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The Politic Blog

‘I Really Am Trying to Get Free’ – DeRay on Black Lives Matter

Photo Credit: Joey Ye, Politic Photo Editor

On Monday night, activist DeRay Mckesson spoke to Yale students and the New Haven community at the Afro-American Cultural Center about his experiences with Black Lives Matter and his thoughts on how the movement is maintaining the momentum it needs to make an impact.

Mckesson taught sixth-grade math and served as the Senior Director of Human Capital for Minneapolis Public Schools before making the journey to Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown – not to protest, he said, but rather “to bear witness” to what was happening on the ground. His attitude changed when a member of the crowd refusing to obey curfew threw a water bottle at the police, who responded immediately with tear gas canisters. As the night erupted around him, he thought to himself, “This is not the America I know.”

Mckesson quit his job in Minneapolis and now seeks to strengthen a national conversation around racial inequality that will ultimately lead to racially just institutions.

At the event, which was hosted by the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the Yale College Democrats, Mckesson outlined a number of priorities for the movement going forward. He discussed the importance of repeatedly formulating and achieving specific objectives in order to demonstrate that protest movements can succeed. While extolling the virtues of social media – including Twitter, his medium of choice – he said the movement’s activists must continue figuring out how to effectively organize and share ideas online. He also discussed his plan to make racial justice a major issue in the upcoming presidential election.

Mckesson has made significant headway in realizing this final goal. He said his meeting with Senator Bernie Sanders was very productive and called the candidate’s platform on racial justice a good “first draft.” He also praised Governor Martin O’Malley for having a strong plan while nonetheless avoiding any kind of primary endorsement. Mckesson said that because Hillary Clinton hasn’t released a plan, he has had to extrapolate one from suggestions in her speeches to prepare for his upcoming meeting with her.

Most of the question-and-answer session focused on police violence, the signature issue of most of Mckesson’s efforts. He discussed the importance of having a focused mission, saying that the danger in an expansive effort encompassing many issues simultaneously is that one risks alleviating none of them. Citing his experiences in Baltimore, Mckesson said he believes the movement against police violence doesn’t need to be entirely peaceful, arguing that when a people have no other recourse in escaping their oppression, destructive action is a justified means of garnering attention.

Despite the night’s emphasis on police brutality, Mckesson also touched on the movement’s broader aims. “Black lives matter,” Mckesson said, “but to what end? So police stop killing us?” There must be a long-term agenda, he posited, and that agenda should include ensuring that everyone has the ability to live full lives. Merely waking up tomorrow should not be the goal, he concluded, and while an end to police killing is a start, it cannot be the conclusion.

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