Friday night boasted a nearly full room at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s (UAA) Alaska Airlines Center. UAA’s Office of Multicultural Initiatives had invited Shaun King, a civil rights activist and author, to speak.
King gained national notoriety and a following over the past few years for taking up a bleak cause: calling attention to, and chronicling, police brutality. He puts an emphasis on the use of fatal force against African Americans and notes that — according to an investigation by The Guardian — 464 people were killed in incidents with law enforcement in 2015. Of that number, 135 were Black and 102 of the victims were unarmed.
“You have to go back to 1902 to find the last year in America where 102 or more African Americans were lynched in this country,” he told the packed crowd. “You’d have to go back 115 years to find a year where that number of people, unarmed people, were killed on sight — judge, jury, and executioner.”
In 2015, King was studying history in graduate school. The previous summer, he received an email from a friend that linked to a Youtube video (warning: graphic). He clicked on it and watched as a man was wrestled to the ground by police and put in a chokehold, all the while screaming “I can’t breathe.”
Eric Garner would be pronounced dead at a Staten Island hospital an hour after that video was filmed on July 17, 2014.
“This had not gone viral. It was not a trending topic. Only a few thousand people had seen it,” King described. His friend told him, “You have to see this. You have to share it.”
“I couldn’t shake it. I don’t know if I wanted to shake it, but I just could not stop thinking about it. And, in a matter of days, I began teaching myself how to edit videos; how to edit photos. And I began sharing that video of Eric Garner’s death everywhere I could,” King explained. “I shared it and shared it and shared it. And you shared it and other people shared it. We were all disturbed by it. But I wasn’t sharing it because I wanted us to see a video of a man dying. We were sharing it because we thought it would bring some justice. And I really believed that.”
Garner’s death would be ruled a homicide, but the NYPD police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was never indicted.
Two weeks later, King said, another friend asked him if he had ever heard of a town in Missouri called Ferguson. He had not. He had also never heard of an 18-year-old Black man named Michael Brown, who was shot and killed in an altercation with a police officer after allegedly stealing a handful of cigarillos from a convenience store. Brown lay dead on the street for hours.
“I had the thought, ‘Oh my God. Police in our country are killing people every two or three weeks.’ That’s what I thought.”
He would go on to learn about Tyre King, a 13-year-old who was shot in Colombus, Ohio. Police claimed he had a BB gun. A month later, in the same city, 22-year-old John Crawford was slain by police in a Wal-Mart after a 9-1-1 caller erroneously (and criminally) claimed he had a firearm.
“And then I had the thought, ‘Oh, wow. They’re not killing people every two or three weeks. It’s, like, every two-to-three days,’” he said. “What we came to learn was, it wasn’t every two-to-three days, but police in our country are killing people every few hours. And what we came to understand, as a country, is that this is a much bigger problem than we thought it was.”
He quit his job working for an environmental group and began concentrating on documenting each and every instance of police brutality. Well, that and grad school. During a history class, with these mounting deaths weighing heavily on his mind, he said he found himself asking foundational questions: Where are we? How did we get here? Where are we going?
Leopold Von Ranke
Leopold Von Ranke is not a household name, unless you happen to live with historians. It wasn’t a name King had any interest in either, and he tried desperately (but was unable) to drop a required class focused on the nineteenth century German historian.
Ranke revolutionized the way in which history could be studied. 174 years before Google, he embarked on a lifelong journey, working to create a timeline of world history, charting rulers, artists, inventors, governments, and numerous other areas and roles via every archive he could find.
The novelty in his approach rebuked historical scholarship that had, until then, enjoyed a tenure dating back to the first written records: Each period in history must be understood independently of any other period and — more controversially — the progression of time does not automatically mean an improvement of conditions. This challenged the predominant teleological doctrine, which presumed that each period is inferior to the subsequent period; that history is a chronology of progression.
For King, Ranke hit on something that provided a new perspective in which to examine those questions that had been plaguing him.
Ranke also believed that there was a fatal flaw in the common methodology of his time, which tied the steady improvement of technology — telecommunications, public transportation, refrigeration, etc. — to the steady improvement of human history.
