On a March night 25 years ago, the helicopter and sirens woke up a Los Angeles plumber named George Holliday. The footage he recorded on his Sony Handycam over the next nine minutes — of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers — is perhaps second only to the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination in its impact on public life. Today, a video camera rests in every hip-pocket smart phone, and myriad videos of cops versus black men and women have altered politics and culture. The Black Lives Matter activist and former teacher DeRay Mckesson is a child of that early viral video and the ripples it created.
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You were not quite six years old when Rodney King was beaten and the world saw the video. Do you remember seeing it?
I remember seeing it briefly. I more so remember the conversations about Rodney King and the conversations about policing, though at that time, I and many of the people that I grew up with saw this as an isolated event that only happened that one time and it led to unrest there, but I never thought that it could be close to me.
What was your experience of the police growing up where you did?
My father tried to make sure that we weren’t out much when we were younger. But I remember when I was 10, there was a drug bust right in front of my house as I was outside in the yard. And I’ll never forget it because there was a guy on a bike and then these five or six undercover officers come chasing him down and they jump on him and they arrest him. And that was I think the first time I had ever seen the police arrest people.
And then when I was an adult here in Baltimore, I was pulled over for a traffic stop and an officer approached my door with his gun drawn. That was like in 2009, and then I still thought that these were isolated events, that this wasn’t happening, and now I know that not to be true.
In the years, the decades since Rodney King, we’ve seen technology bring more and more of these incidents and these discussions to public attention. It’s really profoundly altered policing and the perception of policing.
Technology has completely changed the way we think about the public sphere. It’s also flattened the way that we communicate with each other, that newsmakers are people in homes and in the communities, not just the people in the TV studios any more. And that’s really powerful.
We have known these things have been happening in our communities for a long time; we just have not been able to talk to each other about it, and technology -- Twitter specifically, Facebook specifically -- have allowed us to talk to each other about the world we live in in ways that we could not before.
We have had, over the course of the last 50 years, the nature of the movement of African-American empowerment through Martin Luther King. We’ve seen a different kind in the Black Panther Party. With Black Lives Matter, where do you see that kind of movement and its related movements going? And where do you see them taking the country?
I’m mindful that we did not discover injustice last August, and we did not invent resistance. We exist in a legacy of struggle. I think that what comes next in the movement is that there’s a coalition-building to truly build entrances to the movement for people who might not have shared goals but have shared outcomes. You think with the gun control lobby, we don’t have the same goals, but we all want to live in the same world where there’s not mass shootings. You think with the climate change people, the environmentalists don’t have the same goals; we all want to live in a same world where it’s not dirty water like it is in Flint. And then I do think that you’ll see people running for office, to be on school boards, be on commissions, and working to change the system from within.
When you say “August,” you’re referring to the Ferguson [Missouri] shooting in August of 2014 that really revived a lot of this interest, attention and activism.
Yes, I’m specifically talking about the death of Mike Brown, which I think changed the way that so many people of my generation understood their own power and their ability to push systems and structures to be better.
With the election of President Obama, who’s now finishing his second term, we heard so much about a “post-racial America.” What is that, and is that even a possibility?
We know it’s not true, and we know that race continues to function in this American way that we have to talk about so that we can mitigate its harm, that racism is real, that the impact of racism continues to be present. We see it in housing discrimination and policing and education, and because President Obama is president does not mean that race went away. It does mean that there are some places where there is more access than there was before. Again, access itself is not an indication of the end of racism; it is an indication that there has been progress made.
The idea of white privilege is something that Black Lives Matter people often mention. At the same time, working-class white males are becoming a minority in this country.
Yes, it’s not a matter of numbers; it’s a matter of the impact of power. So white privilege is the benefits that result from whiteness being seen as standard, as the normative, regardless of gender and income. You think about redlining in communities, you think about how Band-Aids that are skin-tone look like a color that is not the color of my skin, you think about the books that you read where the characters are assumed white – so many things culturally, and also structurally: how people were systemically denied access to housing loans, how groups of people who not taught to read in enslavement itself. There’s a legacy from that, with white being seen as the standard. I think that we can get to a place where we appreciate people’s culture without having it be normative in the sense of being good or bad.
BEYONCE MUSIC AUDIO AND A FEW SECONDS OF THE “SNL’ SKIT
There was a skit on “Saturday Night Live” where white people who liked Beyonce’s music were astonished to hear her singing about being black. Beyonce is a black woman but also a rich and famous woman. Is class becoming a bigger determinant than race?
