History Of Humanity
King Brings Black Lives Matter To Chautauqua Institution
CHAUTAUQUA — The morning lecture at Chautauqua Institution was a little more different than usual.
However, Shaun King, Black Lives Matter activist and writer, is not a typical Chautauqua guest speaker. King is a social media mover and shaker, a voice for a protest movement focused around police brutality and discrimination and a senior justice writer at the New York Daily News.
His credentials were lengthy, and his audience was captivated.
To start with, King didn’t take the traditional Chautauqua podium, but rather paced the stage.
He said he wanted to share a lesson he learned that has helped him understand what he has seen happening in the country currently, and wanted to do so with the help of a man named Leopold von Ranke, known as the “father of history” who first attempted to put together a chronological timeline of human history in the 1800s.
“I know you know this, and it does not come as a surprise to you, but there is a lot of really crazy stuff going on in America right now,” King said. “I know none of you are going, ‘What? Really?’ It is now common knowledge that we are in a deeply problematic point in our country, and I want to unpack some of that.”
King said he received the lesson from von Ranke during a class in college that he originally wanted to drop. In Spring 2015, he was in the midst of a masters of history program and signed up for Introduction to Historiography, which was a required course. However, King said he was not interested in taking the course after a few weeks in. Yet, when he went to drop the class, the only other class available was something like “advanced badminton,” he said.
“So, he was stuck with me and I was stuck with him,” King said about von Ranke.
Previously, he had been an activist, but later drifted away from it. King had a wife and a family and a job commute that allowed him to see the ocean. He wasn’t thinking about activism or police brutality at that time.
However, he received an email from a friend saying that something terrible had happened in New York City along with a link to a video. The friend explained that a middle-aged black man was being harassed by the police after he asked them to leave him alone. The man was unarmed and non-violent, but all of a sudden an officer came up behind the man and begins choking him, his friend wrote, King recalled.
“He wrestles the man to the ground and you could hear the man scream out over and over again, ‘I can’t breathe,” King said. “(My friend) said ‘Shaun, the guy dies right there on the sidewalk after being choked to death by an officer.”
King said he had previously protested issues of police brutality, but he had never seen it as he did that day on Youtube. He said as he clicked on the link, he thought that maybe his friend had left something out of the story.
“The man must have done something,” King said. “There must be a missing link to the story, like a missing part I’m not understanding.”
Afterward, he started becoming aware of other similar cases. He mentioned seeing similar videos of other cases, including the death of Michael Brown.
“Then I learned, as most of America learned and as most of my friends learned, that police in America were not killing people every two or three weeks, it was not even every two or three days – it was every three or four hours,” King said. “So I joined the protest movement that started forming of people slamming up against police brutality.”
He thought if there were protests, and if people were made aware of the injustice, something would be done about the problem and someone would be held accountable. Yet, King said it was not so. Rather, he felt like he fought very hard for the cause but had not seen his efforts come to fruition. In this state of mind, he came into the historiography class and was faced with von Ranke.
“And I was like, ‘Man, what in the hell do you have to say to me?” King said.
Yet, what he ended up learning from von Ranke ended up making the whole class worthwhile. Von Ranke attempted to put together a linear history of human kind, but in his efforts, noticed a certain trend. King said while most people assume that humankind gets better over time, in reality, that is not true. Rather, technology improves over time, but humanity is much less predictable. There are periods of greatness, and what King calls “dips.”
“If that’s us in the top right hand corner, that would mean, I guess, that Donald Trump is peak humanity,” he said. “It’s a joke that just tells itself, right?”
To prove that humanity is not constantly getting better, he showed diagrams of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade ships with people in every square inch of space available. The diagrams were not artistic renderings, but rather a purposefully drawn out map in order to use all available space to transport slaves.
“How do we explain this if we are constantly getting better?” King asked. “In history, that was just yesterday.”
He also showed photos of the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. King said technology such as cell phones and other gadgets are rapidly changing, but the quality of humanity is not following the same trend.
King then showed the crowd videos of recent incidents involving police and African Americans which drew gasps from the crowd.
“It’s deeply emblematic and symbolic of the time we’re living in,” he said. “We are living in a dip in the quality of humanity.”
King said dips happen such as these because there is an introduction of an innovation that disturbs the power structure of a country. He said he believes there were three main innovations that caused dips in American history: the Emancipation Proclamation, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and the election of President Barack Obama.
“If anything, you have to admit, historically it was innovative,” King said. “Guess what — it really disturbed people in power. Do you know who particularly it disturbed? The current American president.”
He said if such a radical change hadn’t been made, there was no way that President Trump would have been elected.