Black Lives Matter Activist Kicks off Heritage Celebration

DeRay McKesson gives keynote to students at the George Washington University for Black Heritage Celebration.

February 2, 2017


Haben Kelati (left), a sophomore who is chair of the Black Heritage Celebration Committee, interviews DeRay McKesson. (Photo by T. Kevin Walker for GW Today)

By T. Kevin Walker

DeRay McKesson, a prominent activist from the Black Lives Matter movement, told a near-capacity crowd in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre Tuesday night that measuring racial advancement merely by actions creates a false sense of progress.

Lynch mobs and “whites only” signs are gone, but, according to Mr. McKesson, the mentality behind those symbols is still intact.

“The actions may change, but when the ideas remain the same, we haven’t actually progressed as much as we think we have,” he said. “When you think about the KKK becoming the White Citizens’ Council becoming the Alt-Right, it is the same idea that is current through all of it.”

Mr. McKesson delivered a spirited keynote address to students at the George Washington University to kick-off the Multicultural Student Services Center’s Black Heritage Celebration, which will include cultural performances, guest lecturers, panel discussions and social events throughout February.  

Mr. McKesson became active in Black Lives Matter in August 2014, taking leave from his Minneapolis Public Schools administrative job to travel to Ferguson, Mo., to protest the police shooting death of Michael Brown. He later returned to his native Baltimore to call for justice for Freddie Gray Jr., who died in a police transport vehicle. Last summer, Mr. McKesson was arrested in Baton Rouge, La., while demonstrating in the wake of the police shooting death of Alton Sterling.

Known as much for his trademark Patagonia ski vests as for his knack for articulating the key tenets of the “struggle,” Mr. McKesson quickly became a regular on cable news networks and one of the architects of social media activism.

“Social media is our way to push back,” said Mr. McKesson, whose 677,000 Twitter followers include Beyoncé and NFL quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick. “Either the story is never told, or it is told by everybody but us; and in this moment, we are our own storytellers.”

He insists the story is not just about people of color dying disproportionately at the hands of police, but also about the larger issue of creating safe spaces where communities feel supported and empowered.  

“Our fight has always been a fight about how do we make sure as many people as possible feel safe. The police become a proxy, in a sense,” he said.

Mr. McKesson called the election of President Donald Trump “scary,” but not surprising.  

“Trump is not an anomaly,” he said. “In some ways, he is the logical conclusion to a set of ideas that have been allowed to fester.”

Mr. McKesson himself forayed into politics last year, coming in a distant sixth in Baltimore’s Democratic mayoral primary. He acknowledged there are two dominant schools of thought in activism circles, one that calls for changing the existing system from within and one that favors burning down the system and starting anew. He said he endorses the former and believes electing passionate, adept advocates to public offices is a means to that end.

As part of his Campaign Zero, an effort to change police use-of-force policies nationwide, Mr. McKesson is working to create databases and other tools to mobilize voters and advocates. In fact, he said, he soon will step down as interim chief human capital officer for Baltimore City Public Schools to devote more time to that effort.

Mr. McKesson talked briefly about being an “openly gay black man,” knocking the notion that someone like him cannot lead a black empowerment movement.

“Blackness is just not one thing. It is many things,” he said.

He told students that in order to be the kind of facilitators and organizers needed for movements focused on change, they must use their college years constructively.

“You need to leave this place better skilled. You need to be a better thinker, writer and reader,” he said. “If the only thing you have done after four years is fight the institution, you’ve failed.”

The theme of this year’s Black Heritage Celebration, “The Revolution Will Be Televised,” is a derivative of a classic ’70s tune by the late musician/activist Gil Scott-Heron. Sophomore Haben Kelati, chair of the celebration’s organizing committee, said Mr. McKesson was the perfect speaker to illustrate social media’s capacity for powerful “retro activism with a modern twist.”

“All that’s happening now is not being televised in the traditional sense, but it is being shared with the world through social media by everyday people,” she said.