“People saw the gadgets getting and better and better and better and they assumed that human needs were getting better and better and better,” he said.
Sometimes humans are amazing and sometimes we are terrible. Sometimes we’re not perfect, but we’re pretty good. That’s what Von Ranke found. Sometimes we’re pretty good and sometimes we’re awful. Sometimes we murder and slaughter and have wars and starve people. Sometimes we create systems that will oppress people. What he found was that human beings want… to believe that we’re getting better. Because there’s something in us that would be depressed by the idea that we’re worse than that came before us.
“Time does not work like this. If we were getting better and better and better, that would mean that… today, Donald Trump is peak humanity,” he concluded. “If this is how time works, how do we explain Donald Trump?”
King posited that stages of humanity — much as Ranke said of periods in time — need to be viewed in isolation, decoupled from technological advances and independent of other stages of humanity, prior and subsequent. This is counter to a natural inclination to peg negative events as belonging to bygone eras, which provides us, as individuals, immunity from guilt and ownership. But, in viewing time in this manner, one cannot plausibly arrive at the conclusion that humanity is a continual progression of improvement. The fact that you have the newest iPhone does not mean that the human experience is, on the whole, getting better. He described humanity as “full of peaks and valleys; a “roller coaster of ups and downs.”
If the theory of a steady progression towards human advancement is true, King asked as he showed the crowd an image, “How is this possible?”
The image is the blueprint for the British transatlantic slave ship, Brookes, which chained up to 609 slaves at a time on six-foot by one-and-a-half-foot, wooden planks (less for women and children). Some estimates have increased that figure to as many as 744.
Judging history on a linear path of positive progression, King challenged, the Atlantic slave trade — which began in the 15th century and was outlawed in the U.S. only 117 years ago — is far closer to present time than the beginning of recorded history in ancient Sumeria 5,000 years ago.
“We want to believe that humanity is getting better and better and better,” he explained. “And I get it. Like, I want to believe that I am a better parent, that I am putting all the lessons that my mother taught me — and my mother wants me to do it better than she did. And her mother wanted her to do it better than she did. But, the truth is, humanity doesn’t work like that.”
He took issue with people responding to current day policies as “Going back to the 1960s” as a convenient dismissal, but an inaccurate reaction which releases us from responsibility through chronological distance. In reality, we are not time travelers. We are where we are and we are here because we let us get here.
King offered the genocide in Rwanda and Apartheid as other examples rejecting the notion that humanity is continually improving. Another example of immediate concern, he said, is incarceration rates in the United States, which are starkly higher than any other nation. He displayed a graph illustrating a timeline of incarceration, beginning in 1920 and leading to present day.
From 1920 to the mid-1970s, U.S. state and federal prisons maintained an incarceration rate that hovered around 200 per 100,000 people. But in the late 1970s, that number spiked and kept on spiking to a rate of 716 in 2013.
African Americans are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated than white people, another study by The Guardian notes.
King said it bugged him when he heard the familiar refrain: “Our criminal justice system is broken.”
“This is no accident. That would be like accidentally building a highway,” he said. “You can accidentally keep a pile of snow, but you don’t accidentally build a snow man. This is no accident. This happened because a new system was put in place.”
“We are living in a dip in the quality of our humanity,” he told the audience. “If you don’t know you’re in the dip, you can end up being there for a very long time. Dips — historical dips — can last for days, weeks, decades, or centuries. Slavery in America took 250 years. It takes a lot to get into a dip and even more to get out of it. We could be here for a while or we could be here for a long while.”
King recognized three historic dips, which he described as reactions to innovations. The first was a reaction to the 13th Amendment. He noted that lynching did not exist during slavery, but instead was a symptom of its abolition; a response to the innovation of freedom for a new class of people. During slavery, you protected your profit driver, he said. In its absence, the incentive went away and violence filled the vacuum. The second dip was mass incarceration, which followed the innovation of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act.
To identify the third and most recent dip, he asked people to think of all the presidents that span the history of the republic. Then, he asked everyone to picture the 44th president, and asked if there was anything different about him.
