The Making (And Unmaking) Of Monica Cannon-Grant
In the wake of George Floyd’s slaying, the outspoken activist and nonprofit leader became a darling of the city’s power elite, who rolled out the red carpet and gave generously to her cause. Then the feds showed up.
As I drove down suburban roads far south of the city one day this spring, I had the distinct sensation I was on my way to visit a woman in exile. For a time, Monica Cannon-Grant had been one of the most outspoken and influential people in town, the voice of the Black community in Boston, yet her home now sat on a quiet street in an overwhelmingly white town around an hour away from the city.
I pulled into Cannon-Grant’s driveway and walked up the few steps of her front porch. Her friend ushered me into the living room, where the floor was padded in pastel-colored squares for the safety of small children, and a portable crib stood at the ready in the corner. I took a seat on the plush black leather couch and waited for her in the same room where, three months earlier, federal agents had stormed in, arrested Cannon-Grant, and charged her with unemployment fraud, mortgage fraud, and illegally using her nonprofit organization, Violence in Boston, as a way to enrich herself.
When Cannon-Grant entered the room, I rose to introduce myself. At 6-foot-2, she towered over me, but when we started speaking, I was struck by the fact that, somehow, she seemed small. Perhaps it was because it was never her height that made Cannon-Grant larger than life: It was her voice—raw, loud, passionate, and utterly unfiltered—and the many people who rallied around her and lifted her up. Both of those were missing now.
Seated in a chair next to me over the next two hours, she was subdued and soft-spoken as I asked questions. Had she heard from the many powerful politicians, such as Mayor Michelle Wu, former Mayor Marty Walsh, and Attorney General Maura Healey, who had once supported her and whose cell phone numbers populated her contact lists? “Nope,” she said.
“What about your supporters in Roxbury. Have they called?” I asked.
“Let me see,” she said, grabbing her phone and looking through her text log. “It’s few and far between. One thing is when the federal government shows up, everyone scatters.”
As for the many reporters and editors who once beat down her door, wanting to profile her, to quote her, to have her write op-eds? I didn’t need to ask about them. When I called Cannon-Grant for the first time a couple of weeks earlier, I had fully expected to leave a message and never hear back, given that I hadn’t seen one quote from her in the zillions of news stories that crisscrossed the country after her arrest. I presumed she wasn’t talking to reporters. Yet when she answered the phone herself, and I proposed spending some time with her to write a profile, she seemed enthusiastic. “I’ve been waiting for someone to call, to do this,” she said. It wasn’t that Cannon-Grant had decided not to talk, after all. It was that no one was listening to her anymore. And for a woman who rose to power by making herself heard, this was perhaps the greatest form of exile of all.
It is an exile her critics are celebrating, a silencing they feel is long overdue. Throughout her rapid rise, there were people who questioned why a person who could be so vulgar had become the voice of the Black community in Boston. To them, her diatribes against racism were too often filled with anti-white rhetoric and hateful attacks on police. The criminal indictment against her, they say, only proved what some of them had long been saying: that her nonprofit, though perhaps initially designed to help people, was using racism and tragedy to line her pockets with the bounty of post–George Floyd generosity.
Talk to Cannon-Grant, though, and she’ll tell you that the U.S. Department of Justice’s case against her is “bullshit.” As we sat in her living room, she said that she had just started to get her nonprofit’s financial books in order—after a tsunami of funding that her group received following Floyd’s murder overwhelmed her fledgling organization—when the feds pounced. She and the people who still support her—many of them quietly—believe the case against her is political payback for the many feathers she ruffled, and for being an unapologetic and loud Black woman speaking truth to power.
It is still unclear whose version of events is closer to the truth, or what the outcome of her criminal case will be. Yet one thing seems sure: The tale of Cannon-Grant is certainly about her meteoric rise and dramatic fall—but it’s more than that. It’s also about the enablers and the sycophants who supported her; the local media echo chamber that only knows how to glorify or vilify; the machinations of politicians; the cowardly silence of those who still support her but dare not say so in public; and the self-serving motives of countless Bostonians, both Black and white, for whom it was convenient to either lift Cannon-Grant up or take her down. In many ways, her story is also a story of how power works in Boston.
