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DeRay Mckesson wants white people to confront the reality of police violence

In his new book, the activist and Black Lives Matter cofounder wants everyone to examine what role they can play in limiting the power of the police.

DeRay Mckesson wants white people to confront the reality of police violence
[Photo: Robert Adam Mayer/courtesy Viking/Penguin Books]

During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, DeRay Mckesson spent 400 days walking the streets because the police had forbidden people from standing still. In his new book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, the organizer and Black Lives Matter cofounder describes those days in excruciating detail: how police began firing canisters of tear gas into crowds of protesters his first day in the streets; how he hid crouched under his steering wheel as those same police in SWAT vehicles combed the streets of Ferguson, looking for protesters out after the midnight curfew they had set. He describes furiously tweeting to document as his fellow protesters attempted to stage a sit-in at the Ferguson police department, and how that sit-in swiftly devolved into violence as the police moved in on the protesters, one of them grabbing Mckesson and dragging him toward the precinct by his ankles.

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The protests in Ferguson illuminated an element of policing that’s often obscured in larger narratives. “The way we think about policing is so ingrained,” Mckesson tells Fast Company. “Even if you watch a movie like Zootopia–which is made for kids–you see the police just running through neighborhoods, knocking things and people over in the name of justice,” he says. “But what happens when the police officer is the bad guy?”

[Photo: courtesy Viking/Penguin Books]
Especially in communities of color, the police wield what Mckesson describes as negative power. “They take away to purportedly give,” Mckesson writes. “They seize, detain, arrest, imprison, and kill to maintain law and order in society, in order to manage conflict.” For people living in places like Ferguson, the police, Mckesson says, are not a source of comfort or hope, but often a cause of destruction. Part of the work of the Black Lives Matter movement that Mckesson describes in On the Other Side of Freedom was to develop the data to back that feeling up.

While many people in communities of color intuitively understand of the problems of over-policing, and how it disproportionately affects themselves and their neighbors, there’s been little data collected overall on the extent of police brutality in the United States. Because the federal government relies on precinct self-reporting to track police violence, and few police departments fully report this data, its records are flawed. (Many precincts scrub reports of misconduct and brutality from officers’ records after six months.)

To fix the problem, Mckesson and his fellow Black Lives Matter organizers created Mapping Police Violence, a project to use social media, local news reports, crowdsourcing, and public information requests to comprehensively document instances of police brutality across the country that otherwise would have slipped through the cracks. What they found is that police kill around 1,200 people a year in America–and that black people are three times more likely than white people to be the targets of violence.

Compiling all these numbers and coming face-to-face with the confirmed scope of police violence in the United States was certainly a cause for despair, but Mckesson’s book is concerned with hope, and how to channel the knowledge of this pervasive issue into building a solution to it. “I hope the book pushes people toward imagining something beyond the system we have,” he says.

But that’s going to take effort, and one of the things that’s been a source of frustration to Mckesson over the past couple years, as he was working on the book, has been watching a new relationship unfold between police and protest. There has not been a demonstration of the same tenor of the Ferguson protests in the years since 2014, but there have been large-scale events, like the Women’s March, that have brought people out into the streets. The nature of these events, though, is different. The Women’s March was known for its cooperation with law enforcement; organizers were granted permits, and participants were encouraged to comply with the requests of the police on hand. The marches were peaceful, yes, but at the expense of pushing to dismantle the dependence a system of policing that, at its core, functions as a tool of oppression for millions of people.

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“There are things that people think are being genuinely subversive, but really they’re just enabling the police to corral people,” Mckesson says. “In Ferguson, we were out there every day forcing the system to respond to us.” While events like the Women’s March certainly galvanized a cross-section of the population to come together as a demonstration of opposition to the current administration, Mckesson is concerned that it also performed the unintended work of reinforcing the unchecked oversight of law enforcement.

Not every protest is going to be Ferguson; the demands of demonstrators will always differ, and the people participating will have different thresholds for how far they’ll be willing to go to fight for the change they want to see. But if you are someone who is protesting in the presence of police without experiencing pushback or brutality, Mckesson writes, you need to work to understand how that privilege is not universal. But also understand that you have a role to play in ensuring the system does not continue to wield the unjust power that it does over others.

Take, for instance, the issue of accountability in law enforcement. “In the state of Maryland, you can file an anonymous complaint against an officer for everything except brutality,” Mckesson says. “You can actually love the police and see that that doesn’t make sense,” he adds. “I hope that when people read the book, they understand that.” And he hopes that people will be inspired to engage with the issue and push for changes. That, he writes, is making the shift from being an ally–someone who has made the effort to understand their privilege and how it affects their position in the world–to being an accomplice: someone who “looks beyond that personal acknowledgment to identify how her awareness can be applied to changing the systems and mind-sets that prop up the system,” Mckesson writes.

In his book, Mckesson does some of the work for people. In spelling out the data that supports the issues with policing in the U.S., he makes it clear that the system is broken and a source of oppression for people of color, and, in describing his time in Ferguson, he invites people to consider their own participation in demonstrations, and how it might have differed and why. What he leaves people with is a push to reckon with where power really lies, and how to ensure that their actions and decisions support a more equal distribution of that power, whether it be through canvassing for a politician who has pledged to address police corruption, or actively seeking out ways to report police brutality in communities. Ultimately, dismantling the outsize power our society has granted to police will be a collective task, because “we lose as a society when we cede that much power to a single group of people,” Mckesson says.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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