“There are two things. One is, he’s a Black man. And, two — it sounds so easy now — but, his name is Barack Hussein Obama. And, in 2006, that was a peculiar thing and a peculiar man,” he said.
The dip we’re experiencing now is — in some ways — because the dominant power structure was disturbed. You would not have a Donald Trump presidency if Al Gore had beaten George Bush as president; if John Kerry had. Here’s the thing. If John Kerry had won in 2004, 2008 — in 2004, 2008, Donald Trump was appearing at WrestleMania. No, really. He was shaving people’s heads with clippers at WrestleMania.
King reminded the audience how Trump introduced himself to the nation as a political person, by questioning President Obama’s American citizenship and insinuating that he is a secret Muslim from Kenya.
“And all of a sudden, something happened,” King marveled, noting that he still viewed Trump as a joke, but he’s also president. And he contends that the past election, in response to the innovation that was the Obama presidency, created this new dip. “I push this idea of knowing the time that you’re in. Because I can’t tell you what to do. I can just tell you where we are and hope that you do what we feel called to do — what you feel burdened to do. But, I guarantee you, if you do nothing, this time will last a lot longer than you want it to.”
The Difference a Year Makes
A half hour before King gave his lecture, I found myself backstage at the Alaska Airlines Center sitting on a couch waiting to interview him. I was still mulling over what questions to ask. I found myself recalling where I was a year ago — a few campus buildings over, similarly sitting and waiting to interview Bree Newsome.
Newsome, like King, is an African American civil rights advocate and activist. She received a lot of attention after the tragedy at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church at the hands of Dylann Roof — the largest mass shooting at a place of worship since 1991.
AME is a historic Black church with deep roots in the struggle for civil rights, and Roof cited his belief in white supremacy as his motivation.
Newsome (from Charlotte, North Carolina, just three hours north) responded by scaling a flagpole on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol building and taking down the Confederate flag, which had been flying there since 1962.
Later that year, then-Governor Nikki Haley would order its permanent removal.
Newsome delivered a message very similar to King’s.
“Once you become conscious of the times in which you live, then the question you ask to yourself is, ‘What will be my contribution? Where will I jump in to help humanity lift itself up?’” she appealed. “Ask this of yourself. Answer it for yourself. And have the courage to act on your convictions.”
Reflecting on her appearance struck me, because I remembered the optimism of the crowd that heard her speak that night.
In November of 2014, downtown Anchorage hosted a small protest, with only a dozen participants, in response to Ferguson. The next month, the ranks increased as hundreds filled the same streets during a Black Lives Matter protest. Four months after Newsome’s speech at UAA, hundreds more would gather in the Sears Mall parking lot on Northern Lights and the New Seward Highway for another Black Lives Matter demonstration, featuring prominent clergy, the police chief, and the mayor.
There was a feeling of optimism and a palpable trajectory towards positive change.
On Friday night, that no longer felt the case. In its absence was desperation and a fear. As a friend relayed to me shortly after last year’s presidential election — with a candidate who campaigned on racist rhetoric and top adviser with strong ties to white nationalism — it kind of feels as though the flag that Bree Newsome took down is flying again.
I decided that was what I wanted to talk about with King, so I asked him about it. I was not expecting the analogy he used in response.
“I’m 37, so, when I was a kid, I used to watch The Smurfs,” he replied. “And, in The Smurfs, there was this episode where there was this dam and the dam was about to break. And all of the Smurfs were, like, using all of their fingers and all of their toes to plug the dam. And that’s how I feel right now, man.”
He said that the past month had been really difficult for him.
If there’s something beautiful that’s happening, it’s two things. I see people who don’t normally work together saying, hey, let’s work together. People of different races, ethnicities, religions — new alliances and new types of solidarity that I’ve never seen before. Not in my lifetime. And then, secondly, people are energized to do something. I’m just not one hundred percent sure what that is.
The next step to answering to his own question, “where are we going,” is figuring that part out.
Below is my interview with King and the lecture in its entirety, which I cannot recommend enough.