Monica Cannon-Grant has a big mouth. In many ways, it is her biggest asset—at least, it was in the beginning. It was her mouth, after all, that launched her career as an activist in 2013 during a harrowing summer of gun violence at Warren Gardens, the low-income Roxbury apartment complex where she lived with her children. One day, that violence arrived at her doorstep—literally—when her neighbor’s son was shot there. As Cannon-Grant stood in front of her home, which was pockmarked by bullets and hemmed in by yellow police tape, she spotted Tito Jackson, her city councilor, at the scene. She had a fairly dim view of politicians and trained her unfiltered mouth on him, including plenty of curse words. “No kid should have to grow up like this,” she recalls telling Jackson, followed by: “You got to put a stop to it. But whatever you do, I want to be a part of it to make sure you do your job.”
Jackson took her up on the offer. Cannon-Grant volunteered for him and eventually ran his community foundation. He became her mentor, she says. She never received a salary but tells me that because Jackson knew she wasn’t working and had little income, he used some of his donor funds to compensate her for her time. (Jackson declined to comment.)
Together, they soon organized a march against gun violence and gave away Thanksgiving turkeys to families in need. Her work took on renewed importance in 2015, when she looked on in horror as someone put a gun to her son’s head and pulled the trigger. Though the gun jammed and he managed to escape, Cannon-Grant never forgot that moment and worked even harder to create a safer community. “She was an accidental activist,” says Reverend Jeffrey Brown, a longtime voice against violence in the city who supported Cannon-Grant’s early work. “She stumbled into it protecting her children.”
Cannon-Grant proved to be good at it. She was a savvy social media user with an uncanny ability, supporters say, to “get shit done,” and had a knack for drawing people to help her. “I could pull in 250 volunteers without blinking,” she says of her ability to expand the reach of Jackson’s foundation work.
Just a couple of years after entering public life, Cannon-Grant ran for state representative. In an early sign of her potential to reach people, she lost by roughly 100 votes to a candidate, Chynah Tyler, whose campaign had significantly more resources, says political adviser and former Cannon-Grant campaign aide Jacquetta Van Zandt.
After the loss, Cannon-Grant doubled down on her activism. She was unafraid to speak her mind or mouth off in profanity-laden rants on Facebook, often about the police. “Fuck the police, fuck the police, fuck the police, fuck the police,” opens one such tirade. In another, an agitated Cannon-Grant addressed her followers after she said one of her children was pinned to the ground by a white female police officer. “Y’all sit and talk about police relations and community-police fucking relations, and all of these fucking motherfuckers having these basketball events, taking pictures with cops, and y’all ain’t telling these fucking babies that these are the same cops that are gonna beat the shit out of them,’” she said.
While her approach was coarse and shocking to some, others—including community leaders—believe she tapped into what many felt but were afraid to say. Or, says Reverend Willie Bodrick, “she said what people have been saying, but no one was listening to. Monica was actually being heard.”
There was no greater evidence that people were listening than when she helped organize a counter-protest in 2017, leading people on a march from Roxbury to the Common. It was just after the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a free-speech group considered by Cannon-Grant and others to be comprised of white supremacists was protesting in Boston. “I was trying to get people pumped up locally, like, ‘Hey, we’re not going to allow them to come in our city and do what they did in Charlottesville.’ And so many organizers and activists didn’t want to be involved. Fast-forward: 45,000 people show up, and every politician and every organizer in the city was down there,” she told me. “That’s kind of my story. I didn’t get to where I got to because of community support. I got to where I got to in spite of it.”
It didn’t take long for politicians and would-be politicians to notice the person who launched tens of thousands of souls onto the Common. Both Shannon McAuliffe, who Cannon-Grant worked for at the time at the youth services organization Roca, and Rachael Rollins, the former Suffolk County District Attorney who is now the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, vied for her endorsement in the 2018 district attorney race. Cannon-Grant chose Rollins. She also endorsed Ayanna Pressley in her 2018 election bid to unseat longtime Representative Michael Capuano in the U.S. House of Representatives.
