DeRay Mckesson: Organizing at Scale / by Maxwell Young

Photograph by Michael Ferrier 

Photograph by Michael Ferrier 

The social media generation is barely thirteen years old, and it has already revolutionized the way people share information.  In 2004, Facebook catalyzed what we know now as a social network.  Our interests, thoughts, and memories were encapsulated in an online community where people from around the world could interact with one another through group pages, status updates and photo archives that have come to represent a digital identity of our lives. The first YouTube video recorded in 2005—“Me at the zoo”—has engendered millions of visual journalists telling stories on the platform through a unique lens.  And in 140 characters or less, we can inform the whole world that Beyoncé is expecting twins with one tweet.

For a long time though, information was asymmetrical.  Information was controlled and disseminated by institutions like media syndicates and the federal government, manipulating the way it was perceived.  Malcolm X was conveyed through nightly news channels as a militant Muslim, while mass incarceration, which pervaded through the 1980s, was disguised as the “War on drugs” and justified by the support of our youth with “Just Say No” campaigns.  It wasn’t the idea of abstaining from recreational drug use that was the problem.  The problem, which unfortunately is embedded within the prejudice of the criminal justice system, arose when peoples of color were voiceless—plugged into newsreels that projected fear into the American conscious, widening the margin of white supremacy.

In 2017, video footage of New York police officers strangling and suffocating Eric Garner, a black male, who desperately cries out, “I can’t breathe,” is a viral reminder of police brutality thanks to YouTube and Twitter sharing.  In 2017, students from across the country can stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by posting statuses on Facebook.  In 2017, the violent persecution of black people and other historically oppressed peoples can no longer be misconstrued to fit some xenophobic agenda.  The media is everyone and information is everywhere.

Mckesson and a student take a selfie.  Photograph by Michael Ferrier

Mckesson and a student take a selfie.  Photograph by Michael Ferrier

DeRay Mckesson has become the figurehead of activism in the digital age.  The blue Patagonia vest he wears every day has quickly become his identifier, like the late Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck, dad jeans, and New Balance sneakers ensemble he wore during Apple product launches.

“I have the single biggest platform of [activist] individuals.  I had about 800,000 followers on Twitter when I started in the protests…and I became known as the guy in the blue vest to people.  It’s a safety blanket,” he says of the jacket.  “I’ve never not had it overnight.”

I think about social media activism as our way to push back. As people of color, we’ve always faced this issue of an eraser.  An eraser manifests in one of two ways: one, is that the story is never told and two, that the story is told by everyone but us.  In this moment, we became the un-erased.  We became our own storytellers, and we were able to push our own ideas.

Mckesson is leading a new wave of activism in the United States.  From protests in Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore, Md. following the deaths of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray to fiery debates with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, the Baltimore native has been a fixture in the conversations of police brutality and Black Lives Matter.  These conversations are more about how to enact change as opposed to deriding societal institutions and issues.

He says, “When I hear people talk about the work of dismantling oppressive systems, I feel like people get the ‘dismantle’ part really well.  But the build part is two pronged: one, we have to think about what these institutions would look like and two, we have to have a set of people ready to lead them.  It’s not enough to have people ready to tear them down…How do we create the next set of people who can build?  That has to be a part of the work.”

Mckesson has been tinkering, on a national scale, with the way in which these new ideas and institutions can be organized.  In 2015, the 31-year old launched “Mapping Police Violence,” which is a website that collects data on people killed by police.  Moreover, to enforce the messages of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mckesson and his team created Campaign Zero—a ten-point policy plan for police reform.  Campaign Zero has already aided in the implementation of reform, as the police chief of Orlando, Fla. changed the police department’s policy on use of force following a meeting with the organization.

Mckesson was the keynote speaker for George Washington University's 2017 Black Heritage Celebration.  Photograph by Michael Ferrier

Mckesson was the keynote speaker for George Washington University's 2017 Black Heritage Celebration.  Photograph by Michael Ferrier

Ideas of systematic reparation do not instantly convert the American conscious.  They will take time to be tolerated because they must erode the decades of societal conditioning that portrays the inferiority and dangerousness of peoples of color.  The ideas of control and ‘making America great again’ war against ideas of equality and civil rights.  The battleground is all around us—framed by our television sets and news feeds, but ideas are indoctrinated into American society because of our neighbors, friends and family.

Mckesson, who openly identifies as homosexual, related this notion to the fight for victory in same-sex marriage law.  “The gay marriage fight finally won because regular people went around to their peers and were like, ‘You know gay people.  Your cousin’s gay, your sister’s gay…Don’t you think they should be able to marry?’  That nuts and bolts organizing is how we were able to change hearts and minds.”

We believe that the best idea wins. That the right idea will somehow magically be the idea that wins.  And history tells us that’s not true.  The idea we fight for the most is the idea that wins.  The idea that we beat into people’s head over and over again is the idea that wins.

The organization of these notions of equality and racial justice into tangible solutions is what Mckesson aims to accomplish next.

“The works of our celebrities and the people who make the culture have to be a real part of how we organize…their platforms are so big that every time they offer ideas, they offer more people to participate in the conversation.  What would it look like to have canvases in every neighborhood in America ready to change hearts and minds, ready to push people and ideas? What would it look like to have nationwide telephone banks, so that people can mobilize at the drop of a hat?  What would it look like to give every single black and brown kid in poverty a library?  A set of books from birth to college; that to me is what real organizing would look like in this moment.”