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DeRay Mckesson on Trump-era activism: “We can’t just be fighting the people in seats of power”

The activist discusses his new book.

DeRay Mckesson speaks onstage during the Essence Festival in New Orleans in July 2018.
Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Essence

“I never thought that in an American city in 2014 it would be illegal to stand still,” DeRay Mckesson writes in his new book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. Mckesson, an activist, is referring to the “five-second rule” — created and enforced by some police officers in mid-August 2014, days after protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.

The rule, which meant that no one could stay still in the streets for more than five seconds, was a tactic used to handle the massive group of protesters, and was later deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Protesting in Ferguson marked the beginning of Mckesson’s public involvement in activism. Starting in August 2014, it was his “role to record and interpret as much as possible,” which translated into his position as a Twitter activist documenting what was happening on the ground in St. Louis for the rest of the world — he now has more than a million followers — and a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter.

The protests sparked Mckesson’s commitment to activism. As a result of his role, he has been teargassed, sued by law enforcement, and surveilled by private companies hired by city governments, he writes. A movie theater was even evacuated after Mckesson received a death threat.

While perhaps best known as an activist for Black Lives Matter, Mckesson has also been an educator and a mayoral candidate for the city of Baltimore in 2016 — he finished sixth — and he currently hosts a podcast for Pod Save America’s media offshoot Crooked Media. His book is part manifesto, part memoir, and part guide to activism.

I spoke to Mckesson about his views on how to improve policing and his advice for a new generation of activists, among other topics.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Hope Reese

You write about the “five-second rule” as an example of how “law in practice is never neutral, that it can change at the whim of those in power.” How did you observe the law changing?

DeRay Mckesson

Most people don’t even remember the “five-second rule,” but for those of us who were there, it was a defining part of what that experience was like. It showed me how fragile all of this is — that literally in the middle of the night, the police made up a new rule, they enforced it vigorously, and we had to go to court to get it overturned. [It was called “unconstitutional” by a federal judge] three months later. What I’ve lived, and what I saw with my own eyes, is that laws can be changed at the whim of anybody in power. And that was real.

But if they can redo the tax code on the back of NAFTA, my takeaway is that we can actually do this stuff really quickly too. Part of the imagination and part of our work is to say, we should ask for all of it at once. We can end mass-incarceration in my lifetime — this doesn’t have to be a 60-year solution. We can actually move this pretty quickly, because I’ve seen them move other things pretty quickly as well.

Hope Reese

Before heading to Ferguson, you wrote about seeing differing narratives of what was going on there on TV versus what you saw on Twitter — and you wanted to see for yourself what was happening. Can you describe what it looked like when you got there? Which account was more representative?

DeRay Mckesson

Twitter was definitely the representative account. The first night I was in St. Louis, I was out on the streets and got tear-gassed. That changed everything. I guess I didn’t know. I had never been in a situation like that where there were just so many police. So many protesters saying to the police, “No, we’re not going to let you act like this didn’t happen; we’re not going to let you forget about it.” And that changed everything for me.

Hope Reese

Can you talk more about Twitter, as someone who recorded the events via Twitter throughout the protests and after? What can Twitter do for activists? What are its limitations?

DeRay Mckesson

I’ve seen the best and worst of Twitter. A person who was never permanently banned from the platform was banned for trying to arrange to have me killed. I’ve seen the power of Twitter to create space for people where it didn’t exist before. So all of those things have been really important in the way I think about the platform.

I think a few things: One, as somebody who has a big platform, I’m not convinced we’re designed to get that much feedback. The second is that it does allow us to build communities just that much quicker in a way that was impossible before. And the third is that the online work doesn’t replace the offline work, but complements it.

Hope Reese

What about the flip side? That Twitter is a platform used for organizing for white supremacists and Nazis?

DeRay Mckesson

You know, some of it is that bad people are coming to the platform — it’s not like the platform is making everybody bad. I do think it creates a system for [groups like] white supremacists who didn’t know each other before. Platforms like this allow them to build a community, and I think that is bad.

Creators need to understand their responsibility to ensure that their platforms aren’t places where those communities thrive. It’s still early in understanding the power of social media to change the world. I think that Twitter is probably a little bit better at it than Facebook, but all the platforms have a lot of work to do.

