We will win: It’s a simple statement that DeRay Mckesson frequently sends out to his more than 220,000 Twitter followers. Since August of 2014, the 29 year-old activist has been using the social media platform to address police violence in America. He’s dedicated himself to drawing attention to the country’s systemic oppression and racism experienced by Black people. In doing so, he’s become a prominent voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, playing an active role in the protests of Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore, among many other places. Mckesson recently visited New Orleans, appearing at the Rising Tide Conference at Xavier University as the keynote speaker. “I didn’t know the movement would spread like this,” he said, “that unrest would spread across the country.” He then reminded the audience that there have only been nine days this year that police haven’t killed someone. I had a chance to sit down briefly with McKesson to ask him a few questions about politics and the function of police.
Before August of last year, what were your politics like and how did they change?
My politics haven’t changed. Before August, issues involving kids and equity were my focus. I worked in community centers and focused on afterschool. Then Mike [Brown] died and I realized that this issue of police violence was actually much bigger than I thought. I was doing all this work to make sure kids had great teachers, but something I’ve said before is that you have to be alive to learn.
You talk about this idea of “winning.” Do you have any historic examples of what that looks like?
I don’t. You know, I challenge the premise of the question. We’ve seen social movements lead to systemic change and I think the current movement is focused particularly on police violence, which is in some ways new. I’m hopeful that we will build systems and structures that don’t kill people; systems that actually encourage and enhance life.
What do you think of the idea that police killing people has basically become a function of their job?
Police are killing people. That is real. And they’re doing it while they work. What we know is that there are systems and structures that protect those choices and that’s a problem. Not only are they killing people, the whole police apparatus essentially validates that in every case, which is another problem. Not only do we not get justice—because justice would be police killings never happening in the first place—we don’t even get accountability. That is what I believe to be true.
Is there a situation where you would call the police?
I’d call the police if white people were having a problem. The police aren’t going to kill white people. If white people were struggling, I would totally call the police.
Would you rather see the police reformed or abolished?
I want to see the police stop killing people.
What are your thoughts on prison abolition?
It is clear that mass incarceration is a huge problem. Part of the work of changing the structure we have now will be removing barriers, taking away things like mandatory minimums. Part of the work will be building new structures. I think the idea of safety is much more expansive than policing, that the safety of communities is not predicated on the presence of police. Safety is about jobs and workforce development and strong schools. I want to see this issue of mitigating bodily harm and harm to property addressed in the context of a more expansive notion of safety. What the police would have you believe is that to be safe, police are necessary. When I think about the affluent communities in any city, wherever all the rich people live, they are not safe because the police are there. They’re safe because they’re resourced, not because there’s police on every corner. In affluent communities, we’ve redefined safety to not be policing. Safety means something very different in Upstate New York than it does in Brooklyn. We need to redefine and reimagine what safety means.
How do you respond to the critique that you’re operating out of a radical framework?
I don’t think that it is radical to suggest that the police not kill people. I don’t see that as coming from a radical framework. It’s not radical to believe that the government should encourage life and not take it. I think there will always be institutions and we have the responsibility—and the institutions have the responsibility—to make sure they don’t harm people. I think that there are many ways to do that: one is by transforming the institutions. I think that institutions in America are capable of supporting life rather than taking it. I think we can do that.