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August 2020

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Shaun King Interview: Championing the Challenges of Social Change

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Shaun King

As a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, Shaun King has become one of the most recognizable and powerful voices on the front lines of civil rights in our time. He was recently named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most important people in the world online and is the co-founder of Real Justice and the Action PAC. Previously, he was the senior justice writer for the New York Daily News, a senior columnist for The Intercept and writer-in-residence at Harvard Law School.

King served as a pastor, teacher and motivational speaker in Atlanta’s juvenile justice system. In 2019, he launched the media platform The North Star, as well as the popular news podcast. On August 4, 2020, King released Make Change: How to Fight Injustice, Dismantle Systemic Oppression, and Own Our Future (Foreword by Bernie Sanders). In the book, King offers an inspiring look at the moments that have shaped his life and considers the way social movements can grow and evolve in this hyperconnected era.

"I started trying to use some of the lessons I learned and started finally having some victories and wins. I wanted to be able to share that with people."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Shaun, how are you and your family coping during the pandemic?

Shaun King: We’re doing okay. We’ve had some challenges. I have a big family, so it’s a lot to manage. My wife and I have five kids from elementary school, middle school, high school to college. Everybody’s dealing with a lot of disappointment, as you can imagine. But we’re healthy, and we’re safe, so we try and keep that in perspective for sure.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, that’s really the only thing that matters. I found your book to be very interesting and informative, really a great read.

Shaun King: Oh, I’m so glad. I didn’t even know you read it. All I knew was that we were talking about it. Do you know I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to who’s had the book in their hands and has read it? We kept it under close wraps until now. So I’m glad to talk to you about it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And I’m glad to speak with you today. Why did you feel this was the right time to share your journey of fighting for change and to show us how we all can work together to take actions to force real change in the world?

Shaun King: There are two or three questions I would get before the pandemic. I did a lot of traveling to organize, and I could almost predict the questions I would get from city to city and place to place. Somebody would tell me that they have a good heart and are deeply bothered by the injustices that they see in the world not just police brutality but all types of injustices from horrible things with immigration, healthcare disparities, poverty. But people would always tell me some version of, “I just don’t know what to do about it,” and I would get some version of that question all over the country.

I traveled to almost all 50 states. I traveled deep into Alabama and Mississippi to North and South Dakota, Alaska, Wyoming and everywhere in between. Everywhere I went, I would get some version of the question, “I’m very frustrated. I just don’t know what to do about my frustration.” I started hearing that question a lot all the way back to 2014, and even as this movement for justice and change grew and changed, the question never went away. It just sent me down a path of trying to figure out why people are so unsure of how to make a difference in the world. That’s one path I was going down myself emotionally and mentally just thinking about that. But the other was more personal.

For 2014, 2015 and 2016, I fought for justice for so many families who were impacted by police brutality and racial injustice. I worked on several political campaigns including Bernie’s 2016 presidential campaign, and by and large, I lost every campaign, every battle for justice with very few exceptions. It wasn’t because we weren’t working hard. We worked our asses off. I saw people literally work themselves into exhaustion and depression. I saw people stop their careers and throw their entire lives into fighting for change. But we just weren’t seeing the same level of change that matched what everybody was putting into it, and it just caused me to say, “How do you change injustice? How do these systems actually get changed?”

At the end of 2015, it really just sent me down a path that I’m still on to this very day of saying, “I know what people think change looks like, and sometimes it’s accurate, but how do we actually change this thing that we are fighting for and against, the thing we’re trying to stop?” What I’ve come to understand is that a lot of times, we think we’re a lot closer to making change than we really are. It’s hard. It’s complex. It’s slow. It often times requires more planning and strategy than we’ve put into it.

I started trying to use some of the lessons I learned and started finally having some victories and wins. I wanted to be able to share that with people. I get several emails a day from people saying, “What do I do? How do I impact this?” Part of my hope for having the book is to say, “I’ve actually answered that question.” It just happened to take me 275 pages to basically answer the question I get every day (laughs).

In some ways, I still believe that how we change systems doesn’t necessarily fit into a tweet. It doesn’t necessarily fit into a short viral video. A lot of these things that we’re fighting against are so complex, so deeply tangled that some of these things require comprehensive explanations. That’s what I hope the book can be for people, a more thorough, well-conceived answer for how we change these systems and what that looks like for individuals who want to be a part of it.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Foreword is written by Senator Bernie Sanders. Are you staying in contact with him or his staff in order to work on some issues together?

Shaun King: Well, I’m definitely still in contact with him and his staff. My hope, even when I wrote the book, was that he would be the Democratic nominee for president. I tell you. What I’ve learned about him is that he’s always learning. I think there’s a stereotype of him that really irritates me, and I think it’s almost ageist in a way.