No, race has been and will continue to be until we address it head-on as an issue in America. I think what Beyonce did so powerfully in the video was highlight the complexity of blackness in all of its forms, and also reflect some of the social issues of the day, with regard to police violence, with regard to community safety, and highlighting the importance of culture itself.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been in a lot of places; the hashtag was and still is immensely popular. Where has it been effective, and where has it not?
The thing about hashtags is that they’re the paper clips of the internet. And what the hashtag has done is that it’s brought people into a conversation, to help people find a conversation that is happening about race and policing and race and injustice and race and identity in ways that there was just not public space for before. I think that’s really powerful.
In terms of where it’s not effective, there’s some people who dismiss the idea of racism and its reality, and also just don’t want to talk about this stuff. I think that is really hard because until we talk about it, we’ll never be able to actually undo racism.
Is it divisive? Because politicians have been asked, do black lives matter? The response is, all lives matter. And for some people, that hasn’t gone down very well.
The hashtag itself is not divisive. And the all-lives-matter statement has been one of the most often used distractions in the movement. If I went to a breast cancer rally, it wouldn’t be okay for someone to say, Oh well, you know, colon cancer matters. People with breast cancer aren’t saying that colon cancer doesn’t matter; they’re saying that they’re specifically focused on one issue right now, and that is what the movement is saying: we’re focused on one issue, in the movement space, and that’s really important. It doesn’t make any other issue less important.
You must have faith in the mechanics of governance, if not in the people who occupy it now, because you’re running for mayor of Baltimore. You think the system can work even if it doesn’t now?
Yes; I think that protest in and of itself is an inherently political act. People push the system because they know the bearing that it has on people’s lives.
You’re also one of the people behind the website We the Protesters, which is about protest, about how to protest, and almost a map, a guidebook for bringing issues to public attention.
Yes. We the Protesters and Campaign Zero, which is about policy platforms, what we wanted to do with We the Protesters way back when we made it was to create a space where people could find the chance in the videos and the posters, if they wanted, to create these types of spaces. And then, what we do with Campaign Zero is help people to see exactly from a policy standpoint how the world can change to be in honor of people as opposed to against their lives.
At any point do you see an end for the need for this kind of protest, when principal demands are met, when there are people like you and your protest colleagues in positions of authority?
We shouldn’t have to protest. That should not be part of how people have to go do the world. I think that part of what it means to be a democracy, though, is that people should and can and must challenge their government to live up to its commitments and to do right by people. So I think that the movement started around issues of police violence and accountability. I’m sure that in a few years, there are other issues that people are going to organize and mobilize around. I think that is what keeps the government honest, if it is honest at all.
Your famous blue Patagonia vest has its own Twitter account and recently posted that it smells of “struggle, tear gas and liberation.” What’s with the vest?
You know, it’s cold -- that’s what is with the vest. It makes me feel safe. It’s completely irrational. I think about Baltimore, I had a death threat at the movie theatre and they evacuated the movie theatre. I wasn’t nervous at all. The vest just makes me feel safe. It’s not bulletproof, it’s a regular Patagonia vest, but I love it.
It’s original? You don’t have a backup?
Just the one vest to rule them all – just one vest.
I hadn’t taken you for a “Lord of the Rings” man.
I’m happy that you got the reference. Some people, they completely miss it, but I appreciate that you got it.
Would you have any books you would recommend to people who are listening to or reading this to understand what you’re about, and where you think the country should be paying attention?
Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” is important for people. D. Watkins’ “The Beast Side” is a very different book from Michelle’s and also really important. And then “Just Mercy” by Brian Stevenson is a powerful read.
Now to bring the conversation back to where it began, to Rodney King, the beating on video 25 years ago. The year after that, in the riots that ensued, Rodney King came out and said, “I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?” That wasn’t a rhetorical question. Can we?
You know, we all have to be willing to show up at the table. And the “we” is not just the public. The “we” is the police, the “we” is the mayor’s office, the “we” is the governor’s office, the “we” are gun manufacturers. So yes, we can. We need to be thoughtful, though, about who the “we” is and making sure everybody comes to the table and offers what they can do to make the world a place that works for people.
DeRay Mckesson, who is active in Black Lives Matter and other movements, including the website We the Protesters, now a candidate for mayor of Baltimore – thank you so much.