By Jess DeWitt
Special to the Gazette
People, energy, strategic planning, and money are the four pillars to enacting social change, according to author and activist Shaun King, who spoke at Northeastern University on Feb. 9. Nearly a thousand people packed Blackman Auditorium to capacity to hear the civil rights activist partake in a discussion with Professor Adam Omar Hosein that covered criminal justice reform, President Trump, organizing movements, along with various other topics.
King was invited to speak by Northeastern Crossing, a community activist group on campus that connects the university with local residents, leaders, and groups.
“We started planning this event a year ago, and around that time there was a lot of talk in the community about societal changes in regards to race and color, and the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Derek Lumpkins, the director of Neighborhood Partnerships and Programs for Northeastern Crossing. “We started thinking about who would be good to bring to talk about these things, and we knew Shaun King would be a great.”
The last four years of King’s life have been devoted to social change, as he has built a large social media following, and is a writer for Harvard Law School’s Fair Justice Project and for The Intercept, where he often covers stories of injustice. He’s an avid member of the Black Lives Matter movement, and acknowledged the group’s demonstrations as a positive example of bringing about social justice, and elaborated further on ways to do so. Having the people is the first step to bringing change.
“We have to be organized, and one of the things I mean by organized is we have to have an assessment of what the skills and experiences are in the room,” King explained. “What are you good at? What are you great at? What are your preferences? What do you do well? And what do you bring to the table? And when I ask people, ‘how many times have you been asked that?’ Normally people will say never.”
However, King went on to say that he is very happy, not only with the number of people advocating for change, but also how energized the people are. The energy is crucial for what he says will be a long battle, calling the push for change a “marathon, not a sprint.”
King was not as impressed with the way civil rights activists devise strategic and comprehensive plans for change. He believes people are failing in this aspect because they are underestimating how complex the problems are that people are facing
“There are 20,000 police departments in America. There are 8,000 jails, there are hundreds and thousands of laws and policies,” said King. “Our plans for change can normally be scribbled on the back of a napkin, or can be posted on Facebook, or can be included on one page of a website. That’s not comprehensive enough, and so our plan is completely overmatched by what we’re up against.”
Money was the final pillar of change King mentioned, which he also thinks people are falling behind on. The Black Lives Matter movement, he says, has a budget in the single millions, while they are forced to go up against organizations like the NRA, which raised $400 million in 2017. He believes the money is there but is just not being used correctly.
“It’s not that we don’t have money,” King explained. “Hillary Clinton raised nearly a billion dollars, and for what? A billion dollars for a massive loss. It’s not that the money isn’t there, it’s about people wanting to know that they’re giving to something that is effective, that could bring about significant change.”
While King overall feels optimistic about the people joining the fight for change, he has been very displeased with the Democratic Party. Last year King left the party, mainly over their inability to generate change.
“We now are in the era where Republicans control the presidency, the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court,” said King. “But they control the overwhelming governorships, state houses, state legislatures, and that didn’t happen by accident. Those of us who care about a certain set of principles, whether we call ourselves Democrats, liberals, progressives – we were out-organized, and Republicans did not accidentally find themselves controlling virtually the whole government apparatus of our nation. It happened as a function of their strategic plan.”
He pointed to Elizabeth Warren being cut-off while giving a speech on the Senate floor last year, and her having to comply with Republicans orders for her to “shut up and sit down” as an example of what little power Democrats have. The recent Republican budget that was approved was also a topic of content with King, mainly because of its failure to uphold DACA, and the amount of money going to the Department of Defense.
“They increased the D.O.D by nearly $200 billion and it was already $700 billion annually,” King explained. “So we’re now nearing, for the first time in American existence, where our defense budget is a trillion dollars per year…when you have a defense budget that is almost a trillion dollars, you almost have to go to war. You put yourself in the position where you’re spending so much money on weapons and systems that it’s almost irresponsible not to use them. To justify the budget, there almost has to be some use there and it gets to the fact that we have budgets on the national level and the state level that don’t actually reflect the priorities of the people.”
King referenced Bernie Sanders’ response to the bill when the senator mentioned that the U.S. defense budget is more than the next 13 countries combined. He also brought up the lack of spending on healthcare and education as well, pointing to the city of Baltimore as a particularly bad case.
“There’s a horrible corruption and police violence scandal right now of officers who have been caught planting evidence and making false arrests,” said King. “From 2000 to 2018, the budget for the Baltimore Police Department doubled from $200 million to $400 million. But from 2000 to 2018, the education budget stayed at $200 million. So every single year for 18 years, the budget for policing went up, up, up and up, yet the budget for education was completely stagnant, and then you wonder why you get the results you get.”
When advocating for criminal justice reform, Kings spoke of a personal experience when he moved to Irvine, California for a job years ago. Before the move, King and his wife were researching online to find the safest communities in southern California. They wanted their children to be in a safe environment, and Irvine turned out to be the best option.
After living there for almost three months, King found the city to be extremely safe, despite something he found quite shocking. He had not seen a single police car, or officer since moving to the city. It was not until his car was towed that he encountered any form of police presence for the first time. And even when he went to the police station, he said it was a “tiny office with only a few police cars.”
“What we learned is that Irvine was not safe because it had a robust police force,” King explained. “Irvine was safe because it had amazing schools, and everybody in Irvine had well-paying jobs. They had doctors’ offices and wonderful hospitals everywhere. There were farmers markets and grocery stores on every corner. There were parks all over the place. It was safe because it had all the things that build safety.
He then compared this method, to the way people in cities like Irvine try to build safer communities in more dangerous cities across America.
“They look at [dangerous cities], and they say ‘let’s make them safer by adding more police officers,’ when that’s not how they define safety for themselves,” said King. “Those communities have issues of safety because they have underdeveloped economic systems, health systems, food systems, and so they end up putting a Band-Aid on all of those problems by sending in more and more police.
Towards the end of the discussion, King took questions from the audience, which led him to the topic of workers’ rights. He circled back to his disappointment with the Democratic Party because of how they had failed workers.
When the Democratic Party abandoned workers’ rights and workers’ wages, it lost its authority,” King explained. “All of a sudden people in places like Michigan say ‘listen, I hate the Republican Party but the Democratic Party bailed on us a long time ago, and that’s a problem.”
King said this issue stems from electing leaders who do not have a connection to everyday people.
“You get politicians who have to talk about jobs that their grandfathers had and it’s tired,” said King. “Is your only connection to hard work what your grandfather did? Have you never done that yourself? A lot of working people feel homeless politically.
Professor Hosein was soon signaled to conclude the discussion, but King wanted an extra minute to explain why he was optimistic about the future.
“I would be despondent if I thought we had tried everything and failed,” said King. “If I thought we had given every fight, given it our absolute best, tried every angle and had organized people, energized people, we had a plan, we had money, and we still failed, I would be despondent. But I honestly only think that we have scratched the surface of our potential”
He went on to say that Donald Trump being elected president has put peoples’ backs against the wall and forced them to fight like they never have before.
“It’s caused us to put aside differences and figure out how to build a movement that actually makes change happen,” King said.
“Most of the change you will see comes from the ground up,” he said. “It will come from you.”
Jess DeWitt is a journalism student at Northeastern University and is a volunteer at Northeastern Crossing.