I think people prejudge him and think that he’s too old to learn new ideas, new strategies, new approaches, and I’ve seen the exact opposite from him over the past five years. He’s always learning how to approach an issue better if it’s related to injustice or the environment or the economy. Bernie’s just a sponge. So as much as I can, I try to help keep him or his team informed on what I think the sharpest ideas are on how we make the world a better place. So he’s going to always be doing that. I was super grateful to have him write the Foreword. It meant the world to me.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I can imagine. It has been five years since Sandra Bland was found dead in a jail cell after being pulled over and arrested by a Texas state trooper for failing to signal lane change. Her death in a jail cell was officially ruled a suicide, but family and friends want the case to be reopened. What’s the current status?

Shaun King: That’s a great question because what I learned in 2014 and 2015 painfully is that most of the justice system functions on the local levels, and so here I am living in Brooklyn, and I could dedicate my life for fighting justice for Sandra and for her family, but justice lies with local officials. I traveled to Prairie View. In my mind, she had literally just made the first turn off the main campus of A&M University.

What I have learned is both encouraging and discouraging. Because the justice system is primarily a local system, the bad news is that her face could be familiar to the majority of Americans, but if the local officials are not doing something about it, nothing will get done. That’s the bad news, and that’s what I learned fighting for justice. Sometimes getting justice can feel like an impossibility.

The good news is that I’ve learned to embrace the fact we can change who those officials are. We can influence them directly in ways that sometimes will affect the outcome of a case. We had already published the book before I started working on the case of Ahmaud Arbery, and Ahmaud’s mother reached out to me this past March. No one even knew the story. She and her family had been fighting locally to get justice for her son. By that time, three district attorneys had already passed the case around like a hot potato, and we were able to organize and influence those district attorneys, the State Attorney General, the Governor and other officers there. Local officials make the main decisions, but if you can’t influence or impact them, we have an opportunity to vote them out.

Part of what I’ve tried to focus a lot of my life in these past four years has been that we have the wrong people in power, and sometimes you have to change the personnel. So I and some others from Bernie’s 2016 campaign started an organization called Real Justice. We’ve helped elect new district attorneys all over the county. When you win these races, and you have something happen like what happened to Sandra Bland, you finally have a chance. It doesn’t mean justice is guaranteed, but at least, you have a fighting chance. In so many cases, I’ve worked on and other people have worked on, we didn’t even have a fighting chance for justice. There’s still an opportunity for some measure of justice for Sandra Bland’s family, but it will require some people to step up that haven’t stepped up heretofore.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What changes have to occur in law enforcement for police brutality to be stopped?

Shaun King: You know, I was a justice writer for the New York Daily News, and I wrote theories on how we can confront and change police brutality. Before I published the theories, I ended up having almost 100 different policies and ideas. But I thought, “Would it make it disappear? What would drastically reduce it?” I squeezed those 100 ideas down to 25 ideas, and no one idea out of those 25 ideas was eliminated. Any one of those 25 might only reduce it by two or three percent, but in concert with one another, if you get five of those ideas, even 10 or 20 of them, you could cut police brutality in half.

The thing is that the system is way more complex than we want to accept, and the facts that have caused American police to have so much brutality and so much violence and for there to be so little accountability are multi-layered, multi-faceted. I did my podcast today with a critique of Joe Biden actually because he just released his new criminal justice plan, and it’s a new version of what he ran on. It’s better that what he ran on, but it’s still worse than the plans of every person who was running. What I talked about today was qualified immunity and how police are one of the few professions in America that can’t be held financially responsible for their misconduct even if it’s egregious like what the officers did to George Floyd. George Floyd’s family can’t sue the officers who killed their father, their brother, their son. They can’t sue them. They’re immune to that. Almost nobody else is immune. Very few people have that type of immunity. Ending qualified immunity is just really one of those 25 ways.

Police do what they do for a lot of reasons. One reason they do it is they know there will be so little accountability. Ending qualified immunity all of a sudden won’t make police brutality disappear, but it will change the psychology and the willingness for an officer to be so blatantly brutal and violent and disregard human life in such a callous way like they did with George Floyd when they know at the end of the day, they could be financially responsible for this damage personally. That type of pressure means that they would be careful to make smart decisions because they’d know the consequences of bad ones would impact them. Police have very few consequences, and that’s a part of it, but there’s so many other things.

Several studies have shown that when police officers have four-year degrees not only does the brutality go down sometimes significantly, but little things happen like the quality of their written reports go up and the incidents of sexual harassment go down. You could isolate every other factor, but when a police officer has a four-year degree, the quality of their policing goes up, the number of complaints about that officer goes down and not just on brutality. So there’s lots of little factors there.

