DeRay McKesson is a Civil Rights Activist Dispelling Myths | 2020 Q Christian Fellowship Conference
So I’d like to welcome our keynote speaker, DeRay McKesson, who you’ve already heard from. Oh yes. Oh, yes. He is a civil rights activist focused primarily on issues of innovation, equity, and justice. DeRay has advocated for issues related to children, youth, and families since he was a teen as a leading voice in the black lives matter movement and a founder in Campaign Zero, DeRay has worked to connect individuals with knowledge and tools and provide citizens and policymakers with common-sense policies that ensure equity. He has been praised by President Barack Obama for his work as a community organizer, has advised officials at all levels of government and internationally, and continues to provide the capacity to activists organizers and influencers to make an impact. We are excited to welcome this amazing man of faith and vision to fellowship with us at Q Christian Fellowship. Let’s welcome to The Great Communion with a hand-clap. Thank you, DeRay. It is good to be here. It’s good to be–this is the first place I’ve been in 2020 in Americ.a I was in Ghana and I got off the plane and came right here. So it’s good to be starting by 2020 with God and you. Good to be here. You know, it’s been a long 5 years since the protests, and people forget that in 2014 we were in the street. We were in the street for 400 days. It was a long 400 days. People forget that it was illegal to stand still in August, September, and October of 2014. If we stood still for more than five seconds, we were arrested. People forget those things–people look back like it was a long weekend. That was a long 400 days. And I’ll tell you that I’ve learned a lot since those–since since those 400 days, and in those past 5 years. I also used to teach sixth grade math, and sixth grade is by far the best grade. Sixth grade is great. Seventh grade is a nightmare. Seventh grade is puberty, and deodorant, and it is bad. But sixth grade is great, and I’ll never forget I taught sixty, ninety, and a hundred and twenty minute classes, which is a lot of math for anybody, let alone an 11 year old. One day I was teaching this 120 minute block, and my students were like, can we go to gym early? And I’m like, absolutely–y’all tired of me. I’m tired of you. Let’s go to gym. And gym was a little questionable because the science teacher was also the gym teacher, but whatever, go to gym. So they go to Jim and then they come back really quick, and I’m like, why y’all back so quick? And what I realized is that they’re more in love with the idea of gym than the work of gym. And I say that because, in this moment, I think there are a lot of people more in love with the idea of resistance than the work of resistance. So what I want to talk to you about today are some of the things that I’ve learned about the work over the past five years. What does the work look like? What does it mean to win? And how do we get there? Now the first question I’ll ask you–this is–you’ll have to participate in the next couple–is of all the arrests that happened in the country, what percent of the arrests do you think happen for a violent crime? So of all the arrests that happened in the country what percent do you think happened for crime? If you think it’s more than 50%, raise your hand. Raise it so people can see it. This is not like a trick question. Okay, if you think it’s forty to fifty percent, raise your hand. Thirty to forty percent. All of the arrests that happened in the country violent crime: twenty to thirty percent? I was getting nervous counting, like I was a math teacher–not a counter. Okay at ten to twenty percent? Less than ten percent? It is five percent. Raise your hands if you have never heard of a private prison before, like the idea of a private prison. The private prisons are prisons companies–not the government. Ff all the people incarcerated, what percent of people who are incarcerated do you think is in a private prison? So of all the people incarcerated, what percent do you think is in a private prison? If you think it’s more than seventy percent raise your hand. Sixty to seventy. Fifty to sixty. Forty to fifty. Thirty to forty. Feel like an auctioneer. Twenty to thirty. Ten to twenty. Less than ten? It is eight percent. It’s much lower than people think–just eight. And I’ll start here for a couple reasons; the big lesson will be this idea that we actively dispel myths, which I’ll talk about but the reason I start with the five and eight percent, is that the five percent number is an FBI number. Like that is not–we didn’t make it up. That’s what the government said. They’ve been saying it for a long time. It’s been low for a long time. But when we poll people, even people who believe in justice and equity, they still think way more arrests happen for violent crime. There’s a huge decrease in violence happening in communities; huge decrease in crime happening in communities. But that’s actually not the story that people tell–it’s not the story that people believe. When we think about private prisons, so private prisons are bad–this is not like a shout out to private prisons, like only 8% are good– they’re bad. But the reason that it’s important that you know it’s a small percentage of people who are incarcerated in private prisons is because, if you believe that everybody incarcerated is in a private prison, you’ve effectively let the government off the hook. It’s not the government, it’s not like the people who you elected. It’s some random corporation, and that’s actually not what’s happening in communities. The last thing that I’ll ask you before I talk about