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Prominent Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson talked about what’s fueled – and continues to fuel – his activism.
On Aug. 16, 2014, DeRay Mckesson said he was sitting on his couch watching television at 1 a.m. when he heard about the murder of Michael Brown. He watched some of the CNN coverage, before turning to Twitter, where he saw a vastly different narrative: people were hurting, they were angry, and they were taking that anger out to the streets together. A few hours later, he started the 10-hour drive to St. Louis, hoping he would find a place to sleep once he arrived. The first night he joined the people demonstrating in the street, he was tear-gassed by police officers.
“I knew right then, I have to do what I can to make sure no one else ever has to go through that,” he said, Sept. 24 at Politifest, a full day of debates and discussions. Mckesson was the keynote speaker to close the event
Since that night in 2014, he’s continued to forge a path as a prominent civil rights activist. Along with several other Black Lives Matter advocates, he helped launch Campaign Zero, a 10-point policy plan for national police reform. He has joined demonstrations in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and Baton Rouge. In 2015, Fortune Magazine named him one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.
In an interview with student reporters beforehand, and in his keynote speech at Politifest, he repeatedly emphasized four of the same issues.
Mckesson said during the past two years, one of the key issues has been getting the public to realize that police misconduct against marginalized groups isn’t something that happens in “other cities, to other people far away.” It happens everywhere.
“It happens in your own backyard,” he said.
As it would happen, about 150 feet from where Mckesson was speaking on San Diego State’s campus for Politifest, there was recently an incident where police forcefully arrested a black man. The arrest sparked a large demonstration on campus shortly after.
“It is a disappointment if those police officers are still employed by the university,” Mckesson said after watching the video. “That shows willful neglect of the university to keep students safe. This is about a culture of policing that allows people to act like this without any recourse. The video is sad…it shows police using power to provoke people because they can.”
He advised students to continue putting pressure on the university by keeping the issue prominent.
“Part of what a protest is is telling the truth in public, creating public tension that forces people to address issues,” he said.
During his conversation with Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis following his keynote speech, he also mentioned that the San Diego Police Department doesn’t require de-escalation. “If officers just start using force as soon as they arrive on scene, that’s not against policy,” he pointed out.
When Mckesson started his drive to St. Louis in 2014, he had about 800 Twitter followers. Today he has more than half a million.
“What we saw in Ferguson is that we can mobilize thousands of people very quickly on Twitter,” he said. “I think it’s powerful.”
He said social media has made it easier to connect with other activists regardless of location.
“I think we’re on the cusp of seeing the power of using social media to impact the way we organize. It allows us to have a much further reach than we did before,” he explained. “You don’t have to be in the same room, you can be on your phone or your computer and have an experience that’s similar to sitting-in.”
He said that using hashtags and other forms of social media communication can put public pressure on institutions to do right by people where they otherwise would not. And the accessibility allows for ongoing discourse and conversation about an issue, even after the physical manifestations of the movement have paused.
“I think of Twitter as the friend who’s always awake,” he said.
Mckesson repeatedly emphasized the word “trauma” when he talked about police brutality in minority communities.
“Racism is trauma that feels so present, and what that trauma does is strip people of their power,” he said. “This trauma is so real. And we’ve seen so much trauma that it starts to affect our perception of what progress looks like. For many people, they think about this trauma as something from a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, but we know that the trauma is present today. People need to realize history is not so distant.”
He referred to photos of civil rights activists several decades ago getting hit with water cannons or attacked by dogs, comparing those experiences to his own experience of being pepper sprayed, tear gassed, and shot with smoke bombs.
During the final few moments of the conversation, he said “Our only response to trauma cannot be people with guns. Justice means being in a world where this trauma doesn’t happen in the first place.”
During a Q-and-A with students before his keynote speech, a student reporter asked him, “How do you not get discouraged, especially when it’s happening so frequently around the country, it seems like every week there’s another story?”
Mckesson said, “Because there are protests on this campus. What would discourage me would be if people saw the trauma and did nothing.”
He reiterated that one of the challenges thus far has been getting people to recognize these traumas in their communities, but he does believe that a majority of people are at least beginning to recognize and take action against these incidences.
So what happens now?
He said that the next step is to “create a critical mass of people who know what to do and are equipped to do it.” Moving forward, he also emphasized in his speech that the movement isn’t about creating divides, but rather re-interpreting power, and forcing systems to restore power to people and communities.
“I think people are ready for the next step,” he said.