as founder of the nationwide organization Justice Together, a now-defunct non-profit centered on ending systemic anti-black police violence. Specifically, in late 2015, members and leaders of Justice Together publicly denounced King’s leadership in the organization, criticizing his purported ambivalence in leading the organization he had founded. For vague reasons related to the existence of supposed right-wing “trolls,” King officially disbanded the movement in November of 2015, which had grown to encompass members in all 50 U.S. states with dozens of statewide and international chapters. 

In 2015, King has been criticized by commentators—both on the right and left—for opacity related to his multi-million dollar fundraising for Black Lives Matter. News commentators like Goldie Taylor, from the left-leaning The Daily Beast, have even suggested that King may have misappropriated funds meant to go to black victims of police violence toward personal investments. More recently, these suspicions of potentially mishandling donations have come to haunt King, with some social justice activists questioning King on the validity of the cash award he had offered in relation to information on anti-black crimes, as well as older claims of misappropriation. King has fired back aggressively against such accusations, even going as far as to publicly threaten legal action against his detractors via Twitter. Some social justice activists, such as Clarissa Brooks, have responded to King’s legal actions as being “heavy-handed and unnecessary” after receiving a cease and desist email from King. 

As a result, King’s reputation as social justice leader has become somewhat precarious. The existence of such accusations or rumors does not by any means convict him of any wrongdoing on his part; King has rigidly defended himself in various articles and posts, going as far as to label such accusations a “complete and total fabrication” designed by his right-wing enemies to discredit him. He has also been defended by many supporters. Nonetheless, his somewhat extreme response in reacting to such accusations—such as threatening legal action against fellow social justice activists—are problematic in that he is hypocritically utilizing legal mechanisms of state violence, which he is supposedly fighting against, to silence his critics in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Surely a less evasive, socially-conscious response would have sufficed in responding to these criticisms on the part of King. 

When we listen to the prominent speakers Duke brings to campus in the hope of enlivening campus debates on matters such as Black Lives Matter, we should be careful not to forget that these people are human and subject to the many idiosyncratic faults of being an individual in navigating their life’s work. We now know that Charlie Rose, a noteworthy Duke alum who came to speak numerous times on this campus, has been accused by numerous former female co-workers in the journalism world of sexual harassment. The late President George H.W. Bush, who spoke at Duke’s 1998 commencement ceremony, continues to be criticized for supposedly pushing back against civil rights and for the thousands of civilian deaths during Operation Desert Storm. Their seemingly esteemed presence, gracing the pulpit of the Chapel or centerstage of Page, should not absolve these speakers of responding to legitimate critiques and criticisms from members of the Duke community in attendance. 

Shaun King’s presence on Duke’s campus this Wednesday represents an opportune time to ruminate on issues related to Black Lives Matter and anti-black police violence in this country. However, it also gives us a chance to consider the many controversies facing King as a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, and to incorporate such discussions in responding to what King will bring to campus when he graces Reynolds Theater this Wednesday night. 

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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