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What does it mean to be a civil-rights leader in the age of Twitter and Trump?
DeRay McKesson joins me this week on ‘Firing Line.’
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Only 33 years old, DeRay McKesson is one of the country’s leading civil-rights activists.
Savvy and unrelenting, he has leveraged social media to bring attention to systemic injustices in America.
In 2014, McKesson was a school administrator in Minneapolis when protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
He quickly gained prominence as one of the very first activists to formally associate himself with the Black Lives Matter movement.
McKesson’s mix of commentary and reportage on Twitter placed him in the vanguard of social-media activism.
Later, he founded Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to ending police violence in America and moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, where he ran for mayor.
According to his Twitter profile, McKesson is currently based in Wakanda.
An accidental fashion icon, his signature blue vest has its own Twitter account.
He is the host of the podcast ‘Pod Save The People’ and author of the new book ‘On The Other Side of Freedom: The Case For Hope.’
DeRay McKesson, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
It’s good to be here.
Thank you very much for being here.
I loved your book.
And you talk about, in the beginning, how Twitter saved your life when you were in Ferguson.
Can you tell us how?
I think for so many people — and I write about this — if not for Twitter, the people of Missouri — the legislators, the police, for sure — would have tried to convince you that we didn’t exist.
You know, people forget that in the early months — in August, September, and October — it was illegal to stand still, that if we stood still for more than five seconds, we were arrested.
We remember that, but it was Twitter that helped us tell the world what was actually happening.
It really created this new way of mobilizing and organizing people.
And you think, too, about, back then, the media wasn’t asking tough questions of the police.
It just wasn’t happening.
So I think about my hometown of Baltimore.
We see the Baltimore Sun pressing the Baltimore City Police Department, there are all of these articles, all these questions.
In 2014, that wasn’t happening in Baltimore.
It wasn’t happening in St. Louis.
It wasn’t happening in cities across the country.
We were the people doing that, using social media.
But I’m not naive to the other side of it, right?
So the first person ever permanently banned from Twitter was banned for trying to raise money to get me killed.
So I’m sensitive to those issues, too.
But on the whole, it really helped us build a community that could actually enact real change and press issues that otherwise wouldn’t get any play.
I read your book.
I have a lot of questions for you and your book.
So, first, I’d love to define some terms.
And one of the things you talk about in the beginning is equality versus equity.
Can you define both terms?
Yeah, so, we think about equality is everybody gets the same thing.
Equity is that people get what they need and deserve.
So when we think about school system funding, we know that it costs more to teach kids in poverty, to teach special-needs kids.
So we’re not asking for equal funding — we’re asking for equitable funding.
Is that only in the context of education?
No, it’s in general, but that’s, like, an easy example for people to understand.
So we think about equity with regard to the police, for instance.
If you think about the latest stats in New York City, it’s that 86% of the people arrested for marijuana were black or Latino.
That is — nothing about that is equitable, so the idea of equity and equality, the difference between the two, is important across a host of things.
I use the education just ’cause it’s, like, an easier lens for people.
Well, and education is one where it’s very easy for people across the spectrum of sort of political ideology to engage, right?
Conservatives will talk about education, and certainly, I think about education in terms of equality of opportunity.
And often in education, we fail our children.
We fail the most vulnerable because they don’t have equality of opportunity.
And the only way to get to equality of opportunity is equity in resources, right?
So they are not like an either/or — they are often a both/and.
So you often need equity to get to a place where equality might even be real.
Do you see equality of opportunity and equity at odds with each other or as partners?
Partners — so, we think about — so when you talk about the inequality of opportunity with regard to kids, like, what does it mean?
In Baltimore, you saw on the news that there were schools with no boilers, there were schools with no heat at all, there are kids in coats.
That is about inequitable allocation of resources at the state level, right?
So when you have the inequitable resource distribution, it is leading to inequality, that you call inequality of opportunity.
Another term — and, really, concept — you deal with in the book is whiteness.
You talk about white versus whiteness and how you have learned to talk about the two of them, so can you explain what your concept of whiteness is?
Yeah, so, we think about — starting with white supremacy, this notion that or this idea that white people are what it means to be normal and that that notion, actually, bleeds into the fabric of this country and certainly the fabric of the Western world, that there’s a set of people who are, like, normal, and everybody else is, like, a deviation or derivation of that.
So you think about what does it mean that if you go get, like, nude clothing and it looks like your skin doesn’t look like mine, what does that actually look like?
