Shaun King, Edwin Lindo and Tamika Mallory live out dissent every day.
The three activists, educators and thought leaders spoke to what King called the “disturbing and problematic” state of the United States at the 10:45 a.m. morning lecture Wednesday, July 25, in the Amphitheater.
King moderated the Week Five panel on “The Ethics of Dissent.” King is one of the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement through his active social media presence, which he uses to highlight and discuss injustices. He is also a columnist at The Intercept; co-founder of Real Justice PAC; chief executive officer of TwitChange and HopeMob; and author of The Power of 100!: Kickstart Your Dreams, Build Momentum, and Discover Unlimited Possibility.
He opened the conversation by citing two studies; the first about the correlation between mirror neurons, race and violence.
King said the study involved having white and black people watch the 1991 video of the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. The results concluded that when black people watched the video, fear, anger and sadness receptors in their brains lit up. In white people, these receptors were not as active.
“When African-Americans watched that video two times, five times, 20 times, their brain looked just like it did the first time,” King said. “But after about three times watching it, there was virtually no brain activity lighting up for the white folk who watched the video. It didn’t mean that they no longer cared, but this is where mirror neurons come into play.”
According to the American Psychological Association, mirror neurons are neurons that equally fire in the brain when humans perform an action or observe another human performing that action.
“The study showed that when you see something and believe that that could happen to you, your brain responds in one kind of way,” King said. “But when you see some type of injustice or horror or trauma and begin to understand, ‘Yes, that’s awful, but it will probably never happen to me,’ those parts of your brain are no longer activated.”
King referenced another recent study, where researchers studied the mental health consequences of police brutality. In particular, they compared the number of sick days people took off of work as a result of police violence.
Over 30 percent of African-Americans between 2014 and 2017, King said, took one or more days off of work following direct experience with racial violence or trauma from events that happened to others across the country.
After the video of Minnesota police shooting and killing Philando Castile surfaced, King said, thousands of African-Americans took the next day off of work — nearly zero percent of white people had taken days off because of the impact of racial violence. King clarified that this response doesn’t mean white people weren’t bothered.
“It is clearly neurologically, biologically, emotionally — one group appears to be more significantly bothered than the other,” King said. “And I say that to say that what I do and what … we do every day, we do for many reasons, but I know we do for at least two: out of love for our people, and we do it even out of a place of pain, trauma.”
King turned to Mallory and Lindo and asked why they continue to fight, despite the death threats, jail time, criticism and abuse.
“I ask myself that all the time, I really do,” Mallory said. “Sometimes I wake and I need to know why can’t I just stop. I can’t.”
Mallory is the co-president of the Women’s March board and an Obama administration advocate for civil rights, gender equality and health care. She served as the youngest-ever executive director for National Action Network and has since founded a strategic planning firm, Mallory Consulting.
However, she is most proud of her role in creating the Crisis Management System, a community-based effort to stop gun violence in New York City that awards $20 million to violence intervention organizations annually.
The effort hits close to home. Her son’s father was shot and killed 17 years ago. Her son was 2 years old at time. Mallory said she was embarrassed by the situation. She felt judged by her family for getting pregnant at 17 and getting involved with a man who “went out and got killed.”
Over time, she received phone calls from sympathetic relatives and friends who unpacked their shared experiences of losing loved ones to gun violence. Mallory realized that all the stories sounded the same.
“It came to me one day that it was not me that needed to be embarrassed — that America had a problem in terms of turning a blind eye to the issues that black people are dealing with in this country,” she said. “… America should be embarrassed about the number of black men who are dropping, dying at the hands of guns.”
Mallory’s work with the Crisis Management System led her to see victims and shooters as equals — both were hurting — and to see that addressing the root of shooters’ pain could stop gun violence. Her determination was an effort to save her son from his father’s fate.
“It is very personal for me. It is not something I can turn off as it is my lived experience,” she said. “I am not telling you a story of someone else; I am telling you my story, that my son’s father was shot twice and left in a ditch for two weeks before his body was discovered. That’s my story, and it happened because the system failed him. … People say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ but there are no boots. We need boots.”
King said he also works to better the lives of his children. He then turned to Lindo.
A social justice scholar and advocate fighting against economic, racial and education oppression, Lindo was one of five activists who participated in an 18-day hunger strike to protest the murders of men of color in San Francisco; he also spent three months at Standing Rock organizing efforts to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. Lindo also worked for the Seattle Peoples Party and taught at the University of Washington School of Law.
Lindo is a new father himself. His daughter, Estella, was born Aug. 21, 2017 — the day of the solar eclipse.
“On Aug. 21, in the South, when Nat Turner was praying right before the rebellion, he asked God, ‘Give me a sign. Give me a sign that this is the rebellion that I need to enter for my life.’ And there was a solar eclipse,” Lindo said. “… My daughter is connected to (that). But that says to me that my responsibility is to stop negotiating with injustice.”
A lawyer himself, Lindo knows the importance of negotiation in society, he said, but “there is no middle ground between justice and injustice. There is no gray area.”
“If the negotiation is between ‘stop killing us,’ I don’t know what the other option is — kill us less?” Lindo said. He then paraphrased Malcolm X: “I can’t thank you for putting a knife in my back 9 inches … and say thank you for pulling it out 6 (inches). It’s still 3 inches in.”
For Lindo, the fight for equality is a “protracted struggle” that he, Mallory and King are a small part of. He said his daughter may not ever get to walk down the street and feel safe, but maybe his grandchildren or his daughter’s grandchildren will.
Lindo grew up being afraid of flashing lights and was taught the protocol for what to do if he was ever pulled over. The murder of Alejandro “Alex” Nieto pushed Lindo into activism.