Hope Reese

You’ve invested a lot of time investigating what is happening in police departments across the country, trying to create transparency. In the book, you write that “policing, as we know it, is the wrong response to the challenges of conflicts that we experience.” Can you describe why it’s wrong and how we can address it?

DeRay Mckesson

Police continue to kill a lot of people. You think 100 ago, doctors were draining the blood out of people and calling that “health care.” That didn’t work. That was a bad solution to real problems around illness.

These police departments, we put a lot of money into them, and they are solving very little, if any, crimes, and they are inflicting pain and damaging communities. It’s not controversial to say those things are true. You think about a police department like Baltimore where they’re the eighth-largest police department in the country and have a whole lot of money and not a whole lot of results.

So the question becomes: What would it look like to invest that money into prevention? All these crimes of poverty we can impact; poverty is not a thing that has to exist. If anything, we should be figuring out how to police the white men who are walking into Madden tournaments and shooting people. That’s not a crime of poverty. That is depravity, and I don’t know what we’re doing about that at a system level, but we sure are locking up people for marijuana at a record level. We arrest more people for weed than all violent crimes combined.

I wanna believe we can think about a response to safety that doesn’t say people need to be in cages and that doesn’t criminalize people for being poor.

Hope Reese

How can the police begin to address the issue? Training, hiring? Culture change?

DeRay Mckesson

When there just is no accountability baked in, it doesn’t matter how well you train people if they know that if they do something different, they won’t be held accountable. Which is why we sent off police unit contracts and use-of-force policies — those really are the biggest levers. If you change the underlying structures of accountability, all the other stuff actually becomes important. But without changing the structure, the other stuff is just a dressing on a window.

Hope Reese

You’ve been an activist for Black Lives Matter since its inception — and over the last five years, there’s been a renewed interest in activism from a younger generation, like the Parkland activists. What advice do you have for people who are getting started doing this work?

DeRay Mckesson

The greatest challenge is that sometimes the system change isn’t as quick as you want it to be — which doesn’t mean that it’s not on the horizon. So when the work is hard, do the work. That has been true for me. If there’s anything I see people struggling with the most, it’s knowing that you have the permission and power to imagine. That you should be thinking about what a new system of safety looks like that isn’t the police. You should be thinking about how we can rethink public education.

All of you have the power to do that. You can put these things out into the public conversation. So much in the way people think about social action is about fighting against all the bad stuff. But once all the bad stuff ends, we still gotta build the good stuff.

Hope Reese

What does Black Lives Matter look like under the Trump administration?

DeRay Mckesson

When the protest began that birthed a movement in 2014, what we focused on were on issues of accountability, injustice — and most importantly in that moment, it was about awareness. How do we make sure people are talking about an issue they’d rather not talk about? I think we forced it. But it was in the context of an administration that was at least willing to be pushed — even if they didn’t always agree.

This administration just doesn’t care. I think there’s a big change happening in all of activism right before and after Trump. I supported Hillary [Clinton] publicly, and there are people who said we were sellouts for doing that. There are people who said that the president doesn’t make an impact on anybody’s life. But that was a wrong analysis. The president actually has a huge impact in ways that people hadn’t even considered before, and I think people see that [now].

We’ve seen a shift to more people saying we have to be as organized on the inside as we are on the outside. That that has to be important. That we can’t just be fighting the people in seats of power; we actually have to be the people in the seats of power.

Hope Reese

What’s a current issue that you don’t think is getting enough attention?

DeRay Mckesson

I think a lot of issues lack attention. Think about the racial wealth gap — it’s getting more public coverage than it’s ever gotten. But the questions about what we do about it are still not very public. Like, what are the myths and fallacies of about how to attack the racial wealth gap? I wish we had more conversations about that.

I also don’t think that we talk enough about oral health, especially in low-income communities and rural communities. And how do we fix foster care across the country? There’s no cure for lead, so how do we think about not just Flint, but all the communities like Flint that people don’t know about?

There is a laundry list of issues I think about often that we’ve not yet figured out how to address.

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @hope_reese.

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