From the Front Lines of Protest: DeRay Mckesson on Changing the Institution of Policing
Author: Nahshon Dion
March 9, 2019
DeRay Mckesson is a queer 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. He has spoken at venues from the White House to the Oxford Union, at universities, and on TV. Named one of the Time’s 30 Most Influential People on the Internet and #11 on Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders list, he has received honorary doctorate degrees 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.
Hello, DeRay. You took a leap of faith by leaving a comfortable, well-paying school administrator job. Since 2014, you’ve been on the front lines of protest. How are you able to maintain self-control in the midst of tear gas and guns pointed at you?
I don’t know if it was particularly comfortable. At a high salary, that work in Baltimore was hard right up until the first day of school. My teaching taught me the most around how to manage my emotions, to stay focused, what it meant to break complicated things down to more accessible terms that allowed people then to make their own learning, which could help them deal with the complexities themselves. Teaching was a big influence. The thing that allowed me to leave the school system was this team being really important in a really different way. I don’t necessarily think about things as more or less important, but my work with kids was extremely important. When they killed Mike Brown, a teenager, the least I could do was go stand in the street and just try to see what happened and try to stay with the other people who were out there. Then I got teargassed the second I was with Jay Lewis, and I was like, “This was really wild, and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that that doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
You’ve often been advised to not participate in protests. How do you stay emotionally balanced knowing the work you perform is centered around recurring trauma and decades of excessive force and disparities within the justice system? At certain times, are you uncomfortable being front and center in the midst of chaos?
I wouldn’t say I’m not advised not to participate. There was a time when we were the only people on the street, you know? Four years ago, it was really just us. Now there are a lot more people in the street, and I think it’s a good thing. When I think about what I did, I used Twitter before there was livestreaming in an accessible way. Before the other platforms made it much easier for you to communicate, Twitter was the only way to really tell the truth, or like the primary way I used that platform with Jay Lewis. Then when tools started to change, and more people started to be in the street, I actually didn’t need to show up in that way. I could do other things, so we started work on other projects because we thought that that was a really important lever. So that’s what I think about it right now: I want to be wherever I can do the most impactful work.
How do you deal with death threats?
I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure it out. It’s hard because there’s a part of me— I just had this conversation with my best friend literally like an hour ago–there’s a part of me that’s really aware that the goal is to make us too afraid to do the work. So if I’m freaked out about being killed at every moment, then I’ll never do anything. And that’s actually a part of the strategy, right? The other part is I need to be mindful of my safety, and it is hard. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m still processing it because we’ve had some things happen recently that are big. Our phones were hacked, and the first person, a friend of mine, tried to get killed. There’s a host of those things. I think I’m so used to just powering through, and only now am I actually stepping back and saying, “Oh, I was actually afraid in that moment, and I played it off, and I said it was okay, but it’s not.” It’s just hitting me now, but I’m owning the fear; I’m owning the actual fear and not just the “I don’t know.” So I’m trying to figure it out.
You’re often questioned about your clothing choices. Are any of your blue Patagonia puffer vests bulletproof?
I wish! It’s only one vest. I don’t have a closet of blue vests.
In your, Lambda Literary Award nominated, debut book On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, which consists of 12 essays, you mention that according to policy expert Samuel Sinyangwe, St. Louis has the highest rate of cases of police brutality against people of color. In contrast, police departments in San Bernardino and Riverside, CA, have fewer fatalities involving officers and people of color in mostly all-black communities. What do you attribute this to? Should police departments in other counties/states follow their example?
That’s the million-dollar question. If I knew that answer, I’d have figured out the problem. I think we focused on police-union contracts and use-of-force policies considering that we thought they would be big levers, and then they turn out to be levers. There’s a thing that just came out that validates our findings. We already showed people the data around these support policies. I believe that those two are really important.
We know things that don’t have a big impact. For example, there’s this idea that some neighborhoods are really dangerous, and because the neighborhoods are dangerous, the police are just present. And because the police are present, the likelihood of engaging in violence is higher, and that’s not true. There are some places where there’s not a lot of crime at all, and the police are still hurting people, and the exact options [for violence] are the same. I wish I knew what’s different besides the things that we already talking about. I believe that some of the biggest levers are actually the contracts, the laws, and the use-of-force policies, and our data suggests that use-of-force policies and police-union contracts are really important.
So we’re focusing on policy, right? You can have the best policy, and people can still act wild in communities. So police departments should follow the best practices we put forth and the use-of-force policy guide that we highlight. The union project prohibits accountability.
