On August 16, seven days after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., DeRay McKesson ’07 left everything and drove to St. Louis. He did not know a single person in the city and initially planned to stay for three days just to witness what was happening in the aftermath of Brown’s death. 

He ended up staying for much longer, sleeping on the couch of another Bowdoin alum and using social media, primarily Twitter, to share stories of protests against police violence and racism. 

He now has over 76,000 followers on Twitter and is nationally recognized for his work in St. Louis. McKesson received the Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award and was named one of the world’s 50 Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine

Before his experiences in St. Louis McKesson had worked as a sixth grade math teacher in Brooklyn, at the Harlem Children’s Zone and had started an academic enrichment center in Baltimore. 

McKesson spoke to close to 300 students, faculty, staff and community members last night in Kresge Auditorium. 

He began his talk by remarking about his understanding of the Offer of the College.

“It has always been such a radical promise about what education can be and what a society can be,” said McKesson. “When I think about coming back here of all the places that I have been fortunate enough to speak about the protests it means something particular to me mostly because of what I believe the Offer promises.”

McKesson was quick to juxtapose the Offer of the College with the American dream. He pointed out that the American dream is rooted in violence against people of color and is something “that has been a dream too often and not an offer” for oppressed groups of people in this country.

The bulk of McKesson’s talk focused on five concepts and how they relate to his work in St. Louis: proximity, storytelling, redefining the win, pressure and allyship.

McKesson shared many of his tweets and videos from his time in St. Louis. He spoke about how when he started out in St. Louis he used Twitter as a way to work through his own feelings about the protests. Twitter evolved into a means for him to bring the story of the protests to a wider audience.

“Some of what I do is tell the story. Some of what I do is amplify the story,” said McKesson.
He also emphasized the importance of showing tender, positive moments on Twitter. For example, he loves seeing couples in protest spaces. 

“The stories we tell matter and if anything the protests have made me see that in a deeper way,” McKesson went on.

His talk was filled with personal anecdotes and remarks about how he used social media to tell stories that traditional news outlets were not reporting. 

“Twitter allowed us to tell the story [of Ferguson] in real-time,” said McKesson.“It allowed us to take back the narrative and when CNN wasn’t saying anything and when MSNBC wasn’t talking about it we actually got to push the narrative anyway,” he continued.

He said that when he first arrived in St. Louis he was part of a group of protesters that was tear gassed by the police and that this experience helped to redefine his outlook on the protests early on. 

“There was this thing about being tear gassed in America that was so foreign to me,” said McKesson. “It was this notion that this is actually not the America that I know. This is not the America that I love. This is not the America that I think is fair to people, and that was what made me make a different choice about being in the work.”

McKesson stressed the importance of authentic commitment to protesting, saying that many people like to say that they are committed to social justice, but in actuality are not willing to really engage with the issues.

He related this commitment to the concept of proximity.

“When we talk about the protest spaces, we are saying that we stand with these families that have lost people; we stand with marginalized people and for us it was like putting our bodies on the line and saying here we are,” said McKesson.

He went on to explain how Twitter has enabled this sort of commitment from many different types of people.

“What I am so proud about in the protest space is that Twitter specifically has allowed us to have a vertical community where socioeconomic status is actually not that important anymore in terms of how people have come together,” said McKesson.

McKesson emphasized the difference between what he calls “the good and the necessary” and actual justice. 

“Justice is either never experiencing the trauma at all or [justice] is accountability for people who perpetuate or initiate the trauma,” he said.

He cited the six resignations of various officials in Ferguson as “good and necessary,” but not as true justice for the people of Ferguson.

To conclude his talk, McKesson got to the heart of his protest ethos.

“We protest not to confirm the worth of our lives. We know that our lives are worthy. We protest to expose the depth of the evil that we face,” said McKesson to a chorus of snaps from the audience.

His talk ended with a lengthy question and answer session, during which students asked questions ranging from how to reach out to groups of people on campus who have not yet decided to engage with issues of race to how he manages to stay positive when faced with intense resistance to his message. 

Abby Roy ’16 asked him about how he views race education existing in the classroom today. 
McKesson responded that the classroom is incredibly important to effective education about race.

“Twitter and the classroom are the last two radical spaces in America,” he said.