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Leveraging pain for personal gain

The federal allegations against activist Monica Cannon-Grant and her husband reveal a couple for whom one scam wasn’t nearly self-enriching enough.

Monica Cannon-Grant left court after she was indicted this week.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Grift upon grift upon grift.

The federal case against activist Monica Cannon-Grant, arrested on Tuesday morning, reveals a defendant who clearly wasn’t satisfied with just one self-enrichment scam. If the government is to be believed, Cannon-Grant and her husband, Clark Grant, were bold multitaskers when it came to lining their own pockets.

Among the allegations: They didn’t just defraud donors to Cannon-Grant’s charity, Violence in Boston, using donations for personal use. They also used that nonprofit to deceive a mortgage company, which gave them a loan to buy a $400,000 house. On top of all that, they lied to collect $100,000 in pandemic unemployment benefits they weren’t entitled to.

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A footnote in the indictment reveals a couple for whom deception appears to have been as natural, and almost as frequent, as breathing: The government alleges they had an employee falsify a letter to assist them in receiving housing benefits for which they did not qualify, and that they also had the associate fake two negative COVID-19 test result letters so that the couple could attend a Celtics game.

If you weren’t watching closely, Cannon-Grant’s arrest looks like a remarkable fall from grace for an activist who led tens of thousands to a Franklin Park rally to protest the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and who threw herself into feeding those struggling during the pandemic. The civic leader was feted by politicians, who were eager to be photographed with her, conferring on her even greater status. And she was honored by the city’s corporate and civic institutions, including The Boston Globe.

Working as an activist and with former city councilor Tito Jackson for years, she rose to real prominence during a heartbreaking and long-overdue moment, when millions felt righteous anger at the mistreatment of Black Americans, and when white people in particular — who hadn’t paid enough attention before — were desperately looking for a way to signal their support. Cannon-Grant, her rage at systemic racism palpable, lifted her voice, put out her hand, and the donations flooded in. Violence in Boston collected a million dollars, according to the feds.

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But there was more to Cannon-Grant: It showed up in expletive-laden Facebook tirades, in which she excoriated her enemies and complained of persecution, telling those who would harm her that her kids would fight them if she couldn’t. She called out not just white supremacists, but also those she deemed insufficiently Black: In a lengthy tirade against Rayla Campbell, a Randolph Republican who ran against Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, she spoke in explicit terms about Campbell’s relationship with her white husband. None of it seemed to keep her back, or appeared to make powerful people rethink their support for her.

That mystified Jamarhl Crawford. A community activist who can be pretty pugilistic himself, he has been in frequent conflict with Cannon-Grant, dating back to his 2013 attempt to replace her mentor Jackson on the Boston City Council. Crawford has been the subject of multiple Facebook tirades from her over the years, he said, adding that usually he gave back as good as he got.

“Anybody who has watched her videos,” he said, “you know this is not healthy.”

Crawford said he tried to tell people Cannon-Grant was a grifter, that he’d sometimes had to pick up the pieces after she offered help to people then left them high and dry. He warned one politician face to face, he said. But few seemed to want to hear it.

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“It was like me trying to convince somebody about bigfoot and UFOs,” he said.

If she is guilty of the crimes with which she is now charged, Cannon-Grant was expert at leveraging tragic moments, righteous anger, and white guilt for personal gain. The grifts of which she and her husband are accused cast a pall over whatever good work Violence in Boston has done. And the damage goes beyond those whose money she allegedly stole: She has tarnished the movement for racial justice in Boston, providing those who oppose vital changes in policing and elsewhere with a pretext to continue doing so.

She has also made chumps of many who should have known better.

How were they fooled? The answer to that question is not a pretty one.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.