This interview, conducted on June 22, 2015, originally appeared in our summer magazine, an annual publication that features engaging pieces on issues affecting young people. To read the next “On The Ground” interview with activist Derrick Quarles, click here.
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.
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.
And how do you believe social media activism, often coined “hashtag activism”, works in conjunction with physical protest?
They definitely support each other. Social media allows you to broadcast what you’re doing and where you’re going or meeting, and people can see that very quickly. For example, after the shooting in Charleston this past week – I’m in Atlanta right now and there was a vigil here – I saw a tweet for the vigil on social media and shared it. So when I arrived at the vigil, I saw a lot of people who heard about the vigil from me on social media. Sure, social media is just a virtual reality, but it can have real carryover where people can share resources, ideas, and information in a way that really makes a difference. If you study the Civil Rights Movement you learn that, in reality, very few people were actually physically protesting in those movements. Even today, there aren’t millions of people protesting – maybe tens or hundreds of thousands at most. Social media has the power to spread awareness worldwide, reaching those community members who may have been initially ambivalent. With that said, there is still a certain kind of person that becomes content with solely tweeting or using Instagram and never joining a protest to support people in real life. Regardless of that, I think the positive effects outweigh the negative ones greatly.
Do you foresee social media ever taking the place of actual organizations geared toward fighting these issues?
I don’t think they’ll completely take the place of the organizations, but I think that already on the average day now you see activists’ and young leaders’ messages being shared way more than those from the traditional civil rights organizations that are out there. Those organizations’ existences are still really important, but I think what you find is that activists and leaders on social media are connecting with people in a way that these organizations aren’t. Now, activists including myself are asking how we build something that lasts and impacts the world off of the internet. So I don’t think social media will ever replace the organizations that exist offline, but it’s definitely having an impact on them.
What is your response to people criticizing the behavior of protestors in scenarios like Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s death, or Ferguson after Michael Brown?
Overall, I feel like protests are overwhelmingly peaceful. To this day, in Ferguson, New York, Charleston, and Baltimore, I don’t know if anybody has been killed at protests. The reality of the matter is that we have thousands of people that we can name who have been killed by police, but anybody would struggle to name anyone who has been killed by a protestor. The violence, I think, is overstated on behalf of protestors and understated on behalf of police. When they decided not to charge officer who killed Eric Garner, I was disgusted and heartbroken; I couldn’t believe it. Even George W. Bush said he was shocked at that decision. So I don’t know what society expects people to do when the system fails them. Those situations put people in a position where they don’t know what to do. Desperate, hopeless, angry people will feel like there is no real system in place for them to utilize or take advantage of. This means they may act in ways that society doesn’t understand. That may mean tearing something up or some kind of vandalism. While that is not my strategy, I think that when people are backed into a corner and they feel like the system has failed them, that is always going to happen; and that’s not a modern black thing, that’s history. The Washington Post did a story explaining that 99 percent of officers who kill people never go to jail. So I don’t have to like the behavior to understand it; it is what it is. If we’re going to talk about riots in America, we’re going to have to talk about the brutality that these people are responding to.
Let’s explore the possible mindset of the police officer in these instances. How do you believe the white officers involved in these incidents justify or rationalize their behavior?
In case after case of police brutality, police act with violence and ask questions later. Because so many laws and rules protect the use of force, officers seemingly use violence with relative impunity—knowing they can later claim they were in fear of their safety.
Can you think of a few policy changes that you would recommend to positively change the climate of criminal justice in the nation (whether body cameras on officers, drug laws, or whatever else)?
No one policy change will cure all of the ills of our justice system, but about 50 changes are needed and each one will absolutely make a difference. Done in concert with one another, they could make a serious difference.
Each policy change is complicated though. I absolutely believe in body cameras. Every police officer should have them. That’s not enough though. Rules that govern how they are used, when they are on and off, how the footage is stored, when the info is released to the public, etc. have to be very particular. Furthermore, we’ve already seen cases where the footage clearly shows police brutality, but prosecutors, who are some of the best friends to police inside the system, refuse to act on what they see and conceal the footage for months or even years to keep public pressure away from cases.