Police-union contracts, like many U.S. laws and policies, sometimes seem overwhelmingly archaic and insidious. How can citizens advocate for police-union contracts to be more transparent and current?
We highlight the projects themselves and some of the laws. We worked with the organizers in Austin. They’re probably the best case study right now. We worked with them, and they got the whole City Council to unanimously vote against the last version of police-union contracts. It was incredible, and they did it because we helped them with the data—understanding what it said. They knew the people in that community better than anybody else did, and we just helped them do it, and they were incredible. They organized in a way that was a real model to just go to the city council. The City Council people hadn’t expected people to come pushing about the police-union contracts because it’s really obscure, and you don’t hear about it in the news. But [the Austin organizers] did, and it was really impactful. I think that they’re a really good model.
In your book, you discuss that you’ve worked towards reviewing police-union contracts from 100 major cities and are now focused on analyzing another 800 contracts. Have you made any progress?
No public results yet, but we have made progress. We’re trying to think about a tech solution to help us track quicker than needing to do it one by one. It’s coming, but 800 is a lot.
It helped that I brought fam from all different backgrounds. You know, Brittany was on the task force of policing appointed by Obama, and I worked in structures. It’s cool because the way we all approach it comes from different angles, and because it comes from different angles, we all ask different questions to help us get there quicker, and it turned out to be cool. We have a lot of projects that are in our pile that I’m excited about. We just try to follow our curiosity. Like with the police-contract thing, we were like, “We think this is an issue. We don’t know for sure. Let’s just see.” And we did it, and we were right, so we just follow our curiosity.
In February 2013, former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner killed two cops and a captain’s daughter. His 18-page manifesto promised to wage “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” against police as revenge. In your book, you wrote, “Our work needs no more martyrs. You can fight these fights and live.” Was this in reference to cases like this?
No, this is in reference to this idea that you have to make the ultimate sacrifice to be effective. Some people believe that. I deal with the death threats, and I’m aware that may be a part of the consequence, but I don’t glorify that. I’m not seeking that. I’m not a better activist because I might be killed. So I’m trying to be mindful of that. That’s what I was trying to get at. I’m trying to respond to people glorifying martyrdom.
Do you believe that a continuous pattern of excessive force could lead to more civilians taking matters into their own hands?
There’s a consequence when there’s any public institution that has no accountability. When a public institution has no accountability, I think that people look for justice elsewhere. I think that could happen. What that looks like could be a host of things. But what do you do when you’re supposed to trust an institution that you see being corrupt? I don’t know if that will be one certain kind of thing, but I do think people are losing faith in the institution, and I understand that philosophy.
Do you feel as passionately about the murder of innocent police officers?
We could live in a world where people don’t die in violent ways, and I believe that in general.
In April 2017, I was in Dallas, TX, when 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was shot and killed by officer Roy Oliver. Although he was fined, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years, the Edwards family believes his sentence was too lenient. Why do you think cop convictions are rare?
As I write in the book, the system does not hold them accountable. The sheer number of laws, policies, and practices that almost guarantee that officers aren’t going to be held accountable is just so strong. We’re shocked at this point that anyone’s ever held accountable because from Supreme Court precedents and down to bills of rights for officers and to policies, it’s like the system actually isn’t designed to do that.
Do you think Oliver’s outcome will set a precedent in regard to future police/civilian interactions in Texas?
The recent history has shown that any of these convictions create a precedent. I think it will open up space for people to think that accountability is possible. But remember that the difference between accountability and justice is that accountability is what happens after the trauma, and justice is this idea that there shouldn’t be trauma in the first place. The goal is justice, right? Accountability is what we get because we didn’t have justice in the first place. We want to build a system that is just so that we’re not always on the heels of some murder, but that some murders wouldn’t happen in the first place.
In August 2018, California passed SB-1421, a policy introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner that publicizes information about officers who shoot, kill, or engage in serious misconduct while on the job. Do you think this new legislation will be easy to implement? Will it create more accountability?
It’s great. Was it necessarily doing anything? No, but should it be made public? Absolutely. I think that when the data gets released, it should lead to more robust conversations about justice, such as what it structurally looks like. I’m hopeful. The rate policies of three states—Delaware, New York, and I forgot the other one—have laws that make officer files almost impervious.
You’ve wondered why more people don’t challenge the institution of policing but attribute the reason to a history of police “controlling the narrative.” Now with dashboard cameras and cell phone videos, wouldn’t this propel officers to alter their behavior?
