As an activist for justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, Shaun King has carved out a career through his outspoken views on police brutality, racism and the challenges of the day.
Originally from Kentucky, King attended Morehouse College, a historically Black men's college in Atlanta, Georgia, where he majored in history. After graduation he worked as a civics teacher and a motivational speaker for Atlanta's juvenile justice system, before becoming the pastor of the "Courageous Church” which he founded in 2008. Using social media to rally and unite people of disparate backgrounds, King is actively involved in online charitable platforms, such as HopeMob.org and TwitChange.com.
He blogged for the politically liberal website Daily Kos, before becoming the senior justice writer for the New York Daily News in 2015. King is also a political commentator for the Tom Joyner Morning Show.
Before arriving in Portland for the International Speaker Series, hosted by the World Affairs Council of Oregon, King spoke to The Skanner by phone from his home of New York City. This interview has been edited for space.
Shaun King: A lot has changed in our country over the past two years in general. When I first started working for the Daily News, issues of police brutality where really seen as a national emergency, and protests centered on police brutality in the United States were the top news stories. They were international news. The whole world was talking about these incidents of police and racialized violence. All of that continues, but Donald Trump has been elected president and what that means it’s hard for any injustice that’s not somehow tied to him to get the coverage that it did just two years ago.
So while I still write about police brutality as a trending issue, that issue and a lot of other domestic issues are struggling to break through and get the attention that they deserve. And yet I understand. People are alarmed at what it means to have Donald Trump as president. They’re concerned, they’re nervous. So some issues that were seen as the most essential issues of the day just two years ago are not seen that way today. Part of my job is to continue to force the struggles and the pain and the challenges of everyday Americans into the national conversation. I try really hard to do that, not just with my articles, but through Facebook or Twitter and even public events, like the one I’m doing in Portland.
SK: Yes and no, in the sense that – it is without a doubt a powerful tool for people who use it and have influence. I think people who have used it heavily, like myself, have found that it’s great to help make people aware of problems; it’s even great to help build the seedlings of a community around a problem. But you have to pivot from social media to strategic planning offline. Strategic planning doesn’t happen on Twitter.
You can begin to influence policy online, but a lot of that hard work has to take place off of Facebook, off of Instagram.
We are finding that social media is a great tool for information, but it’s not the solution in and of itself. I don’t think that is social media’s fault; many of us thought we could get more change done through social media alone than I think is actually possible. I’m still going to use it, as heavily as I’ve always used it, but with the awareness that I need to use it as a part of a much more complex, offline strategy on how you effect change.
Social media is a new way of digesting information that I don’t think we’ve fully processed or can understand, (for instance), seeing wonderful moments alongside the most horrific moments, and then having to click away and have a conversation. Because the medium itself is very new, I think we’re now just understanding the impact it’s having on society, on elections. Donald Trump, for instance, has more followers on social media than all 17 of the Republican candidates he beat, combined. I think that matters. In the next presidential election, I don’t think anyone can beat Donald Trump that does not already have a serious level of influence on social media, and that’s new. I think you have to be known, and known in ways that are very new for politics. You have to have a significant, pre-existing footprint on social media. And here’s the thing – that’s like 15 people that fit that definition. That’s very problematic, but if that’s the new normal, we have to come to grips with that. I think about that, even as I build my own presence on social media; if I need to compete with the ideas that other people are putting out there, I need to have the biggest amount of influence possible.
SK: It’s hard to understand a moment in history when you’re in it. In 1954 and 1955, during the early days of the civil rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education, they weren’t even using the phrase, “civil rights movemen.t” They were just everyday people fighting for equality and fighting for access. I think we’re in one of those moments right now. I think we’re in a deeply problematic time in the history of our country. This past January and February were the deadly months ever measured for police brutality in America. Almost nobody’s talking about it, and it’s because I think people are overwhelmed with so many different issues and challenges. It sounds almost fictional. Like today people are talking about – is nuclear war with North Korea possible? All of the sudden, it’s really difficult to think about individual, local injustices when – no matter how far-fetched it may or may not be – you’re also faced with the threat of human extinction. I think this generation will better understand where we are right now in five or 10 years. People are feeling it, but it’s hard to give a historical context that it necessitates. I think people will look back on this time and be glad that they fought back. So I think it’s going to have an indelible mark on this generation. I’m 37, but even the people younger than me, college students, people in their 20s, I think they will come of age in a way that’s frighteningly similar to those who grow up in the civil rights movement.
SK: I love Portland, I’ve been there many times. I love the Pacific Northwest. It’s an area where I feel like – more than a lot of places in the country – people care about a lot of issues that I care about, be it the environment, removing money from politics, even issues of injustice are very important to the people of Portland. And I’ve always gotten a whole lot of support from Portland, so I decided to come back.
My talk is about what I’m calling “The New Civil Rights Movement” – echoes of my talk were in an answer I gave before. What I’m trying to do is give people historical context of where we are right now and how we got here. One of the things I’m going to encourage people to do is to trust their gut about how it feels right now. I’ve traveled the country; people do not feel good about where we are right now. It’s a feeling, and it’s difficult to describe. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink,” talked about the complicated nature of your gut – what are your instincts? It feels so bad and problematic right now that there’s an instinct to brush it off.
What I’m trying to encourage people to do in Portland is to not ignore it, don’t brush it off. Lean into why you feel that way; those are the first steps to really developing a true ethic of fighting back against it. And I want to give people context for what happens if we don’t fight back. What has happened in previous generations and eras, when people saw something that troubled them and didn’t fight against it? I want to unpack what that means for us as a country.