DeRay Mckesson Wants You to Come Out of the Quiet

DeRay McKesson

DeRay Mckesson believes that information is power. That's not surprising for someone who proudly explains that "education was my social justice issue before the movement." 

The now-30-year-old was already successful by any standard when he abruptly left his job as senior district administrator of human capital at Minneapolis Public Schools. It was August of last year and Mckesson had been keenly following the tension bubbling over in Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. That day, the Baltimore native loaded up his car and drove nine hours from Minneapolis to St. Louis, where he swiftly embedded himself with demonstrators on the ground. 

He and Johnetta "Netta" Elzie were pivotal in creating a large-scale messaging system that notified protesters when news broke about the case — most notably when a jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white former police officer who killed Brown. Gathered under an amorphous umbrella organization known as We the Protestors, Mckesson also created a newsletter that went to activists around the nation, sharing organizing tips and the latest updates on the movement to end police violence in America. 

Under the broad We the Protestors banner, Mckesson helped launch a groundbreaking data analysis project called Mapping Police Violence. Mckesson says this project was the first to mine data reported in newspapers nationwide on officer-involved deaths, creating a literal map that showed not only where police had killed people, but digging into the demographics of the victims. After major outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post embarked on similar endeavors, Mapping Police Violence shifted its focus, and is now poised to release a ranking of the "Deadliest Cities in the U.S."

But Mckesson's crowning achievement is his latest project, Campaign Zero, which he describes as a "robust, comprehensive policy platform" that lays out 10 specific steps to end police violence in America. Taken alone, none of these policy prescriptions will end racially motivated violence in the U.S. But when viewed as a comprehensive strategy, Mckesson says, this makes an end to the country's epidemic of excessive police violence within reach. 

"No one thing alone will be the solution," he says. "It's going to be all of it. [Just adding] the body cameras without incident investigations is meaningless." 

Campaign Zero's focus on specific local, state, and federal policy changes has allowed Mckesson and other members of the campaign's planning team to share the platform in face-to-face meetings with some of the nation's most prominent politicians, including Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. 

Campaign Zero's latest effort harkens back to the open-data advocacy that drove Mapping Police Violence. Through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, Mckesson and his fellow organizers obtained copies of police union contracts from 100 major U.S. cities. While data is still being collected and legal analysis is under way, the Police Union Contract Project established the first public database of police union contracts in the country. 

That way, Mckesson says, "when the police contract comes up for negotiation, we can essentially say, 'Look at the people who were at the table, and here's what [policies and benefits] they pushed for.'" 

Having access to that information allows residents to advocate for reform in the way their communities are policed, argues Mckesson. And it follows a trend that's emerged in the movement to end police violence — which frequently intersects with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

"I think the movement pushed all of us," Mckesson says of the multifaceted movement in which he takes part. "The movement created space for the gifts that people had to shine and to be used in the service of the common good, in cities all across the country. It rendered people who had been thought to be invisible, visible. It rendered their gifts visible."

But visibility doesn't always look one way, Mckesson explains. In a recent speech at the GLAAD Gala in San Francisco, Mckesson spoke eloquently about a viral tweet he wrote imploring people to "come out of the quiet." (Watch the speech below.)

"Just because you didn't know, doesn't mean I was hiding," Mckesson says of being openly LGBT or holding any other marginalized identity. "I might be quiet, but those are not the same things. We live these rich and complex lives, and we choose to share them."

Mckesson firmly believes there must be space for the different ways in which we share those quiet parts of ourselves. And he believes there's a place, even for the quiet, in a movement that has been marked by striking visuals of massive peaceful protests filling countless city streets.

"There are so many people who are not hiding, but not loud, who want to be in this work," Mckesson says, "who believe in a just and equitable society, and are looking for a way to be in the work. And we need to figure out how to do that."

While Mckesson has certainly organized his fair share of large demonstrations, and more than once joined fellow activists and frustrated citizens in marching through the streets shouting "No Justice, No Peace," he knows that not all progress is made with a bullhorn. 

"A cacophony of whispers is also noise," he notes. "There are many ways to be heard, and there are many ways to be visible. There are many ways to be seen."

But simply being seen or heard is not the final objective, Mckesson argues. He's seen a tendency, especially within the gay community, to consider "coming out" as the ultimate act of freedom. But true liberation requires more than mere awareness and tolerance, he contends. 

As a teacher who happens to be a black gay man, Mckesson is well aware that his current work stems from a long tradition of marginalized people agitating in the streets, in the schools, and the halls of Congress for their freedom. 

"The activism of marginalized people often comes with visibility and being heard," he explains. "Which can lead people to believe that recognition and awareness is the actual end point. And it is not. It is a necessary milestone along the way, but creating that [reformed] society takes more work than the recognition and awareness."

"People are talking about police violence in ways that they've never talked about it before, ever, because we have gotten recognition and awareness," Mckesson adds. "But the police have not stopped killing people."

That desired outcome — ending the deadly pattern of law enforcement's use of force — is one broadly shared across the movement to end police violence in America. But for this movement or any other to truly effect change, Mckesson argues that organizers and activists must make space for those whose particular goals differ. 

For example, Mckesson suggests that mapping out the goals of various factions of the LGBT community would likely result in a scattered picture of equality. But, he notes, "we want the world to look similarly." 

So the challenge — for LGBT people and all social justice movements — is to build movements that allow space for that difference of opinion, while also agreeing upon some central truths and shared outcomes. 

That's what Mckesson wants to explore in the coming year. "Can we build a movement that grows as people grow?" he asks.

The danger, he contends, is in the immovable. It's lurking in our cultural desire to neatly categorize people, movements, and issues. We are seduced by the false comfort of an either/or dichotomy, he explains. 

"It is easy, I'm either in the closet or I'm out," says McKesson of the "either/or" most often encountered in the LGBT community. But he wants to offer another solution: 

"I can be in the quiet, which is neither of those. What we know to be true is that comfort isn't always freedom. People confuse the two."

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