The HUB Ballroom was packed last night as the UW community came to listen to journalist and activist Shaun King speak on matters of police brutality, but an hour prior to the event, there weren’t nearly as many faces attending a vigil for a black Muslim-American boy who was found hanged in Lake Stevens this year.
It was a juxtaposition noticed and commented on by many.
Prior to open questions, King riffed off of the theories produced by history-founder Leopold Van Ranke. The theory King discussed said that humanity does not become better over time in terms of moral character. While technological advancements do indeed get better over time, this can’t be a measurement of humanity. Rather, humanity should be measured by moments of war, turmoil, and killings by the state. With this measurement, humans cycle back and forth over time between being great and being awful to each other, not constantly improving. King argued that now, in 2017, we are at a low point in that cycle.
“We are in a dip in the quality of our humanity,” King said. “The dip happens after the introduction of an innovation that disturbs a primary power structure.”
King defined this innovation as a moment or instance that is historically unique. One of the examples of this disruption King referenced was the passage of the 13th Amendment. A dip in humanity occurred after it was passed, when those whose power was disrupted began a spree of extrajudicial killings and lynchings. At this point, the 13th Amendment made black bodies no longer a commodity or property, and so slaves became killable, a site of hatred for disrupting the power structure.
King also referenced the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act as innovations that challenged the power structure. In response to the two laws, prisons soon became overpopulated with black and brown men disproportionately targeted for drug crimes. The journalist and activist then stated that the present dip in humanity is a reaction to the election of a black man whose middle name is Hussein to the presidency. President Donald Trump, King emphasized, is a direct counter to the historical innovation and anomaly of Barack Obama.
“It’s hard to know a moment in history when you’re in it; you’re just in it,” King said. “[Future generations] are going to use where we are right now as a pinpoint for American ugliness.”
Before delving into the historical theories of humanity, however, King did some explaining of recent events since 2014. His speaking format brought up some parallels: moments in which he felt there would be justice, and moments in which he realized police brutality was happening more frequently than he ever imagined.
“I was so disturbed,” King said of the moment he watched Eric Garner die from a chokehold by the New York Police Department. “Each of us probably have an experience with police … you saw something that just stuck with you.”
At first, King thought if he just told people about this, there would be justice. Someone died at the hands of a police officer who used a tactic that was specifically outlawed for the department years ago. But it didn’t happen. Then King got notifications every few weeks of stuff happening, and it hit him. In 2016 alone, 963 people were shot and killed by police. This year, just two months in, the U.S. has hit a record-breaking 199 people killed by police.
“It’s not true that human beings are learning to treat each other better,” King said. “What keeps throwin’ us off is that we think we’re in a better place than we actually are.”
Audience member and UW undergraduate Rodha Sheikh said she’s familiar with much of King’s work, and many of the things he discussed that evening weren’t new for her.
“It was more toward allies who need to step up their game,” Sheikh said. “I’m hoping this will be the time they actually do something.”
At one point, during the Q&A, a UW student asked how to handle issues that have been making students feel unsafe right here on the UW campus. The questioner referenced Nazi recruitment flyers and the physical assault of two Muslim women students that occurred this year. In one instance, a bottle was thrown at a female Muslim student’s head as she was walking by Mary Gates Hall.
King’s response was that students need to instigate and ask for really large amounts of change, change that will inevitably get squashed down when it finally occurs. Without pushing for more, he stressed, the gains will be far less should they happen.
“You need to dial up the pressure,” King answered, “for how [UW] spends — listen to what I’m saying here — your money.”