On April 2, DeRay McKesson ’07 came to campus to discuss activism, his role in protests throughout the country and social media. Following his talk in Kresge, McKesson sat down for a Q&A with members of the Orient. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.
What’s been your path to activism?
I went on August 16 [to Ferguson] for the first time. I got in the car and drove nine hours and went there. I put on Facebook that I was going and hoped that someone would find me somewhere to crash and they did. The person I stayed with after the first few days was a Bowdoin alum—a Bowdoin classmate—which was really important. You know, at the beginning I had no friends in Missouri, I did not know anyone well but I started protesting and I tweeted as a way to process. I needed to make sense of it to myself and Twitter was a way for me to tell other people, but also really tell myself.
Marginalized people always face this issue of erasure, and erasure comes in two ways—one is that the story is never told, and the second is that it’s told by everyone but you, the marginalized person. And Twitter allowed us to tell a counter-narrative about what was happening in protest in real time, which was powerful. Over the last 200-plus days we’ve been able to both talk about protests nationally and also tell those local stories. We’ve been able to keep the narrative even when the mainstream media may not be focused on the work. We can maintain the story and we’ve found that to be powerful.
How has your time at Bowdoin influenced your current work, and your understanding of the common good?
The common good is this understanding that you are to use your privilege and your gifts for causes greater than you are. I understood that at Bowdoin, the privilege of that education and that experience. The question becomes, common for who? Who is this common for, what does that look like, how do you push that? I think that’s important. I believe the Offer of the College implies that it has to be received, and there’s a reciprocity to what an offer is. I juxtapose that to the American dream, which is forced on people. I appreciate the offer being situated as such; I think the content of the offer is powerful, but I think that the message that an offer itself serves is important.
What do you think effective activism should look like at a place like Bowdoin?
Good question. One thing that I talk about is this idea of the story. It’s important to tell the story of whatever it is that you’re fighting for, especially in the context of a world where you are just always bombarded with messages. How you tell a narrative of why this issue actually matters to people is important. I think at a place like Bowdoin, it is particularly difficult because there is a general level of comfort that can create distance from actionable issues, because it’s generally a good place. So to your question about what productive social activism looks like, I think that protest is always disruption, it’s always confrontation. The question is, how does that live in a place like this? I think that some of it can be physical, like with the die-ins and stuff. Because the student body here is so small, 40 students coming together here to do anything is a sizable part of campus. So it can be creating new community around issues and sort of forcing conversations about things. Because this is a college, it could also be bringing speakers who talk about certain things to educate people. It could be exhibits. I think about those body image things that I’m sure still happen—using art, using culture as a way to push people to think deeper and think differently about work can happen.
It is interesting to protest with privilege, because even the marginalized people here have a relative privilege. It is easy to be comfortable here no matter what; it’s a place where you need for nothing. That creates a different relationship with the issues that people really care about.
How did you turn something you were passionate about at Bowdoin into a career?
My career was fighting for kids—either as a teacher, in after-school, or as a district administrator—and those things were really important to me. I think that if anything my advice to people leaving college who want to do social justice work is to be really clear about who you’re fighting for, right? For me it was kids. Those are the people that I’m fighting for every day. One can become so addicted to the fight that they forget the cause. One can just be so excited about the sort of confrontation phase that they forget the issue, and I’d say to remember to be rooted in the issue. Be as close—and this is the proximity thing—be as close to the work that you want to do as possible. And know who you’re fighting for. So that was my thing. And now I’m fighting for them differently. I’m fighting for them to be alive, whereas before I was fighting for them to have this phenomenal education.
Can you talk a little bit about the Mapping Police Violence project? How did that idea come into being?
Our focus has been on telling the truth, figuring out different ways of telling the truth, and then making sure that the truth we tell always empowers people, and this is that. So it’s like, we’re going to build a map that shows what truly happened, we’re gonna cut the data for people in as many ways as we can, and this is the first compilation of those two databases—the killed by police and then the other one—that we mashed into one. And we’re trying to make sure that we continue to tell the truth and empower people, which is why it has that piece by police department. You can look at gender, age, race—those sort of things are really important.
We rolled out a couple things. Wetheprotesters.org rolled out the database for chants and pictures of signs and those sorts of things. We stopped doing the policy stuff—we put it on hiatus—but that was there, those policy papers. I think we’ll probably do some sort of reading club soon, with protesters from around the country.
It’s interesting. When we released it, one of the first criticisms we got was, why are there not white people? It’s interesting, this idea that white supremacy always centers whiteness.
You’ve talked about receiving a lot of abuse on Twitter and other platforms. Have you experimented with other platforms trying to find a way to avoid some of that? Do you think there are things that the people who develop these kinds of networks could do to stop that kind of thing from happening?
I’m committed to Twitter. I love Twitter. So no to other platforms, and the movement’s not really on Facebook. I do get trolls on Facebook, but really, people troll my mentions on Twitter. If you look at anything I’ve written, there are probably all these people who are fighting in my mentions who I never see, because I’ve blocked like 12,000 people. I think it comes with the territory a little bit. The death threats don’t—I think that’s a whole different ballgame—but I think Twitter has acknowledged that they need to be more aggressive dealing with harassment and abuse, and I think they are making the right strides, they’re just not there yet.
Somebody made a game, I don’t know if you guys saw it, but there’s a target practice game, and my face is one of the faces on it, so you click and shoot me. And when I reported it, Twitter was like, well, the link is somewhere else, so they won’t take it down. So that’s not helpful. So I think they’re working on it. It’s slow, but I’m committed to Twitter as a platform.
We’ll continue to figure out ways to tell the story. I think that there are all these things around community building that we can do. How do we bring together people in the digital space in a way that is still authentic? Because you often see the digital space as being inauthentic, and I think that we’ve seen the digital space be powerfully authentic. How do we find or create the tools that protesters around the country can use to support themselves? You can start a movement, you don’t need an organization. How do we make that easier for you? How do we continue to create those resource banks for people? This goes back to the idea that everyone has a role to play. We’ve been in a place where we have been focused on how do we tell the story, how do we tell the truth, and how do we use this truth to empower people.
Nicole Wetsman contributed to this report.