I have been waiting for this interview for a long time. On Jan. 7, I received an email with this subject line: URGENT: MEDIA INTERVIEW REQUEST APPROVED WITH DERAY MCKESSON.
DeRay Mckesson, in his blue vest that he wears most of the time, is a symbol of protest and change.
The back cover of his new book, “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope,” introduces him best: “DeRay Mckesson is a civil rights activist, community organizer and the host of Crooked Media’s award-winning podcast “Pod Save the People.” He started his career as an educator and came to prominence for his participation in, and documentation of, the Ferguson protests and the movement they birthed, and for publicly advocating for victims of police violence and to end mass incarceration…Named one of Time’s 30 Most Influential People on the Internet and #11 on Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders list, he has received honorary doctorates from The New School and the Maryland Institute College of Art. A leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement and the co-founder of Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence, Mckesson lives in Baltimore, Maryland.”
Mckesson will deliver this year’s keynote address at noon on Jan. 21 at Reston Community Center (RCC) Hunters Woods.
We talked over the phone on a Friday afternoon:
DeRay, I really enjoyed your book! It’s definitely an important book. It touches you, but it’s not emotional. The first thing I want to ask you about is the first sentence in your book, “Language is the first act.” You mentioned that language is the gateway to liberation, justice and freedom. Can you tell me more?
MCKESSON: The way that we talk about the world shapes the way that we think about the world. When we think about things like equality, equity, freedom, justice and accountability, those aren’t all the same things. Knowing what you’re talking about actually shapes what you do. The ability to define and to explain and to rally, all of that is really the work of language. So when I think about the power of the book, when I think about the power of the chants in the middle of the street, all of that was the way that we told stories to each other about the world that we lived in, the world that we know we could live in, if we were able to make it come to be. So, I think about language as the first act, it is our ability to tell stories about the world we live in, to talk about, to explain, that actually opens up space for us to fight.
Many people think when it comes to change and activism, that talk is cheap. But what I understood from your book is that language is a powerful tool for change.
MCKESSON: Changing the conversation is not the same as changing the outcomes. Those are two different things. The fact that we talked a lot about police violence and police accountability, the conversation has changed; the outcomes haven’t changed yet at all. But it’s important that we shift the conversation so that we can then shift the outcomes. The work changes in two ways: some of it is systems and structures stuff; the second is values and beliefs. Language is really important because it actually helps us do the values and beliefs work, and it sets people up to do the systems and structures work.
Did you notice that all of the prophets used language to change their situations and their societies?
MCKESSON: Yeah. That’s the values and beliefs. The prophets understood that the way people think about the world changes everything, it shapes the way that they act, and move, and fight and dream. So yes.
Is this your vision, or is it also Black Lives Matter’s vision?
MCKESSON: The movement is not one person, one set of people; no movement is. I think that this is an animating vision of what it meant to be in the street then, and what it means to be in the street. It’s based on, not only what I’ve done, but what I’ve observed. I think that all the chants we used in the middle of the street, the way we talked about it in those early days, the way we still talk about it, is a reminder of the power of language for sure.
Sometimes I feel that, somehow, I don’t know how, Black Lives Matter creates some fear among the public.
MCKESSON: Well, you think about whiteness and white supremacy as using the politics of domination. When we talk about freedom, we’re saying that we want to upend the power structure that says that some people have to be controlled and dominated. That does create a level of anxiety for people whose only power comes from oppressing other people. The reason that we focus on black people is because we know that the outcomes are so bad for black people, that if we fix it for black people, we fix it for everybody else, necessarily.
How would you respond to people who say, “All Lives Matter”?
MCKESSON: If that was true, we wouldn’t have to be in the street fighting for justice. When we think about the work, I could go to a breast cancer rally, and focus on breast cancer. Just because I’m not in the street at a breast cancer rally talking about colon cancer, doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that we should get rid of colon cancer, or that there should be a cure. So, we can focus on one thing, and in this case, we focus on this one subset of people in the country, because we know, again, that the outcomes are actually so bad for black people, that if we fix them for black people, we will change the systems and structures and values and beliefs in a way that will benefit everybody.
