Activism isn’t just taking charge, it’s being mindful

DeRay McKesson

The Daily Texan: How do we get people energized about this issue and others and out voting, or being activists?

DeRay Mckesson: I think that one of the lessons from 2016 is that people actually, especially our generation, are not motivated to vote against things. People want to vote for something. So, you think about, in Texas, people voting for Beto. He is a candidate who people believe in. When I think about energizing, it’s, “How do we help people figure out the thing that they can vote for?” and I think that is the work all across the country. 

DT: You’ve talked about how you use Twitter as a platform for social change. Twitter has also come under fire lately for not removing white supremacists or other alt-right leaders, so where do you stand on that, in terms of what Twitter’s responsibility is?

M: I’ve seen the good and bad of the platform. You know, the first person who was ever permanently banned from Twitter was banned for raising money to try to get me killed, so I’ve seen that part of it and also the part of the platform that helps people speak and build communities in ways that weren’t possible before. When I think about Twitter’s responsibilities specifically, I’m mindful that some people come to the platform bad — the platform didn’t make them bad. Bad people exist and we need to figure out a way to get to these people way before they get to a platform. The platform has a lot of responsibility to make sure those people don’t form communities with other bad people. My push for them is to ensure that they are hearing from people directly impacted about these things when they make decisions, and not only the people who represent them. 

DT: We are from the University of Texas, and the University has struggled very publicly in the last few years to deal with race on campus. What would you do if you were a student here, or even just a student trying to deal with that? 

M: When I think about the role of student leaders, I think of student protests. So much of protesting is telling the truth in public and forcing people to deal with it — laying it bare, and knowing that protesting is not the answer but (that) it creates space for the answer. What I say about free speech all the time is, “You know who’s not on CNN are the people who shot up the Gazette newspaper in Annapolis.” Why are they not on CNN? Because CNN understands that giving space to that language is dangerous. People do have a moral compass and see that speech can cleary incite violence, and they are always making a choice. Part of our work is to name the choice, to say you actually didn’t think this community was deemed worthy of a response quickly, and there needs to be some accountability for that. You often hear people talk about reconciliation, buttruth has to come before reconciliation. People want to heal and do all this without ever dealing with the fact that there is tension and that people feel a certain way, that race and class and gender show up in college campuses, and until we create a space for that that a campus has to participate in, I don’t know how we can do that.

DT: You bring up free speech, which is something we’ve been dealing with a lot. What do you think is the role of students if university administration cannot legally act?

M: I’m always proud to see protesters do things I would never imagine. I think there are many ways we can confront and sort of tease out that these things are dangerous knowing that there are some legal barriers. So, I’m interested in other ways students that students can protest to be really clear about what is not welcome here. And I’ve seen that happen across the country. I think there are a lot of cool things that people can do that are really brilliant, so I’m hoping students will continue to do that.

DT:  Is there anything students have power to do to enact change at a university level?

M: Absolutely. The hard thing about being a student is two things — one is the administration knows you have a four year tenure. Four years, and then a new crop of students. So, what you find is that in colleges, students don’t really understand their power until about junior year, and then it’s senior year and they’re trying to focus on their future, and that works toward the status quo. The time when you are most ready you’re also trying to plan for your life. So, the question is, “How do we have the seniors help ‘radicalize’ the freshmen, let them get in early and think, ‘We can do this!’” The second is that part of the deal in college is that you have to come out a better reader and writer and thinker. If all you get out of four years is that you got a statue, then you just got this not great end of the bargain. You need to make sure the place shows up for you, too. 

DT: Something we have been dealing with is lack of empathy among young people. Everyone says that young people don’t vote because they don’t care, so we are trying to energize people who might not have an innate connection to the issue to actually care and vote or protest. How would we do that?

M: I think that so much of our work is, how do we create hooks for people? The second is understanding that my goal is not to get you to be a CNN junkie to vote. There might be one issue that’s very important to you, and I’ll just nail that one issue. Also, peer pressure really works. So, all across the country, we need people hosting election parties on election day, and saying, “Let’s go to the polls!” That’s why the stickers matter — they reinforce that this is a social behavior that people should engage in. I think our generation particularly is interested in (having) something to vote for. We’ve lived through a time where voting wasn’t the panacea. I voted my entire life and I got tear gassed and pepper sprayed dragged by my ankles by police, and it’s not because I didn’t vote, right? So, we have seen voting not be the thing that has saved democracy, and we are saying that voting is one of many tools. People can vote, and run for office, and be in the street, and go to the meetings, too.

McKesson is a civil rights activist.