When politicians didn’t come to her, Cannon-Grant went after them. In 2018, she started a daily Twitter campaign demanding a meeting with then-Mayor Marty Walsh to talk about violence in Black neighborhoods. It took more than 250 days of curse-laden demands until he acquiesced. According to her telling of the story, which Walsh has said is generally accurate, at one point during the meeting, he asked her to stop calling him a “motherfucker.” She asked him not to speak like he knew what it was like to be a Black man. They agreed, went on to have what she describes as a friendship, and he became her supporter.
Cannon-Grant wasn’t afraid of being disruptive, either. One evening in March 2019, Attorney General Maura Healey, Governor Charlie Baker, and then-Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo appeared on a panel to talk about Massachusetts’ low rate of gun violence. As the conversation turned to school shootings, Cannon-Grant stood up in the audience and announced that she had brought children who were victims of gun violence in Black communities but had been ignored. “Stand up,” she told them. “Stand up!” While school shootings were an issue that needed to be addressed, she told the panel, Black kids in Boston were getting shot at before they even made it into school. For good measure, she strode onto the stage, pulled up a chair, and joined the panel of heavyweights to hearty applause. “In some spaces where people expect a certain decorum…she was willing to push back on those norms and make sure that she centered the issues that people cared about,” Bodrick says. “To some people, that was not their taste of advocacy…because it could create discomfort for people in those spaces. But others understood that these spaces need some form of disruption.”
Cannon-Grant also wanted to change the way that service organizations did business. That was why she launched a Facebook page called Violence in Boston in 2017, which, in addition to calling attention to shootings, crowdsourced donations for survivors, victims’ families, and anyone in need. Sometimes, it was to help someone pay rent to avoid eviction or a light bill to prevent a service cutoff. The idea was always to get it to the recipient fast. “Any system requires you to apply, and you got to wait…and usually when the help comes, it’s too late,” she explains. Cannon-Grant worked alone, out of her house, where she often fed and sheltered people who had no other place to go. As her reach grew, she reluctantly incorporated as a nonprofit the following year at the suggestion of a supporter, who said it would enable her to take her fundraising and giving to the next level and spend fewer of her own resources, she says.
So when COVID hit, she was prepared to leap into action, leading an effort to feed 80,000 families during the first few months of the pandemic. The city took note and gave her organization $54,000 to support her foundation’s work. More than anything, it was a huge vote of confidence in Cannon-Grant. Still, it was nothing compared to what would happen next.
If ever there were a moment tailor-made for Cannon-Grant’s activism, it was May 2020, after George Floyd was killed by a Minnesota police officer. Calling for justice, she invited thousands of Bostonians, Black and white, to protest. At the Blue Hill Avenue/Columbia Road gathering point, Cannon-Grant—her voice hoarse as she hollered into a megaphone—issued instructions and a warning. They would march down Blue Hill Avenue, shut it down, and stage a “die-in,” where they would lie down on the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time officer Derek Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck. “What we don’t want to happen,” she said, “is another Black person killed by the police today in the midst of protesting, understood?”
After the die-in, protesters arrived like a river flowing through the trees at Franklin Park, collecting into a sea of humanity, upward of 50,000 strong, at the bottom of the hill in front of Shattuck Hospital, where they gathered for a vigil. The march and vigil weren’t just remarkable for their size but for the lack of violent incidents. Cannon-Grant had not asked for a police presence at the march. Instead, she paid Black men from the community to serve as monitors and keep the peace. She wanted to prove that people could protest without looting and vandalizing businesses the way protesters had two nights earlier in Downtown Crossing. Not a single person was arrested during the march or vigil.
As Reverend Jeffrey Brown walked into the park, he was amazed at how many people were there. When he found Cannon-Grant and embraced her, she shook her head in disbelief. “When that kind of spirit catches a moment,” he said of Cannon-Grant, “it just shines.”
