Campaign Zero, the well-funded police reform nonprofit co-founded by famous activist DeRay Mckesson—the influential Pod Save the People host, former Baltimore mayoral candidate, and social media star—has been accused of infringing on the work of its co-founder, Samuel Sinyangwe.
Sinyangwe also claims that such copyright infringement was done to punish him for going public this week in an article this reporter wrote about tensions between the organization’s four founders—which led to all of them (except for Mckesson) eventually exiting the group.
Expanding on a Twitter thread he wrote earlier this week, Sinyangwe told The Daily Beast that all of the data and research he compiled for his own nonprofit, Mapping Police Violence project (MPV), which tracks American police killings by year, location, and victim identity, has been “completely copied and stolen by DeRay and Campaign Zero as retaliation.”
Now Sinyangwe’s attorney, Bryan Sullivan, has accused Campaign Zero in a cease-and-desist letter obtained by The Daily Beast of “infringing MPV’s trademark and Mr. Sinyangwe’s copyrights by, among other actions, what can only be termed as hijacking the website… and all the data, analytics, layout that was linked to the Website through Mr. Sinyangwe’s squarespace page… and transferring it to a CloudFlare server displaying a copycat version of the Website.”
When reached for comment, Matthew Melewski, Campaign Zero’s General Counsel, told The Daily Beast the claims had no merit.
“The Mapping Police Violence platform is the intellectual property of Campaign Zero, primarily because the team who helped build it and maintain it over the years, including Mr. Sinyangwe, were retained and worked for Campaign Zero,” he said. “Campaign Zero has always owned the domain and hosted the website.” (Sinyangwe told The Daily Beast that he was never an employee of Campaign Zero.)
Melewski argued that no one owned the “data” in question, because it was public information, adding, “It is unfortunate that Mr. Sinyangwe is making these demonstrably false allegations.“
Mckesson and members of the Campaign Zero Board of Directors did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment.
Sinyangwe’s letter nonetheless argues that “Campaign Zero has been using the Infringing Site to raise money off of” Sinyangwe’s MPV trademark, “while many donors likely and mistakenly believe they are supporting MPV’s and Mr. Sinyangwe’s data analytics efforts regarding police violence.” The letter gives the organization until Feb. 9 to comply with their requests—including ceasing and desisting all copyright infringement, destroying any materials that may confuse people into perceiving Campaign Zero is still being affiliated with MPV, informing Sinyangwe how much Campaign Zero has raised since its “misappropriation” of MVP, and transferring control of the website domain to MPV and Sinyangwe—before considering further legal action.
“Many years ago, DeRay bought the website domain of mappingpoliceviolence.org while I was doing research on policing,” Sinyangwe told The Daily Beast. “Before this week, the domain would direct viewers to my Squarespace site where I frequently updated the database with statistics and other information. Now, the website is directing viewers to a copycat version of my research without my consent—or ability to update for accuracy.”
Sinyangwe has said he considers this move retaliation against him after he called out the organization in a tell-all story published in New York Magazine on Jan. 31. In that story, Sinyangwe also claimed that he wrote, uncredited, a full chapter of Mckesson’s 2019 autobiography, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.
“The chapter where DeRay goes into deep data on policing, I wrote all of that,” Sinyangwe told New York. “I did this because I thought it was necessary for the work. But this was all just another time where he has taken up space and more credit than he should have.”
Mckesson denied the ghost writing allegation from Sinyangwe, who left Campaign Zero in 2021 after Mckesson became its executive director. Co-founders Johnetta Elzie and Brittany Packnett Cunningham have also parted ways with Campaign Zero, citing disagreements with the organization and decisions made by co-founder-turned-executive director DeRay Mckesson.
“For DeRay to take this data without the proper understanding of how to analyze, track, and collect it, I’m worried how this can lead to misinformation that police will weaponize against the movement,” Sinyangwe told The Daily Beast. He added that he’s concerned about how Mckesson, who isn’t a professional statistician like himself, will now distribute or interpret the data. “There are a lot of grassroot organizers, academics, politicians, and activists who have used this database site to inform policy and calls to action. It’s now in the wrong hands.”
Tracy Schmaler, a spokesperson for Campaign Zero, pushed back, telling The Daily Beast they have “more full-time staff dedicated to data and research than at any point in the organization’s history, consisting of a talented and experienced team of experts who have worked in the government and non-profit sectors on policing and public safety issues.”
Sinyangwe left Campaign Zero in 2021, 15 months the group launched a police reform campaign, #8CantWait, that critics felt undermined calls for abolition during the George Floyd protests by pushing statistics lacking sufficient context.
In the New York Magazine story, Sinyangwe accused Mckesson of rushing the process—something Mckesson has previously refuted.
“An influencer who was friends with DeRay came up with that data-driven tagline, and it was false,” Sinyangwe told New York Magazine. “This moment emphasized a fundamental strategic disagreement between the co-founders over how we should be making decisions as a collective moving forward, who the organization was accountable to, and the extent to which we should be moving in alignment with the broader movement.”
As a result of the fallout, Packnett Cunningham posted an open letter on Medium in June of 2020 announcing her resignation from Campaign Zero. Sinyangwe and Elzie left in 2021, following other disputes with the group and Mckesson.
Mckesson, who has tweeted more than 300,000 times, has yet to tweet about the New York Magazine story and the fallout between himself and his now departed co-founders.
But on the same day Sinyangwe posted accusing Mckesson of taking his maps, Mckesson tweeted an image using various statistics to promote Campaign Zero to his million followers there.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Sinyangwe left Campaign Zero 15 months after the group launched #8CantWait.