Photo of Deray McKesson
credit: Celeste Noche

Four years ago, DeRay McKesson was virtually unknown.

When he watched the protests that followed the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown on television, he was working as the human resources director at Minneapolis Public Schools.

He thought that the least he could do was drive down to Ferguson, Mo., for the weekend. Soon after, he decided to take a leave of absence from work to organize with protesters full time.

McKesson tweeted videos of police clashing with protesters and distributed a newsletter describing on-the-ground events. He quickly rose to prominence on social media, becoming one of the most recognized voices among activists decrying police brutality.

One year after he arrived in Ferguson, McKesson co-founded “Campaign Zero”, which advocates for policy changes aimed at lowering the number of fatal police shootings in the U.S. to zero.

It may seem like a lofty goal, but as McKesson told his audience during a recent visit to Portland, “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

US police kill more people in a matter of days than many countries kill over the course of many years, according to “The Counted,” a project run by The Guardian that compiles data on police shootings.

For example, in England and Wales, there were 55 fatal police shootings between 1990 and 2014, while in the U.S., there were 59 fatal police shootings during the first 24 days of 2015. Iceland has had only one fatal police shooting since the country was established as independent in 1944.

“For so many of us, we’ve forgotten how to imagine and how to dream of a better world,” McKesson said.

He was in town March 15 to raise funds for Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit that promotes justice system reform and provides legal assistance to immigrants, incarcerated women and those who are wrongfully convicted.

The lower level of a large auditorium at First Congregational United Church of Christ was packed with several hundred people who had purchased tickets to hear McKesson speak.

McKesson sought to mobilize the predominantly white audience that evening. “An ally says, ‘I love you’ from a distance,” he told them. “An accomplice says, ‘I’m implicated in this too, and I have to use my awareness to do something different.’”

Since April 2017, McKesson has hosted “Pod Save the People,” a weekly podcast focused on social justice issues, and he recently co-founded OurStates.org, a platform for resisting the Republican agenda through state policy advocacy.

Before Portlanders greeted McKesson with a standing ovation, he sat down with Street Roots and one of its vendors, “Netty” Johnson, to take questions about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Netty Johnson: I’m honored to get the opportunity to meet you. Street Roots asked me, would I like to interview you regarding the Black Lives Matter movement? I wasn’t really familiar with the whole movement, so I asked quite a few questions and talked to a few people because when I first saw the Black Lives Matter sign – it started coming up in the neighborhood I live in, which is predominantly white – I was offended, because I know that every human matters.

When young children see the sign that says, “Black Lives Matter” and hear that police are coming for them, they need to be ready because violence might happen and they may be misjudged by any movement. Do you believe that’s sending the right message to our kids? When I tell my nephew, “Hey, if the police pull you over, don’t move, follow the rules.” Do you believe that “Black Lives Matter”, the statement only, is confusing to a young child?

DeRay McKesson: I am mindful that we are saying out loud and in public what was already true. The police have been killing people in neighborhoods way longer than we’ve been saying it in this moment. We’re not the first people to say it, and hopefully we will be some of the last people to say it. When I think about the message, the message is not bringing the trauma into people’s neighborhoods; the trauma was already in the neighborhood. We’re just saying that this is happening. When I think about the power of the statement for young people, and I think about the power of the statement for adults, it is about saying that black lives have value, even when the system doesn’t treat them as such. It’s about creating a common language and a shared understanding of that.

You wouldn’t go to a breast cancer rally and say, “colon cancer matters.” We can focus on one thing and be proud of focusing on that one thing, and we are. When I think about myself as one of the people in Ferguson and the initial wave of the protest – the police killed Mike Brown; they killed him – there might have been a space for a consequence for whatever law he seemingly broke, but it wasn’t death. And the police have killed so many people all across the country since. And we have just been saying that out loud.

