Earlier this month, the Department of Justice released a comprehensive 80-page report documenting the discriminatory practices used regularly against the Black citizens in Ferguson. The report validates the complaints of Ferguson residents and protesters who took to the streets in the days and weeks after former police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. That unrest in Ferguson is ongoing, as activists continue to push for substantial reforms in their community.
Back in August 2014, DeRay McKesson lived in Minneapolis where he was working as a high school administrator. McKesson began weekly trips to Ferguson to join protestors and to document this transformational moment in American history (he has now moved to St. Louis full-time). Since then, he has become one of the key voices of the movement, along with fellow organizers Johnetta "Netta" Elzie and Brittany Packnett. Their twitter feeds and McKesson’s Words to Action newsletter are essential for anyone following the progress in Ferguson. We caught up with McKesson to talk about what’s next for the city and what needs to happen for real change to occur.
How has the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson last week affected the movement?
What is true two days ago is true today, we continue to fight or justice and the movement remains deeply rooted in the fight against policy brutality. We remain as focused as we’ve always been. The movement is bigger than any one of these moments or events. This is about addressing the problem of systemic racism and police brutality. The shooting doesn’t change our goals going forward, we are still focused on fighting against institutional racism.
Mike Brown was killed more than six months ago, and many of the nationwide protests following his death have died down. What’s happening right now in Ferguson?
Right now, everybody is protesting in a more strategic way, including through social media, but just not in the same way as before. The tactics have changed over time, but it’s very much still rooted in protest and in Black struggle. In many ways, we are in the community-building phase of protest. If you think about how other movements started they were in churches, schools, and in established communities already. These organized communities already had shared understanding, values, and priorities. There were official systems of communicating. And that’s not how we started. This started with people coming together with a common understanding that what was happening was unjust. In August, we didn’t even know each other’s names, but we knew that we were joined together by this idea that we deserved a different America and that police were out of control. Community building is work, real work. Even when we think about other communities that have been built, like the Obama Coalition for example, that took years and a billion dollars. (President Obama built a massive on the ground campaign that included millions of field organizers and community volunteers that helped him win both elections).
How have Twitter and other social media outlets helped with community building?
Twitter is the quickest, most effective way to spread a message around the globe and it allows people to tell more deliberate stories about the movement in their communities. The first step is telling the story about every person that gets killed, so everyone understands what we are fighting for.
What are some key lessons you’ve learned through your organizing work? How has the movement grown?
I think we’ve matured as a movement. We are now better able to manage our energy and emotions and to recognize that we are all experiencing some form of trauma. Personally, I’ve learned to be much more careful with my words. I remember tweeting something like “We will not be crippled by fear,” and advocates for people with disabilities came at me really hard. I’ve learned a lot about how we talk about the community we are building.
What are some misconceptions of the movement in the media that you’d like to correct?
It’s important to remember the origins of the protests. It started because regular people came outside and said, “Enough is enough!” It didn’t start because anybody started a hashtag or because of the NAACP or because of the National Urban League. It wasn’t college students; it was regular people who had a common understanding of the injustice that was happening. And that is important in the context of the larger movement. Because people came outside and built a community around something and now we are expanding on that community. That is really powerful.
How can we work to bridge the generational divide between the civil rights leaders of our parents’ generation and the young activists of today’s movement?
I think we are still learning to talk across what people call “the divide,” and I think that we’ve had some moments where we crossed over. We are using mediums that are reaching so many people around the globe, but we still need to be able to bring the reality of Ferguson closer to people. The myth of Ferguson is that this only happens here. By continuing to tell that story, we are continuing to grow the movement across generations.
What’s next for the movement?
There are some concentrated efforts around organizing for the upcoming local and municipal elections in Ferguson. [Editor’s note: There are three City Council seats up for grabs in the April 7th election. Among the candidates are four African-Americans.] There are also teams coming up with new policy ideas, including special prosecutors assigned to police killings, external investigators, citizen review boards, swift accountability for people who violate the rules of the police department, and community input in how the police are trained. It won’t just be one or two policies that lead to system restructuring. We know that March is the planning month, and April is when the weather begins to come around. Once the weather gets better the protests will continue to grow. The Department of Justice report confirms that the Ferguson protesters and residents were telling the truth. We want as many people telling the truth about what’s happening to Black people as often as possible.