What is the mission of Black Lives Matter?
MCKESSON: I think the movement believes that we can live in a world where everybody has access to a basic set of rights and principles, where people aren’t hurt by the state, a world that fundamentally has a different power structure that is not rooted in domination. I think those are the big things. We got into the street because of the police, because we know that we can live in a world where the police don’t kill people. It was that simple in the beginning, and that basic dominion is still true today.
It was very interesting to finally see data about police violence somewhere, and I found this in your book. Could you tell me more about who is behind the collection of the data?
MCKESSON: It’s me, Brittany and Sam, a team of people; we've been together for a long time. So, the three of us starting Mapping Police Violence, we did the police union contract work, the policies around the use of force and the big database.
How successful do you see the Mapping Police Violence tool?
MCKESSON: Really important. It’s the most comprehensive database about police violence in the country. People have used it all over the country, so the database is important. The work we do around police union contracts has been really powerful. Cities around the country use it as a resource. Austin was the first city that got the City Council to unanimously vote against the police union contract, and that was really powerful. There are other cities using that. The policy database around the use of force has also been really important. Police departments across the country have used it to revise their own, and a lot of activists use it, too. So, those are the three biggest databases that we created that still help people make a concrete change to change the system.
Did you create three of them?
MCKESSON: Yes. We created Mapping Police Violence, which is the database that is just hard data. We created checkthepolice.org, which is the first database of police union contracts in the country. We also created the Use of Force Project, which is the first database of use of force policies in the country.
In your book, you also mentioned that people’s desire for safety makes them tolerate the way that the police work in the system. How can we create a system where everyone can feel safe: with policing, or without, or with restricted policing? How do you envision it?
MCKESSON: Do you need somebody with a gun to get a cat out of a tree?
MCKESSON: When you look at 911 data, 90 percent of 911 calls are for cats in trees and cars that broke down on the side of the road. It’s not things that require somebody with a gun, somebody armed. The majority of instances actually don’t require that response at all. At best, the police are like a stopgap. We know that when crime happens in communities, the vast majority of crime is crimes of poverty and crimes of addiction. If you want crime to go down, then you would treat addiction and you would end poverty. That would actually end crime. The police are always, at best, a last resort, but they’ve been treated like a first resort because people don’t want to deal with poverty and addiction in communities. If the police have to exist, they should at least be accountable. I write about this in the book. What does that mean that California has a law that says that any investigation of an officer that lasts more than a year can never result in discipline regardless of the outcome? That is not accountability. There are a host of laws and policies and practices that almost guarantee that the police won’t be accountable. So, when you think about things like a body camera, training…all those things are great, but if you know that no matter what happens, the worst thing that will happen to you is having to go to another training, that’s isn’t enough to change your behavior. That’s what we see with the police.
You also mentioned that “We are forced to imagine freedom because we have not lived in a time where we have experienced it.” How do you imagine freedom?
MCKESSON: I think that you start to say, “What kind of a world do you want to live in?” and you play with that. I want to live in a world where every kid can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t think that’s radical, I think that is a pretty simple idea. Then the question becomes, how do we build it? That’s what it means to imagine it. So, when I’m in different neighborhoods and communities, I’m asking people, “What type of world do you want to live in? Forget where you’re living now. What type of world do you want to live in?” In that part of the book, I’m talking about what does it mean that we’re always fighting for a world that we’ve never lived in, but we know it can exist. So, I don’t know what a world looks like where everyone has access to a doctor, but I know we can get there. I don’t know what a world looks like where every kid can read and write, but I know we can get there.
Can you give me a practical solution to the problem of the police?
