Originally posted on Facebook on June 17, 2020; edited to embed links (originally posted in comments, to accommodate Facebook algorithms).
So… can we talk about Shaun King?
Maybe it’s old news and we’ve moved on — but I think if we don’t pause for a minute to talk about Shaun King, we’re never going to learn from The Problem of Shaun King.
For those of you who missed it: on Memorial Day, the day before George Floyd’s murder took the world by storm, a(nother) expose was published about Shaun King’s financial malpractice and organizational malfeasance. The nutshell version is that Shaun King is not accountable to anything except his own ego. This was not new news, but his failures reasserted themselves, so it was worth reporting.
Also on Memorial Day, I posted something short in honor of Kalief Browder’s birthday, suggesting bail fund donations as a memorial and explaining that his story helped transform me from a reformer to an abolitionist. I’ve been reading in that space for a few years now, pretty seriously in the last year, but I’m pretty sure it was the first time I called myself that on social media and it felt like a kind of coming out, a grandiose claim sure to be filed away as just some more Quirky Isa Shit, like foraging or extreme semicolon use. But a little over three weeks later abolition is the theme of the moment and to see a position that until *very* recently was considered fringe absurdism suddenly become a popular hashtag has been WILD, and in the best way possible. And I’m still very much a novice at all this and nothing that I’m saying here is meant to call anyone out or to gatekeep (I mean “gatekeeping abolition” wtf), but the rush from there to here has been so fast that I want to offer an invitation towards understanding what was problematic about the “there” that we have so quickly left behind.
Which means: we need to talk about Shaun King.
In order to talk about Shaun King I’m first going to talk about something completely different, though. Recently Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell posted an excellent essay about something she called “coronagrifting,” which is to say, designers creating utterly impractical but cool-looking “solutions” to the challenges of pandemic life from which they might cash in — for instance, hanging clear plastic cones to use at restaurants; they look cooler than a pane of plastic at the table but they also make the physical act of eating incredibly awkward, they’re an obvious acoustical nightmare, and cleaning them would be obnoxious as fuck. And while her essay is a very useful indictment of the idea of “paper architecture” (designs which are never meant to be realized but only to impress the design media) and the media which enables it, she leaves out the fact that a lot of this stuff doesn’t, actually, just exist on paper. It gets built. It gets tried. It fails, because of course it does, because “looking cool on paper” does not make up for being poorly thought out at bottom — but it got funded in the first place because it was a response to a crisis, usually involving people of color. And in a crisis, well-intentioned rich people, usually white, fund a lot of stupid shit that doesn’t actually help anybody (especially people of color).
There’s a lot of examples I could point to here (and architectural tours of the post-Katrina Lower Ninth illustrate the concept all too clearly) but the one I was most attached to, even as I wrote essays and tweets and jokes excoriating the others, was Architecture for Humanity, a San Francisco-based nonprofit led by a charismatic man named Cameron Sinclair. When I wanted to be an architect, when I applied to grad schools in architecture, it was with the goal of working there, of being his successor; his public acclaim was built on swooping into crisis zones, like post-earthquake Haiti, and replacing cheap, scalable, effective — but boring — solutions with cool-looking experiments (which typically failed). I could, and regularly did, critique such practice when deployed by others, but somehow, whenever AfH was involved, my judgment disappeared, and I wanted to do that stupid shit myself.
Architecture offers a useful example here because the mechanism by which we are fooled is so blatant — shit looks cool! Cool shit is good! Let’s do the cool shit! — but the same principle operates throughout so many different arenas. The umbrella term for it is technocratic solutionism, the idea that, rather than investing in people and relationships, we can find our salvation in design tinkering, whether that design is for an actual physical object (as in architecture) or in a social system (eg welfare means-testing). It is, invariably, small in its ambition (though it is often billed as world-changing), less-than-effective in its outcome, massively overhyped, overfunded, and a distraction from real, deep work.
