I spoke with Samaria Rice this past week.
Here's an accounting of every dollar I've ever raised for her. And notes on how the sketchy politics of police brutality leaves families completely exhausted and unsure of who they can actually trust.
I run an organization called the Grassroots Law Project. I have to say that because so many people only know me through social media and don’t actually know anything about the work I do from day to day. We have over 20 full-time staffers and organizers working all over the country on policy issues and elections that are at the root of police brutality, mass incarceration, and racial injustice. It’s the most brilliant collection of people I’ve ever worked with. The majority of what we do is outside the rat race of national politics. Instead, our primary focus is on local change - city by city, county by county, policy by policy, election by election - including in Cleveland, Ohio - where the shadow of the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, rightfully so, still clouds everything.
A few weeks back, one of our organizers told me that she was working alongside staff and volunteers for the Tamir Rice Foundation as the pursuit of justice and accountability for his murder continues. Families never stop that fight. To this day, 66 years after the murder of Emmett Till, his family is still fighting for justice. My first question for the organizer on our team was whether or not Tamir’s mother, Samaria, was aware that I lead the Grassroots Law Project (GLP). She was. I was surprised because for the past few months Samaria had included my name in a list of activists and organizers and attorneys that she was frustrated with. Then, early last week, I got the call that Samaria and some staff from the foundation wanted to meet with our team at GLP. Again, I double-checked and asked if Samaria was aware that I was going to be in this meeting. She was. Again, I was surprised, because when some other people had tried to organize some meetings with activists on her behalf in March, I was left out of the discussions altogether as a type of diss that I wasn’t even worth meeting with.
Over the past 6 months, I had reached out to Samaria Rice directly many times through email, through direct messages, through civil rights leader Opal Tometi, and through the families of Oscar Grant and Philando Castile in an attempt to hear from her directly and answer any questions she might have. For whatever reason, that never worked. When our conversation began last week, a very kind staffer from the Tamir Rice Foundation got us started, and broke the ice by saying that they knew that if the Grassroots Law Project and the Tamir Rice Foundation was going to collaborate on anything, that it had to start with me and Samaria simply having a conversation. And so we did.
Samaria first acknowledged that she was aware that I had reached out to her over the past few months through several different channels. And then she spoke for a good 20 minutes about her pain, her frustrations, her questions, and her struggles. She acknowledged that she was aware that I had written articles about Tamir across the years and had raised money for her family, but it was in that part of the conversation that I truly came to understand a central mistake that I had made with her.
For the past 7 years, I have left Samaria Rice alone. As a general rule, when a family impacted by police violence asks for my help with fundraising or advocacy, I do it - not only with no questions asked, but I do it with zero expectations from the grieved family. I’ve always been keenly aware that these families are being pushed and pulled and poked and prodded by every person imaginable - attorneys, activists, local media outlets, family members, neighbors, politicians, and more. I try to send word to families that I am here for them if they need me in any way, but that I won’t be a burden.
I don’t do press conferences. I don’t do photo ops or photoshoots. I don’t do news interviews. I generally don’t even speak at rallies or events. I just put my head down and do the work. And listen, I don’t begrudge anyone who does any of those things - all of them absolutely have their place - but in an attempt to prove to the world that I am not scrambling for the limelight, what it has done for someone like Samaria Rice is allowed other people to define who I am for her. And ultimately I learned that she didn’t even know most of what I had done for her. That’s my fault and I’ll never let that happen again. Sadly, people have lied to Samaria about me and about the fundraising I have done for her family. I’ll never fully know their intentions, but I am going to take time here to detail it all for you.
On Wednesday, December 3rd of 2014, the day of Tamir’s funeral, less than 2 weeks after Tamir was murdered, I got a phone call from Tory Russell, a front-line activist from Ferguson, Missouri. To this day Tory works closely with the family of Michael Brown. For the previous four months, he had organized and protested around the clock in St. Louis but decided to travel to Cleveland to see how he could advise and support Tamir’s family. I helped to raise over $280,000 for the family of Michael Brown, at the request of their attorney, Benjamin Crump, and Tory was aware of this.
Tory was with Tamir’s family when he called me. First, he communicated to me just how devastating the situation was, but he quickly let me know that the family was going to need real financial help. Everybody was already being forced to go back to work and just couldn’t afford to stay home. Tory put Tamir’s uncle, Michael Petty, on the phone to speak to me. Michael had just spoken at the memorial service for Tamir and was functioning as a spokesperson for the family, I was told. I told Mike that I had just helped raise funds for the family of Michael Brown, and would gladly raise the funds for Tamir’s family, and could start immediately. Tory would be my primary contact person with the family.
By the next day, I had raised $57,817.23 for Tamir’s family. The fundraiser was likely going to raise several hundred thousand dollars. People just wanted to help. At that point, a white supremacist and Holocaust denier named Charles C. Johnson (look at his notorious Wikipedia page here) got involved. Johnson, who was permanently banned from Twitter, and permanently banned from Stripe and PayPal, and other places for his white supremacist work reached out to Samaria Rice’s attorney, Timothy Kucharski, and told him that the fundraiser was a scam. Kucharski, not knowing who Johnson was, shut the fundraiser down, and then proceeded to take the money for himself and his law partner David Malik. Together they took nearly half of the money, $23,721.94, for themselves out of the funds I raised for Tamir’s family, and then, to spite Samaria, put the rest of the money in a government account that she couldn’t access. More than anyone else, Chuck C. Johnson, and those low-down attorneys, did harm there.