this first point is this question of what does it mean when the police solve a crime? So talk to the person next to you. So like, if when the police solve crimes, what do you think it actually means? So like what are the things that go into the police-solved crimes? And I’m going to talk to you about why I’m talking about the police. So when the police like solve a crime or clear case, what do you think like goes into that? Tell the person next to you for 20 seconds. Okay, bring it back in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and a half, one, okay, zero. So let’s get somebody over here who is loud? Can you just tell us what you think it means when the police solve a crime? Evidence? Okay, over here. I like that. “They pick somebody to blame.” Over here. Whoever’s convenient. “When they make an arrest.” Over here. “Found out who did it.” So it’s interesting that around the country, when you hear like a solve rate or a clearance rate, it literally just means that the police have arrested at least one person. That is what it means. So this relationship between like arrests and convictions–we actually, that’s not a data point we have. We don’t have that data. Nobody has that data. So when you think that like it means that they arrested the right person, we don’t really know. It just means that at least one arrest is made. But I start here because so much of our work is rooted in actively dispelling myths, that so much of the way that people think about race, the way that people think about justice, certainly the way that people think about queer communities is rooted in things that simply aren’t true. And part of our work is to remind people what is true and what’s not true. I’m in a lot of rooms all day where people talk about solutions and you’re like, that’s sort of interesting, it actually doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. Or, this just isn’t happening in places. So when you think about five percent violent crime, it’s twelve percent property crimes, and then the rest is like quality of life issues. It’s sort of like loitering and trespassing is like the vast majority of things that are happening in the criminal justice system. But it’s not what people believe, and this matters because since the protests, the police have actually killed more people–not less people. The people think that it got better. You can name so many more victims than you could name in 2014. You’ve probably seen videos. It’s probably happened in a neighborhood close to you, but the outcomes actually got worse, not better. And the reason I remind myself that is that I’ve never confused a change in conversation with a change in outcomes. Because we’ve changed the way that we talk about the problem doesn’t mean the problem itself changes. And so much of our work is helping people tell a different story, but also pointing people in directions that actually changed the way the world works. That I didn’t get dragged out of a police department by my ankles so that we could like be a really cool conferences being like, the world got worse, like that wasn’t what we did. You know?
I also say, and this is interesting, is that 2019 was the first year ever where black people were more afraid of being killed by a police officer than being killed by community violence, which is interesting. It was something that we never thought was going to happen. And what people also sort of don’t think about is that a third of all the people killed by a stranger in the United States is actually killed by a police officer. So the reason I talk about policing as an institution is because it is wreaking havoc in people’s lives, but also because the metaphor is actually apt. That the policing is really not about crime. It is certainly about control, and you have all been policed in a host of ways your whole life. So we think about the institution of policing. It is problematic and in these ways that we’re talking about. But it also is a metaphor for what it means to be in a place where control is real. This is also interesting: I’ll be in rooms, it’ll say like, you know well, the police are doing damaging communities, but it’s the violent communities. And this idea that because there’s crime happening in places, the police are likely to be present, and likely to therefore just happenstance inflict violence, and that’s actually a myth, too. That when we chart rates of violence and then rates of police violence, there’s actually no correlation. So much of the beginning of our work is rooted in like pushing people about what is true and what’s not true. Raise your hand, raise your hand and keep your hand up if any of these things are true for you: Raise your hand if you’ve ever driven over the speed limit, if you’ve ever jaywalked, if you drank in college, if you ever smoked in college– keep your hand up if any of these things are true, have ever been true for you, have ever been true. Now the reality is is that most of you are criminals. Most of you have committed a crime. Most of you have committed a crime. The only difference between you and somebody who’s currently incarcerated is that you might not have been arrested for it. So the question of what we do as criminals is actually not a question about what we do with other people, it’s a question about what we do with each other. It’s a question about what we do with ourselves. So this question of like what does a justice look like? It’s not about other people, it is about each other. Now I did that one. This other thing is that we never cede organizing to other people. I was just in Ghana, and when I was in Ghana, I was meeting with some gay activists in Ghana. It is not technically