“I just need to tell you the truth”: An Interview with DeRay McKessen

DeRay McKessen is an activist and organizer for the Black Lives Matter movement. He co-founded Campaign Zero, a nonprofit which analyzes policing practises and proposes solutions to end police violence, and co-hosts Pod Save the People, a podcast that highlights news, culture, and politics impacting people of color. 

McKessen wrote about his experiences organizing and protesting for the Black Lives Matter movement in his memoir, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. I reached out to him to better understand how storytelling within and around the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved since 2014.

Amanda Knox 

At the inception of this whole movement, how did you and other Black Lives Matter leaders think and talk about your communication strategy? Like what stories did you want to tell, how did you want to tell them, and why?

DeRay McKessen

So remember that the protests are born in St. Louis, in Ferguson. And the movement is organic. There’s not 1, 2, 3 people who started the protest, or who make them continue. This really is a people-based movement that is full of leaders. When we were in the street, we didn’t have meetings about the communication strategy. We had meetings about what we’re going to shut down and what we wanted to do and what we wanted to get out of it. We all knew the importance of telling the truth about what was happening and that that traveled, right? It was really so many people in the street all telling the same story, but from their own perspective. That is actually what tipped the protest off. And some people became more of the storytellers in their work. I told people that we go here at this time if you want to do this, just being a sort of traffic controller in this space, so people knew what was true and wasn’t true.

Amanda Knox 

So taking advantage of technology to bear witness.

DeRay McKessen 

It is about witness, but what made it different is that it was all of us experiencing the same thing and telling that story before anybody else. So the mainstream media wasn’t covering it, the police and the officials in St. Louis were trying to tell you we didn’t exist at all. But you heard 50 different accounts, you saw videos of something happening in Ferguson, and you just didn’t understand it. Whereas today, there are planes overhead so that we have all these amazing aerial shots of the massive protests. Missouri declared a no fly zone almost immediately. There are no aerial photos of the protests in St. Louis. You have no clue how many people we got in the street because they didn’t want you to see it. So the only way you saw it was because we told you in real time. We were the only way you could see it. Whereas now, it’s like a million news cameras in every city. 

Amanda Knox

Going from your presence being suppressed to highlighted right now in the media, how did that change the way that you guys have been organizing your communities, and communicating your demands and stories?

DeRay McKessen 

I don’t know if the strategies change as much as people’s willingness to do things change. What happened at the end of 2014, people came out ready to learn. People who didn’t know the scope, who thought that there’s only a problem in Ferguson, they didn’t realize it’s a problem in their community, too. A lot of learning happened right after 2014. What is happening now is that people are like, “Okay, I get it. I gotta do something.” 

Amanda Knox 

So when you’re getting people fired up, what kinds of stories are you telling them in order to facilitate an informed movement? Are you telling the stories of individual people? Are you presenting data? And how is that changing people’s minds?

DeRay McKessen 

I don’t think that we actually have to get people riled up. The truth is what gets you riled up. So I just need to tell you the truth. The truth is that a third of all the people killed by a stranger in the United States is killed by a police officer. The truth is that the police killed as many people in March and April 2020 as they killed in March and April 2019. The quarantine lockdown didn’t stop anything. That’s just true. So when I think about my storytelling, I’m just trying to help you understand that this is real. The truth is actually damning enough that it should radicalize you. I think that the parts of storytelling that are a little bit harder is how can we help people understand a world beyond the police. That’s what’s hard. We’re telling stories about a world that they’ve never seen before, but we know it’s possible. So you’ve never seen a world with no police, but we know that’s possible. You’ve never seen a world where the police don’t kill people. We know that’s possible. You’ve never seen a world where there’s no poverty, but we know it’s possible. People ask me all the time, “Are you saying the police shouldn’t kill anybody?” And I say to them, “When should the police kill your child? What’s the thing your kid can do that you’re totally fine with a police officer killing them?” And then they’re like, “Oh.” No parent should have to go through that, right? So it’s that sort of storytelling that helps make this a little more real for people. And the good thing about the protests this time is that because they coincided with quarantine, you see so many people who otherwise would be like, “I have to be at work and I don’t have time. I can’t do it.” They are out.