Nieto was a licensed security guard with a taser in his holster, Lindo said, who was eating a burrito at the top of a hill when police were dispatched to the area after someone called 911, claiming “there was a Mexican with a gun.” The police fired 59 bullets; 14 hit Nieto.
That could have been Lindo, he said, and had he been at the top of that hill, his law degree couldn’t stop the bullets; no number of degrees could have stopped 59 bullets.
“This is draining work,” Lindo said. “There are times when I lay in my bed paralyzed because I don’t know if I can keep doing this. What else can I do? I literally didn’t eat for 18 days — I lost 25 pounds in 18 days. … What are we willing to sacrifice? Because I think once we find what we’re willing to sacrifice, we find what we’re willing to live for.”
After applause, King switched gears to talking about white privilege.
“Privilege functions in a way that when you have it, you rarely understand that you have it,” King said. “It functions in some ways in a visible type of way where you benefit from privileges in society that you don’t even know are there. You just go about your daily life.”
“White privilege” has a negative connotation; when people hear the phrase, he said, they often think it denotes a lack of hard work. King described his white mother, who worked in a lightbulb factory and how she shed pounds of weight working in the heat.
When King tried to explain white privilege to his mother, she thought he was discrediting her work.
“White privilege is the reality that the factory didn’t even hire black people — that she had a job black people weren’t even getting,” he said. “… She was in a factory that was completely inaccessible to people of color.
“That’s white privilege.”
King referenced James Forman Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and law professor at Yale Law School. In May 2018, a black graduate student at Yale fell asleep in a student lounge. When she woke up, she was surrounded by police; a white student had called campus security.
For days after that, Forman attempted to comfort black students who felt violated, with some threatening to leave the school. While all of this was happening, the white professors continued teaching, unphased by the atrocity.
“That’s white privilege,” King said.
What question does King get the most from white people? “Shaun, what can I do?” he said.
“I’m glad you are asking that question,” King said. “I’m concerned that you think asking the question is good enough. And it’s not. It’s just not.”
Lindo read an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice. … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
White privilege is like a moving walkway at the airport, Lindo said. White privilege is getting on the walkway and turning to a black person walking the long hallway beside the walkway and saying, “I’m with you. I support you.”
“Acts of silence, acts of omission, acts of division, especially throughout history, are actually acts of detrimental harm for people of color, typically black folks,” he said, “because unless we are certainly moving towards rectifying the evils and injustices of this country, it’s going to continue to exponentially get worse.”
Lindo asked the audience if they would let their children, if they had the chance, relive their lives as black people.
“In your mind, if the answer is (no), then what you are telling me and yourself is that you know how bad it is, that you wouldn’t even want your child to go through (it),” he said. “So why are we letting other children go through it? Why are we allowing kids to get murdered in the street and be undereducated?”
In Seattle, the city is building a new, $233-million detention center for 55 youth, Lindo said. If the city invested that money in programming and education, there would be no youth crime, he added — that shows the priorities of institutions.
“Some people say, ‘What does that have to do with me, with Chautauqua?’ ” he said. “What we are talking about is these issues are bound to each other. The black youth in Seattle, Washington, is the black youth that is connected to someone in New York. … Back to the (mirror neuron) study, if you see dramatic imagery, it kills you. … Racism kills. It gets into your DNA.”
Mallory said the Women’s March was an example of white privilege. Many women of color backed out of the march, she said, after 53 percent of white women voted for President Donald Trump in November 2016 — and then turned out in droves for the march.
Mallory said those women of color who chose not to march said: “No, this feminism thing has been nothing but abusive to us. It is dangerous for us, we don’t want to participate in it. Everytime we work with white women, they work with us on what helps them, and then they leave us. They never stay to deal with deep issues and concerns of our community, and we refuse to step into this perceived unity.’”
While white women were concerned with reproductive rights, Mallory tirelessly tried to explain that, for women of color, the fight is over life or death.
“Actually for us, as black people, having children is not even an option, getting pregnant is not even an option in some of our communities because we have gun violence, we have poverty, we have all types of social causes including health conditions that make it almost impossible for us to get pregnant, and then getting an abortion is an expense we really cannot even manage,” Mallory said. “So while you are trying to protect your right to choose, I’m trying to get the right to even have a choice.”
White privilege, Mallory said, is not knowing about Nia Wilson, the 18-year-old whose neck was slashed by a white man while waiting on a Oakland train platform; or the unprovoked, violent arrest of Chikesia Clemons at a Waffle House in Saraland, Alabama, when a white waitress called the police after Clemons questioned why she had to pay an extra 50 cents for plastic utensils.
“Stop policing folks of color,” Lindo said. “Stop policing folks of color because what happens is we’re not only then becoming afraid of the police, we now see you as deputized officers that are trying to monitor our behavior. That is not the relationship we want to have.”
King said his hobby is “exposing” people who called the police on innocent black people for no apparent reason other than their skin color, like Alison Ettel, who called the police on a young black girl selling water on a San Francisco sidewalk.
“When you call the police,” King said, “it’s not just a nuisance. You are putting people’s lives at risk.”
With the lecture nearing its end, Chautauqua Institution Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt asked the panelists what set of principles guide their work.
“I think, for me, one of the principles I try to follow is not to be judgmental about how people are practicing whatever dissent they engage in,” Mallory said.
For her, the mode of dissent is less important as long as it is effective in that community.
Lindo had two principles: to keep marginalized groups at the center of any social movement because those closest to the issue know what will work; and that non-black or non-native people should be thankful for the grace and patience marginalized groups have shown them.
“I have a principle,” King said. “I would rather be clumsily moving in the right direction than later on regret not trying.”