No, the hard part is the dashboard cameras move quicker than the organizing did, so a lot of the body-camera laws have been put in place in a way that actually doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that officers can review the footage before they write the statement. That just doesn’t make sense. It just moved so quickly that people had not organized effectively against it. And that’s one [reason]. The second thing is we all have to be mindful of how deeply the narratives within go in people in the society. You can’t name one internal affairs show about the police where internal affairs wasn’t the bad guy, you know what I mean?
They are always the bad guy. What does it mean that the idea of accountability is just bad? That’s really wild. Police officers just run people over. Police officers just shoot the crowd, and that doesn’t make sense. Some of the reason why people don’t challenge police officers is that the narrative that they shouldn’t be challenged is actually really deeply set into society. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. It’s been in the media for decades too. I live in Baltimore, and this apparently progressive City Council voted for a mandatory minimum law, and we know they don’t work. We know it doesn’t work. And still people still voted for it. That makes no sense, you know? That was really weird.
Does your book discuss a different approach to challenging policing so that both police departments and communities feel safe?
Chapter three is about a different framework. You’ll never get a law in California that says that any investigation of an officer that lasts more than [a certain time] will result in discipline. This is so structured that we can have these conversations, but the police control the investigations they have. It can result in discipline, but it is just so wild. We believe if you knew more, you’d do more, and that was the key in Austin. When they learned about the contract, they were like, “We can organize for a contract that’s fairer and more just, and that’s perfect, right?” We believe in those things and in talking to people who know the current reality and are imagining something far better. We have to open up space for people to have that imagination.
Your book mentions that white people have been the collateral damage of policies enacted to uphold white supremacy. Could you provide an example of this?
If Kavanaugh is a part of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, all these white women who are about abortions will be impacted, but they still publicly supported him. It’s one of the ways that whiteness works, right? What happens when white women are trying to maintain their proximity to white men, who have the most power? They are actually voting against their own interests as women to maintain their interest in whiteness, and that’s one of the most clear examples.
You also mention that you had to learn the difference between “whiteness and white people” and that whiteness works across generations. Using your comparison about a winning lottery ticket being stolen while another family benefits for twenty years, please share your thoughts on reparations. Who should benefit? Will there ever be a time to “move on”?
I think that reparations are a true expression of acknowledgement and repair. We need to acknowledge how we got here and what happened, and then we need to repair it. That seems so basic to me. I’m shocked that that word is really charged to people, but the notion—the work behind the word—is just seen as common sense. There was harm done, so we should talk about it, and we should fix the harm. What does it mean when there are generations of people who worked for no pay? That has long-lasting consequence. We should probably do something about that, right? It just seems like common sense to me. I think that redress can be a host of things, and because we’re doing work in this area, I know that there’s no one way to do it. We know how to do it well. We know there are a certain amount of things that don’t go well. One of the interesting unintended consequences, for example, is in DC. All these mothers started being able to go to work because they have childcare. Those things are actually really important in closing the wealth gap, whether it’s the gender-wealth gap or the racial-wealth gap. There are certain things we know that matter in regard to the redistribution of wealth, and we should be doing those things.
How much of your effectiveness as a civil-rights leader do you attribute to social media, and specifically Twitter?
These platforms are mediums for message. I want to believe that the message was strong enough and the platform became an aid to the message and not the other way around. But Twitter saved our lives. This platform in this moment and this way to tell the truth about what we were experiencing [in Ferguson] was the only way to try to convince you that we did exist. There were no fly zones. There was no aerial footage. The newscasters were nervous about being outside. There was no accessible livestreaming. This was before Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and Periscope. So [Twitter] started being an incredible tool because we needed it, and it matters a lot. I know that it doesn’t replace [offline] organizing, but I think it goes hand in hand.
Would you say that Twitter is leading the way regarding social justice in the 21st century?
I don’t know if “leading”; that might be too strong. I think the platform is an incredible platform for people from underrepresented communities to be heard, and that remains really powerful. Not only to be heard, but for that to happen in public really quickly.
How much of Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey’s “wokeness” do you take responsibility for?
Jack is his own person, as I am. I consider Jack a friend, and he has managed his own growth. I’m proud. We had conversations where we both have learned about a range of things: technology, justice, the different ways to think about old problems. I don’t take credit for anybody else’s learning at all. I’m hopeful that I can be a part of the learning process wherever I go.
In your book, you quote a 1987 interview regarding Bayard Rustin and how his sexuality affected his work in the civil rights movement. What age did you become aware of Bayard?
A while ago. When I was in high school, probably, is when I first knew who he was. When we were talking about gender then, I did identity complexities like around sexuality. And in college, when I started being a better reader is when I understood him as a political thinker.
Did you ever think you’d follow in his footsteps?