illegal to be gay. But the anti-sodomy laws are used in a way to criminalize queer people, so they are not arrested for the anti-sodomy–they are not incarcerated for anti-sodomy, they are arrested for it in a way that will out them to their community. Like, that is the way that it’s sort of used to penalize queer people. And it’s a reminder that part of our work is to never cede organizing to other people. So when I sat down with the organizers in Ghana, it was like are you nervous about your picture being up there? Like yes, and like are you nervous about safety? They’re like, yes, but they also were like we’re nervous about being quiet, too. And it was this moment about: Part of our work is to say, like, when issues affect us we figure out ways to organize, and we figure out ways to get people to rally around the issues with us. That we’ll never win if we cede our organizing power to other people. That part of our work is to step in the space and say that we don’t know it all, in the first go-around, but we’ll learn. I think about when I started in St. Louis, I literally went to Ferguson because I was like, I’m gonna stay here for the weekend. I don’t have anything to do this weekend. I’m gonna do it. I got tear gassed the second night, and I was like, this is nuts, and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that nobody else has to experience this but it really was this idea that, like, I don’t know all the answers, but I won’t cede this moment to somebody else because I’m impacted right now, and we actually have to do some of that work. I’m always interested in the way that we think about the number one, that one is never enough for queer people and it’s never enough when issues impact poor people and people of color. It’s never enough, but one white kid goes missing and we got Amber Alerts. So part of our work is to say that one is actually always enough to ask questions, that it shouldn’t take a million black and brown bodies to pile up for you to be like oh–I think there’s an issue. It shouldn’t take a million queer kids to be homeless or to be running from families or to be abused. It shouldn’t take 20 trans women to be killed for us to say like, oh– I think there’s actually a problem here. Like, one has to be enough for us to ask questions And part of our work is to actually normalize the idea of one, to normalize the idea that one is always enough to begin the work. What’s interesting about the one is that you know, crime has decreased for a long time. In New York City crime–New York City is one of the only places where a decrease in arrests led to a decrease in crime, which is interesting. But what we found with a lot of people trying to figure out, how did it happen? And what we find is that for every 10 nonprofits that exists in a place for over a hundred thousand people, it leads to a decrease in crime. And this matters because what we find is that and this is, like, not like a shocker, is that when people have better supports they’re able to make different decisions. We know that, and like the research actually supports that too. So we think about this idea of punishment and control–we know that the actual end of crime is not going to be the presence of the police, it’s going to be the end of poverty and the end of addiction. It’s like how do we actually support people better in ways that help them make better choices? Now we also understand that it’s all linked. raise your hand if you’ve heard of Flint Michigan and the water? most you have heard of Flint. Most people think about the lead in the water because you heard it on TV. Now interesting thing about lead is that there’s no cure for lead. When kids are impacted by lead, the best we can do is put them in therapy. And places that have mostly been impacted don’t have a lot of access to therapy, but what people don’t realize is that Flint has had the single biggest decrease in childhood literacy that we’ve ever recorded. It’s been a 75% decrease in childhood literacy over five years. Which is wild. And I say that because we understand that all of these issues are linked, that Flint is as much an environmental issue as it’s a matter of educational justice, that most of the things we care about are also these both/and, they’re not either/or. So the police matter because people are being killed. But also, in police families 40 percent of police families are families where domestic abuse is happening We often talk about the violence that results in death because they died so we have the numbers. But we don’t talk about the people who are sexually assaulted. Like these are always both/and issues, not either/or, And part of our work is to say like what is the link that we’re not seeing here? Flint is probably the best public example now, because people talk about Flint a lot around the water and don’t realize that there’s a generation of kids now who can’t read and we don’t actually have an intervention for them. The other thing I’ll say about lead, and this is sort of a tangent? I’m just like obsessed with lead as like an idea, is that in a lot of places in housing projects kids were eating lead paint. Does anybody know why kid would eat lead paint? Lead is naturally sweet. So what was happening is before people publicly were saying that lab was naturally sweet, what was happening is that we were demonizing mothers for letting their kids eat paint chips. But if any of you have ever been around the toddler, you know, they’ll eat anything and if the wall tastes like candy, they’ll definitely eat the wall. So part of our work to is to learn better so we can push back on things that are not true. Now this is one that we say in organizing all