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Friday, August 14, 2015
On The Ground With Shaun King
People join hands against the backdrop of an American flag as thousands of marchers meet in the middle of Charleston's main bridge in a show of unity after nine black church parishioners were gunned down during a Bible study, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in Charleston, S.C.
CREDIT: AP/David Goldman.
Shaun King is a Justice Writer for Daily Kos, where he discusses issues at the intersection of race, discrimination, injustice, and equality. Today, he advocates primarily for reform in the criminal justice system, with a particular focus on the issue of police brutality in America.
Shaun King - Justice Writer
Can you talk to us a bit about your upbringing and growth up to this point?
I grew up in a single-parent household. Some people in my situation would say that their mother played the roles of both my mom and dad, but my mother was simply a very astute woman; she never filled the role of my father. A lot of principles and ways that I see the world today, I learned from her; particularly in terms of how to view people and the world. I was raised in rural Kentucky, and it was actually pretty rough. African Americans faced a lot of racism and discrimination growing up. I never really experienced overt racism myself until high school. I was put into a weird position when a huge group of students (who called themselves “rednecks”) hated me for no reason. My friends and I had to deal with regular discrimination, from physically having to defend ourselves to all kinds of other acts. I once was chased down a road by a group of guys in a pickup truck and was almost ran over. And this isn’t even the 1960s, it was the mid-90s! Even today what I’m seeing in places like McKinney, Texas, with 14-year-old girls being assaulted by officers, proves to me that racism hasn’t ended; but it’s shaped me in a lot of ways. When I went to college at Morehouse, it became my safe haven and the place that I learned the most about Black history. It’s also the place where I first learned to truly be a leader.
What sparked your passion for social activism?
A lot of who I am today all goes back to the discrimination that I faced in high school; it was so painful. In my sophomore year of high school I was assaulted really badly. I missed over a year of high school. I had three spinal surgeries, fractures in my face, and a lot of physical pain; it was brutal. So when I finally came out of that, I came out as someone having the ability to identify with people who have gone through physical and emotional pain. This experience really softened my heart toward other people who are going through hardships.
How long have you been involved in social justice activism?
My entire life. But I really started becoming active as a student at Morehouse College. While I was in college, Amadou Diallo was shot by the NYPD. They fired 41 shots at him, and several of my buddies and I can remember how we were protesting police brutality even way back then. We also had several conversations about the inequity in sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and those drugs’ popularity in certain racial communities. I was Student Government President my sophomore year of college, and since then, I’ve been involved in both activism and community work in general.
How do you define your role in criminal justice activism?
I view my role in society today as being a thought leader in shaping how people view issues. A lot of people are really angry and irritated about police brutality today. It always bothered me, but when I saw the video of Eric Garner being killed, knowing that this man was a father with many kids (I have two kids myself), it hit me hard. It felt like within days of that happening we heard about Mike Brown, then John Crawford, and case after case. Social media made these cases known, and in the beginning I really struggled to discover how I could make a difference and do something that mattered with this issues. So my first role was simply telling the stories of these injustices and I think I’m going to always do that, but I have also been working to figure out how we can approach these issues to make people’s lives better. There is a part of me that worries that, in spite of all of the awareness, nothing is getting better; and the statistics for police abuse this year are on their way to supporting that concern. I’m infuriated because we’ve talked about it so much, but I’m not convinced that society has done enough. In fact, the brutality that I see people experiencing today is kind of like a modern day version of racialized violence that was seen in the past. The brutality has roots and history, so we’re starting a project called Red Records to tell better stories about it. I felt like people connected with your [author Martese Johnson’s] story because, because you are a young person, you lived online and there were these pictures of you looking like a regular college student. So people saw you and they immediately connected and were like “oh no, this is terrible.” Now let me flip it: I’ve asked people “what can you tell me about Freddie Gray?” and people knew he lived in Baltimore, they knew his age, and they knew something really grotesque happened to him and he died; that’s about it. In spite of all the coverage, money, and expense, people don’t know his story; and that’s the case with a lot of victims of police brutality. It’s a lot harder to throw a story away when you add a human element to it, and that’s our goal with the Red Records.
Can you briefly describe the primary goals of activists in the arena of police brutality at the moment?
There are so many different types of activists, and the style of activist changes from place to place; all of that is important. I just read a book about the struggle for freedom and civil rights in Mississippi, and how local activists made a huge difference. So in the movement that we’re in now when people are speaking out against police brutality, there are few national voices and I think that’s a good thing. That’s because what you get as a result is people who really know their local problems and can advocate for those problems and against those issues in a smart and effective way. I know some activists for instance, who are focusing solely on issues of women being brutalized by police. I know others focused on immigrants being brutalized by police. Some are focusing on police brutality just in New York City, some inside of prisons, and so forth. It’s a really complex system, and when we first started saying we need to end police brutality, I don’t think any of us understood just how complex and intricate the problems were. Now, nearly a year after Michael Brown was killed, we are able to better wrap our minds around the problem and all of us are saying “how are you (people or organizations in different places) handling these problems, and how can I (the individual activist) do something to complement what you do. We found that we need to be able to define what the problems are nationally, state-by-state, and all the way down to the local/city level, then give people the tools to fight for better policies in their police departments. That is an area that still needs a lot of help. Ultimately, our goal is to start seeing these numbers go down: the number of police abuses, people killed by police, and officers killed in service. Until those numbers go down, I won’t be the least bit satisfied.
How has social media influenced you and other popular activists’ methods in achieving these goals?
Social media has been everything. Twenty years ago, if you had a certain hobby or affinity for a certain issue, but you didn’t know who the person leading that organization was locally, you didn’t know how to become involved. If you cared about animal rights in high school, you may not have even known another person who cared about similar issues. Social media solved that problem, connecting us all in a powerful way. Now, all of a sudden, it seems like everybody cares about particular issues and can connect to one another in ways that used to not be available. There are people now that I see as my friends and genuine partners in this fight for a better, safer America. Without social media, I don’t think I would have known them. Frankly, I don’t believe people would have even heard about the incident in Ferguson without social media. I had never heard of Ferguson; social media brought my awareness. It allows stories, which normally would have disappeared, to be magnified in a powerful way.