What are your thoughts on the recent events in McKinney, Texas?
A complete disaster. Officer Casebolt used excessive force with multiple teenage boys and girls. He and others can deny racism, but he clearly treated the black teens in ways that he treated nobody else. I’m particularly frustrated about this case because he resigned before the investigation was completed. A new national policy should exist stating that if officers resign during an investigation they lose their license to be in law enforcement.
What is unique about situations like McKinney, when the victim of police violence doesn’t lose their life?
Most of all—we have living witnesses around to tell their story. Because Mike Brown and Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray are all dead, we’ll never know what was going through their mind, but in McKinney we have young men and women who can tell us how they felt about being violated by police and this helps sway public opinion tremendously.
Is it possible to say this situation was not racially-driven?
I don’t think so. Like President Obama said, racism is more than calling someone a nigger. It’s prejudging, it’s using force when it wasn’t needed, it’s being harshly physical when the circumstances don’t warrant it, and it’s overcharging. In McKinney, we saw racism from pool guests and from police.
In a moment when overt racism has become slightly more difficult to detect and implicit racism can be more prevalent in many instances, how do we shed light on these acts of discrimination?
It’s important that we publicly redefine what it means to be racist in 2015 and beyond. It’s true that a lot of people sincerely don’t see it or understand the way it should be seen. It’s particularly important that it not just be African Americans highlighting racism, but that sincere whites also expose and define it as well.
Is it necessary for society to accept that incidents such as the death of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin were racially driven hate crimes, or is it enough for them to simply identify these as moments of injustice? Why?
Each case of injustice is radically different. While we sometimes see trends and commonalities across many cases of injustice, what happened with Trayvon is altogether different than what happened with say, Rekia Boyd in Chicago. One was with an overzealous neighborhood bully and another was with an officer. What’s common, though, is that Trayvon and Rekia were minding their own business when white men saw them as a threat, confronted, and killed them. Also, both killers were set free. To deny that race is ever an issue in these cases is just preposterous.
What would you say to people accusing protestors and advocates like yourself of being financed by wealthy figures like George Soros, to travel to different communities and cause unrest?
First off, to be clear, I’ve never received a dime from George Soros or anyone who receives money from him. Even though I’m saying this to you now, I see people say I am receiving money from him several times a day. It’s sick.
Secondly, protestors aren’t causing unrest. We don’t see protests in places where police violence doesn’t exist. We see protests where police are violent, where the justice system fails the victims of that violence, and people feel like protests are their last recourse.
Can you give us your take on the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17 that left nine people dead?
The shooting in Charleston is one of the worst hate crimes in modern American history. We’d have to go back for several generations, even before the civil rights movement, to find an instance of more African Americans being killed in one targeted attack because of their race.
What are your thoughts on people’s reluctance to call this instance an act of terrorism?
I am incredibly frustrated at the government’s reluctance to call what happened in Charleston terrorism. It caused terror not only to the families of the victims in Charleston, but to African Americans and to black churches all across the country. The perpetrator deliberately chose that church and stated that he wanted to start a race war. How the hell is that not terrorism?
How do you envision progress, both on short and long term bases, in regards to the racial activism you have been participating in?
I am simultaneously encouraged and discouraged about the state of racism in America. I see scores of young people who are completely driven to fight for justice in ways that I’ve never seen before. At the same time, the Charleston shooter was a young man as well. I’m encouraged to see businesses and leaders stand against the Confederate Flag as well. I believe these symbols actually matter. At the same time, we have to continue to address the root causes of racism.
What advice would you give to young people who want to contribute to improving the racial climate of the nation, but may not know where to start?
I have three pieces of advice:
1. Start locally. Injustice doesn’t just exist in big cities, it exists in your school, in your hometown, and even in the businesses and police departments around you. Don’t just think about New York or Los Angeles, but start by making a difference where you are right now.
2. Begin following leading voices on issues of justice on social media. Learn from them. See who the leaders are locally and nationally. Ask them questions.
3. Consider a career that would make a difference. Become a prosecutor, consider law enforcement, consider the Justice Department, consider journalism, and consider community organizing.