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Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson: "I’d only seen white people on TV"

The US civil rights activist talks bodies, money and religion

Each week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the subjects we're told to keep private by getting them to roll a die. The numbers they land on are the topics they're given. This week he talks to DeRay Mckesson. The US civil rights activist, 34, is a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement and co-founder of Campaign Zero, which protests police violence. He shares his hopes in the book, On the Other Side of Freedom.

Activist and author DeRay Mckesson.

Activist and author DeRay Mckesson.Credit:Getty Images

BODIES
Our bodies can’t be divorced from our race. What’s your first memory of being aware of being black and, more so, what accompanies that in America?

When I was in fifth grade, we moved to the country [Catonsville in Maryland], to a majority-white school. It was the first time I hadn’t been in a majority-black community, and the first time I saw disparity [Mckesson was born in West Baltimore, Maryland]. I’d only seen white people on TV. All of a sudden, school was a completely different world.

So as you’re developing a consciousness of your blackness, you’re also becoming conscious of whiteness.

And becoming cognisant of what power looks like. I saw white parents come up and make demands about the classroom experience. I’d never seen parents do that before. I saw what privilege looks like. People of privilege always understand that everything can be moved and negotiated.

You were tear-gassed on the second day you protested in Ferguson, Missouri, against white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shooting 18-year-old African-American man Michael Brown Jr in 2014. Is putting your body on the line a prerequisite for effective activism?

I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. I do think that it changes the way you think about advocacy. There are a lot of people who either couldn’t come outside, or chose not to, who still did incredible work. I don’t want to discount that. It is a very different sacrifice to be there though, willing to risk your life for something you believe in.

Is that still you today?

Yeah.

One response to the Black Lives Matter movement was “All Lives Matter”. How did you respond to that?

Well, I wouldn’t go to a breast cancer rally and say, “I want to focus on colon cancer.” We’d love to live in a world where all lives matter. But right now, that is an aspirational statement.

MONEY
In 2015, you quit your job in the public schools system as a human resources official and moved to St. Louis in Missouri to join the second year of protests in Ferguson. What did that cost you?

I quit because it was the right thing to do. I don’t regret anything, but I did make a lot of decisions I’ll be living with for a while. I went without health insurance; I went without income; I lived in the basement of my godparents for three years. I only moved out around six months ago. What was hard was that people would see me on the news and assume I made money.

No. [Laughs] Not at all!

You’re giving to the cause. But what does the cause personally give you?

The reason I stay in this work is I think we can win. I don’t think it’s rooted in some ridiculous optimism. When I go to work, it’s like, I get to meet so many incredible people who reaffirm that belief every day, and then I see really cool work happen. Those are the things that keep me like jazzed and energised.

Your trademark look is wearing the same Patagonia vest constantly. Would you say yes to sponsorship?

I know the people at Patagonia; they’re incredible. We have a great relationship. But no, I don’t think that would make sense right now.

Activists have to give so much of themselves to the cause. But when you do have money and time, how do you like to indulge?

I like to spend money with people I love. I travel; I hang out with my sister; I’ll be around my friends. After living out of a backpack and sleeping in a basement, physical things don’t mean as much to me as they used to. People do.

RELIGION
Were you raised with faith?

We were raised Baptist. But I don’t think I had a strong relationship to church. It was more like a cultural experience. Actually, it was really the protest that made me understand God.

What do you mean by that?

There were so many moments where we shouldn’t have made it out of a [dangerous] situation, but we did. There were so many moments where it had to be a higher power, helping us navigate through, because what we were facing was just so wild.

Still, black people – especially black children – are being disproportionately killed by police violence in America. Does that make you question your belief in that higher power?

I’m of the thinking that we have to do a little bit of work too; that God alone doesn’t do it all. That it’s required that we show up. So no, my belief isn’t questioned.

What do you pray for?

It’s like having a conversation, where I’m incredibly thankful. It’s like a thank-you prayer. And asking to give me wisdom to continue to do work that has meaning.

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