No, I didn’t plan to end up here. I walked into the risk that I saw and walked towards work that I thought was important, and here we are today. In that sense, he is certainly one of the reasons why it was important for me to be out so early—not that I was ever in the closet—but I just wanted to be, you know, up-front so that nobody thought that I had to hide parts of who I am to have a large platform in social-justice work.
As an openly gay, black male, how do you feel as a civil-rights activist with others who deem you ineffective?
I’m being mindful of the intention of what it means to fight for people who don’t think that I’m worthy of being around at all. I don’t have a certain thought around what to do when homophobia shows up. It shows up. I try and stay focused on the work. I show up in my fullness in every room. I’m gay in every room. The issues are important to me in every room. Every time I wake up and go out, those things are real to me. I don’t spend a lot of time engaging with people who are homophobic because what I’ve seen is that they are unwilling to be moved, and I’m more trying to do the best work that I can do, and I want that to speak for itself.
Do you feel like you have the support of the black church?
Yes, in some places the churches have been incredibly welcoming. In some, not so much; it depends on the place. That’s actually why I’m expressing to you that some of what we do is really public. Regarding the project that we work on in the book, there’s a lot more quiet work around working with some researchers on HIV and testing, and what are some of the barriers to testing, which is really interesting. We don’t have a really big project about it, which is why I mention we’re not blasting it because there’s not really a lot for other people to do right now. It’s just strategizing and system-level stuff. I’m excited to be doing those things and those that are for about my own identity and respective of where the work is.
Why do you feel that some churches, black or white, don’t take more of an active role regarding social-justice issues?
I don’t know. I think that people are nervous about engaging in politics, or what they perceive to be politics. Some people are just stuck in an old way of being in community that they just don’t understand the mandate to being involved in bringing in justice writ large. I’d be more interested in hearing what those pastors are saying that aren’t doing really much. The thing, too, is, what is hard is a lot of people don’t realize it’s an issue until it’s an issue in their place. Like when it’s at their grocery store or at their whatever, they’re like “Wow, yeah, this is happening”
The All Lives Matter group and others, including some blacks, claim that the ongoing black-on-black crime negates the Black Lives Matter movement. Does your book address this?
No. One of the ways that whiteness maintains itself is engaging in denial, and that’s all that that is. I would love to live in a world where the disparities aren’t great, or where they were not race-based, but they are. And as long as that’s true, we’ll be talking about it. The people who say those things know what they’re doing, and the reason that we focus on black people so much is the disparities are just so great that if you fix it for black people, then you sort of fix it for everyone else.
You last ran for Mayor of Baltimore in 2016. Do you have any future plans to run for office?
Not at this time.
Since your rise to prominence, has your dating life changed?
No, I wish it did. No, because I never really dated much at all before, and I’m still not dating much, so, it seems about the same!
You’ve stated that you were sexually assaulted as a minor. We are seeing an enormous amount of accountability arising. What does the #MeToo movement personally mean to you, and with this movement, what is the significance in regards to black lives?
I’m always mindful that there are more people who are impacted than you know, and a lot of people who I told my story to were like, “Oh, we didn’t know.” You learn how to show up as strong for long and sometimes you just need space to do it, you know? And that’s real. The thing about #MeToo is, I believe survivors. And in terms of this moment, the thing with the protester that was really beautiful was that it opened up space for us to have this conversation in public and like explore that for a lot of people, it’s really tough to have this conversation, but they had it. It matters, and it’s good, and hopefully it’ll lead to structural change. The Kavanaugh hearings are a real blow to progress because it’s so blatant. There’s so much work to be done.
Why is it important that Brett Kavanaugh be replaced with another SCOTUS justice? With his recent appointment, will this be a detriment to social justice and the advancement of police accountability?
Luckily, some of the things that we’re fighting for can be fought at the local level, so that’s a good thing. But he’s no friend of justice—not social justice.
Any thoughts on the Laquan McDonald/Van Dyke verdict?
Yes. I got chills when the jury foreman read all of the shots one by one. We rarely get moments where we can celebrate accountability, and we could in that moment. It was like, “Wow, this is really something.” It was wild; everything about it was wild. Those one-by-one convictions were incredible to hear, and I was thankful that this jury just did it. It was perfect. The question is: How do we make sure that we create a world where these things never happen in the first place? And then when they do, that there is at the very least, accountability? Because the thing is, Laquan is never coming back. The verdict doesn’t do that. That’s it. There’s a consequence that hopefully stops this from happening in the future. But he’s never coming back.
Photo of DeRay Mckesson via his website