Toni Morrison wrote about what does it mean when we read books that the characters are white until named something else?
That is what happens when white becomes a standard for what it means to be human.
Whiteness and white supremacy are a little different, as I understand it, the way you write about it in the book.
Is that accurate?
Yeah, so, when we talk about white supremacy — white supremacy is an ideology that says white is normative, and there’s a value judgment there.
So white is normative and better than everything else.
Isn’t white supremacy more of a call-out for racism?
No, so, that’s interesting, is that the way people think about white supremacy is normally rooted in things like lynching and enslavement.
That is, like, how people think about it, but white supremacy shows up in a host of other insidious ways.
So you think about — funding for school systems is a great example.
Like, some kids aren’t worth an investment, and some kids are certainly worth an investment, and that is about saying that, like, there’s a set of people who just are worth more than other people.
Do you think that most people define it the way you define it?
No, I don’t know if, like, it is one thing.
You are talking about the way that it manifests, which is different than the way we define it.
So we live in a world where there are a host of things — like Band-Aids are ‘skin tone’ and don’t look like my — like, that is, again, perpetuating this notion that white is normal and that we make things for — like, white bodies is normative.
Yeah, I know.
I think what I’m getting at is that the term ‘white supremacy’ evokes a really evil ideology that is explicitly racist, right?
But that is, in your words, only subtly different from whiteness.
So, again, one of — the staying power of white supremacy is that people only think about it in the most insidious forms.
I don’t think you think that the manufacturers of Band-Aids are white supremacists.
Yeah, what I’m saying is that you can participate in the ideology without identifying with it.
But the way you described white supremacy could be quite offensive to people.
Because, I think, the way you’ve described white supremacy suggests that it is something that we’re all partaking in without intending to.
But how are white people offended by — like, that’s what I don’t understand, is that if we are saying that white supremacy is a notion that white is normal and part of being normal is that it is good and that it is better than other things, then that notion is just a bad notion, that that in and of itself is a bad thing.
We think about disparities, like the racial wealth gap.
Black and brown people aren’t, like, poor in the country ’cause they were just lazy, you know?
White people aren’t wealthy because they worked hard.
That’s not true.
Like, we gave white people wealth, and that is about an ideology of supremacy.
That is about what the ideology of white supremacy has done at the structural level.
The only way that we’ll get to the other side of this is actually tackling it head-on.
So, is whiteness a watered-down version of white supremacy, or is it just institutionalization?
You know, I think that, in this push, I think — is, like, a fair push in general — is, like, how do we acknowledge that there’s a system that is insidious.
There are white people who actively work against that system, who benefit from it because it exists but don’t work to perpetuate it, right?
And that is what we want to name when we talk about, like, white people.
There are white people who do not participate and who actively work to disrupt the system of white supremacy.
Like, that is real.
One of the concepts you sort of address is what to do about that and how to remedy that.
And you talk about sort of allies versus accomplices.
And how, in this battle, in order to fix these sort of systemic injustices, one needs accomplices, not allies.
So, in the macro, allies sort of love you from a distance.
They’re like, ‘Hope you’re okay.
Like, I believe in it.’
Accomplices love you up close.
There are a lot of allies — and allyship is important.
Allyship is often rooted in a personal experience, and it stays rooted in that personal experience.
What accomplices do is take that personal experience and extrapolate it to systemic experience.
I want to liken this to, you know, this language that I understand in the context of the LGBT movement, right?
So, I have worked in the LGBT movement in a capacity that I run an LGBT advocacy organization that helps Republicans get on board with full freedom and equality for LGBT people.
Now, I am a straight, cis woman, and I’m considered an ally.
But I think the work I do is the work of an accomplice because I help passing laws and I help raising money, and we’re trying to secure full freedom and equality legislatively for LGBT people in this country.
So, how do people who are the beneficiaries of whiteness become accomplices in this work with you?
That’s a good question.
What you’re saying — the work that you’re doing is about fighting for people up close.
When you’re working to change systems and structures, when you think about it with regard to race, what white people can do is it often starts — and allyship often starts with people understanding their privilege as a white person.
So they say, ‘Okay, I get it.
I benefit myself from something that I didn’t necessarily work for.’
That is, like, normally how people go through this experience with white privilege, and then they start to identify in their personal life.
That is what happens.
There are a lot of people who just stop there.
