DeRay Mckesson stands as the most recognizable name and face of Black Lives Matter. This decentralized movement has evolved over the past two years and continues to grow increasingly visible. Tensions between these protesters and police have obviously run high throughout the country, and civil unrest has — time and time again — followed incidents of police brutality being brought to light via modern technology and the internet. Most people watched these events unfold on television from the comfort of their living rooms, but Mckesson (and others like him) have placed themselves on the front lines in an effort to try to bring about some form of change.
Mckesson made the switch from observer to protester in August 2014 following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He’s been a staple at similar protests around the country, including his native Baltimore, in response to Freddie Gray‘s killing. The movement’s end goal is seemingly simple — for law enforcement to stop killing the unarmed citizens it’s tasked with protecting — but it remains elusive.
In addition to being an activist, Mckesson’s also an educator and a storyteller. As you can probably imagine, his life these days is a busy one, but when we asked him to speak with us about Black Lives Matter, current events, and a few other random subjects, like his love of spaghetti, he happily obliged.
Don’t worry, I won’t ask about your signature vest because I know you hear that question a lot.[Laughter] (Editor’s note: Mckesson has previously stated that the vest makes him “feel safe.”)
What inspires you to devote your life to activism, day after day?
There are so many incredible activists, organizers, and protesters across the country, and I’m inspired by them every time we work together. I think about the jail cell in Baton Rouge. You know, in the cell for those 17 hours, it was powerful to be with people who were understanding their own power and their own voice in a different way for the first time. And it’s those moments that remind me most that we have so much work to do, but there are people committed to do this work. And I think all of this, the last two years have been a question and a test that we can organize, that the movement has proven that we can mobilize, proven that we can activate. But can we offer a different type of model of organizing? I think that is the question we are posed with at this moment.
This summer has been extraordinary on several levels. Do you ever feel discouraged or even depressed?
There’s a real question of “What does it mean to continue this work in the face of seeming defeat?” I am mindful that it is often times not quick work to change systems’ structures as large as the ones we’re trying to change. And I say that as someone who has worked on the outside and someone who has worked on the inside. As a public schools administrator in two large districts, I understand how sometimes change is slower than would we would like to move through vast organizations. And as somebody who has worked on the outside, I also understand … I guess as an after-school provider, as a teacher, and a community organizer, that we have to put the pressure on some structures to change, and the pressure can’t let up. I’m not discouraged by the fact that some of the trauma continues. It does make this work even more urgent for me and some of the other people.
In light of the violence that’s been perpetrated against past U.S. civil rights leaders, combined with right-wing media portraying BLM as a subversive group that’s hurtful to the country, do you fear for your safety at all?
I know that people want us to be too afraid to act, and I will never be afraid to tell the truth. I’ve had a movie theater evacuated because I’ve received a death threat. I received a death threat against my family and myself, recently. The FBI has visited my house. So, I think about it, but I will not let it change my commitment to this work.
You’re very present on social media. I have to admit enjoying those Twitter moments where you express excitement over your next haircut or having pizza for dinner. Is the mundane aspect of these tweets intentional?
You know, so many of the things that I’m passionate about are justice and equality and equity. I also need to get my haircut. I like pizza and spaghetti … I love spaghetti. I haven’t had spaghetti in awhile! I mean, whatever. I talk about the things that are important to me. I do think about Twitter as the friend who’s always awake, and that means I talk about a range of things because I’m a whole person.
Ryan Lochte has obviously been in the news of late. His Rio robbery tale was punctuated with the IOC excusing him as being “a kid.” You tweeted about this as an example of “textbook white privilege.” Can you elaborate?
I mean, he lied, right? And that is without question, he lied. And it is the privilege of whiteness that a lie becomes embellishment. And that he gets a major network with a major anchor, [who] allows him to apologize. Not to apologize for being “a kid,” which is essentially the tone with which he provided the apology, if you can call it that.
And we juxtapose that to kids like Tamir Rice, legitimately a child, treated as if he was an adult by police and then in the public sphere by some. Think about Mike Brown, who was a teenager. People say that he looked like an adult. Ryan Lochte is 32 years old. It is unquestionable that he’s an adult, and he still is allowed — even though there is a lot of attention on him — there’s still this narrative, like, “Oh well, he just made a mistake.” He chose to tell something that isn’t true. That is a lie.