This entire debacle was detailed by local reporters here back in 2015. Included in that report are statements that I never had access to the funds and never received any of the funds. Again, if I touched even a penny of those funds, it would be a crime. And nobody would be held more accountable than me on this. Soon after this, Samaria fired Kucharski and Malik and replaced them with a local civil rights attorney, Walter Madison, and national civil rights attorney, Benjamin Crump.
That same week, Crump replied to someone on Twitter, clarifying that the original fundraiser was legitimate.
A month later, to the day, Benjamin Crump and Walter Madison asked me to spearhead another fundraiser for Samaria Rice because she had not benefited at all from the earlier funds I had raised for her. This time it was much, much harder to raise the funds. The case had carried on for 6 months and was no longer trending the way it deserved. I pushed all week, emailing and tweeting and Facebooking, and raised over $60,000 for Samaria on GoFundMe in this new fundraiser.
In total, I raised about $120,000 in cash for Tamir’s family. It was hard work. I never received a penny from those funds or anyone else - and would never expect as much.
Before my call with Samaria, I called and spoke to the law office of Benjamin Crump to understand what happened with every dollar I raised for her. After the money that the horrible first attorneys took, that left $96,278.06 remaining for Tamir’s family.
Because of the arrangement with those first attorneys, instead of the money going directly to Samaria, it went to the court system. Then, instead of Samaria receiving all of the money, the courts split the funds between her and Tamir’s estranged father - leaving $48,139.03 for each of them. Even then, the family didn’t simply receive those funds we raised for them in one lump sum, but the courts made them get it in smaller amounts at a time. I had nothing to do with the disbursement process, of course. If I had, Samaria would’ve received every penny. That’s who we intended it for.
While the courts kept this money, Samaria and her children ended up in a homeless shelter. Can you imagine? The city murdered your baby, people have raised $120,000 damn dollars for you, and now you are in a homeless shelter. It’s unthinkable and unforgivable. After I learned this, and they were moved into a home, I helped raise over $5,000 more for them from an Amazon wish list. Samaria sent me a thank you video back then.
Later, at the request of Opal Tometi, one of the original founders of the Black Lives Matter organization, who had become a confidant of Samaria Rice, I helped raise funds for the Tamir Rice Foundation and was invited twice to speak at the foundation over the past few years. In my conversation last week with Samaria, she recalled these things as well.
Sadly though, here’s what’s going viral instead. Complete lies spread by people who’ve never helped Samaria a day in her life.
To be clear, I never raised $4.1 million in the name of Tamir Rice or for any family impacted by police violence. Including the Amazon Wish List and the two fundraisers, it was about $125,000. Secondly, I never “gave” the family anything. The courts seized the money and her first attorneys took a good deal of it for themselves. The courts then split the remaining money between Samaria and Tamir’s father and gave it back to her in installments of their choosing.
Later, after misinformed activists accepted that I didn’t actually raise $4.1 million for Samaria, they said that I stole something from her and definitely stole from other mothers as well.
Again, this is a complete fabrication. This tweet also went super viral. And the people spreading these lies were never actually trying to help Samaria but were just trying to weaponize her against me. It’s heartbreaking, honestly. I have never stolen a single penny from a mother and not a single mother, or any family for that matter, has ever said such a thing. Doing so would be a state and federal crime. These lies have been spread about me for 7 years now. No actual receipts exist. Never have. Never will. These lies were started originally by white supremacists, but now those white supremacists have completely moved on because Black people are spreading and carrying the lies for them. It’s sad.
And in the middle of it all, the lies and drama, with people pushing and pulling her in every possible direction, is Samaria Rice - who just wants some sort of justice and accountability for her baby boy.
What I learned is that even many activists simply want to use Samaria Rice as a political football - pitting her against me, or against the next person, but never actually helping her. They come and go.
So, our organizers and attorneys at Grassroots Law are already working alongside Samaria, and the staff and volunteers of the Tamir Rice Foundation to help her any way we can. We have to let the rest of the lies and BS go. Too many people talk and tweet and don’t actually help these families.
In our call, Samaria said something that broke my heart. She said, “If I’m struggling if I have any mental illness, the government, this country, the state that murdered my son, gave it to me.”
And that’s where we are. This country is so damn exhausting.
I apologized to Samaria for not actually being in her face in 2014 and 2015 and wrongly assuming that the people around her were doing right by her. In an attempt to stay out of her hair, and give her space, I left her more alone than I understood. I regret that tremendously and moving forward I will make sure it never happens that way again.
Everything else - every harsh word said about me, every lie spread by people about my work for Samaria, I just have to let go of. For her. And for Tamir.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shaun King is one of the most followed and shared activists and journalists in the world. In addition to being the Founder and Editor in Chief of The North Star, he also leads the Grassroots Law Project and the Real Justice PAC. A historian by training, Shaun King is the New York Times bestselling author of Make Change: How to Fight Injustice, Dismantle Systemic Oppression, and Own Our Future. Shaun’s daily news podcast, The Breakdown with Shaun King, has been heard and shared hundreds of millions of times in almost every country in the world and is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and everywhere podcasts are heard. Shaun has been with his brilliant wife, Rai, for nearly 25 years, and they are raising their 5 kids in Brooklyn, New York.