So they’re like, ‘Okay, I get it.
I see this stuff around me.’
And it’s still really localized.
What accomplices do is that they take that local understanding and they apply it to the macro.
So they say, ‘Okay, the fact that I benefit from this intergenerational wealth actually is a result of 100 years ago, how we inequitably distributed housing loans and the G.I. Bill, right?
They start to understand the systemic part of it.
And that’s what helps people transition into accomplices because what accomplices help us do is change the system.
So, tangible ways or examples that people who benefit from whiteness can become accomplices.
It’s legislative work. It’s…
It’s taking the fight to, like, boardrooms, to classrooms.
So you think about — I can think about a number of white accomplices in this work who understand their privilege, and they are the people fighting to save social-welfare programs.
They are the people who their kids don’t — they don’t have kids in a public school system, but they are the people fighting to make sure that resources are distributed equitably because they understand that a just society is something that we need to experience, whether they are personally implicated in that moment or not.
I admire that your work is dedicated to pragmatic solutions, and in Campaign Zero, you have a list of what seem to me to be very sensible ways that you can end police violence — body cameras, training police, limiting the use of force, demilitarizing municipal forces.
You know, the legacy of this program — it was hosted by William F. Buckley for 33 years, and he had a guest on talking about a policy that I think you are against — broken windows policing.
And I want to show you an explanation of broken windows policing from this program in 1999.
Let’s take a look.
It’s really an application of the broken windows theory.
If you have a building, somebody breaks a window in that building, and you say to yourself, ‘This is too unimportant.
I’ve got bigger things to think about than fixing that window.’
There’s a good chance if you leave it there, then somebody’s going to break another window and another one and another one, and the whole building is going to fall down for want of dealing with the problem at the beginning.
On the other hand, if somebody breaks a window in your building and you fix it immediately and you try to find the person responsible for it and you try to make the point that you’re not going to accept that kind of behavior, there’s a real good chance you’re going to save the whole building.
So, the opposite of the broken window theory is what New York was doing for about 30 to 40 years.
‘We don’t have time for street-level prostitutes.
We don’t have time for street-level drug dealers.
We don’t have time for people who evade fares.’
And for want of dealing with all those things, New York City went through 2,000 murders a year in the early part of the ’90s, more index crimes than most cities in America, and had become the crime capital.
Now what we do — we don’t emphasize only lower-level crimes.
If we did, it would be really stupid.
But we don’t lower-level crimes.
All right, so, there’s broken windows policing.
Tell me why you’re against the theory of it — at least, this idea that if you can contain a small amount of crime, it will keep the neighborhood safer.
I wish that what you just said was actually how people operationalize broken windows policing, but it isn’t.
This notion that, like, if there’s a broken window, then we should fix it — sure, fix it, right?
I’m all about that.
If there’s trash in the neighborhood — I get that people might treat spaces better that look better.
That makes a lot of sense.
What happened in New York City under Giuliani was that they criminalized all of the people that they thought had broken the window.
And it’s like, there’s a difference between consequence and punishment.
Consequence is about change.
Punishment is about pain.
And what we see happen with mass incarceration, it is wholly about punishment.
So, you think about today, in Chicago, they would say that, like, we should — Chicago’s a violent city to a lot of people.
And we should —
Well, objectively, there’s a lot of violence in Chicago.
Yeah, there’s violence in Chicago.
So the solution should be that we should focus on these quality-of-life crimes.
So what you find in Chicago is that they are ticketing black people for riding their bike on the sidewalk, and if you don’t pay the citation, that leads to potentially it being in criminal court.
That doesn’t make sense.
There are places, though, where it’s very — it was considered pretty successful in New York — on the one hand.
I understand the criticism is that it led to a generation of mass incarceration of black men, right?
Yeah, so, what people don’t think about is — New York is a proof point that you can actually — you can arrest less people and the crime goes down.
That is, like, the revolutionary moment that New York City is having right now, is that the latest study came out.
Arrests in New York City have decreased, and crime has decreased.
So why do more than 50% of New Yorkers support broken windows policing?
That’s a great question.
It’s that, when you look at the data — and Pew has done the most research on this — is that people’s perception of crime actually doesn’t match the reality of crime.
But the reality of safety in New York was that we went from 2,000 murders a year — sort of before Rudy Giuliani came to power, before this broken windows policing came into power — and then dropped to — now it’s somewhere between 200 and 400 murders a year.