Amanda Knox

I devoted a whole season of my podcast to cases of vigilante justice. Even in a world with police, people sometimes take the law into their own hands, and given our history glorifying retribution and violence as justice, in a world without police who currently have a legal monopoly on violence, will violence have any place, or do we have to divorce ourselves from violence as justice?

DeRay McKessen

I think we start from an acknowledgement that the police aren’t stopping all the things you’re worried about now. By the time the police are called, the bad thing’s already happened. The police aren’t like intervening in rape. They are not really stopping murder. They’re not like stopping burglary. They are being called once the act has already been committed. Justice is a world where like the act doesn’t happen in the first place. The second understanding is that there’s no research that says prison and things like that actually serve as a deterrent. The FBI has reported that only 5% of arrests happen for violent crime, which means that 95% of everything else, do we need a police officer, a person with a gun to respond to those? I don’t think we do. So even if you have a small set of people who might be armed, who deal with that 5%, then that does not look like 30,000 officers in New York City.

Amanda Knox 

One thing that I think the movement is asking [is] that we stop looking at the person with the least agency to explain why a tragedy is happening. We need to be looking at the people who have the most agency and hold them accountable. Does that seem like a fair read?

DeRay McKessen 

It’s about saying, “We didn’t start this.” We obviously have a responsibility, because our lives are at stake, but the bigger responsibility is on the people who are not impacted, who have a lot of power to undo the damage. They should be working really hard, all day and all night, to figure out how we get out of this mess, precisely because they are not at the same time fighting for their lives.

Amanda Knox 

How have people responded to that message?

DeRay McKessen

I know that the polling around people’s understanding of the movement is better than it’s ever been. But the question is: will we be able to organize to get this systemic justice that we deserve, or will this be a moment we celebrate symbolism and we don’t get structural change? Time will tell. We don’t know yet. But I think that it’ll be the former.

Amanda Knox  

I read an article recently where you discouraged calling the protest movement a war. There are a number of activists who identify as soldiers for the movement. Is it important to think about language, or is it okay for language to be flexible around these issues?

DeRay McKessen 

I don’t think it’s either or. I want to always use language and stories that remind everybody that we have come outside with the truth and cell phones, and they came outside with guns and pepper spray. We were not armed, we were not aiming to kill. And a war suggests that we both are armed, and that’s not true. If anything, it is closer to something like genocide. One group of people has no weapons and one group was heavily armed. You don’t ever hear somebody call the Holocaust a war. It wasn’t a war. So that’s why I worry about that. I understand the language of soldiers, but the reality is just different. The worst of what people think they’ve seen outside is a bunch of broken glass in some buildings that won’t be here tomorrow. The worst of what I’ve seen from the police is I have a friend who lost her eye. Those are just incomparable and any language that equivocates is just failing language.

Amanda Knox 

Do you ever think about how there is a plurality of messaging and whether or not that needs to be controlled or allowed to flourish?

DeRay McKessen

I think that the beauty of the movement, like, so much of the media focuses on two cities, right? You would think that the only cities in America are New York and LA. We need the people to lead all across the country at the same time. It has to be in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Jackson, Dallas, all at the same time. And the beauty is that there’s leadership emerging all over the place. It doesn’t need to be one person.

Amanda Knox 

Some people have described the Black Lives Matter movement as a movement comprised of young people. Do you think that that’s true? Or is it more broad than that?

DeRay McKessen 

It started out with a lot of young people, but a lot of people of all different ages are outside saying, “Enough is enough.”

Amanda Knox

What is the relationship between civil rights leaders and Black Lives Matter activists?

DeRay McKessen 

It’s a small space. Everybody knows everybody. There’s better relationships than it used to be. When we were in St. Louis and Ferguson and St. Louis, some of the older people wanted to be our parents and not our peers, and that is gone right now. I think that we all want to figure out how we get out of this mess, you know?