If her first march gave Cannon-Grant a seat at the table of influence and power, the George Floyd march turned her into Boston’s social justice darling. A few days after the vigil, she was profiled on the front page of the Boston Globe. Meanwhile, this very magazine set the wheels in motion to honor her as the city’s top social justice advocate in the 2020 Best of Boston feature, and spotlighted her in a Q & A. At the end of June, the Celtics honored her as a “Hero Among Us” for her work preventing violence, feeding people in need, and raising community awareness through marches.
It wasn’t all just ink and plaques, though. Across the city, foundations, private companies, philanthropies, and individuals were opening their checkbooks to fund her nonprofit. Between the time she started feeding the community at the start of the pandemic and July 2020, she says Violence in Boston received $1.3 million in donations, the bulk of which came in after the march. Sitting at home the very next day, Cannon-Grant watched in amazement as her phone kept losing its data connection, barraged with donations to her nonprofit’s account.
Meanwhile, an election season was approaching in the fall of 2020, and candidates courting votes all wanted a piece of Cannon-Grant. She starred in an ad for Elizabeth Warren, campaigned for Joe Kennedy III in his bid to unseat Ed Markey, and endorsed Ayanna Pressley’s campaign. Candidates for mayor and city councilor attended Cannon-Grant’s events, looked for their photo op with her, and sought her endorsement. “After the George Floyd rally, everyone wanted to be on camera saying, I support Monica. You know, if I align myself with Monica Cannon-Grant, it must mean I love Black people. Politicians needed political cover. Everyone wanted to be next to the person who was popular, who was in,” says a former city-government employee who knows Cannon-Grant and asked for anonymity because they feared retribution from elected officials. The person added that many elected officials in the city today have Cannon-Grant, at least partially, to thank.
It seemed there was no limit to what Cannon-Grant was asked to do, whom she was asked to support, and how much money people were willing to donate to her organization—and Cannon-Grant seemed eager to expand the universe of her work. When Dave Andelman of Phantom Gourmet got into hot water over remarks that he made mocking the protests after Floyd’s death and his show and company were on the ropes, Cannon-Grant called him out on social media. Several weeks later, according to court records, Phantom Gourmet wound up contracting her and an associate to conduct diversity, equity, and inclusion training for the company to the tune of $75,000.
It seemed there was no limit to what Cannon-Grant was asked to do. Whom she was asked to support, and how much money people were willing to donate to her organization.
Even with all the fanfare, there were still people who worried that Cannon-Grant was a trainwreck waiting to happen. Dianne Wilkerson, the former state senator who once served prison time on corruption charges, was one of them. She saw Cannon-Grant getting money thrown at her to take on new roles and activities and started to think Cannon-Grant was in over her head. During the early days of the pandemic, for instance, Wilkerson had seen pictures on social media from the meal distribution site Cannon-Grant was running. Wilkerson, who was deep into COVID response work, noted with dismay that politicians were posing cheek-to-cheek with Cannon-Grant without masks on and serving meals to enormous lines of people similarly unmasked. She said there appeared to be no sanitary or hygiene protocols in place. “Organizing a successful march doesn’t make you the person people should be giving money to to feed people,” she says. The same thing went for getting hired to do DEI training or talking on a panel about racism without having any professional preparation on the material, according to Wilkerson. (For her part, Cannon-Grant says that “Wilkerson’s account is bullshit,” adding that someone from inspectional services was in the kitchen every day of the meals campaign.)
Meanwhile, people close to Cannon-Grant tried to advise her on how to properly run Violence in Boston, an organization whose budget ballooned from the tens of thousands to more than a million in mere months. She was cautioned against having her husband on staff and having her name appear on transactions. The people close to her say she didn’t heed the advice. Van Zandt, who worked as an adviser to Violence in Boston, says she and others close to Cannon-Grant tried to explain to her the importance of having an independent board of directors, but Cannon-Grant didn’t want to listen and preferred to have as board members close allies whom she believed she could trust or who wouldn’t defy her, some said. “She didn’t think she needed any of our expertise. Certainly not if we questioned her about anything,” Van Zandt said, adding that she parted ways with Cannon-Grant over the composition of the board. In response, Cannon-Grant says Van Zandt’s account is untrue. While initially her organization’s board had just three members—one being her husband—as the organization grew, she says she retained a law firm that advised her on board composition, and she followed that advice. She named independent members and did not put her name on checks.