Yeah, but people would say that broken windows was just the popular conversation, that there were actually a host of safety nets and social services that help people.
We think about — the relationship between poverty and crime is so stark.
It’s actually — you look at the latest Bureau of Justice statistics, it shows that white, poor people actually commit violent crime more than Latinos or black people.
But poverty in and of itself creates the condition for crime.
And so, what people would say about that same peer when Giuliani was here is that what you saw was a safety net coming to exist in New York City that was actually helping people transition out of poverty, that broken windows becomes like the smoke screen that people use to justify this.
Wait — what was that safety net?
You think about all the foundations that popped up in that same sort of period of time providing access to opportunity and equality of opportunity to people that just didn’t exist before, and people would cite that as a reason why crime decreased because people literally — we were changing the fabric of their conditions.
Not because, like, the subway suddenly didn’t have graffiti on it, but he —
So do you think it had effect?
I think that the effect, if any, is overblown.
And those supposed ‘results’ have not been replicated.
You see, again, in places like Chicago, there’s no indication that giving people citations for bicycling on the sidewalk — or even in New York City right now, arrest 86% of the people for marijuana.
I’m not so sure it’s accurate to say it had no effect.
I mean, Bratton, who was the chief of police here in New York, who helped implement broken windows theory, then went to Los Angeles and implemented it, and there was a series of urban, sort of revivals in the ’90s.
The same disbelief you have is the same disbelief I have with you not being willing to acknowledge that it might be the confluence of social programs.
Or both. Could it be both?
I just — We’ve not — We have seen the impact of social programs in communities across the country having a positive —
I believe if you invest in communities, it’s going to make them better — 100%.
We actually just haven’t seen the increase of policing lead to decreasing — or, like, it’s just not something we see.
So, then, aside from investing in communities, what would you have police do in high-crime areas?
Yeah, so, if we need — you know, I’m from Baltimore, right?
Eighth-largest police department in the country, but we are the 25th-largest city, right?
So you see a ton of police officers, and crime is, like, almost at record highs.
Like, an increase in officers actually isn’t the thing.
What we would say is that we can take that money that we have been pumping into police departments for the past — I don’t know — 30, 50 years and we could actually invest that money into the prevention programs and the intervention programs, and we believe that that will — and the data suggests that that will actually have the biggest impact if the goal is to decrease crime.
Then what’s the role of the police in the interim?
Well, that is the million-dollar question.
It’s like, I believe that conflict will exist in communities, and we need a response to conflict.
I’m not convinced that the police have to — or are the best response to conflict in communities, so the question becomes, like, what do we do?
We’ve seen some neighborhoods and some communities think about safety that they localize.
We’ve seen a response to safety in schools and restorative justice actually be an interesting and powerful way that doesn’t need any law enforcement to be involved.
But I think this question is an open question that people should be grappling with, is that, what should the role of police be, if any?
You know, it’s interesting that people think about the institutions that we experience today as enduring and lasting, when they’re not.
So you think about the conversation about ICE.
ICE is a relatively new thing, so people are like, ‘We must keep ICE.’
It’s like, we didn’t always have ICE.
Yeah, but the function that ICE provides, right, is the same thing that Naturalization Services from the Department of Justice provided before.
Like, there’s a role it provides, right?
Only if you are using ‘function’ at the very, very macro, that it’s, like, at the broadest —
But it sounds like you’re suggesting that there is a world where, possibly, we don’t need police and there’s no use for police.
I’m suggesting that there will always be conflict in communities, and we need a response to conflict.
I know that there was a world before the police forces looked liked this.
That is true.
I know that, right?
We should be free enough to think about alternatives to this, especially when we think the institutions are broken.
So, you think about in California, 1 in 11 homicides committed in the state of California is actually committed by an officer, 1/3 of all the people killed by strangers are killed by an officer.
That, to me, isn’t, like, this amazing system.
And do you think of the police system and policing generally as a monolith?
So, I’m willing to say that there are good people who have chosen to be police officers.
There are probably, like, good departments out there, while noting that the institution of policing has failed at the mandate of safety.
If the mandate is incarceration, they win.
If the mandate is, like, locking people up and enforcing these rules and evading justice writ large from the system that most people participate in, the police have done that really well.
But if the goal is, like, keeping communities safe, I’m not convinced that the way we’ve structured the institution is one that makes sense right now.
In 2016, President Obama at the White House hosted the first-ever intergenerational meeting of civil-rights leaders, which you attended.