Amanda Knox 

Are there more similarities than differences ideologically? How are people talking about the old way of doing things versus the new way of doing things?

DeRay McKessen  

The reality is we all came up in different times. So they look back and sometimes they’re like, “We did that and it didn’t change.” But they also never lived in a world where they could talk to a million people at once. They understand that. We’re like, “What if we try this?” It’s a space where our ideas can be in conflict, even though we’re not in conflict. And that’s like a healthy tension to have. There’s acknowledgement that our tactics might differ, but we all love black people. And we’re all waking up every day trying to figure out how to help black people. 

Amanda Knox

What does the media get right about the movement and what has it gotten wrong?

DeRay McKessen

This go round is great. In 2014, there was no language to talk about what a protester was. It wasn’t that the reporters were skeptical of the protests; they had been used to believing the official story from the police. In this go round, not only do people learn from 2014, but the police are really wild. So they were arresting reporters on day three, they were tear gassing and shooting reporters with rubber bullets. So all of a sudden, you see these people who weren’t naturally skeptical of the police, and then all of a sudden they saw exactly what we said, and they’re like, “Oh, those people weren’t lying.” We’re like, “Yep, we were not lying.” I think about how much I had to do in the news in the early days just like explaining stuff, whereas now the reporters can do it. They’re like, “The police said that happened and that did not happen.” And we’re like, “Perfect.”

Amanda Knox  

I admit that until very recently, I hadn’t ever imagined a world without police. Can you paint me a picture of what the world looks like without them?

DeRay McKessen  

My push to you would be that you already know a world without the police. All we have to do is help you realize you know it. Where you are the safest, it’s not a place where the police are. In the safest place you are, it’s not a place where there’s police officers roaming around. So when we think about the small set of people who will just want to do harm, they will want to invade that place where you feel the most safe, they will want to hurt you, we should have a response to that, but we can’t fear monger. For the last 20 years, violent crime has been at 5%. Given all the inequity we have, 5% is still really low. Imagine what happens when you get rid of poverty, you get rid of homelessness, and you actually have public education that works, that 5% will diminish to be almost nothing. That’s what we think of when we think of a world without the police. A world without the police is really a world with all of the resources people need. The only reason that police have work to do is because we’ve criminalized so much in the first place. And if we can decriminalize while at the same time making sure people have resources so they are able to make different choices, we can get there.

Amanda Knox 

What kinds of facts or issues are people overlooking even today?

DeRay McKessen  

The three things that come to mind that people don’t think about is, the police are killing more people in suburban communities than anywhere else, but if you look on the news, that’s just not the story that people tell. There’s another myth around unarmed and armed. Black people are actually more likely to be unarmed than white people, and that’s something that people don’t seem to realize. And the third is that there are structural things that almost guarantee the police will never be [held] accountable. 

Amanda Knox  

I know that you have a lot of optimism for this movement. What is the story of black lives matter, and is there a happy ending?

DeRay McKessen 

I think the ending is justice. I think we’ll get there. I think that we’ll get there in this lifetime. We’re in the middle of a big moment. We know so much more than we knew before. We know what works, we know what doesn’t work. And now the question is: can we deliver? Can we rally people? Can we point people in the right direction? That’s the challenge.

Amanda Knox 

What specific policy and structural things need to change for there to be the justice that you’re looking for?

DeRay McKessen 

I don’t want to jinx it, but I think we can get some big wins in decarceration, like mandatory minimums. I think that we can dismantle all of the laws and policies and practices that protect the police. I think that we can permanently move money away from policing and put it into real structural change. That’s actually what justice looks like. That’s what I think about now.

Amanda Knox

What do you think about the people who aren’t on board yet? Is it important to build bridges to those people? Or do you not need to?

DeRay McKessen  

So you’ve always only needed a critical mass of people who believe to change the world. There were not a million people in the street with us in Ferguson in the beginning, and now you see the protests today that were born out of that moment. You need a dedicated core. Trump’s a reminder that you certainly don’t need a majority to win, because he didn’t have one and doesn’t have one. So we focus on the people who believe. We create space for the people who are not yet there to change.