At the same time, people in power seemed to be ignoring warnings about Cannon-Grant. “I talked to members of the press and people in city government to chastise them for what I saw them doing: building her up, not asking obvious questions, moving much too fast,” says one leader in the Black community, who asked not to be named to protect the identities of the politicians and journalists who were warned.
As it turned out, Cannon-Grant was growing more embattled by the day. For years, she had been locked in a bitter conflict with Jamarhl Crawford, another Black anti-violence activist in Boston, and things seemed to be getting more intense. The two disagree on who started it, but what is certain is that they went back and forth attacking each other, sometimes in Facebook Live videos. “She was a total imposter,” Crawford told me, adding that Cannon-Grant was not well read nor versed in the issues she was talking about. “You can’t jump out and say I am the leader of the Blacks if you have never read books…. The greatest gift Jesus gave us is the bullshit detector. He said you will know false prophets by their fruit. If you listen to her for more than two minutes, there is no God in there; there is just erratic confusion and rage.” Cannon-Grant, however, says there is no book to read about how to deal with having your son shot at, or how to house people coming home from prison. “There are college-educated people who couldn’t do half the shit that I did,” she says.
Cannon-Grant believes that Crawford’s gripe with her was fueled by jealousy because they were working on the same issues, but she was getting more attention. (She also pointed out that she worked with Jackson, who beat out Crawford in a primary for a city council seat.) Cannon-Grant says that people told her to ignore him, not to feed the duel, and to let it go, but she didn’t heed their advice. “When you’re saying those things to a Black woman like myself,” she told her Facebook Live audience, “it totally negates the harm, you totally negate who they are as a person. It’s like telling a rape victim, ‘Ignore what’s happening to you,’” she said. Church and community leaders were so concerned about the conflict between Cannon-Grant and Crawford—not only because it reflected poorly on the community but also because they thought the row between these two anti-violence activists could itself turn violent—that they tried to stage an intervention. Crawford said that Cannon-Grant and her family members threatened to kill him, allegations that Cannon-Grant categorically denies on behalf of herself and her family members. Cannon-Grant says she felt Crawford or his followers would harm her physically because they trolled her incessantly. She also says Crawford told someone he wanted to ambush one of her events. Crawford denies the allegations. The feud continues today.
Meanwhile, Crawford says he heard from someone for whom Cannon-Grant fundraised, saying they had never received the donations. (Cannon-Grant says that she never fundraised for the individual in question, but instead used grant money and reported the expenses to the grantor.) Crawford became convinced that she was committing fraud and said he tried to warn politicians who supported her, but they didn’t listen. Then Crawford decided to tell Aidan Kearney, the man behind TB Daily News (formerly Turtleboy Sports), a provocative website popular among conservatives that can be best described as the shock-jock equivalent of blogs. The site also publishes investigations, and Crawford thought Kearney should look into Cannon-Grant’s finances. Initially, Kearney didn’t pursue the tip. Then he saw a Cannon-Grant Facebook video that changed his mind.
When the video opened, Cannon-Grant looked pissed. Really pissed. Sitting in her car with Crime Mob’s hip-hop fight anthem “Knuck If You Buck” playing, she silently mouthed a line from it: Yeah we knuckin’ and buckin’ and ready to fight.
She then launched into what can only be described as a rageful tirade addressing Rayla Campbell, a Black Republican woman who is married to a white man and who, at the time, was running a write-in campaign against Ayanna Pressley. Speaking into the camera, Cannon-Grant said she was horrified to learn that Campbell was a Trump supporter who aligned with Super Happy Fun America, the group that had organized a “straight pride parade” in Boston. “Regardless of how close in proximity you are to white supremacy, regardless of how many white penises you ride,” she said on the video, “just don’t forget that youse a n***a.” It was just six weeks after Cannon-Grant’s triumphant George Floyd march.