MCKESSON: I wrote a whole chapter about it, Chapter 3. There are a lot of steps that we could take. We could literally change the laws so that you could file complaints against officers. Maryland’s a great example. In Maryland, there’s a law that says that you can file an anonymous complaint against an officer for everything except brutality. That’s crazy. That means that nobody is filing complaints against officers because you can’t file anonymously if it was brutality. In California, as I said, any investigation of an officer that lasts more than a year can never result in discipline. There are a host of states and cities around the country where all police officer disciplinary records are in secret. In Cleveland, they destroy officer disciplinary records every two years. There’s a whole infrastructure that police unions have worked with and that lawmakers have done that almost guarantees that officers will literally never be held accountable. It’s why in 99 percent of cases, an officer is not either convicted or charged with anything. So, in terms of a practical thing, that would be huge. The second, and I wrote about this too, is the use of force policy. The use of force policy are rules by which the police can engage in using force in communities. You’d be shocked; a lot of them around the country don’t require officers to give a verbal warning before they shoot you. They don’t require them to deescalate. They don’t require them to use something less lethal than a gun. All those things are not very sexy, but have a huge impact on the way police interact with communities.
An interesting part of your book is when you wrote that you knew God during the protests. Can you tell me more about this?
MCKESSON: There were a lot of nights where it was hard, and there was no reason why we should have survived in the way we did, but we did. It was the first time that I understood what it meant to be covered. People in the Baptist Church often talk about what it means to be covered by God’s grace, and I felt that in the street. That really stuck with me, and it’s one of the things that I keep close to me.
Also, you connected activism with the belief in God when you wrote that “When I read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: ‘Winning is so closely tied to an ultimate win that is salvific…” How do you connect activism with the belief in God?
MCKESSON: In that chapter, I’m trying to tease out, what does it mean to have a movement today that wasn’t birthed from the church, like the Civil Rights Movement was, and what does it mean to win? I’m not necessarily saying it is connected, I’m saying there’s a question of, what does it mean, and King was somebody for whom it was very connected. What does it mean to think about what winning looks like when salvation isn’t the ultimate win? I personally think that it’s really powerful at this moment that there are people of all faiths that are fighting, and I think that the church has a role to play, but it doesn’t need to be the central role. For me, a belief in God helped me in the really hard moments to understand why I was doing the work.
How do you understand Malcolm X, and do you think the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the way people view and understand him?
MCKESSON: I think Malcolm was an incredible voice that helped people understand the issues in a dramatic way. They were already civil rights icons well before we walked into the street, so I don’t think that we helped people understand him. I think that the protests made everybody think about the activists that came before us in a much deeper way, and that’s important.
Do you see any progress in the black community?
MCKESSON: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of work happening, but remember, the question is, have we seen the systems and structures change in a way that changed the conditions in black communities? That’s a harder question. This isn’t about personal responsibility of black people, it’s about the conditions that allow people to make decisions in the first place. That’s what is changing much slower, especially under this administration. We have a lot of work to do.
You mentioned in one of your interviews with Vox “we can’t just be fighting the people in seats of power; we actually have to be the people in the seats of power.”Doesn’t that mean that you will be part of the system?
MCKESSON: I think it’s like a both/and. We have to be as organized on the inside as we are on the outside. Ocasio-Cortez is a great example. She’s somebody who believes the same things that we believe, and she’s on the inside fighting on the inside, and we’re out here on the outside. We’re out here fighting, too. I don’t think that it compromises you. I think it’s actually important that you have people who manage systems and structures who you don't have to fight because they already want to do what's right. I think that that has to be part of the work, too.
You will be giving a speech at Reston Community Center next week. What can we expect from your speech?
MCKESSON: I want to talk about things I’ve learned in the protests and practical advice about where we go next and how we get there.
Attendees will enjoy a family-style community lunch at RCC Hunters Woods following Mckesson’s speech. Mckesson will also sign books following the community lunch.
Tickets are $5 for Reston residents and employees and $10 for all others. Tickets to the community lunch and keynote address are required. Tickets are available at the CenterStage box office or by calling 703-476-4500.
Interview transcribed by Beteel Abuageel.