DeRay Mckesson was exhausted, physically and emotionally.
It was Thursday morning, and for over a week, protests that began in Minneapolis over the brutal police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, swept the country. The reaction to the video of an officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, with Floyd begging for mercy until he went unconscious, quickly became linked to other instances of fatal police brutality, as well as the filmed murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. There had been protests in all 50 states, sections of downtown Minneapolis were destroyed, and fires had raged in the streets of Washington, D.C.
The 2014 Ferguson protests that grew the Black Lives Matter movement started a year earlier and brought Mckesson into the spotlight, had hit home for millions more Americans. This time, unrest happened against the backdrop against the once-in-a-lifetime coronavirus pandemic that led to the highest unemployment since the Great Depression and a disproportionate impact on Black Americans, both in terms of financial loss and mortality rate.
As the country lie raw, corporations felt like they had to respond in some way. Many embraced the phrase Black Lives Matter for the first time. At JUST Capital, we heard of a real desire from some corporate leaders who wanted to do more than send a tweet in hopes it would get their brand trending. We figured that if they now wanted to tap into the movement, we would turn to one of its most prominent figures.
When we spoke with Mckesson over Zoom, he had also just launched 8 Can’t Wait, an immediate action plan for lowering police violence, that grew out of his more comprehensive and long-term Campaign Zero initiative. Mckesson wasn’t dismissive of corporate America trying to get involved, instead saying that if companies were genuine about their use of Black Lives Matter, they could use their influence to compel police reform, as well as make internal changes that would outlast this moment.
The following interview is edited for length and clarity.
Richard Feloni: How are you feeling right now? How are you processing all of this?
DeRay Mckesson: It’s a wild time. We were promised things in 2014 that didn’t come to fruition. And this is a moment where that is coming to a head. It is also a moment where there’s a lot of opportunity to do deep transformation of oppressive systems and structures once and for all.
Feloni: Does it feel different this time?
Mckesson: The time and place are different, the issues the same.
Feloni: There are a lot more corporations, a lot more people generally, who are associating themselves with Black Lives Matter, which they were afraid to do years ago. What do you think about that?
Mckesson: I’m reminded that we aren’t born woke, something wakes us up. And for a lot of people, 2014 was the thing that woke them up. But for some people, they saw 2014 and it was a hard town in St. Louis. It wasn’t America. It was a young man who got killed by the police, which was terrible, but it wasn’t a country of young men being killed by police. I think that since 2014, even people who weren’t believers, they saw it with their own eyes.
One of the best things that could have happened in this moment is how wild the police have been towards reporters – only because of what we had said the whole time. We said that they were wild, we said that they arrested people for no cause, we said they shot rubber bullets at people for no cause. And the media would always question us as if we were trying to inflame the situation, and it has been remarkable to see reporters just arrested for standing in the street, shot with rubber bullets. It’s like we told you and you didn’t believe us, but it has completely changed their reporting.
In terms of businesses, I think there are a lot of companies who are finding their voice around race. What’s interesting is that it’s all these statements, but either a refusal to recognize, or just they don’t recognize, how much power they often have in cities. It’s like you’re off the hook when you donate – they donate like $100,000 to something and then they don’t ever do anything else.
We’re doing this project around policies right now, and if companies are like, “We will lobby elected officials to enact these policies,” that actually means something.
I hate that companies are choosing a reduction of their power to Instagram posts and random donations because they remind us that they’re corporate citizens every other day, until we need them to be citizens about justice. They use language like, “We’re your neighbor,” but are you my neighbor, grocery store company, when you can’t say anything about this?
Don’t sensationalize what isn’t sensational
Sarah Vieux: Do you think companies should be “activists”?
Mckesson: One of the things I’ve realized more and more over the past five years is the way that sometimes language sensationalizes things that aren’t sensational. So should companies understand that they exist in the context of a community and they have responsibilities to that community? Yes. Call it what you want to call it, but it’s like, you don’t get to be my neighbor when I’m a shopper but not be my neighbor when I’m getting shot at. It doesn’t work like that!
Am I expecting companies to try to uproot all the ills of the entire state that they’re in? No. But it is an acknowledgement that you exist within a community, you make revenue within a community, your customers live in a community. And how do we just normalize that?
I say that because some people see activists and they feel like they’ve got to be at the protest every day. It becomes this word that for some people sensationalizes what is not sensational. You should care about other people around you – especially when you have resources to figure out how to help people around you.
Feloni: And so if say there’s a CEO and they’re considering what their employees, maybe tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of them, and millions of customers, are demanding right now related to the protests, what would an adequate response look like at this point?
Mckesson: I don’t know if there’s like anything special for CEOs. It’s the same stuff that it is for everybody.