The video was shocking to many people for its vulgarity and its apparent attack on interracial marriage. People close to Cannon-Grant advised her to take the video down. This time, she listened—but it was too late. Unbeknownst to her, Crawford had saved the video and posted it online. Kearney was then able to post it on his website, where it went viral in no time.
Wilkerson, who is a close family friend and mentor to Crawford, says she called Cannon-Grant and talked to her about the video for an hour and a half, not to attack her but to give her some helpful advice. “She said she was being her true authentic self. ‘A cussing, vile, racist, discriminatory rant is your true self? I don’t think so,’ I said. I told her she was being unprofessional and un-ladylike,” Wilkerson said. The next day, Cannon-Grant addressed their conversation during a Facebook Live video without naming Wilkerson. “It bothered my soul that I sat on the phone for about an hour and a half, maybe two hours, and 75 percent of the conversation was discussing me cursing and the things that I’ve said on my videos. If I was ashamed of anything that I say—don’t get me wrong, there’s some things where I’ll be like, ‘Ooh, girl, you pushed the limit’—but if I was truly ashamed of anything I said, I wouldn’t have said it.”
Increasingly, the platforms that were key to Cannon-Grant’s fundraising and organizing success were becoming her outlet to vent and, her supporters feared, a personal liability. Kearney told me that he expected the viral video would spell the end of Cannon-Grant’s career. When the Globe didn’t cover it, he said, he contacted two Globe reporters who had written a glowing profile of Cannon-Grant after the Floyd march several weeks earlier. “I said, ‘I just want to let you know that this is what this woman said about Rayla Campbell. I think your reporting on Monica is misleading,’” Kearney said. “Neither responded and one of them blocked me on Twitter. They had paint on their hands and didn’t want to come to grips with the reality of what they did to create this monster.” (When contacted, the two reporters declined to comment.)
Kearney decided to make some noise about it himself and began investigating Cannon-Grant. From 2017, when he first wrote about her as a budding activist, up until the time he posted the viral video, he had published only eight stories on his website mentioning her. Since the viral video, he has published some 200 stories and videos about her—sometimes multiple times a day. In one post, he addressed her directly: “Hey Monica, I know you’re reading this so please listen up. I’m not going to stop exposing you. I know you’ll keep dismissing me as an irrelevant white supremacist blog, and pretending that I’m attacking you because you’re a black woman. But you and I both know that’s not true. I get that you have to do that because your entire grift revolves around the idea that you are an oppressed victim. I don’t blame you for trying to hold onto this amazing scam you’ve built in the last 3 years, but just like you I don’t back down either.”
Kearney didn’t just stay behind a computer screen—he met Cannon-Grant head-on. It was a sunny day on September 7, 2020, when, after pandemic delays, Cannon-Grant was celebrating the invitation-only grand opening of the Violence in Boston Social Impact Center, a 4,000-square-foot facility offering services to at-risk youth, a food pantry, and other programs. It was the first time her organization would have its own home. Outside the bright-blue building in Hyde Park, a balloon arch floated over a podium, decorated for the day’s event. Across the parking lot, Kearney, Rayla Campbell, and several other demonstrators were also ready: They played Cannon-Grant’s rant about Campbell on a loudspeaker and protested. After some of Cannon-Grant’s supporters almost came to blows with the protesters, the grand opening was moved indoors.
In the larger world of Boston, the institutional impact of Cannon-Grant’s Campbell video was almost nil. Funds continued to pour into Violence in Boston, and accolades continued to pile up for Cannon-Grant. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce (in conjunction with the organization City Awake) named Cannon-Grant one of its “10 Outstanding Young Leaders” two months after the video. In December of that year, the Boston Globe Magazine named her a Bostonian of the Year. Then, in May of the following year, this magazine put her on our list of the “100 Most Influential Bostonians,” noting her “sometimes controversial rhetoric.”