the time, is that we understand that people have the experiences before they have the language. And part of our work is not to penalize people for not having the language, but to get as close to the experience as possible. so when I taught sixth grade, if I walked into my classroom and said talk to me about racism, they’d be like, well, Mr. McKesson, I don’t know. But if I said, “Have you ever been treated differently because of the way you look?” They’re like, I got it if. I’m like, have you ever been followed in a store? They had it, but I had to find a way to like help them understand the language because I knew they had the experiences. There are a lot of people who live in Baltimore today who live in food deserts, but they don’t the language around food deserts. That doesn’t make their experience any less real. So my challenge to you is like, what are the moments are we are penalizing people for not having the right language, but their heart is right? But the experience is right? And we have to get close to the experience to people so we can push them. Now this is one that really is like the crux for me: We were talking about it on the panel, it’s that we never, ever let the system off the hook, that programs are important. A lot of programs keep people alive. They sustain people, but programs will never ever work at scale. The system is the only scaled solution. So after-school programs around reading and math are really important. I used to run one. But I know that the reason why we needed it is because kids didn’t learn how to read and write during the school day. I believe that we need to feed homeless people wherever they are but the reason why people are homeless is because we haven’t guaranteed housing. So feeding people under the bridge is important in the moment. But ending homelessness is actually like the real strategy, and the system is always a level that we fight at. I want you to talk to the person next to you and tell them something you could buy for three hundred dollars. This is a real thing. So something you could buy for three hundred dollars. Tell the person next to you something you can buy for three hundred dollars. Okay, bring it back in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. Okay over here on this side, just yell out something you could buy for $300. Somebody. A what? I didn’t hear it–what did you say? A sound mixer. Oh! I was like, what, I don’t have one of those. Okay, I like a stand mixer? Oh! Okay, yeah, I don’t, I can’t cook, okay so stand mixer–okay got it. $300. What did you say? Season pass to the Busch Gardens. Red bottoms. Red bottoms. A couch at Ikea–are they that expensive at Ikea? Okay. A night at the Marriott. Shady! Zing. The reason I bring this up is that across the country, theeft over $300 is a felony in a lot of places. So to this day in Florida, theft over $300 is a felony. When you become a felon in Florida, you permanently lose the right to ever run for public office. Until January 1st of 2019, you permanently lost the right to ever vote, and so that just got changed. In Virginia, it was theft over $200 until two years ago. In Oklahoma it was teft over $50 until 2001. I say this because people often don’t understand the way that systems actually work. This is one of the ways that systems work. So when people say like, oh, felons, and it’s like, whoever thought that you’d be a felon for stealing this mixer thing that I don’t even know what it is? Or a night at the Marriott, or something else, that like, the way that the public has been sort of taught to imagine some of the system things that actually just off. Like who thought that you’d ever permanently lose the right to vote because you stole a bike at 19? Or you stole anything ever made by Apple or anything else? That part of our work is to actually see the way the systems work so that we can understand how to fight better. The other thing is right here in Florida. So I’ll give you if I can get a volunteer who can read out loud, do we have a good reader in the room? There must be one good reader in the room. Okay, you just read this aloud people can read along with you. A complaint review board shall be composed of 3 members, one member selected by the chief administrator of the agency or unit, one member selected by the aggrieved officer, a third member to be selected by the other two members. So this is the law in Florida, and I bring this here because, again– we never let the system off the hook. That, like, this is the process in Florida State law by when you file a complaint, it’s a police officer, then you don’t have to have a PhD in anything to know that this doesn’t make any sense. That one person appointed about the police department, one person appointed by the accused person, and then the third person appointed by both of them. This doesn’t make sense. This is not fair. This isn’t about justice. This isn’t right. But again, part of our work is to push people to see the way the system’s actually set up, the way the behaviors and outcomes work, that we never let the system off the hook, that people will think about things that look like solutions without really understanding the way the system works, and our focus has to be at the system level. Now one of the final things I’ll talk about is this idea that we normalize telling the truth. I’m in places sometimes where they say, “DeRay you made everything about race” and I tell them “Race made everything about me.” I didn’t do this, right? Part of our work is to say like this is, the disparities are real– I didn’t make it. The police are killing people. I didn’t do that. That is just what’s happening. And that we never, ever penalize