And it was one of the longest non-national security meetings in the history of his presidency.
One of the things I noticed in this — I think will surprise people — is that there was a high degree of criticism of some of the people who went to those meetings, and you, also, in particular, and it strikes me that there are some real fault lines in the Black Lives Matter movement.
What was the criticism of attending that meeting about?
Yeah, I think that there are people — and I write about this — I think that purity politics is really seductive, right?
So it’s this notion that, like, you should only sit down with people who agree with all of your values in the moment, you should only engage in things that you think are going to be, like, the most pure.
What I know to be true is that we live in a world of compromise, but we don’t compromise on our values.
So we knew going in to talk to President Obama — we were frustrated he hadn’t gone to Ferguson.
We were frustrated that it took him so long to speak out.
I remember saying to him, ‘President Obama, you can’t call people thugs,’ right?
Like he called the Baltimore protesters.
So we were — we didn’t agree about a host of things.
We also knew that he was willing to listen and have a conversation about these things.
I think that there a lot of people, though — and this moment is a real reminder for them — that have never, ever organized when the person in power is not sympathetic at all.
In your book, you write about words and how words matter and how in 2016, the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘post-truth.’
Why does truth matter?
It’s important — you know, we can disagree about a host of things, but we shouldn’t be able to disagree about the facts.
And we are in a moment where people are just, like, disagreeing about the facts, so you see Trump just saying things that are not true.
You’re like, ‘Well, that is — that was weird, right?’
Like, this is a moment unlike any other, where people are fighting about things that are true and not true and not about our interpretation of them, not about our opinions about them, and that, to me, is dangerous.
You say in the book — one of the things you say is, ‘Getting to the truth can be hard.’
But that it’s really important.
Yeah, so, I think about even the police — it’s, like, you know, four years ago, I didn’t know anything about police shooting — I would have been like, ‘It’s just a bad cop who did a bad thing and somebody doesn’t want to indict him.’
Now I know that there’s, like, a whole system, and it took us a lot of work to do the digging to get to the systemic understanding, which was hard.
You came to prominence in Ferguson, and you say protesting is telling the truth in public.
You know, what that protesting did was help elevate the, I think, high incidence that many people weren’t aware of, of not just police brutality, but real discrimination and racism in police systems across the country.
And to the extent that words matter, in the specific incidence of Michael Brown, who allegedly raised his hands and said, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ which became a rallying cry — in that specific incident, those words, perhaps, were not true.
So how, as an activist, do you confront that?
It’s a good question.
So, neither you nor I were there, and there were so many witness accounts that suggested that they were true.
What we do know now that we didn’t know in 2014 is that black people are more likely to be unarmed than anyone else when they are — when they encounter police violence.
We know that there’s no correlation between the violence in communities and police violence, that there are some places where there’s a lot of community violence and no police violence, and the opposite is also true.
And I say that because in the totality of what we do know, that this statement is more true than not, that not only have we seen more videos of black men running from the police and still getting shot — so you think about Walter Scott.
But the data actually shows that black victims of police violence are more likely to be unarmed than any other victim of police violence.
I agree with you — like, words matter.
So it seems to me that the movement can continue even while acknowledging that it might have been wrong about the words in that case.
Yeah, I don’t — you know, I don’t know if ‘wrong’ is the right way to think about it.
I think that, as someone who believed the witnesses, we were saying as a statement to the police that, like, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ — we said it, we chanted it, we tweeted it — as a reminder to them that, like, even when we’re not armed, you consider our to be weapons, and we are calling that out.
What is the case for hope on the other side of freedom?
What is the case for hope?
You know, I think about hope as a belief that our tomorrows can be better than our todays, and I take that with me everywhere I go.
And I wanted to write about not only about a diagnosis of where we are in this moment, but some thoughts about, like, what we could do.
I write about being gay.
I write about what it meant to grow up in a family where my mother left and just came back, so these parts of identity, about who we are as people.
I write a lot about systems and structures because I do think that so much of this is about how we think about the macro, not just about how we think about moments.
And then I write about what our relationship is with a power greater than our own, whether that is how we think about faith, hope, God, ourselves — trying to put those pieces together to offer something based on what I’ve been through and what I’ve seen.
I want to thank you, DeRay, for being here.
Thank you for joining me on ‘Firing Line.’
It’s really been a true pleasure, and I really enjoyed your book.
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