After listening to a sermon titled "Don't Tell Your Story Too Soon," Baltimore-born activist DeRay Mckesson was inspired to write his first book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, in which he explores a range of topics from police brutality to community organizing to homophobia.
"People asked me to write this book two years ago, but I wanted to write it when I felt like it was time," said Mckesson, who was a prominent voice during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.
Mckesson, and his signature blue Patagonia vest, will bring his book to Philadelphia, Saturday, Oct 6. He spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News about the tropes and triumphs of activism in a digital age.
You write, "If you get killed by a police officer in this country, the only way that you currently appear in a data set is if a newspaper or other media outlet records your death." Do you think the way the media portrays black death is helping or hurting the justice system?
I think those are two different things. When I wrote that, it was about the lack of data and less about media representation. It was more about the fact that if you get killed in this country and a newspaper writer doesn't write about you, then you're not in the database. You don't exist in the numbers.
[On] the question about media representation, I think that in some ways it's gotten better. About four years ago, there wasn't a language to talk about this in public. … I do think that there's an industry around the trauma of blackness, and that's not new. I'm also mindful that we're four years in since the protest began. The civil rights movement was a decade long. I think the media has more space to move. I think we have time.
Has the power struggle between the police and the community that you describe in the book always been structured the way it is today or has it worsened over the last few years?
One of the wins of the [#BlackLivesMatter] movement is that we changed the national conversation on race and policing. The outcomes have not changed. People are still being killed at the same rate. It's certainly not any better, but it's not necessarily any worse, either. We used to be shocked by that, and then when we uncover all the laws and policies that almost guarantee officers won't be held accountable, it's not shocking.
You can send people to a million trainings. You can give them a body camera. But if they know, for almost a fact, that nothing will happen to them, why would we ever think the behavior is going to change?
There was a video that surfaced on Twitter a few weeks ago of you being heckled in during your book tour stop in Ferguson, Mo. The heckler claimed you weren't as active during the Ferguson protest as you portray in the book. What were you thinking during those few minutes of heckling?
I'm mindful of two things. One is that ideas can be in conflict without [individuals] being in conflict. And the second is that we won't always agree about this work, about the narrative. I'm sensitive to [the heckler's] frustration. We know each other. We all were in the street together. I'm sensitive to the legitimate concerns people have about the way the story of Ferguson has been told and retold or not told at all. So there are people who tell the story of the protest [who say] national teams of people came in groups and organized everybody and that started the movement and that's just so far from the truth. I write about that in the book.
When I think about [the heckling], I know what I did, I'm pretty confident in my work. It's always interesting when people do the 'You weren't there,' or the 'You didn't do anything.' Part of the reason you're even talking to me right now is because everything I did was public. So there's a public record of every place I was. What is real is that there wasn't an attendance monitor in the protest.
So I'm always interested in what's behind [the accusations]. I think about what's behind it is a frustration about the way the story of the protests have been told. What is true and what I write about in the book is that there are so many people who you don't know, who you never met but without [them], there would be no protest and we should talk about that.
Do activists have to be careful about gaining too much celebrity?
I think about what it means to have a platform, and part of the responsibility of having a platform is to create space to amplify the work of people doing good work and to always make sure you're telling the truth. When I think about being careful, the spirit of that question assumes that there's not enough space for all of us. I don't live in a world where there's scarcity with regard to how many people can do this work. I want people to be as visible or not visible as they are as long as they use that stability in ways that move the work. I try to keep it all in perspective.
You wrote, "Twitter saved our lives." Describe the intersection of technology and activism.
We know that social media doesn't replace organizing; it enhances it and allows us to do different things. … I've seen the good and bad of Twitter. The first person ever permanently banned from Twitter was banned for trying to raise money to get me killed. I've also seen the joyous part of Twitter. I've seen people build power with Twitter in ways they didn't know they could, which is incredible. A lot of people come to the platform bad and that's not the platform's responsibility. The platform is responsible for making sure bad people don't meet hordes of other bad people and become radical.
Finish this sentence: Activism is…
…when you believe in a better world and you're willing to fight for it.
…not only the absence of oppression but the presence of justice and joy.
The world would be a better place if…
…we fight for it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.