NJ: I have been in and out of prison for over 22 years. I have 14 years now in recovery, and a lot of that, when we look back at it 14 years later, a lot of it was related to mental health issues that I’m still working on. Out of 11 of my family members, six were incarcerated. What events in your own life influenced your decision to drive to Ferguson, Mo., and join the movement?

Three big things. One is that both of my parents were addicted to drugs. My mother left when I was 3; my father raised us. I’m 32 now; she came back when I was 30. And I think about what it meant as a young person to grow up in a community of recovery and to see people, adults, all around me, every single day, putting their lives back together in ways that they had been told were impossible. So, when I thought about me taking risks, it was like when I grew up seeing people taking risks in their own personal life every day and making communities again when they said it was impossible.

Second, I used to teach middle school. I used to teach sixth-grade math to 11-year olds, which was great, and it wasn’t their fault that the world wasn’t fair. It wasn’t their fault that they grew up in poverty. It wasn’t their fault that they grew up in the projects. They didn’t do anything wrong. It was a system that failed them. And when I think about my role as an adult, I always think about those kids. It’s one of my responsibilities as an adult to make sure that they grow up in a world with different choices. They didn’t do anything wrong, and they shouldn’t be penalized for it.

And the third is that they killed a kid. Mike was 18, about to go to school. At that point in my life, I was having this moment of questioning what it means to live the things that we say we’re committed to, and that if I truly believed, then the least I could do was go down for two days. I went down on Saturday morning, and I was just going to go for two days and help out where I could and see what happened, and I got there, and I was like, this is crazy! I stayed much longer, and now I do a lot more. But at the beginning, it was like the least I could do was just see what was going on.

Emily Green: You grew up, went to college and worked on the East Coast, but since becoming deeply involved in the civil rights movement, you’ve traveled to places like South Carolina, Missouri. What has being involved in the movement in those parts of the country taught you about today’s civil rights struggles in America?

People will ask me, why am I making it about race? And it’s like, race is making it about me. I didn’t do that. And that is all across the country, everywhere I go, I’m reminded – you think about places like this where you can’t see the disparities – there are some cities you walk in and you see the disparities. I’m from Baltimore. You just drive down the street and you see them: the disparities are stark. There are places like Minneapolis, places like Portland, where you don’t see the disparities in the same way, even though the disparities are present. And I’m even more mindful of how it’s easy to give lip service to the idea of equity; it’s easy to do the performance and da da da, but the issues are actually everywhere. The disparities, the outcomes are still bad all across the country in communities of color.

So that’s one, the second is that there are people who are committed and ready everywhere. They might not always believe they have the power or the influence; they may not understand that there are people who will stand with them when it gets hard, but the people are there.

EG: Was there anything that was surprising to you when you visited those parts of the country?

Not the places; more so the time. You think about the beginning of the protests. People thought there was a problem in Ferguson; they didn’t think that there was a problem in America, so it

didn’t matter where we went in the beginning. Everywhere we went, people were like, “Oh Ferguson has a problem.” They were like, “My town’s fine,” or “My city’s OK.” It’s like, no. The police are killing people here, too. Everywhere sort of had that problem in the beginning.

NJ: When a person has a criminal record and they’re trying to make it in life, it haunts them. You try to apply for a job, get an apartment, or get pulled over by the police, and they run your name. Is there anything that Black Lives Matter is aiming to do to help individuals who have a past that’s not pleasant but who have made a complete change and who want to participate? People, for example, who want to get a job that is not going to involve a lot of dealing with people’s other assets and who just want to make a difference but who are being held back by their past?