And you might be wondering, at this point, what the fuck does any of this have to do with Shaun King?, and the answer is that Shaun King is technocratic solutionism, the Cameron Sinclair of racial justice: small in his ambition (though often billed as world-changing), less-than-effective in outcome, massively overhyped, overfunded, and a distraction from real, deep work. And again: I’m not saying anything that’s new, that Black women/femmes and Black queer/trans activists and organizers haven’t been saying for years. But what’s noteworthy now is not what Shaun King has gotten away with, but rather how he has been able to get away with it, because these are habits of white supremacy that run deep in movement work and they stand in the way of abolition so let’s learn to recognize them.
He’s small in his ambition (though often billed as world-changing): what Shaun King asks for is, basically, prosecuting killer cops. He frames this as “justice.”
He’s less-than-effective in outcome: Police killings have not declined, even when killer cops are prosecuted.
Massively overhyped: Prior to the recent protests, how many other Black movement leaders did you know by name?
Overfunded: Holy *shit* this guy can raise money. He’s scarily good at it. I am pretty sure that I have accidentally donated to him in the past (I know I’ve had to unsubscribe from his mailing list more than once…)
And a distraction from real, deep work: Shaun King is not, despite his bandwagoning, an abolitionist. And his work gets in the way of abolition.
Shaun King is, rather, much like Architecture for Humanity and the coronagrifters out there, a solutionist pose, jumping from crisis to crisis in order to build his own reputation and dodge accountability. Crises provide the perfect cover for lack of accountability; the obvious demand of their urgency means that we’re all itching to act, and any action becomes a good action if it did *something* rather than nothing. But what if that something was just to retrench the system which led to the crisis in the first place? Ah, well, no time to think this through, it’s time for another crisis again!
Shaun King’s political action committee is literally named the Action PAC. His valorization of action is easily seen as a demonstration of just how deep the need for racial justice really is — that’s precisely how many of his donors and supporters have viewed it over the years — but the reality is that it’s a manifestation of one of the fundamental roadblocks to abolition. Shaun King has succeeded because he’s really good at drawing attention to things, and we live in an attention economy. But abolition — unflashy, accountable, relational, slow abolition — cannot be accomplished in an attention economy; abolition demands that we transition to an economy of relationship, an economy rooted in deep accountability.
And this is challenging, because for many of us, urgency is a way of signaling our commitment. The violence against Black lives is so extreme that if we do not act immediately then we might not believe our actions even matter. But consider what radicalized you; because I would politely suggest that it was not, in fact, the video of George Floyd’s murder. Because yes, eight minutes is a long time to witness such violence, but so is four hundred years. And while there is nothing new about the violence done to George Floyd there is something new about our world in pandemic, and so I would politely suggest that you have not been radicalized by violence. You have been radicalized by stillness.
It is with stillness that we can be deliberate, and afraid of nothing.
It is with stillness that we can transcend our ego and our shame and orient ourselves towards the deep accountability of transformative justice, and towards abolition.
I am not saying that we should not act, but rather, that abolition demands a commitment to discernment, to understanding the distinction between deliberation and distraction. Because otherwise abolition is all too easily co-opted and reduced to something palatable, as has been widely seen on social media: “Defund the police just means let police do their *real* jobs, and invest in services to do the rest!” — but, as Mariame Kaba pushed back in her NYT editorial, “abolish the police” does, in fact, mean what it says. It doesn’t happen immediately or all at once, but neither can we mistake the steps of harm reduction for the goal itself. And technocratic solutionism — and our distracted rush to accommodate it — often leads to that exact outcome.
Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates was a guest on Ezra Klein’s podcast. They talked about abolition and nonviolence. TNC described Black people’s deep distrust of police, and how, in his old neighborhood in Harlem, they lived across the street from a bar, where things would sometimes get tense — but invariably, instead of the police being called, a neighbor, typically an older man, would come out and defuse the situation. Ezra responded by sharing his own recent experience in his neighborhood in San Francisco, when he walked past two unhoused people in conflict on his street. He didn’t call the cops, because he didn’t want to create more violence; “but I wish there was someone I could call,” he said.