Several studies have shown that if you literally just hire more women as police officers that the brutality goes down. For a long time, there was the stereotype basically that the quality of the policing or the quantity of the cases that would be solved would go down. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. Studies have proven that women are just as effective at every day policing, solving crimes and doing detective work, but they are also significantly less brutal and also incidents of sexual harassment go down. When you look at the macro system, women are day in and day out significantly less brutal and not just with fatal encounters but even with non-fatal encounters. There are lots of reasons for that, but you have to approach these problems of policing from a comprehensive perspective.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: This was the headline in a recent news story: “Who is Shaun King, liberal activist who wants to tear down Jesus statues?”

Shaun King: (laughs) You know, that’s caused me a lot of problems. President Trump actually mentions me in an Executive Order. Sean Hannity did an interview with Trump, and they mentioned me by name in the interview. I knew when I said what I said, it was provocative. I didn’t say it to be provocative, but I understand that there’s a real emotional attachment to all of these statues and certainly of religious monuments and statues.

But part of what I wanted to unpack is that, as the nation of people all over the country began tearing down these Confederate monuments, they aren’t the only ones that are problematic. What I wanted to weigh in on is the idea how even the religious iconography can be tools of oppression. I was actually a pastor for many years, and I’ve studied why people don’t want to accept the racial and racist undertones of why so many of these religious figures are portrayed as European. The same week I said that, somebody asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the head of the Church of England, his thoughts, and he said, “Yes. So many of these monuments and statues that we have all over our churches all over the United Kingdom are problematic.” So it’s something we have to address.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you ever miss your time as a pastor?

Shaun King: Yeah. There are times. It’s a hard job, of course. There are times where I definitely miss doing it. But at the same time, it’s a difficult role, and I enjoy the work I’m doing now, for sure.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Alleged threats have been made against you by law enforcement officers. Do you receive other written intentions to harm you or your family on a regular basis as well?

Shaun King: We’ve had threats where we see them, and we feel like people are writing them to mainly intimidate us. But these threats that we got this past month, we really perceived them very differently because even when we get threats we feel like are designed mainly to strike fear, they do strike fear. We are concerned. I have young kids. We reported some of them as well, but we mainly felt like they were meant to frighten us, and that was it.

These last threats were from a group of current and former law enforcement officers who had no idea that I would ever see those threats, and they were literally plotting on what they were going to do to attack me or kill me. They were doing that in a private conversation. They were using their real names and their real identities. Normally, the threats I get, people somehow find a way to send them in an anonymous email or anonymous social media account. But these are real people using real names, and these are people who actually have the means to follow through on this using strategic law enforcement language on how they were going to craft some type of operation. I’m super concerned about it. It is what it is, but it’s been hard.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: And those law enforcement officers are being investigated?

Shaun King: Yeah, they are. I don’t know if I necessarily feel that it’s going to go anywhere, but I’ve met with the FBI on it and the Long Beach police department where three of the officers were from. They brought the FBI in on the case, and I’ve met and talked with the FBI several times about it. It’s still under investigation.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You say in the book that social media may be a good starting point for impacting change, but that alone will not ensure success. Since Donald Trump has been in office, there appears to be more of a large influx of fake news, conspiracy theories and confirmation bias. So much so that, at times, it’s overwhelming. Do you limit your time on social media?

Shaun King: Oh, for sure. There’s a place for it, and you know, it’s tough because during quarantine, it’s sometimes our lifeline to the world where we’re not necessarily in an office every day, and we’re not interacting with people every day offline the way that we normally would. But social media can be a bubble. I see it happen to me every day where people could post something about me, and because they’re in their social media bubble, they speak about it as if it’s true. It can really cause you to be easily misinformed. This is the whole concept of fake news.

I think a lot of it is a sense of isolation that we get through social media that people can so easily share misinformation. It can then spread like wildfire across all of social media even through email and other tools. This causes a lot of people to daily be misinformed, and that’s not just a conservative thing. That crosses across all ideologies. It’s a problem.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Have you removed yourself from the Democratic Party?

Shaun King: I left the Democratic Party formally and just became an Independent after the 2016 election. Part of that is just saying that I wanted the freedom and independence to be able to critique the party. It’s hard to do that from within. While I still primarily vote for a Democratic candidate, sometimes being a part of the party, particularly if you’re formally a part of it, just requires a level of silence that I was super uncomfortable with.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the book, you say that when you help families with guidance and support, raising funds and connecting them with organizers, you blur the lines between journalist and activist. Can you expound on that?

Shaun King: Well, for me, often being a journalist has required people to not personally do anything about the story that he’s telling. As I started really fighting for justice for families while I was a writer at the New York Daily News, there were times where I would need to write about a family, and the traditional way would be to write about them but not help them in any way. You just would coldly write the story, and even if you knew that you could help them in some kind of way strategically, financially or advocacy, you just didn’t, and that’s kind of the unwritten rule. In some places, it’s the written rule.

