DeRay McKesson has become one of the most visible faces of the Ferguson resistance movement, despite the fact that he’s a Baltimore native. Widely accused of “racism” by right wing pundits who’d sooner avoid the subject of race all together, the 30-year-old is a polarizing figure who may be just as loved as he is loathed. His rapid fire social media reporting and the skill with which he slays challengers on cable news programs has positioned him as a rising civil rights leader while continuing to emphasize the fact that no one person will be the face of movement.
Here, McKesson, who founded We The Protestors with fellow activist and platonic soulmate Jonetta “Netta” Elzie, explains how a Baltimore boy found his way to St. Louis and why he won’t be leaving any time soon.
EBONY: Where were you when you found out that Mike Brown had been killed?
DM: I was sitting on my couch in Minneapolis. It was 1 o’clock in the morning, and I saw it on Twitter and for some reason I was awake and I saw it and I was like ‘this looks really crazy.’ I wanted to go, but I lived in Minneapolis. None of my friends were there. I worked 6 days a week, and I wanted to go, so I waited for my best friend that lives in Chicago with his wife to wake up. It was like 8 o’clock and he was like ‘You should really go.’ So I got in the car, posted on Facebook that I was going and drove 9 hours.
EBONY: How did you meet Netta?
DM: Netta and I were in the first street medic training and she was like “I’m one of the big tweeters here.” I knew who she was, she knew who I was and then we stood next to each other at church. That was when we became friends.
EBONY: So you’re not from here, you didn’t really have a connection with St. Louis before any of this happened and you’ve become one of if not the most visible representations of the protest movement that sparked on August 9th. How does that make you feel?
DM: With this movement, there are many people who make it move right and many voices. I think that I just try to tell the truth as much as I can. I think about two goals that I’ve always had: “How do we tell the truth differently?” And then ‘How do we tell the truth in ways that empower people?”.
I remember when I first got to Ferguson, I tweeted a lot because I literally didn’t know anybody. I just showed up here. And the beautiful thing about Twitter is that I don’t need you to be ready, I can talk when I’m ready. And, I wanted to tell the story of all the beautiful stuff in Blackness that was happening like a woman who brought out her grill every day and made hot dogs and hamburgers for the protestors. Or the clean-up crew that would come out and clean up stuff. It was so much community and I’m always so proud of how we’ve never lost our sense of joy as a people. Despite it all, we’ve never lost joy…I would hope that I’ve used the platform to amplify other voices and to tell the truth about who we are.
EBONY: There’s been a lot of pushback against your role here… how do you respond to that?
DM: You know, I think that freedom work will always be more important than it is popular. And I’ve tried to and I believe I have remained true to my commandments, both around disrupting and confronting a system that is killing people and using the platforms that I’ve had access to, to further the work. So I know that I will fight for people who don’t love me and I want them to be free too.
EBONY: What does a typical a day of ‘doing the work’ look like for you?
DM: Through some apps I’m connected to about 15 different protestors and organizers around the country. We talk throughout the day and that represents about 15, 16 cities, and that is positive…So much of our fight in the beginning was convincing people and exposing the problem, that was so much of what we were doing here. Like telling you that there is a crisis and you need to focus on it. And what I believe to be true is that the strategy to expose and convince people of the crisis will be different from the strategies we need to solve the crisis. So in terms of what does the work look like, I think that it’s a lot of capacity building to making sure that people have the tools and resources to do work, such as the infographics that we put out. And then it’s how do we connect people to each other in ways that empower them. And how do we connect people to resources in ways that empower them?
EBONY: How closely were you paying attention to things like this before Mike was killed?
DM: I wasn’t…and then Mike got killed, and I realized, like, this is like a plague, this is actually happening in ways that make it endemic and systemic and this is a crisis. So, in many ways, I was awakened too, August woke me up to this problem. There is something about like the people that are supposed to protect you, they shouldn’t kill you right? That’s not an unrealistic thing.
EBONY: What has changed in this country since August 9th , what has shifted in people?
DM: “I think that there’s a national focus on this issue in ways that there wasn’t before and I think that protests, we’ve never said protests are the answer, but protests create space for the answer. Protest is disruption. Protest is confrontation. Protest is the end of silence and what protest does is it creates space for the other work to happen. And I think that, that space is there. We’ve exposed the problem. Now we’re in the phase where people are like something has to change. People who would otherwise have never focused on this, who would never be in places like this are now like interested in it… I also believe that there is truth in storytelling, right. Like, Black people have always faced these issues as a race and the race would manifest in two ways, either like our stories are never told or our stories are told by everybody but us. And in this moment, we actually become our own storytellers. And we’re our own storytellers in the midst of this radical community building.
EBONY: What do you think the conversation will be around police violence, say, 3 years from now?
DM: In 3 years, I’m hopeful that there will be deep structural change. Like laws and systems. I think about the worker in 3 buckets: policy, politics and culture. I think that in 3 years I’m hopeful that there will be strong policy and politics: there will be new people in power who will understand the urgency of the work, that we will have new laws and policies that frame the way the work has to be done.
EBONY: When [conservative blogger] Chuck Johnson’s “death threats” surfaced, did you think he was going to act upon them?
DM: You know what, I know to be true in America is that hate is organized and it’s always been organized. And I took his tweet as an extension of that. And the reality is if I tweeted ‘please donate to take out the police’ I’d be under a jail.
EBONY: Do you feel that you’re under the threat of physical violence because of your work?
DM: I think that Black people in America have always been under the threat. I remember the last time I ever felt like I was gonna die, it was on West Florissant [Avenue] and that fear was too much when I went home and tried to sleep that night. On this night, the police veered from their vehicles to into the crowd. We had no choice but to run from them, and I ran with my hands up and I’ll never forget this, my phone cord was falling out my pocket, and there was this thought, “Do I get this cord or not?” I was terrified. And there were cops everywhere but I’m running past other cops and it was like this crazy feeling, like I might die just reaching for my cell phone cord. That’s crazy!
EBONY: If you could say anything to Mike Brown what would it be?
DM: You changed us, you changed me. Yeah I don’t know, it’d probably be like that simple.