With the notable exception of Rachael Rollins, none of the politicians who supported Cannon-Grant publicly distanced themselves from her after the Campbell video. The fact that it was election season and they needed her support to bring in votes might explain some of the silence. Still, a large part of it, observers say, stemmed from the moment of racial reckoning Boston was experiencing at the time. “No one held her accountable for the things that she was saying, out of fear of being branded a racist, or targeting the Black community or silencing a Black woman, and she was able to run off the rails,” Van Zandt says. But the Black community didn’t hold her accountable either, Van Zandt pointed out. “I think they thought at least she is making people talk about issues that matter. So I think we all were complicit in who Monica became as a person, and it’s sad.”
For her part, Rollins didn’t just disavow Cannon-Grant. According to Kearney, she started tipping him off about Cannon-Grant’s campaign appearances. “Rollins supported Ed Markey, and Monica supported Kennedy. Rollins weaponized Rayla and me against Kennedy,” he told me. “She told us where Monica [was] going to be, and then Rayla would go to those Kennedy events with her megaphone.” (Rollins declined to comment.) Meanwhile, the Turtleboy website comment section swelled with commentary about Cannon-Grant. Once she began appearing regularly on the Turtleboy website, she says, she was doxxed and harassed, and her inbox began to fill up with racist, misogynistic, and threatening messages.
At the same time, another warfront for Cannon-Grant was heating up. In 2021, Crawford added the Department of Children & Families to his list of calls to people in power about Cannon-Grant. He said he was concerned for her children—she had five at the time and was pregnant with a sixth—because he thought she was mentally unstable, and he claimed she had a firearm in her house. He presumed, without evidence, that she didn’t have it in a lockbox but in a “Timberland box underneath her bed,” he told me. “I was scared for her, her husband, and her kids.” Cannon-Grant, for her part, says she got a call from DCF but that the inquiry went nowhere. She told me that the agency worker said it seemed obvious the call came from an enemy. As for the supposed firearm, she says there are no guns in her house, and noted that when the feds raided her house they didn’t find any weapons.
Crawford’s tip to Kearney about Violence in Boston’s finances, however, did start to bear fruit. Fueled by his disgust over the video, Kearney filed open records requests and combed through Cannon-Grant’s own social media posts about her fundraising activities. He began publishing pieces in which he claimed that she had not properly registered as a nonprofit with the Attorney General’s office and did not file annual reports on expenditures. He highlighted the amount of money the nonprofit had coming in while raising questions about how she was spending it.
The pressure began to wear on Cannon-Grant. In a Facebook Live video posted in February 2021, she told viewers that she was struggling under the weight of personal losses, constant attacks, racist hate mail, accusations that she had stolen funds, and the demands of working nonstop for Violence in Boston. “I’m gonna be honest, Violence in Boston became a nonprofit so that it would be easier for us to get funding to do this work that I was doing out of my kitchen. And I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world,” she told her viewers. “But I tell you, in this moment, I’d give it all back to have my peace.”
It didn’t happen that way. She was arrested in March 2022. In July, the board of Violence in Boston fired her and disbanded the organization altogether.
On June 10 of this year, Cannon-Grant sat before a federal judge at the Moakley Courthouse in the Seaport. In the gallery, seated on the long wooden benches, were seven supporters, among them friends and activists. Cannon-Grant wore plaid dress pants and a black shirt, her hair tied neatly in a bun. She didn’t say a word during the hearing. Afterward, she told me she was nervous.
She should be. The charges against her are serious. The government alleges, among other things, that she used a $6,000 grant from the District Attorney’s office that was supposed to pay for a retreat for underserved youth to take a personal vacation; that she used the nonprofit’s funds to pay her rent arrears; and spent money meant for Violence in Boston on Uber Eats, shopping trips, nails, and a car for a family member. Prosecutors say she got $3,000 from Black Lives Matter Cambridge and never spent it on its intended purpose. They also charged her with fraudulently collecting unemployment when she had income, and committing mortgage fraud. She could face as many as 30 years in prison. Cannon-Grant’s husband, Clark Grant, could also face jail time if convicted of unemployment fraud and the mortgage fraud case. Those grave consequences, of course, don’t just affect the two of them: While four of Cannon-Grant’s kids are adults, the two children from her marriage to Clark are three and one.
