Hundreds packed Northeastern University’s Blackman Auditorium last Friday to see political writer Shaun King speak about activism and the importance of dialogue. Free and open to the public as part of Northeastern Crossing’s Winter Gateway Series, the event brought out a melange of old and young, white and black—all there to hear what King had to say about the state of justice in the United States.
King has had a tumultuous ride to the peak of social visibility. As a justice writer for the New York Daily News, he became a fairly ubiquitous household name. His coverage of the 2014 shooting of Mike Brown on social media catapulted him into a realm with other top social justice voices, though controversy followed King after the abrupt 2015 dissolution of his anti-police brutality organization, Justice Together, as some former members questioned his mismanagement and lack of transparency. That same year, former Breitbart troll Milo Yiannopoulos called into question King’s biracial identity, while King also went toe to toe with fellow well known activist, Deray Mckesson.
Despite those and other accusations, which included charges that he stole academic work from fellow black femme activists, King has remained one of the most recognizable faces in his field. At Northeastern, he didn’t speak on any of the aforementioned controversies but instead focused on what people expected to hear him riff on—race, police brutality, and moving forward in a Trump era.
“There are four ways we make change happen,” King told the audience. “We need people. … We must be highly organized, with a comprehensive strategic plan. And we need a lot of money.”
Speaking about cops and communities, King noted the the word “safe” is often used as code in the description of cities and towns.
“Safe does not mean more law enforcement,” he said. “Safety is built by communal access to things like education, jobs, and healthcare.” Asked to elaborate, he continued, “White people’s definition of ‘safety’ is very different for themselves than for other populations. Lack of safety comes from underdeveloped economic systems and isn’t remedied by more law enforcement.”
The audience also seemed particularly interested in faith, given King’s religious background. One of the writer’s first ventures was building and running a church in Atlanta, while Christianity is often a hot topic of debate in the Black community.
“Faith has been at the heart of what we do, but it can be oppressive,” King told listeners. Oftentimes, he said, faith is used as a cover for white supremacy.
Speaking of white supremacy, Donald Trump’s presidency, which King has repeatedly criticized in his speeches and writing, inevitably came up. King reminded the crowd that the Democratic party’s unwillingness to take on worker rights and wage issues gave Trump an advantage in certain parts of the country. And while his election further polarized society, King said that it also “caused us to organize in a way that’s more intentionally intersectional.”
Toward the end of the discussion, King was asked about his feelings on our country’s future. Searching for answers, he quoted one of his great inspirations.
“James Baldwin said, ‘To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage,’” King said. “There’s a lot to be enraged about. … but I would be despondent if I thought we had tried everything and failed.”
Hope, King added, is the key to pushing forward and continuing the fight for social justice and inclusion.
“I think we’ve only just scratched the surface of our potential.”