The Other Side of Freedom: DeRay Mckesson interview

Ahead of his visit as a guest selector at 2019's Edinburgh International Book Festival, DeRay Mckesson speaks to The Skinny about his book – On the Other Side of Freedom – the power of language, and his brilliant events at Charlotte Square Gardens

Feature by Heather McDaid | 22 Jul 2019
  • DeRay Mckesson

Language is the first act. These words open DeRay Mckesson’s On the Other Side of Freedom, as he looks back on his experiences of activism and his continued work these last few years, while reflecting on the lessons he’s learned. At the time of speaking, it’s almost five years since the protests in Ferguson began, which saw DeRay drop everything and move, taking to the streets for 400 days in protest of the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr at the hands of police.

In 2014, Twitter was where the story of Ferguson formed. It’s been said repeatedly that without the social media push, Missouri would have made it appear no one was there, and nothing was happening. It’s in this ability to take your own narrative and tell it without constraint that DeRay finds power, when institutions, law enforcement, and influential people can try to shut down truth.

“The power to define shapes the entire conversation,” explains DeRay, “which is why it was important for me to write the book and put these things on paper myself. One thing I learned over the past five years is about how language really is the first act.”

“For me, it was necessity,” he continues, on finding the words to navigate and unpack the world around him, where – by his own admission – they weren't there to begin with. “People forget that we were in the streets for 400 days, they forget that we couldn’t stand still in August, September, October 2014 – that if we stood still for more than five seconds, we were arrested. People forget those things. I never forget them. They still feel really present every single day. And I found my voice in the middle of all of that.

“I had to figure out how to tell the story of what was happening to us because it was happening so quickly. It was the strength of Twitter that helped me find the words in a way that made sense, and the book was a recognition that I just needed more space to tell these stories.”

Twitter is an entirely different beast than it was in 2014. There was no Twitter video, Periscope and the like – they had to balance 140 character limit tweets with six second clips on Vine. “The constraints were much tighter,” he recalls. “We had to figure out how to use words to mobilise people, how to tell the story; now they can do video and livestream, things that we didn't have. Twitter opened up this space; people who came from communities that had otherwise been ignored suddenly learned how to organise so quickly and then amplify that organising, and that was really powerful.”

Fighting for change is unrelenting, but he is vocal that hope is the fuel needed to continue onwards. “We get so few wins on our side – sometimes you fight a lifetime and feel like nothing has changed,” says DeRay. “One of the things that I’m always mindful of – it isn’t in the book because I didn’t know it then – is that the police have killed more people since the protests, not less. And you think about all the energy we put in, all the protesters put in, and we never would have thought that more people would have been killed today than less. That’s a wild thing to be reckoned with. In the absence of hope, it can lead you to just give up, to say, ‘Why would I do this?’

“When I hear, ‘Well the system is broken’, and people say, ‘No, it’s designed to be like that’, my take-away is that it was designed. People made it up, and because people made it up, we can make something better, and that keeps me rooted.

“I think that too often people think of hope as magic. People think of hope as willy-nilly belief that everything’s going to work out. Hope is work; hope is recognition that tomorrow can be better than today. It’s not an acknowledgement that tomorrow will be better, because we don’t know, but it is a recognition that it can be.”

These are all ideas that he looks to bring to Edinburgh International Book Festival as one of their guest selectors. Alongside his own event, he will host Ibram X Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center in Washington; Casey Gerald, whose memoir There Will Be No Miracles Here traces the fault lines in American racial and masculine identity; Fatima Bhutto and Regina Porter, whose The Runaways and The Travelers respectively offer sweeping portrayals of life in Pakistan and the USA; and Jeanne Marie Laskas on To Obama, exploring how correspondence received by President Obama can capture the feelings of a nation.

But what was DeRay looking to share with these events? “I’m interested in how we have conversations that people learn from. I’ve been to enough conversations over the last couple of years that are interesting, and I like the author, and I sort of like the book,” he laughs, “but I walked away and I didn’t learn anything, you know? Every time I hear Ibram talk, I learn something. Every time I hear Casey talk about the world and the way he sees it, I learn something. They also understand the power of words to shape the way we think about the world that we live in. I want people to walk away from the events not only being like ‘that was interesting’, but feeling like they learned something. That to me would be the highest accomplishment.”

DeRay is a tireless activist and, rather than delve further into what will be discussed at his own event, it feels fitting to end here with action: what would his advice be to truly fight for change? “Remember, anything that’s ever changed the world has started out in a living room or porch or hallway. The changes that actually matter at scale never start off big. People forget that.

“We also have to remember to fight for what we know we deserve, not what we think we can get. I think that too often we walk into the room and we’re like, ‘We think they’ll concede on this, so that’s what we ask for’, as opposed to saying: ‘We deserve this.’  

“The hard part about the left is that we’re always fighting for a world we’ve never seen but believe is possible, so we’ve never seen a world where every kid gets breakfast, lunch and dinner – you’ve not lived in that world, I’ve not lived in that world, but I know that world is possible. When I walk into rooms, I’m fighting for that, I’m not fighting for some watered-down world.

“But don’t try to be me! Be you. I did it one way, and this is certainly not the only way to do it. I learn from people all the time. I’ve learned from people older, I’ve learned from people younger, and I’m proud to continue learning, to be in places where people push what I think about the world.”

DeRay Mckesson's events will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 10 & 11 Aug On the Other Side of Freedom is out now via Viking