It was one o’clock in the morning on August 16th, 2014. In Minneapolis, DeRay Mckesson watched the news on television and scrolled through Twitter. “I saw what was happening on CNN; I saw what was happening on Twitter, and they were telling two different stories. And I said, ‘I just want to go see for myself.’” Exactly one week before, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson had killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager. The television narrative highlighted protesters’ supposed unrest and Wilson’s self-defense claim. The narrative on Mckesson’s Twitter timeline was quite different: police brutality and murder.
That morning, Mckesson drove nine hours from Minneapolis to St. Louis to protest in the streets. The Ferguson protests not only propelled to the national stage the Black Lives Matter movement — originally sparked after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, another unarmed, black teenager, in 2012 — it also launched Mckesson’s political activism career — one which he amplifies via social media.
Mckesson makes news in every direction. In March 2015, he quit his job in human resources at Minneapolis Public Schools to devote himself to full-time activism. He helped launch a police-reform initiative called Campaign Zero. He ran for mayor in his hometown of Baltimore. He started a podcast about policy and social justice called Pod Save the People, for which he recently interviewed Edward Snowden and Katy Perry. And he is currently finishing his term as interim chief human capital officer at the Baltimore City Public School System.
He has been tear gassed and arrested during a protest (with charges later dropped). His Twitter following, at around 1,000 in 2014, is now over 800,000 today, and he has become a sought-after guest and speaker. The only constant: Mckesson’s puffy, blue Patagonia vest — his sartorial trademark. But the question on everyone’s mind for the 31-year-old is simple: what’s next?
Black Lives Matter marches on. Campaign Zero continues. The podcast is in full gear. And with all his grassroots work, Mckesson would welcome some change from the top. After voting for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election, Mckesson watched as the Democratic Party lost control of every branch of government. Mckesson and I discussed what Democrats need to do to regain power, how everyone can protest in their own way, and whether real, progressive policy change can happen in a country beholden to institutionalized racism and neoliberal economics.
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How did you become an activist after arriving in Ferguson in 2014?
I, like many people, stayed out in the streets, used social media as a platform to amplify messages, to organize, to mobilize, and that was my beginning in the protest on August 16th, 2014. I’ve been at it every day since. I’ve always been committed to the work of equity and justice, mostly with young people. I was a teacher. I opened up an after-school/out-of-school center. I was an organizer when I was younger. I was a youth organizer as a teenager. But it wasn’t ‘till the protests that I understood my role and this work differently. It really was the first time I got tear-gassed; those early days really changed a lot for me. It was in that moment that I was like, the world doesn’t have to be like this, this is wild. It was in that moment that I was like, I’ll do whatever I can to make sure people don’t have to experience this, and I have not looked back since.
You’ve said, “a protester is somebody who tells the truth in public and there are many ways to do that.” What are those ways?
This is not about one right way. It’s about you finding the way that is best for you. Some of us told the truth about bodies in the middle of the street, right? Some people organize people in their neighborhood. Some people make phone calls. I’m mindful that we aren’t born “woke,” but something wakes us up. For some people it was a tweet, or a Facebook post, or an Instagram post, that was the first time that they understood the world differently. I do think about protesters like they’re telling the truth in public, and we know that protest is not the answer but it creates space for the answer.
Why have identity issues become such a mainstream talking point in politics?
The phrase “identity politics” is fascinating to me. This country has always been rooted in the politics of identity. The genocide of Native Americans was about identity, right? The enslavement of black people is about identity. The wealth of this country is built on identity politics. I think I’m fascinated by this notion that somehow it’s new. Like, in the mainstream press, we talk about marginalized communities and disadvantaged communities like it’s a distraction for some people. Communities are marginalized by design. It’s like, the poverty in inner cities wasn’t happenstance; it wasn’t because of a collective failure of a people to engage in work. It’s what happens when you have centuries of unpaid labor that built the infrastructure for our country and then were thrown away, right? This is the result. So, when I think about identity politics it is, if anything, a gentle way to push people to reckon with a legacy of disenfranchisement that the country has never atoned for.
How must the Democratic Party change?
I think that for enough people, the party has not fought as hard as they wanted to fight, spoken to their lives, or done anything transformational in their lives. So just the emergence of a platform won’t be enough in this moment. That is not enough because people are then like, “Oh, where have you been?” I think that’s the critique. I’m interested to see what Tom [Perez] and Keith [Ellison] will do at the DNC. I think that we are in a transition period, and we’re a generation becoming more active, and understanding that this is about making sure that we build power everywhere, that we build it in the street, that we build it in the boardrooms, build it in classrooms, that we build power across areas — that this is not just about voting. This is about PTAs and school boards as much as it is about governorship.
What worries you about the future of the Democratic Party?