The movement is a big space with a lot of incredible people all across the country. One area of acknowledgement is that we know prison is not constructed to be a place of rehabilitation and that people continue to need resources and support, and that it is actually a choice that society has made, to not support them. That is not how it has to be, it’s not like the system is just set up and there is only one way it could be. That’s a choice. So, we’re always reminding people that it’s a choice to not employ people and it’s a choice not to give people health care. That is a choice that we have made as a society, and we can make a different choice. When people say that the system is working exactly the way it was designed, what I’m always mindful of is that people designed it, and people can choose something different. From a program perspective, I think, yeah, there are a lot of really interesting programs that we could do, but from a structural perspective, it’s like we could actually just make a different commitment and we could invest different money. It’s never a money issue; it’s never a resource issue; it’s always a will issue. It’s a matter of do we think that people are worth this? And do we think that people will make good choices with the resources we give them? So that’s what I think about when I think about that.

EG: Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement has influenced the way media covers issues around police, poverty and mass incarceration?

If anything, I think the movement has definitely changed both the content and the tone in which the conversation happens in public. I think about in the early days of the protest, how we all worked so hard to challenge the news calling us a “mob,” and those sorts of things. It was also incredibly important in St. Louis because the police were as violent with the reporters as they were with us, so we didn’t actually have to convince them; it was like, they got tear-gassed and they made Chris Hayes (of MSNBC) march down the street like they made all of us, right? So that actually helped because no longer did we have to lobby the media. It was like, you know that just happened, so you should report it because it happened to you. And it was people with huge platforms that it happened to, so that was a lot of our work. And now you see reporters across the country being much more skeptical. They push; they ask questions; they see the holes in the police story – things that we’ve been saying were happening for a long time.

I’ll say though, changing the conversation is not the same thing as changing the systems and structures. While it’s incredible that we’ve shifted the conversation – we now share language and we talk about police violence, those things are wins – the outcomes are still bad. More people got killed in ’17 than in ’14, ’15 and ’16.

EG: “Campaign Zero” has outlined 10 policy solutions, including ending broken-windows policing and making union contracts for police fairer. Of all those goals, what do you think is most attainable? Do you see us moving toward really embracing any of those solutions?

We thought they all were attainable, which is why we put them together and why we named it Campaign Zero. We didn’t name it “Campaign Almost Zero,” or “Campaign Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Zero” or “Campaign I Hope We Can Do It.” We named it “Campaign Zero” because we felt confident that we could live in a world where the police don’t kill people. Where we just have a different conception of what safety looks like. We created the first public database of use-of-force policies and the first public database of police shooting contracts and have been working with communities across the country to change those things. We do a lot of work around body cameras, which are positive and negative depending on where they’re used. We believe in the 10 pieces – and the reason why we put them all together and didn’t really prioritize them is that it will take all of them working in concert for things to happen. We can fix the police shooting contract, but if there’s not community oversight, it doesn’t matter, and vice versa – so we think about them all as being necessary components of what change will look like.

EG: Is there anywhere in the country that you think really stands out as being especially progressive in moving toward these goals?

I think places have done pieces – we were just in Austin, and Austin City Council unanimously voted against a police shooting contract, which we hadn’t seen happen before. So that was powerful; that just happened. A lot of places have rewritten their use-of-force policies so that they make more sense. There are places that have done pieces of it really well. I don’t think there is a place that has done a range of them well.

NJ: Do you follow most of the police shootings that happen in the United States?

Yes.

NJ: Are you familiar with Che Taylor, who got killed (in February 2016 by police) in Seattle, and Andre Taylor, his brother, who is trying to bring justice for him?

I don’t know that case.

NJ: He’s from my hometown. When I found out that happened, it became personal. It actually was when I started realizing about the Black Lives Matter sign because I saw that this shooting in Seattle, where I’m from, and I felt afraid for my nephew. I want to thank you for bringing Black Lives Matter out into the public eye. I had to do a lot of homework before we met today, and I’m kind of embarrassed to say, like I said earlier, that when I first saw the sign, I was ashamed that the Black Lives Matter issue still has to be fought for in 2018. We know we matter! And so I really want to thank you for everything that you’ve done.

I’m just one of many people. There are so many people. When I think about the movement in the streets in the beginning, before protest was cool, about the many people who put so much on the line to make this happen.