I just decided that I couldn’t do it that way, and that sometimes, I would have to write stories. I would still make sure that the stories were anchored in truth and anchored in fact, but I would also do anything I could to help, particularly if I was writing about people who were victims of police violence or racial injustice. I think on most days, I feel more like an activist who writes than a writer who is also an activist. I don’t regret that. I think that limits my mobility as a journalist. A lot of outlets would never hire me because of that, but at the very least, I’ve tried to wear it on my sleeve. I’ve tried to be very clear about who I am, what my motivations and intentions are, instead of pretending that I don’t have certain motivations or intentions when I really do. I try to be overt about the perspective I’m coming from.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: What has been your biggest triumph and your lowest moment as an activist?

Shaun King: There have been so many disappointments, so many families that we fought for, so many pieces of legislation, so many candidates we fought for, and we didn’t win in so many cases. I think my lowest moment was probably the death of Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner. Erica and I had become good friends, and the closer we got as friends, the more I wanted to help her get justice for her family. She campaigned all over the country for Bernie, and Bernie loved her as well. She died two years ago. She was just 27 years old. She was under an enormous amount of stress, and she literally fought day and night for her father, trying to get some measure of justice. She fought for over four years and got nothing, no charges, no arrests. Nobody was fired.

To this day, I struggle to forgive New York for how it failed her. I literally feel, in some ways, that New York not only killed her father but killed her as well. Just a heartbreaking loss. She was a mother of two young children. Babies. She gave her life fighting for something that should have been very easy to achieve. Her father was literally murdered on camera. It was virtually exactly what happened to George Floyd in Minnesota, but what happened to her father was six years ago. Nobody was even fired for it. Finally, the officer who killer her father was fired, but she had already died by then. Just disgusting.

There are many low moments. Part of doing this work is enduing those low moments, surviving them, pushing through them. But I think maybe the victory that means the most to me has been some of the elections of our district attorneys, and in New York where we passed some legislation called Raise the Age. For most New Yorkers, they won’t even know the difference because it’s primarily only young black and brown children in poor neighborhoods who are being arrested and prosecuted. So you could be a wealthy New Yorker and never know how many young kids are going in and out of jails being charged and tried as adults.

We fought for years for this policy to be changed, and it was changed. It has kept thousands and thousands of children out of adult jails and prisons. Most people, like I said, won’t know the difference, but for those of us who fought for it, it made all the difference.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: How much of an impact did not having a father and being bulled and beaten at an early age have on your intense desire to help the disenfranchised and fight for change?

Shaun King: I think it has everything to do with who I am, good and bad. I don’t know if you would know me had I not experienced the injustice that I experienced myself. It changed me. Growing up without a father changed me in a way that made me very independent. It also caused me real challenges in life just kind of struggling to pick out what it means to be a man, a father, what it means to be even in basic things like learning how to shave or tie a tie. All these things I had to learn myself.

When I was assaulted, I was just 15 years old. I missed nearly two years of high school recovering from those injuries. I missed the rest of my Sophomore year and all of my junior year. I had three spinal surgeries. It was a horrible, horrible ordeal. But it also, having gone through it, made me deeply sensitive to people who had also experienced injustice. It made me very sensitive to people you were experiencing physical pain or emotional pain. Had that ugly thing not happened to me, I don’t know that I would have that sensitivity. I’m not glad that it happened, but because it happened, it caused me to have a heightened sensitivity that otherwise, I wouldn’t have had.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I was really shocked and stunned to find out that, for the first time in its decades-long history, Vanity Fair magazine has featured the work of a black photographer on its cover (July/August 2020 issue).

Shaun King: Right. I mean, how many covers is that? I had to read it a few times to make sure I was reading it correctly. When I first read it, I thought they were saying something special about the cover or even about who was on the cover, and then I re-read it and said, “No. This is the first time they’ve had a black photographer shoot the cover.”

Today, in the year 2020, is the first time that this leading publication has had a black photographer shoot the cover. They mainly said it as a thing of pride, and I guess in some ways, they have something to be proud of, but it’s also shameful. While I’m glad they’ve crossed that barrier, it’s shameful in a way.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, it is shameful. Shaun, thank you for enduring those low moments, surviving them and pushing through them in order to continue the fight against injustice to make America a more equitable place. I wish you much success with your book.

Shaun King: I’m so grateful. I’m glad to have a conversation with you and appreciate your positive feedback. I’m excited for people to have the book. I try to share my own personal story but also give a lot of insight on how we make change. I’m anxious for people to have the book.

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