There’s a reminder that the writers of history can twist the narrative. Do you ever worry that the Black Lives Matter movement and the events it has protested will be rewritten and its motivations misrepresented?
I think that we have to be mindful of telling our own story. I don’t have as much time to write as I wish I did, but I’m mindful that it’s important that we correct narratives. I think about that even with the narrative of the beginning. There was no one, two, or three people that founded the movement. That in the unrest in St. Louis on August 9, people came out of their homes because Mike’s body was laying in the street for 4 1/2 hours. And they refused to be silenced, and that was the beginning of what spread across the country. And there was no organization that did that … It was the collective power of people who came outside, and there was the myth of the “founding” that happened. It is more powerful to remember that people came together and collectively made this moment. Yes, we need to be mindful of being truth tellers ourselves so that other people don’t rewrite history.
You’re an activist and an educator, but do you see yourself as a journalist?
I think that so much of, some of, the act of being a protester is also about bearing witness. It is about being present. Experiencing things and then telling people what you experienced, and that is for all of us in protests. In that sense, some people call it journalism, some people call it storytelling, some people call it testimony, but no matter what you call it, that is inherent in the act of protest. We are taking a stand, and we are telling people about that, and we are saying, “Here is, as a person or as a collective, is what we’ve experienced.” Because we know that in sharing those stories, other people begin to understand the world differently.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
That I’m part of some conspiracy to cause martial law … I think some people think that when I was running for mayor, some people were like, “He isn’t even from Baltimore,” which isn’t true. I was born and raised in the city. Or people who act as if the first time I’ve ever done organized movement was in Ferguson, which isn’t a bad thing, right? There were so many people that the movement created the first wave, that they became organizers, and that’s important. But I was a teacher, I worked in public school districts, opened up an after-school center — my commitments to equity and justice are far-ranging. The way that can manifest today is very different than how it has before, but the commitment is actually consistent, and there’s some people who act as if that is not true. I think that there are a lot of misconceptions.
You’re back in Baltimore for now. You were on the move for a few years, but you’re revisiting school administration. And you’re now a Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. Will this affect your ability to stay as active in the movement?
No, the commitments I’ve made are complimentary, they are not in conflict. I believe that every kid deserves a great education every day, and that is real. I believe that police should not kill people, and that we should have an understanding of safety that is more expansive than the police. I believe that we always have to be in places that push our ability to think critically, and all of those things are true, together. They compliment each other.
Speaking of multitasking, Jesse Williams’ BET Awards speech was a watershed moment in terms of mainstream exposure to the BLM movement. Not only did he give that speech at the venue itself, but the awards were also broadcast on MTV and Nickelodeon. Lots of exposure there.
I think that Jesse is a model for how celebrities can use their platforms to bring more people into the work. And I think that is a moment where he did it incredibly well.
Technology has made everything so immediate. Philando Castile’s girlfriend streamed on Facebook Live. You Periscoped your own arrest in Baton Rouge. Do you see the internet as part of the solution to ending police brutality?
In my most hopeful thought, I believe we are about to usher in a new way of organizing. There are many people who believe that the only way to organize in an organization — that if you do not form an organization, you are not in power, and you are not an organizer. And I think that is not only faulty, but that is a dangerous way to think about this work. I think that there are ways to build infrastructure that will allow people to organize and to activate and to have an impact, and we are beginning to see different ways of organizing that will only increase over time.
Let’s tie this up with a final question in light of the recent Milwaukee unrest. You prefer to use the term “protests” to describe these events. Does it bother you that some people used the term “riot” instead?
What I know to be true is that people should not have had to feel like the only way for them being heard is by being in the street. And that is true across the country. I said that about Ferguson, I say that about Baltimore, I say that about Minneapolis, Chicago, every city in the country where people have taken to the streets. Remember, people take to the streets as a last resort. They’ve made the phone call, they’ve tweeted, they’ve emailed, they’ve tried. And by the time people are in the street, it is because there is no other option. So when I think about anything that happens when people are in the street, I always start by saying, “People should not have had to have been there in the first place.”