people for telling the truth, that we actually normalize this idea of telling the truth as much as possible, then when I think about what it means to be a protester, we would always say that protesters tell the truth in public. That when we said that Jesus was a protester, we were telling people, that like, this is actually what that looked like. We were in St. Louis, there was a protest that happened and it was called “The Black Church” because there were a lot of churches around us during the protest that did not support the protest. So there were two queer women who organized this protest at churches and went to three churches. We showed up to the churches, 15 of us, and we hummed “Wade in the Water” standing outside of the church. And everybody had signs. So like one sign said “Mike Brown was the least of these”, like it was all these really cool signs. Two churches called the police on us, and one church, the pastor came out of the pulpit and stood with us. But it was this moment of like pushing people to see where their values were. If values are things that I have to seek out and try and find, then they actually aren’t values the first place. So when we showed up to a church, and they called the police, the first church called the police on us, we were like, we are telling the truth about what you did and what you didn’t do and we’re just humming a song, like we’re not blocking anybody, we’re literally just on the property, but it was this moment about sort of forcing people to deal with something they weren’t gonna deal with, forcing people to see what they were gonna do in a moment where they got challenged. And there was the second church that called the police on us, they, before the police got there, they actually got the Deacons to move all the church vans to block us, and it’s like, what does that even mean to say that you are a follower of Christ in this moment? In the third church, he just came out, and he was like I’m with you, we was like, okay! And it was like this moment, too, where it was like a beautiful reminder of what community can look like. But we never, ever get afraid of telling the truth in the way that we can, that we actually normalize the of telling the truth in public. Now this is one that I think about all the time, this idea of what does it mean to imagine? That if God answered all your prayers, would it just change you, or would it change the world? There are a lot of people where if God answered all your prayers, they would really just make your life better and that actually isn’t what justice looks like. Part of our work has to be having a dream that is big enough to change the world, that a dream that is not just about us, but is about community, and this is a challenge to you: Is if God answered all your prayers would it just change you, or would it change the world? And the last I’ll say is this idea that we define the terms, that so much of our work is about the act of definition, that, what is a border but a definition? The definitions keep people, out let people in. They either create space or they restrict, and there’s some definitions that we use all the time. This idea of equality and equity, that equality is this idea that everybody gets the same thing. Equity is that people get what they need and deserve, and the work of justice is almost always a work of equity. So we asked about funding for school systems–we’re never asking for equal funding, we’re always asking for equitable funding. We know that it costs more to educate kids in crisis, to keep kids with special needs, to aid, kids of color. This is always about equity. When we think about diversity and inclusion people heard of these terms. Diversity is often about bodies–inclusions about culture. You can hire twenty more trans members of the community, and still be a transphobic workplace. You can hire ten more black people, and still be a racist company, that the body work is actually the easier work that people have done–the inclusion work, the culture work, the community work is a hard work that people refuse to do sometimes. Similar, but not the same. In this last one, people often think about accountability and justice as interchangeable terms, but we remind people that they are not. When we were in the street saying “no justice, no peace,” that that meant something. That when we said “no justice, no peace,” some people took that as a threat, but we understood that as a challenge and a statement of fact. That any call for peace that is not rooted in a demand for justice is not something that we wanted. That any call for peace that was not also something deep about justice was just an an offer for order and compliance, and that was something that we knew we deserved something better of. That when we wanted justice, we wanted a living, breathing justice. So justice said that Mike Brown was coming home tomorrow, that Tamir Rice would be playing with his friends again, that Rekia Boyd was at another cookout. And people confuse the terms, and accountability is often what happens after the trauma. Justice is the idea that there should be no trauma in the first place. So when we push people about justice, we are saying we want a world where the trauma never happened. When we talked to people about the police, we’re saying that the best of police can do is get there after the bad thing’s already happened. We want to live in a world where the bad thing doesn’t happen in the first place. So when we say “no justice, no peace,” it is about calling forth a new world, a world that we know is possible, but one that we have not yet seen. It’s an honor to be here today, and I look forward to building with you. Thank you.