DeRay Mckesson, 30, is a leading Black Lives Matter activist who is now running to become mayor of Baltimore, his hometown, almost a year after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody caused rioting in the city. Mckesson tells Here & Now’s Robin Young what inspired him toward activism and now politics.
Interview Highlights: DeRay Mckesson
As mayor, wouldn’t you have to say for the safety of your city, that violence is unacceptable?
“What I know to be true is that I don’t have to condone it to understand it. It is what I said to Wolf [Blitzer], it is what I will say again, is that during that period in time, people were upset and what got us to that moment was the city making a poor decision to trap students in one space and have them greeted with 300 officers and that led to what you saw on TV, being the unrest. That was avoidable. If Freddie Gray was alive, no one would be outside, and if police hadn’t provoked people, then we wouldn’t have had that. So as mayor, I would have made sure we would have never gotten to that point.
Every mayor hopes to never get to that point, but how would you handle the situation if you were in that position? Would you have to quit the Black Lives Matter movement if elected mayor?
“I push on this notion, from protests to politics. The protests in and of itself is actually one of the most political acts in this America, that pushing the government to be the best it can be is the American Revolution, it is the Boston Tea Party. That is actually at the root of what it means to be a citizen. I think that what I’m saying around here as running for mayor, is that it is important that people continue to push from the outside, it is important that people push from the inside, and that’s the only way we’ll get the transformative change that people deserve.”
What do you say to the families of the police officers, who you would also represent as mayor?
“This has never been an attack on police. This has been a critique about the culture of policing, and what the culture of policing does in communities and ways that it’s really dangerous both here and in places across the country. So it is important that we hold the police accountable, just like we’d hold any other public servant accountable, but hold them accountable differently in the sense that they have the power to take life, and that is unique. But also understanding that the safety of our communities is more expansive than policing. The safety is about jobs and education and health. If I asked you to close your eyes and think about where you feel the most safe, it is likely not in a room full of police. It’s likely where your family is, where there’s shelter and food, where you’re loved, and where there’s opportunities and resources. The police, at their best, do three things; they prevent crime, they respond to crime and they solve crime. In all three of those buckets they need the trust of the community to do it, so I believe that if we restore the trust that we will change the way police are experiencing communities and ways that will preserve life and make everyone safer.”
On criticism from within the Black Lives Matter movement
“I would agree with her [Aislinn Pulley] about not being in photo ops, that is correct. It’s unfortunate that she chose not to attend the meeting so that she could have seen that it wasn’t a photo op, that President Obama extended the meeting by 30 minutes specifically so he could take questions only from the younger activists, of which she would have been one, and we had a thoughtful conversation both with President Obama and with members of the senior administration. We contained a follow up with them about important issues around use of force and in other things like police union contracts and body cameras. It was a fruitful conversation. The movement is a diverse space and we won’t always agree about tactics but we all want to live in the same world; a world that is just and equitable and fair. What’s real is that there’s things that we can do today that will change people’s lives today.”
On what he hopes to accomplish
“There’s some real things that we can actually do to change people’s lives today, tomorrow and the day after and we have to focus on that while we also focus on long-term systemic change. It’s not an either-or as some people, I think, dangerously portray it. It is a both-and.”
You want to bring a grocery store to every resident. How do you do that?
“It doesn’t actually have to be this 10,000-square-foot building. We can think about small businesses in communities differently, and also food trucks; there’s a host of ways that we can make sure people have access to healthy food that is not just having a Super Fresh.”
What do you say to people accusing you of being an opportunist?
“This is deeply personal to me, so I think about – you know I was a sixth grade math teacher and every day in my work, before Mike Brown’s death and definitely after was about making sure that the world was a better place for all the kids I taught and kids like them. When Mike got killed, it was this thing about ‘you gotta be alive to learn,’ that I’m doing all this work to make sure kids have great teachers, but there’s so many kids that will never ever go to a classroom again. Michael Brown will never have a college professor. Tamir Rice will never have a high school teacher, Aiyana Jones will never have a high school teacher, that matters to me and it fundamentally changed the way that I thought about the world. To the people that are upset that I did not know about the Mike Browns in Baltimore, Tyrone West and others. The reality is that there’s something that wakes us up, we aren’t born woke, and it wasn’t until Mike’s death that I understood police violence as a systemic thing and I always understood the skepticism of police, but I just didn’t understand it as a widespread thing and I say that as someone who had a gun pulled on me in Baltimore in 2009 at a traffic stop, by a police officer. It even happened to me and I didn’t understand it was systemic. I think that the reality is the advent of technology has allowed us to share stories in ways that just didn’t exist before, and Baltimore’s home, you know, so I think about my father and his story so much as a recovered addict and I’ve seen people recover.”
On his past, having parents who were addicts and eventually attending Bowdoin College
“My father and mother deeply loved me and my sister. My father raised us with my great-grandmother and I grew up in so many ways in a community of recovery; seeing people put their lives back together, seeing people do what others said they could not do, and that is as much my story as it is a story of a city like this and part of the reason that I am running. If anything, any success that I have ever experienced has been because people who didn’t have to care about me did, and they pushed me to see things in myself that I did not see in myself at the time. That is what I try to do as a teacher, it’s why I taught. I think about all of my students who were math-phobic, who didn’t believe they could learn math, who didn’t understand, who didn’t think they were smart enough and by the end they understood that they already had the gifts and my job was to help them access them and I believe that.”
You are openly gay and share personal parts of your life on Twitter. Can you do that as mayor?
“I’m a whole person. I have less time to talk about those things publicly because I’m talking about so many heady issues like injection sights and methadone clinics, but I’m sensitive to being a whole person in any space that I show up in.”