Activist Shaun King Addresses Race and Historical Context in Talk
Issue   |   Fri, 12/08/2017 - 13:26

Renowned writer and activist Shaun King spoke at the college on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. in Johnson Chapel. The talk, attended and live-streamed by members of the Amherst and Five College communities and the public, was organized by the Amherst College Democrats and co-sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center, Women’s and Gender Center, Queer Resource Center, Muslim Students’ Association, La Causa and the Roosevelt Institute at Amherst College.

President Biddy Martin, Student Activities and the Association of Amherst Students also helped bring King to the college, according to AC Democrats President Alexander Deatrick ’20, who opened the event.

AC Democrats Vice President Megan Yang, who heard King speak at an event over the summer, introduced King as a “modern civil rights activist” and leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. Through his investigative journalism, she said, he has made attaining justice for black and other marginalized communities his goal.

King gained attention in 2014 for his writing on the deaths of black men, particularly in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting. He has led a number of social media campaigns in movements for social justice, one of which resulted in the identification and arrests of three of the men behind an assault on DeAndre Harris during the Unite the Right Rally in August this year. He worked for the New York Daily News as senior justice writer from 2015 to 2017 and became writer-in-residence at the Harvard University-based Fair Punishment Project earlier this August.

King started his talk by relaying a bit of his personal history, first as a student leader and activist at Morehouse College, where he majored in history, then as a civics high school teacher, as a pastor for 10 years, and now as a husband and father of five.

“I find myself in this position of going back to my roots, going back to my training as a historian,” he said. “I want to teach a lesson that helps us understand that at first may sound complicated but is essential … — how time works. More specifically, how time unfolds in the context of history. I want to clue us in on where we are in the scheme of history.”

In 2014, King said, a college friend sent him an email about a video in which a policeman from the New York Police Department choked an unarmed black man to death. In the video, Eric Garner, the black man, repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”

Three-and-a-half weeks later, another friend sent King a text about “a kid laying in the middle of the neighborhood named Ferguson … and police have shot and killed him. The link I’m sending you is a livestream video,” he recalled.

“A few days later, it was another story and another story,” he added. “As many as 10 times a day.”

As protests emerged coast to coast regarding Eric Garner, Mike Brown and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, all of whom were unarmed when shot and killed by police, King thought “we’d fight it and win,” he said. When he met with the families of those who died and told them “we’d get justice, I had no reservation.”

“I did not understand the criminal system and how it bent over backwards to protect itself at all costs,” he said.

As a result, King said, he found himself in a deep depression in January 2015. Returning to graduate school, he enrolled in a class called Introduction to Historiography, but said he couldn’t imagine that Leopold von Ranke, who is “seen by most people as the father of history” and whose portrait he had projected on a screen at the start of his talk, could teach him anything relevant.

Ranke, however, changed the way King thought about what happened starting in 2014.

When Ranke began assembling stories of people throughout history in the 1800s, King said, he “didn’t have a basic way to figure out what was truth and what wasn’t.” Ranke’s core understanding of history was that the quality of humanity, much like the theory of evolution, got better and better over time. What he found, however, was that he had been confusing the steady improvement of technology with the steady improvement of humanity, King said.

“It never mattered how horrible history was — modern human beings seem to not care, and they always are fully willing to duplicate those mistakes,” King said.

“If we’re getting better and better and better, how do we explain all this?” King continued, referring to the African-American men, women and children who were killed by police last year, the so-called War on Drugs that he said was an attempt by President Richard Nixon to “criminalize being black in America” and the nearly exponential increase in mass incarceration between 1980 and 2010.

America is currently “in a dip in the quality of our humanity,” King said. “You are living in the dip. You are coming of age in the dip.”

Though there is a temptation to blame the dip on President Donald Trump, King said, “Donald Trump exists as president of the United States because we were already here in the dip … He is now simultaneously a symptom and a cause.”

When an “innovation that takes place … disturbs the primary people in power … and primary power structures, there’s always a backlash,” King added, citing the Emancipation Proclamation that led to the rise of white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan and an increase in lynchings of black Americans, the Voting Rights Act and the mass incarceration of black lives in its aftermath and the election of President Barack Obama that led to an increase in hate crimes in America.

“The truest indication of who you would be in the civil rights movement is who you are today,” King said. “If you find yourself doing nothing right now, that’s probably who you would’ve been in the civil rights movement … We’re living in that moment right now.”

A Q&A session followed King’s talk, during which audience members asked about a range of topics, including maintaining emotional and psychological well-being and dealing with perpetual anger.

Jingwen Zhang ’18 contributed reporting for this article.