Just after midnight on August 16, DeRay McKesson ’07 was at home in Minneapolis, watching TV coverage of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., when he decided he needed to be part of them. McKesson rented a car the next morning and made the nine-hour trip to Ferguson. He planned on protesting for two days, but ended up taking a full week off from work and staying for nine days.

The protests began on August 9 when police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who was unarmed at the time. Police claim that Brown assaulted Wilson, but numerous witnesses offer conflicting accounts. Several witnesses describe seeing Brown raise his hands above his head just before Wilson fired the shots that proved fatal, an image that inspired one of the protestors’ mantras: “Hands up, don’t shoot."

McKesson, who works for the Minneapolis public school system, said that as someone who works in education, he was immediately struck by one stark reality of Brown’s death.

“There are a lot of great things we can do for kids around opportunity, especially kids from low-income communities,” he said. “But you have to be alive to learn.”

The protests focused on racial inequality and police discrimination against black Americans.
“It is centrally about the idea that black lives matter and that Michael Brown’s blackness is not enough for him to be perceived as a deadly threat,” said McKesson, who is black. “Ferguson is a case study in systemic, structural racism.”

McKesson said that a wide range of people took part in the protests. He heard children there asking their parents why Brown was killed and whether or not they should be afraid of the police.

“It was an experience to see parents have to remind their kids that they are worthy members [of society],” McKesson said.

According to McKesson, young adults at the protests thought that they could find themselves in Brown’s position.

“At night in a hoodie, I’m another Trayvon Martin. I am not a Bowdoin grad—I’m a black guy in a hoodie,” he said. “I understand that my blackness is how people experience me first sometimes, for better or for worse, and that’s real.”

Amidst the upheaval that marked his days in Ferguson, McKesson said he was surprised and happy that his time in Ferguson was, as he put it, “a Bowdoin moment.” He spent his first nights in the area on the couch of Ivy Blackmore ’07. He bumped into Priya Sridhar ’07, who was covering the protests for the Associated Press, Will Donahoe ’08, who was protesting, and Kristina Goodwin ’10, who was providing legal aid.

Ferguson schools were closed for a few days during the protests, so volunteers taught children at the local library. McKesson was among them, as was Ross Jacobs ’10.

“It was powerful to see the College’s commitment to the social good play out in such a natural way,” McKesson said.

McKesson began to document the protests via Twitter because he was frustrated that the media—distracted by the shocking optics of the police response—had forgotten the purpose of the demonstrations, which he referred to as “principled protesting.”

Local authorities policed the protests using armored vehicles, hundreds of officers in riot gear, tear gas and rubber bullets. McKesson said the enormity of the police presence was incredible, and that the situation was often terrifying. He once found himself caught between two tear gas canisters. On another night he hid from law enforcement by crawling beneath the steering wheel of his car.

“I never thought in America that I would run and hop fences because I thought police were going to shoot me when I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

Despite his fear, McKesson said he always remained committed to the cause.

“You continue to protest because you believe,” he said. “You believe that what’s right outweighs the fear for your own safety.”

McKesson said that the scale of the police response speaks to the protesters’ concerns with racial inequality and structural racism.

“What the police presence does in Ferguson is immediately criminalize blackness,” he said. “The assembly of black people is immediately a criminal moment that requires every police officer in the area.”

The media’s attention has drifted away from Ferguson, but McKesson’s has not. He has returned several times and helps write a daily newsletter about the protest movement at hashtagferguson.org

McKesson said that his experiences in Ferguson have not made him more cynical, but that they have made him more vigilant.

“It was a reminder of the obligation to defend and protect democracy—the concept and reality of democracy—on all fronts,” he said. “There are more Fergusons in America.”