“All black people are on the front lines in America,” activist DeRay Mckesson contends.
And “black people are never unarmed because blackness has been weaponized.”
A 30-year-old former middle school teacher and administrator and a 2007 graduate of Bowdoin College, Mckesson chose to take his outrage to the streets after the August 2014 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. With his social media blasts from the streets gaining him more than 235,000 followers on Twitter, he became a leader in #BlackLivesMatter protests around the country and a co-founder with Johnetta Elzie of the online newsletter This is the Movement.
Now he’s working on Campaign Zero, launched in August, a campaign to end police violence in America.
On Oct. 12, Mckesson spoke to a crowd at Fourth Avenue United Methodist in Louisville – his first experience, he admitted, of speaking somewhere with a Bible resting on the pulpit. His remarks kicked off the “Race, Faith and Community” convocation organized by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary to mark the 30th anniversary of the Grawemeyer Awards, and held in consultation with the seminary’s Black Church Studies program.
He’s always on the move – always fueling the conversation.
Earlier in the day, Mckesson met with journalism students at duPont Manual, a public high school in Louisville.
Earlier this month, he taught a two-day stint as a guest lecturer at Yale Divinity School, speaking on “Transformational Leadership in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.”
After he left the church, Mckesson initiated a Twitter conversation on structural racism with Edward Snowden, who leaked classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013. “I, & many other protesters, have been targets of state surveillance,” Mckesson wrote to Snowden. “What do we do?”
Confident, direct and plain-spoken, wearing red sneakers, Mckesson challenged his listeners at the church to pay attention to a flattened, democratized protest movement where “we get to tell our own stories” and which is “a movement of simple truths.”
Among those truths: “We can live in a world where police don’t kill people.”
More of his points:
Institutional racism. Mckesson urged those attending to develop more nuanced, complicated ways of thinking about the long-term impacts of economic, educational and political discrimination. For example, when an entire class of students in an impoverished neighborhood fails to meet proficiency standards, when the whole third-grade class can’t read at grade level, “the option either is that all the kids are dumb or we have failed institutionally,” he said. “We have structurally failed. If you have 200 years of people not being allowed to read and all of a sudden you give them a free book,” that’s not going to fix the problem.
Organizing without organizations. Many young adults don’t want to become members of organizations – but in the Ferguson protests they organized themselves, using social media to send out the word of what was happening in clashes with the police. The institutions, including black church leaders, didn’t always show up, Mckesson said.
“Jesus was a protestor,” he said. “It hurt us when the black church didn’t show up for us. The Jesus I learned to love would have been there.”
All Lives Matter. During a question and answer session, two white men asked why some consider the “All Lives Matter” refrain – a pushback to #BlackLivesMatter – to be controversial and divisive. “At our core, we know that’s dishonest,” Mckesson responded. “If that were true” – if all lives really did matter – “police wouldn’t disproportionately be killing people of color.”
He went on: “It’s just another way that whiteness forces its way into all conversations, even conversations about oppression…There can’t even be places of struggle that are just black.”
What’s divisive, Mckesson said, “is that history of enslavement. Or if people act like Jim Crow was 10,000 years ago.”
Community violence. Several people asked about “black on black violence” – and Mckesson said he prefers the term community violence, which takes into account the reality that much violence (domestic violence, disputes among friends, and more) starts with private disputes that bleed out into the streets.
The news is full of white people killing white people – with shootings in schools, colleges, movie theatres and churches – “yet people aren’t pathologizing whiteness,” Mckesson said. “If white kids can be slaughtered in a school and no law changes, then what would they do to black people? It just blows my mind.”
To a woman who told him, “the police are where the crime is,” Mckesson said he responded, “I don’t see that many police around Wall Street.”
The legacy of oppression. People in places considered “safe neighborhoods” have had for generations different access to advantages such as jobs, health care and education, Mckesson said.
He contends that “we can’t arrest our way out of crime,” but giving those trying to feed their children in the informal economy access to real jobs could make a difference.
“People aren’t choosing to live in the project,” Mckesson said. “People aren’t choosing to be poor. Somebody else made the choice for them” through generations of discrimination. “How do we undo that?”