The entire country is on edge right now with people protesting police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black people by law enforcement. All the while, the world continues to cope with a deadly pandemic, one that disproportionately affects African-Americans. And in November there is a presidential election. It’s a lot for many people to grapple with and make sense of, but in a one-on-one interview with Yahoo News, civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson says it’s important to focus on the crisis at hand and work from there.
- DeRay Mckesson is one of the most prominent faces from the original US-based movement.
MARQUISE FRANCIS: DeRay, you're an educator, author, civil-rights activist, one of the leading voices for the Black Lives Matter movement. There's so much going on. We're dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Black people feel as though they've been hunted by police. And then we have a presidential election coming up this year. So how do you wrap your mind around what's going on and what the focus needs to be?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, so we think about this immediate crisis is around police violence, right, and an acknowledgment that the police kill around 1,100 people each year, that the police have killed more people since the protests in 2014, not less, and that a third of all the people killed by a stranger is actually killed by a police officer. So that's, like, the way we enter into this conversation, and that is a key part of why the protests are in the street again, and that matters. So that's, like, one of the biggest things that I think about because when we think about the pantheon of issues in the civil-rights space that have been addressed, the police is one of the only issues that hasn't really changed.
MARQUISE FRANCIS: With the backdrop of the presidential election coming up, most black people are not fans of President Trump, but then a lot of people also aren't feeling former Vice President Joe Biden. So is Joe Biden doing enough for black Americans?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, so I don't think this is like-- I think that's like a false-choice question. I think that Trump is so egregious that it's like we might want something better from Biden, but Trump is just so wild. We never thought there would be a president who would ban whole countries on Twitter, mostly black and brown countries. We never thought there would be a president who would seek the death penalty for drug dealers, right? Or you even think about him with the protests. He's going to use the military to, like, impact protesting, right? So I think that that is so wild and bad that there's nothing Biden has done or could do that would make me think that he wouldn't be a fit president up against this guy.
Now I think that, like, is Biden as progressive as people want him to be? I think there's some pushes there. I also think that Biden's platform is actually better than Biden's ability to talk about that platform sometimes.
MARQUISE FRANCIS: Are you surprised at this point by anything the president says? I know he tweeted the other day if you loot, we shoot, sending in literally police in riot gear and these huge tanks. At this point, can it get any worse?
DERAY MCKESSON: I think it can always get worse for Trump. You know, who thought that he'd hide out in the bunker, and then who thought that he would have the police tear gas peaceful protesters just so he could show that he can walk outside, right? It's such arrogance, and it's such-- it's such ego.
I also think that the media is culpable in making Trump Trump, that it is wild that, like, everything he does gets asked about incessantly. Everything he does gets talked about. Like, that's what he-- we know he loves that. So the more and more that we talk about him and the more that we ask about him, it just-- that is what he wants is to always be the news, and he succeeds every time.
MARQUISE FRANCIS: It's not the first time we're seeing just an array-- one after another of black people dying. What we're seeing with George Floyd is what happened with Eric Garner. We're seeing someone literally killed by law enforcement on video. Why do you feel like this moment kind of has captured not only the country but the world, and how do you feel like you can probably channel this energy?
DERAY MCKESSON: Yeah, so you think about Minneapolis, and Minneapolis black people are 13 times more likely to be killed by the police than white people. It's the highest racial disparity of any city in America with regard to police violence. So it makes sense in some ways that this happened there because the trauma is so real in Minneapolis around racism.
When we think about what do we make of this moment, it's like in 2014 we were promised a host of things that actually didn't turn out to come to fruition. We were promised that mayors and local leaders and governors would have the courage to stand up to the police, and they didn't.
So when we think about quick solutions, it's use-of-force policy. So we know that there are eight policies that would make-- when a police department go from zero from them to all eight of them, there's a 70% reduction in police violence. And when you think about them, it's simple, right? Banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation, requiring that an officer use all other means before using deadly force, requiring that they report every time they point their gun at somebody or threaten to point their gun at somebody. Like these are things that the data is really clear that when they are in place, they actually do matter, and they lead to less violence from the police. So that's a part of it.
And the second is how do we shrink the role of the police? So when we look at the data, only 5% of arrests that happen in the country happen for violent crime. We arrest more people for weed than all violent crimes combined, right? So it's not a lot. It's not what people think.
MARQUISE FRANCIS: Absolutely. And then just lastly, we're seeing a lot of, you know, young black and brown folks who are protesters. We're seeing a lot of young white people protest as well. We're seeing young white girls or white women put themselves in front of black bodies to kind of help and protect them. I'm just curious, being that you've been involved with so many protests, what would you want to say to young people to channel, you know, what they are doing and, you know, lead them in a productive way?
DERAY MCKESSON: You know, I don't know. It's like I'm not, like, 50, right? So it's like, what do I say to the young people? I feel like the young people. What I say to them-- you know, trust your gut. I think that what I wish people had told me in the street was trust your gut, that you actually know much more than you think, that if you think there's, like, a cavalry of people coming to save you, they are not coming, that when you think about most of the people that you think are, like, leading and whatever, they are not willing to risk anything.
I think about the number of people that I sat on panels with who had never been in anybody's street, and they up here talking about the revolution. And it's like, we were in the street for 400 days. I got dragged out of a police department by my ankles. My phone has been hacked. The first person ever permanently banned from Twitter was banned for raising money to try and get me killed.
So when I think about these issues, they are like-- you know, it's like I put something on the line. And a lot of young people who are waiting for other people to come and, like, help organize them, it's like, organize yourself. Nobody organized us in 2014. The protests spread organically in 2015. It's a myth that people, like, spread them intentionally. Like, they spread organically just like we saw them spread organically here.
So, you know, I'd say trust yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Push. Keep the fight. And, like, let new ideas bubble.
There were some high schoolers when we out on the street in 2014 who had some of the coolest ideas about where we should go, how we do it, what we should press. So, like, we have to let people-- let people breathe in this space too.