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Trump vs Black Lives Matter: DeRay Mckesson

A Black Lives Matter activist stands outside Trump Tower in New York City, 9th July 2020. Photo: Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images

This is the fifth interview in an eight-part series.

DeRay Mckesson
Activist, organiser, author and podcaster

Before the 2016 election DeRay Mckesson wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post entitled ‘Why I’m Voting for Hillary Clinton’. “I got so much flack for it,” says the activist, author and podcaster. “People went absolutely nuts. But I knew Trump could win. I remember being at the Javits Center, the Hillary HQ on election night, and people were calling me [after Trump won] saying ‘What are we going to do?’… People asked me, ‘Do you have a plan?’”

The reason people were asking Mckesson for his plan was the same reason Clinton had courted his endorsement: he had been hailed as one of the most prominent civil rights activists in the country. Two years earlier he had driven from his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland to Ferguson, Missouri, to protest the fatal police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown. After several months of live-tweeting from the Ferguson streets to an ever-growing audience, Mckesson emerged from the protests as a key figure in the leaderless Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Meetings with Barack Obama at the White House followed, as did TV appearances and a place on Fortune’s ‘World’s Greatest Leaders’ list. His first book of essays, On the Other Side of Freedom, was published in 2018.

In that 2016 Clinton-endorsing opinion piece, Mckesson took issue with fellow activists who refused to back a candidate who had a complicated history with black Americans. He also disputed a theory that a Trump win might bring about a “productive apocalypse” – that an ugly reckoning with the reality of racism in America might force substantive change, rather than more of the status quo under Clinton.

“There’s no apocalypse that’s productive,” Mckesson says today. “What we found was that black people, poor people and people of colour were just harmed more [by the Trump administration].” He cites Covid-19 as one issue that disproportionately affected those groups. “Just think about Trump’s carelessness and recklessness and bigotry, and the number of people who needlessly died.”

Trump is the last best plan for white supremacists”

Last summer, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the BLM movement went global. Its success, Mckesson says, means that many more people have had an awakening similar to the one he had in 2014, when he realised that police killings of black people are “not isolated incidents, but fit a pattern of behaviour”. “Before the Ferguson protests the police in Baltimore pulled their gun on me at a traffic stop and I thought it was unique,” he says. “I didn’t realise this was happening all over the country.”

Trump, however, cast the BLM protesters as “violent mobs”. When a BLM mural was created outside Trump Tower the president described it as a “symbol of hate”. Was it disheartening hearing your own president say such things? “No, it’s just Trump,” Mckesson replies. “We [protesters] never listened to him anyway.”

Surely it was harder to ignore some of Trump’s more contentious remarks, such as his apparent support for neo-fascist group the Proud Boys in a 2020 election debate? “Trump is white supremacy,” says Mckesson. “Some of his supporters know [he’s racist] and they’re choosing him anyway.

But also you have to keep in mind the partisan gaps in news penetration.” Mckesson shares a Morning Consult survey revealing that less than 20 percent of Republicans polled said they “heard a lot” in the news about Trump’s “stand back and stand by” message for the Proud Boys. “Trump voters can live in a world of denial because they literally aren’t seeing the evidence [of his racism],” he says.

In the first episode of his podcast, Pod Save the People, recorded after the 2020 election, Mckesson said, “Let’s celebrate, but then let’s get straight back to work.” His own fights, he says, on issues such as policing and mass incarceration, are largely to be fought at a local and state level. But there remains a larger, national battle. “This is white supremacy’s last stand,” he says. “Trump is the last best plan for white supremacists to rally and organise. This is their moment and we’re going to fight like hell to make sure they don’t win.”

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #41 of Delayed Gratification

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