Cannon-Grant has explanations for everything. She says she has photos with the Black Lives Matter Cambridge director who gave her the grant posing with everything she bought with it. She said she did spend money on her rent; she fundraised openly for it. How was she supposed to run the organization out of her house, where she had people in need sleeping on her floor, she asked, if she were to get evicted? She did spend money on Uber Eats, she says, to feed volunteers. She compensated volunteers, just like she says Jackson did for her when she started out. She notes that until October 2020, she didn’t take a salary. Indeed, all of the allegations of funds spent on herself in the indictment predate her taking a salary, with the exception of one. (She says that one was an error she accidentally paid with the wrong account, and she says she has the paperwork to prove that she rectified it immediately.)
Cannon-Grant admits that her CFO told her she couldn’t just give people money, as she had always done, without an application and a review process. It was the slow, laborious process she had wanted to avoid. Still, she says she has receipts for everything. “We got so much money in such a short period of time, and me trying to pull in an accounting firm, and people who understood what nonprofit rules was, and all of that stuff,” she says. “I just didn’t do it quick enough.”
With regard to the mortgage fraud, she says the online application automatically recognized the Violence in Boston account and counted those assets as her husband’s on the loan application. She showed me emails with the bank where she asked them to remove that account. The unemployment charges, though, are harder for her to explain away.
Many of the people who knew Cannon-Grant say they have a tough time believing she did anything intentionally to hurt the community or her reputation. “She is a good, giving person who wants to help everybody. I keep going back to this—she was a project girl who found herself in the middle of a million-dollar nonprofit. How do you expect her to handle it when all she ever had to handle was $500 or a $3,000 tax rebate?” says the person who knows her and worked in city government.
Whether Cannon-Grant was a grifter or merely inexperienced, it is hard to ignore that along the way there were other hands in the making of Cannon-Grant’s sudden rise—which may be what led to such a notable fall in the first place. We can start close to home, at publications like this one, where, as Van Zandt says, journalists latched onto her and pumped her up as if she was the only one doing the work for racial justice when there were many people doing the work. The media loves to go after the squeaky wheel, Van Zandt says. And Cannon-Grant knows how to squeak.
Then there are the politicians, foundations, and individuals who did little in the way of due diligence before opening their checkbooks to her. Did anyone ask what kind of experience she had running a nonprofit before they threw money at her? Did anyone know that before running her organization, she didn’t have a bank account and used check cashing services?
It appears no one did, because in today’s Boston, that’s not always how things work. Instead of being developed and mentored by the city’s political and business elite in an established talent pipeline, nascent leaders (particularly in under-resourced communities) often wake up in a world they are wholly unprepared to navigate, whether because they were never offered help or they never learned why they should accept it. “You just give them money and expect them to…associate in that world in a way that is productive?” asks Abrigal Forrester, the executive director at the Center for Teen Empowerment, who himself went from spending 10 years in prison on drug charges at age 20 to launching a successful career in the nonprofit sector in Boston. “It’s a setup to fail because they don’t know the principles, the rules, the attributes, and the behaviors of that environment.”
For Cannon-Grant, there may have been even more at play, as the powerful looked to her to boost their profile at a tumultuous time before unceremoniously walking away when it was no longer in their interest to support her. “People with influence turned to her to elevate themselves, and now they don’t want anything to do with her,” says the person who knows her and worked in city government. “They used her.”
Before I left Cannon-Grant’s home, she said she had something she wanted to show me. In the corner of the living room was a cardboard box. She pulled it toward us and lifted from it mounted copies of tear sheets from the Globe and this magazine. “I was on the front page of the Globe three times, and I didn’t even kill anybody,” she said, deadpan.
As she held her “100 Most Influential Bostonians” write-up from this magazine, she stroked it lightly with one finger. “To go from all that to this,” she said without finishing her sentence. For once, there was nothing left for her to say.
An earlier version of this story contained an error. Jamahrl Crawford posted the video of Cannon-Grant talking about Rayla Campbell; he did not send it to Aidan Kearney.