That there might be some people more interested in fighting than winning. I think that the left is sort of fighting over power it doesn’t yet have, as opposed to fighting to gain power. I worry that we invest so much time and energy into explaining the problems and very little energy into helping people understand what solutions look like. I think that the reason people don’t do this as much is because it’s harder; it’s riskier. It’s easier to say, “Let me explain to you what Trumpcare will do and how bad it will be.” Right? You just need people who have an analyst. It’s harder to say, “Here’s how we can implement single-payer.” Right? It’s harder to say, “This is what Medicaid for all looks like, and this is how we get there.” That’s just riskier. You have to have your values show up; you have to draw lines in the sand. And I think that’s just harder. I think it is intellectually more taxing. I think it requires an imagination that some people have not had to use before.
You don’t necessarily need an imagination to dismantle a broken system, right? But you definitely need an imagination to build a new system, and I think over three years, I’ve found that there’s an inclination to veer toward heavy dismantling, and when you ask them, “What do you want to build?” people have not thought about that. We will never get free if the strategy is only a dismantle strategy.
How do you assure the midterm elections play out in the left’s favor?
This was one of my last conversations with President Obama: we’ll never shame people into participating or voting because I’m one of many people who have voted my entire life, and the world’s still not getting turned into a magically new place, right? It wasn’t because I voted or didn’t vote.
I think that if I was a leader of a party, I’d remind people that there are many ways to be involved, and that what I believe is that they need to pick one — part of their commitment to a better world is to pick a way. At least one way. Whether that is your PTA, as a dedicated door-knocker, a phone caller, you need to choose a way — but there are many ways. I think if that becomes a message and an ethos then I think people will say, “Okay, let me choose my way, and I’ll feel a part of something bigger than me.” But I think if the message becomes “This is the way” then the Dems will continue to have a problem. Their messaging on the left has to be inclusive to people. If I have to search to see how my life is represented in your values, then you’ve already lost me.
How do Democrats get better aligned on language — and is that commensurate to being aligned on policy?
The language you use is important, and, over the past few years, what’s been important to me is how people understand the distinction between two sets of terms. One is “equality” and “equity” and the second is “diversity” and “inclusion.” “Equality” is this idea that everybody gets the same thing, and “equity” is the notion that people get what they deserve. And this work that I do is almost always about equity. And with diversity and inclusion, “diversity” is about bodies and “inclusion” is about culture. See, a lot of places are like, Yeah you hire fifty more black people, and it’s still like a racist place, right? You recruit thirty more trans students and still only have male or female bathrooms, right? That’s like you’re winning with diversity, losing on inclusion. And I say those things because that work is important — understanding that how we think about the world shapes the way we act in the world, and, if we aren’t aligned on our terms, it’s hard to align on outcomes.
Conservatives have long had a stronghold on political radio — is Pod Save the People the liberal response?
You know, it’s important to me to create a space that is led from an activist- and organizer-perspective, rooted in equity. So, the goal is that, when people listen, in every episode they learn either about content that they did not know about before or just didn’t know as deep, and that they are exposed to conversations with people that they’ve not been engaged in before, and that they think about their own role in this work differently.
So, the first episode is Cory Booker, sort of reflecting on the moment. And then there was Andy Slavitt, at the head of Obamacare for the past three years, and in that conversation we unpacked Obamacare and the state of the American healthcare system in ways that I hadn’t heard before anywhere else. In the second episode, we talked about taxes and why that’s important, and, in my conversation with N.Y.U. professor of tax law and policy David Kamin, I learned a lot about the Earned Income Tax Credit, about welfare, why this is important, in a way I didn’t understand before.
It is a core belief that you can’t fight what you don’t know, and that, if you can’t imagine it you can’t fight for it, right? So, I think that we all need to make sure that we have access to the right information and do deeper dives on some key areas. I’ve tried to be conscious to not have the podcast be a place that just repeats whatever the news is of the day. People can go a lot of places to get that.
Last December, you said, “The goal is acceptance; it’s not tolerance.” How does that gap get bridged?
The difference is about identity. Acceptance says that people should be able to live and grow up in the fullness of who they are. Tolerance is this idea that I don’t like you or I don’t like a part of your identity, but I’ll just let it go and I won’t express my displeasure. Acceptance is saying, I acknowledge that this is who you are and whether I like you or not as a person is different than whether I understand that your identity is your identity.
We are always building a world where people can show up in the fullness of who they are, and that is accepted. The goal is not to build a world where people are like, you know what, I don’t like trans people, but I’m just not going to say it. The goal is not to build a world where people are merely tolerant. The goal is to build a world where there is acceptance.
You’re involved in so many things—protesting, speeches, the podcast, Campaign Zero, BLM… What the next big move?
I don’t know. I’m interested in how do we make sure people have the skills and access to do incredible work to change the world. So, my goal is to open all the world’s information. That’s my goal.