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Photo illustration by Zariah Taylor/VOX ATL

When Making Activism Your Brand Goes Wrong: The Dangers Of Celebrity Activism [OPINION]

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Almost every prominent movement in history has a face. When you think of the civil rights movement, you think of Martin Luther King, Jr. When you think of India’s independence movement, you think of Mahatma Gandhi. When you think of the Women’s suffrage movement you think of Susan B. Anthony, and so on.

What happens when everyone wants to be a Martin Luther King, a Mahatma Gandhi, or a Susan B. Anthony? What happens when everyone wants to be a face, to be a leader, even if it comes at the expense of the people they’re supposed to be fighting for?

In recent years, activism has become somewhat of an aesthetic. Everyone is desperate to seem like they’re #woke, which is why we saw so many people posting black squares and putting “BLM” in their Instagram bios during the height of 2020’s BLM protests and thinking that it somehow meant something. 

We’ve also seen celebrities throwing their money at huge organizations like Black Lives Matter hoping to absolve themselves of their guilt. According to the New York Times, Black Lives Matter accumulated $5 million dollars in an online petition alone, and that’s not counting various celebrities such as John Cena and BTS who pledged to donate $1 million dollars to the organization, each.

Speaking of money, if there’s one thing that’s for sure, activism has become profitable. Celebrity activists are accumulating millions of followers and getting paid for brand deals and TV appearances. Being an activist is now a tangible career.

Shaun King, a civil rights activist and former surrogate for Bernie Sanders, has over 4 million followers across Twitter and Instagram. He’s used his fame to acquire book deals and start his own publication called The North Star. Tamika Mallory, another activist with over a million followers, is being sponsored by Cadillac and recently had an appearance at the Grammys alongside artist Lil Baby, whose performance was criticized for reenacting the traumatic murder of a Black man at the hands of the police. Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan African Studies at California State University and Co-Founder of BLM’s LA Chapter, has worked with the brand Levi’s.

Brands and celebrities alike love these activists because they’re palatable and safe. They can repost and amplify these activists because they feel like it somehow proves their allyship without having to do any actual work against systemic racism. One repost of a Shaun King video, and that’s enough activism for the day! 

If these brands and celebrities did any actual real research on the people they are platforming, they’d see that most celebrity activists are naive at their best, and grifters at their worst.

Shaun King, who already has flimsy ties to blackness, has multiple discrepancies regarding his fundraising efforts. King has so many accusations of mismanaging donations that it is almost impossible to list all of them here. King has started fundraisers for families without their permission. In the case of Tamir Rice, a little boy who was killed by Cleveland police, King started a fundraiser for his family that accumulated $60,000. However, one of the lawyers working with the Rice family contacted the police claiming the family had never even heard of King. As a result, the court seized the money and set up an estate. This made it so that the family has to petition the court to remove any money from the estate, and each withdrawal has to meet certain guidelines. The court also allowed the former Rice family lawyers to take $23,700 out of the estate for attorney’s fees. 

King also sics his followers on anyone who raises questions about his tactics, and even threatened legal action against a young Black activist named Clarissa Brooks after she called out one of his recent fundraisers. He has even used tragedies such as Chadwick Boseman’s death as a way to acquire donations.

Then you have Tamika Mallory. Mallory has publicly aligned herself with various celebrities and invited the media to training events which has brought her intentions into question. In a detailed thread on Twitter, a Louisville activist named Talesha Wilson detailed events that transpired when Mallory’s New York City based organization, UntilFreedom, came to Louisville to protest against the death of Breonna Taylor. In the thread, Wilson claimed that when Tamika’s organization was passing out food to folks during the fall/winter months, people were instructed “not to hand folks food until the cameras got there.” Replies to the thread seem to confirm these allegations and other transgressions with Mallory.

Black Lives Matter (the organization also known as the Black Lives Matter Global Network, not to be confused with the Black Lives Matter Foundation) continues to collect donations, yet the organization has not offered much transparency on where that money is going. During a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, Kailee Scales managing director of the BLM global network said that, “Right now, our programs are focused on civic engagement, expansion of chapters, Arts & Culture, organizing and digital advocacy resources and tools,” which still doesn’t give much specifics on how the money is being used. Black Lives Matter Global network isn’t even recognized as a 501(c)(3) organization by the IRS. BLM is ‘fiscally sponsored’ by a global nonprofit called Thousand Currents, who accept all donations on behalf of BLM. The 2019 audit of Thousand Currents doesn’t reveal much, but it does say that although Thousand Currents collected 3.4 million for BLM, they only gave 1.8 million back to the organization. 

And while all this money is being funneled towards these celebrity activists and organizations, the forgotten victims of the movement are the families affected by police brutality. This month, mothers Samaria Rice and Lisa Simpson, both whom lost a son to police violence, issued a statement along with a list of demands regarding celebrity activism. Lisa Simpson, mother of Richard Risher who was killed by the LAPD, says that she’s currently living in a motel with her family and that she has not received one penny from BLM. “We don’t want or need y’all parading in the streets accumulating donations, platforms, movie deals, etc. off the death of our loved ones, while the families and communities are left clueless and broken. Don’t say our loved ones’ names period! That’s our truth!” 

The subsequent responses from the celebrity activism community feel patronizing and unproductive. The same activists who claim to care so much about these families have only proceeded to gaslight them and their supporters. Shaun King wrote an article in response to Samaria Rice (behind a paywall, I might add), and said that “Ultimately what I know is that a grieving mother like Samaria Rice has every right to be skeptical and hurt and suspicious and cynical. She wasn’t born that way, but this evil and unrelentingly racist country forced her into that corner. It’s our job to gracefully and patiently help her find her way out.” On Instagram, Tamika Mallory called her detractors “confused.” Melina Abdullah posted an Instagram video shortly after the statement was released, and although she didn’t specifically reference anyone, she said that “I want to remind folks that there’s only three reasons that people would try to disrupt a movement. Either they work for somebody other than the people, either they’re driven by ego or their pain is being manipulated by the state.”

It is unacceptable that these activists and organizations are getting propped up and paid while the actual families are fighting homelessness and poverty. When people are so caught up in being the leaders of a movement, they forget that ultimately, the movement should center those who are directly affected. These families are perfectly able to speak for themselves and don’t need outsiders with questionable intentions coming in to be their mouthpiece. 

The situation between these activists and the mothers outlines the dangers of making activism your career. Activism as a career creates a huge conflict of interest. If the money you make and your livelihood is dependent on the continued suffering of others, then how hard will you really work to end that suffering?

Activism rooted in ego is futile. Before you create your own social justice organization, go volunteer for one that already exists and needs help. Before you donate to a national organization, see if there’s a local grassroots org in your city that needs support. 

You can read Samaria Rice and Lisa Simpsons full statement and demands here. If you have the means, I would urge you to send a donation directly to these mothers via their cash apps $SamariaRice and $LisaLee693. 


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comments (2)

  1. Mayuni Karr

    “Activism rooted in ego is futile.” Girl, that’s a bar! This article is so spot-on. You really shed a light on the unfortunate issue of activism being leveraged for personal gain. Looking forward to reading more articles. Keep up the good work!

  2. Kira

    Hello! I found your articles yesterday and I think you are really insightful and clear-eyed, your articles are a really good addition to the discourse about change and celebrities’ position in that. I just had one question about a paragraph in this article: you mentioned celebrity donations as a means of assuaging themselves of guilt, and then proceeded to mention John Cena and BTS. Did you mean that those two celebrities in particular donated out of guilt, or did you mean that in general whenever celebrities donated to these BLM causes last year it comes from a place of guilt?

    Thank you!