If you see what’s happening today in America and do nothing, then you also likely would have done nothing during the Civil Rights Movement, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter told the University of Montana’s Black Solidarity Summit Sunday night.
“Where we are right now requires us to act,” said Shaun King, a columnist for The Intercept and writer-in-residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project. “If we are waiting for a hero figure to get us out of here, that’s not how this works.”
“We are in a dip in the quality of humanity right now,” he said. “Where we are is deeply problematic, historically problematic. In your gut, you know something is wrong with where we are as a country right now.”
And it won’t be easy to climb out of the abyss.
History shows that, “first and foremost,” it takes “a lot of effort to get out of these dips,” the former high school history teacher said. It can take years, or decades, even centuries. The toll can be overwhelming.
The Civil War took a million lives, King told more than 500 people gathered at the University Center, about equally divided among UM students and local citizens. The Civil Rights Movement took the lives of key American leaders.
And now? The United States has the world’s highest rate of imprisonment. Last year, 102 fully unarmed black American men, women and children were killed by police officers — a year in which the nation elected a white man president despite his verbal assaults on people of color, his verbal and alleged sexual assaults on women, his hostile treatment of immigrants and refugees, and his disrespect for a highly decorated and much-revered former prisoner of war.
King led his audience through the chain of events that led to what he sees as the current “dip,” warning that it could be decades, even centuries, before humans regain their compassion and decency.
His theory dates to 2014, when King realized that he and others “were up against something very different” in their campaign for justice for the 1,000 people killed that year by police.
“Not one officer was held accountable” for the deaths, he said. “0.0 percent.”
Not the officer who choked an unarmed Eric Garner to death. Not the officer who shot and killed John Crawford on an unfounded report of an active shooter in a Walmart toy aisle. Not the Ferguson, Missouri, officer who shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown.
“We had three, four, five people a day being killed by police,” King said. “We began organizing and protesting, and I looked these families in the eye and said they would have justice. Because I believed that if I gave something everything and surrounded myself with people who gave it everything, that we would succeed. I could not imagine that in every one of the cases there would be no justice.”
That same year, King took a mandatory class in historiography as part of his master’s degree requirements. That’s where he learned about the German professor Leopold Von Ranke, the father of the study of history. Others wrote about the past or talked about the past, but Von Ranke made it an academic discipline.
But what was most important about Von Ranke’s work was his assembling of the world’s first detailed timeline of history, and the unexpected trend he discovered.
Von Ranke created the timeline by collecting the stories of people from throughout history. Every hero. Every villain. His assumption was that human beings were getting better and better and better.
But that’s not what he found.
“Von Ranke had confused the steady improvement of technology with the steady improvement of humanity,” King said. “The gadgets were getting better — technology, systems of transportation, systems of medicine, systems of communication. But the people weren’t getting better.”
While a generation might live in peace in a world where people respected boundaries and their fellow human beings, subsequent generations would fall into a decline.
“It was always up and down,” King said. “Human beings never seemed to learn the lessons of previous generations.”
Von Ranke’s greatest fear was for the day when “technology was stellar and the people were horrible.”
And that, in King’s estimation, is where humanity finds itself today.
“How else do we explain 300 years of the slave trade? Or the Holocaust — millions of people snatched from their homes and killed? How else do we explain the Rwandan genocide — a million people hacked to death? Entire cities where nothing was left but bones?
“How else do we explain what happened last week in Florida? Is that our best? I’m not buying it, and you know who else isn’t buying it? The kids.”
“A man kicked out a window of a hotel in Las Vegas and shot 541 people, and what did we do about it?” he asked. “Nothing.”
Donald Trump’s election is a symptom of the “dip,” King said, not the cause. The country was already in the decline.
King’s expansion on Von Ranke’s theory holds that whenever a nation or a society introduces an innovation that disturbs the status quo, there is always a backlash.
The Civil War ended slavery as we knew it — the innovation, then came the backlash. Lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow.
Then came the Civil Rights Act — the innovation, and the backlash, devised by Richard Nixon’s henchmen, who feared Republicans would never win another election after the Civil Rights Movement succeeded.
“What can we do to criminalize blackness?” they asked. “What laws currently exist that we could apply only to African-Americans? And what new laws can we create, only to apply to blacks?”
Their answer, King said. “The War on Drugs, a campaign designed to criminalize an entire race of people, black people.”
Before 1974, the U.S. prison population never exceeded 200,000. With the War on Drugs came an explosion of selective arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments, until that population hit 1.5 million in 2014.
“We don’t have a broken justice system,” King said. “We have a justice system intended to criminalize an entire race.” No other country incarcerates so many people.
King recently initiated a new effort to elect progressives to the nation’s 2,400 county prosecutor posts, an attempt to reduce the targeted prosecution of blacks and the overall U.S. prison population
The most recent innovation in America that sparked a backlash? The election of President Barack Obama.
“We have 43 white male presidents, and then we get real innovative,” King said. “We elect a black man, one of the most unique men in the history of America, a black man whose story is like no other. And the backlash begins.”
Obama’s election “irritated a lot of people,” he said. “But it irritated one man in particular — Donald Trump.” And thus began Trump’s attempt to discredit Obama by claiming he was not an American.
“The whole thing was a farce,” King said. “But for eight years in a row, hate crimes in American increased, and they continued to increase last year. All because after 43 white men, we elected a black man as our president.”
Thus King’s call to action as he travels the country — to 35 states so far and 100 college campuses — and his frequent criticism of the Democratic Party for what he sees as inaction and incompetence. Progressives have fared no better — “we’re just a bunch of broke, hopeful people.”
To make change happen, King said, you must organize a group of people, energize those people, devise a comprehensive plan, and raise a significant amount of money.
The National Rifle Association understands and achieves those four elements, he said. “They are amazingly successful at what they do.”
The needed change must start locally, King said, and it’s in America’s towns and on college campuses that he sees the most reason for hope.
“It’s not going to happen on the national level, and maybe not even on the state level,” he said. “It has to start right here.”
King’s talk was the culmination of a weekend-long summit celebrating the 50th anniversary of UM’s Black Studies program and Black Student Union, the third-oldest in the United States.
Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist who writes occasional stories for Missoula Current, where this story originally appeared.