The Inspirational Activist: DeRay Mckesson

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
11th August 2019


DeRay Mckesson is admired by people the world over for drawing attention to the alarming spate of killings of Black people by police in the U.S. Killings that have often been catalysed by minor misdemeanours or unwarranted suspicions, like those of Tamir Rice, a baby-faced 12 year old boy playing with a toy gun in a park. Mckesson came to international attention when he joined the 400 day-long protests by activists in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of unarmed teen Michael Brown at the hands of the police in 2014. He gave up his career in education to dedicate his time to speaking out about racially-disproportionate police brutality and incarceration rates in the U.S. Since the release of his book in 2018, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, he’s had a little respite from the three long years of speaking about the protests and defending the need for them. He admitted that writing the book was still a tough, exhausting process, especially when his editor covered his first draft in red ink. One essay that was left out of the book was about the rituals that developed around the relentless death of citizens at the hands of the police, particularly the heightened emotions experienced at the finality of closing an open casket. Suicides among Black youth in America are rampant, and the tragic reality of closing a child-size casket on a 7th grader who had hanged himself cut Mckesson to pieces. Change since the Ferguson protests is seen in the conversations that can now be had around the disproportionate number of deaths of Black people at the hands of American police, but the ugly truth is that the rate of police killings has actually increased since the protests. Yet, Mckesson suggests that the Black Lives Matter movement will likely follow the trend of the more general Civil Rights protests of the 1960s that saw a ten-year delay before changes were written into policy and law. DeRay is holding a dream; and that is to get to a point where we naturally feel safe in the presence of the police. Is that not their job? To keep us safe?

Language is important, because conceptual change allows us to imagine a different future. Yet a piece of the puzzle is taking the energy of the streets into the corridors of power, which is why Mckesson made a last-minute run for local office in Baltimore in 2016. He explains in detail how he was elaborately and thoroughly hacked, outed on Wiki leaks, and arrested in Baton Rouge. Twitter banned the man who was attempting to raise money online to organise his assassination. No wonder he’s tired. He warns us to remember that conversations can be read on Twitter without needing an account. Since that time, his influence has grown to the extent where he has been named the ‘celebrity activist’, that, he said with a laugh, he would rather replace with ‘an activist with a platform’. He makes another distinction to a majority white audience; the ideal of being a white ‘accomplice’ to Black struggle rather than the disputed ‘ally’, because being an accomplice demands proximity, action and sacrifice to do as much as they are capable of doing. The big question to white people is, “What are you willing to risk so that people can experience freedom from racism?”

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Due to her recent passing, the memory of Toni Morrison and her work has been invoked several times during the first couple of days of the Book Festival, showing what a huge influence she has been on Black and other people across the world. Ms Morrison famously spoke of racism as a distraction, and Mckesson describes racism as also being a deception. White privilege is often denied because whiteness itself is insidious. He distinguishes between whiteness and white people, particularly because a white person can either accept or choose to disrupt those systems that perpetuate white supremacy. He borrows author Ibram X. Kendi’s conceptualisation of whiteness as a ‘power construct’ rather than ‘social construct’. It’s likely that if more people understood the historical construction of the abstract concept of ‘whiteness’ by scholars in European universities several centuries ago, conveniently justifying the development of racialized chattel slavery, it would be easier to dismantle the enduring idea of race. Intersectionality is key in any social justice movement, as Mckesson discussed while chairing Kendi’s event the previous day. Black Lives Matter was started by Garza, Cullors and Tometi, three Black women, two of them Queer, who prioritised intersectional justice based on the work of earlier Black Queer activists, positing BLM as a wide-ranging liberation movement. Law professor and activist Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the concept of ‘intersectionality’ close to 30 years ago, uses the platform #SayHerName to remind us that Black women are also disproportionately targeted by the police, and often sexually assaulted by police and in the prison system itself.

The idea that a ‘post-racial society’ was ushered in with the Obama presidency was rash at the time; and unsurprisingly since proven to be a fallacy. Obama came up short when it came to addressing policy change, but this is often attributed to the entrenched power structures surrounding an American president. It was interesting to hear Mckesson’s account of the civil rights leaders who spared Obama the truth in meetings, some claiming that a ‘revolution of love’ is all that was needed. Mckesson reminds us that a third of all people killed by a stranger in the US are killed by a police officer, and more are people arrested for weed-related offences than for all violent crimes combined. There is much work to be done, and it can’t fall solely on the shoulders of Black people.  The topic of self or group care always comes up in Black activist circles, as the rigours of direct activism takes a toll on mental health. He suggested, only half-jokingly, that after the trauma of Ferguson, donations should have gone towards therapy sessions for all the activists. He makes sure to spend time with loved ones and children to stay balanced, for joy guards against burnout and forms part of the resistance. He encouraged us to interrogate our individual psychological issues in order to do this demanding work to the best of our ability, and that we can all start, just like many big movements started, with a conversation at our kitchen table. In the meantime, check out the work being done across the US, including the police reform initiative that Mckesson is part of, Campaign Zero. Luckily, so far, our police are rarely armed, but seeing as Scotland has its own issues with racist attacks, murders and police brutality (see the unresolved Sheku Bayoh case) sometimes it’s helpful to look across the pond for inspiration.

Lisa Williams

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