Do you see the vast gulf between those two experiences? A Black man described a conflict in which neighbors, members of the same Black community, took the initiative — and had the recognized authority within their community — to de-escalate tense moments. And a white man responded: “I wish there was someone I could call.”
Where does the cultural pathology lie, truly?
The vision of abolition is not that we should rebrand SWAT as the Social Worker Action Team. Our welfare system is itself a source of violence, less lethal than the police but a form of policing nonetheless, which often leads to involvement in the criminal justice system, which often destroys families and communities, which functions as a form of surveillance and a projection of white supremacist authority. “Nonlethal crisis response” is important harm reduction, but it’s a first step, not a just destination — and if we make it out to be so, in order to persuade those nice white ladies who, gosh, have just never really thought of this kind of thing before, then we have again fallen prey to the technocratic solutionism of white supremacy, to privileging palatability to whiteness ahead of actual Black lives.
We want to make this simple. It’s not. Angela goddamn Davis has not devoted decades of her life to this work because “It’s just about investing in services.” It is, in fact, about understanding what accountability really means, about how very profoundly most of us are lacking it in our relationships, and about weaving it into the fabric of society at every level so that we are no longer compelled by the idea of outsourcing conflict resolution (which *is* relationship), but capable of practicing it ourselves. It is about understanding the myriad and constantly-mutating ways that white supremacy, patriarchy, cisheternormativity, ableism, capitalism, and other oppressions conspire to devalue accountability and allow us to dodge our responsibility to one another. It is about unlearning the shame of being “wrong” so that we can grow together, building something durable and resilient and just, rather than lurching from crisis to crisis. It is about transforming harm and trauma into a better future, and it is fucking hard.
Kalief Browder’s story brought me into abolition, but I also came into this work because of the death of my grandmother. She was not a radical — she was very much one of those nice white ladies who probably never thought about abolishing the police — but after she died I had to find a way to exist in the world without the one person who had been my most consistent source of emotional safety, my most regular home. What I have discovered in the past four years is that I do not need to outsource it; I do not need anyone to call. We can build safety within ourselves. We can offer that safety to others too. And we must, because if we believe that our safety can only be found within relationships and systems as they presently exist, then we will cling to those relationships and those systems regardless of the harm they cause and the oppressions they perpetuate. And while we talk about white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy and other oppressions as abstract structures the truth is that the harms they cause are concrete and specific and embedded in relationships, and that is where we must approach them and repair them; not as ideas in the ether but as real-life people we have hurt.
And therein lies the challenge of abolition, but also the beauty of it. Because the action it asks of us is rarely the heroism peddled by Shaun King or deployed by technocratic solutionism or lionized by Hollywood (is there a superhero out there whose power is stillness?) — yes, protesting matters, and organizing around your city budget to defund the police matters, and organizing to disarm the police and to get police out of schools and to decriminalize pretexts for policing all matter, and they will all continue to matter for months and years, for the rest of all of our lives, because this work is finished in none of our lifetimes. But the most demanding work of abolition is building structures of care and accountability in our communities, in our own networks and relationships, wherever they may be; this is the very heart of all the organizing mentioned above. Because a world without police might seem improbable and out of reach, but what about a world where you or I or Ezra Klein could see our unhoused neighbors and not wonder who to call but rather say “Hey, friend, how can I help you?” — a world where we have built that relationship over time, where we trust each other and trust ourselves enough to connect in meaningful and accountable ways?
That is the world we must build, as vital to ending policing as defunding. It is not an intellectual exercise but a lived practice and it is as close at hand as an apology, as an introduction, as a conversation that we’ve been avoiding; it is as near as our grief, and in stillness we can see it so much more easily. What we have been sold by Shaun King is the grift of white supremacist capitalism, the ego-driven assurance that we can be saved by so much *doing*; what abolition offers us instead is an honest and vulnerable turning towards each other, because justice and liberation come not from outsourcing our interdependence but only ever from the safety and care that we create together.
Forget paper architecture. Let’s build something real.