When we think about the police it’s two big buckets: One is reduce the power of the police, and the other is shrink the role of the police. So for the shrink the role – this is common sense and every time I hear people talk about “defund” or “abolish” there’s always a set where that becomes a really sensational idea. Especially in the workplace, we normalize the idea that experts deal with things they’re experts in. And that’s not revolutionary.
When we look at things like 911 data, we know that 20% of 911 calls are for mental health issues. And the police aren’t experts on mental health issues. They say they’re not experts. So what if we just take that 20% of those responsibilities and all the funding that comes with it and put them somewhere else? Do you need a gun to go deal with a missing child case? Probably not. Do you need a gun at a car crash? Probably not. That seems pretty normal to me. But people inflame this as like “Whoo, communities are going to be unsafe!” Was the community really safer because you had a gun at the car crash? We can get a whole other set of people to go to car crashes.
And CEOs, any big companies, the more and more that people with resources participate in the normalization of that, we actually all win.
True values aren’t siloed
Vieux: What should a company do for its Black employees?
Mckesson: What I will always say, and this is about companies, is about – I used to be a teacher – classrooms, is if I have to search for your values, then they’re not values. Values are things that I see and understand when I’m there. A lot of companies have these value statements around diversity and inclusion. And it’s like, well, I’m out here searching for the Black people, there’s no Black people here! Or the only time Black people can talk about anything about community is when they’re in the Black affinity group – that actually doesn’t feel like a healthy, safe space either. That’s a part of it.
You’ve got to model the type of community that you want to live in. Companies have their own cultures and communities, and are you building one and modeling one that can be mimicked on the outside? I also do think, and this is sort of unique to companies – you clearly do something well, because you are a big company, and what would it look like to use that talent to help us think through some of the biggest social ills? That is what it means to be a part of the community. So if you’ve already figured out the algorithm to do something, what would it look like for you to figure out hunger? Take all those smarts and put them in a place to think deeply about like these big issues.
Because our lived experience reminds us that unless we change or transform something at the system level, then it’ll just keep popping up. The same things will come over and over and it won’t be like, “Whoo, I don’t know why we got here!” You’re like, well, “I don’t know why you’re surprised that we’re here.” Of course it’s the same thing.
Breaking out of a cycle
Vieux: So do you think we’re moving in the right direction now? Is this just the same conversation over and over again?
Mckesson: Because I’m in the middle of it, I have no clue. I don’t know what the other end looks like. I know what I would like it to look like, but will we be able to pull off? I don’t know. Do I think we have the ability to pull it off? Absolutely. Do I think we will fix this stuff in our lifetime? Sure, I am sold on that. We know more than we’ve ever known. I think that we’re building coalitions.
I think about some of my work when people who have never posted about issues of justice and race are, and how we got them there was really normal.
This isn’t as dramatic as you think it is. The way we talk about it in organizing is this idea of “simple, but not small.” This is actually simple. The impact is huge, but the idea is simple. And that’s so much of the justice space. It’s such a simple idea that every kid should have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The impact is pretty big. Same with healthcare. It’s a simple notion that when you get sick, you have the right to see a doctor. What happens is the other side knows that the simpler it is, the easier it is to pass, so they sensationalize it. So it doesn’t become where you have the right to a doctor, it becomes you’re going to lose your own doctor. That’s how they get us.
Taking first steps
Feloni: And if someone in our audience right now genuinely wants to make the change that you’re talking about, where should they be turning to for some initial steps?
Mckesson: We just launched 8cantwait.org, which is about these eight policies, that when a department goes from zero to all of them, there is a 70% reduction in police violence, which is really powerful. We have around 10 cities that have already reached out who are working on stuff to be in alignment.
Mapping Police Violence has all the data around police violence – we manage the most comprehensive database of police violence in the country. There is checkthepolice.org, where you can go look at your police union contract, and we map out the clauses that are problematic.
Feloni: Getting back to the idea of values, if a company wants to have a response to these issues that’s more than just a statement or a donation, but something longer lasting, what should they do?
Mckesson: Companies actually understand the values conversation until you talk about race and justice. In a place where it doesn’t feel like you can communicate with each other, you know what that feels like. It’s only when it’s issues of identity that are not straight white men. And then all of a sudden, they don’t know what to do.
When I worked with teachers, we would sit in the back of the rooms. And one of the things that we do with young people, is a very simple thing. It’d be like going into a classroom really quickly when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on with, with the teacher, you can just tally the number of positive to negatives that they say out of their mouth, like the “stop,” “sit down,” “don’t do that,” versus the “great job.” It gives you a great snapshot into culture, very quickly. And the same thing in corporate America. If you sit in the back of the room and map out who talks when, it’s like, you realize something like women talk less, people talk over them. You actually see these values.
Companies have to invest more in uncovering and addressing the way the workplace looks, and not putting the burden on their people to do that.