Q&A: DeRay Mckesson on Twitter Harassment and How Marketers Can Be Better Activists

Mobilizing and organizing online

In August 2014 DeRay Mckesson, activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, traveled from Minnesota, where he lived, to Ferguson, Mo. He went to bear witness and be a part of the protests taking place following the death of a young, unarmed black man named Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer, Darren Wilson. There he started using Twitter to document and process what was unfolding. 

Since then, Mckesson has become a central voice in the movement to stop police violence against black lives. Adweek caught up with Mckesson, the cover star of Adweek's Social Issue, to get his take on social media and social justice, Twitter, his signature Patagonia vest and how marketers can be better activists.

Adweek: Has social media has become imperative for social activism?

DeRay Mckesson: As people of color, we've always seen issues of erasure, and erasure often manifests in two ways. One is that either the story is never told or is told by everybody but us. In this moment we really aren't erased, we were literally able to push back against the cultural emeritus. There was no longer a filter. There was no longer a filter for what was news. We got to make news, and we got to talk to each other. So not only were we sort of combating larger narratives, but we were going to build community and build relationships with each other in ways that we didn't have a tool to do before. (See our accompanying story, "How DeRay Mckesson Turned Social Media Into a Powerful Tool for Social Justice".) 

You have a relationship with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. What's that like?

Jack's a friend. I love Twitter. We talk about the platform, and we get to bounce ideas off each other. We don't agree about everything the platform is doing, but I believe they have the best interest in the platform and that community is at the heart of Twitter.

Do you talk about harassment? They kicked off (controversial conservative activist) Milo Yiannopoulos.

We've talked about [harassment] publicly [at Recode's Code Conference 2016] and we've talked about it privately. I don't think they have told the story of what they have done well. Blocking is different. I've blocked 19,000 people, so I am keenly aware of harassment and the impact. A movie theater got evacuated because somebody tweeted they were going to shoot me, so personally the issue is important.

Earlier this year, you worked with Portland, Ore.-based creative tech shop Feel Train on the Stay Woke Bot. It responds to users with positive messages. What made you want to create it? [To] bring as many people into the fold as possible. I think there are more people that want to be involved and know what to do than want to be members. It's about figuring out how we organize differently [in ways] that don't require members or chapters as the only way to be a part of it. That is really important to me, and the bot was one of those things where you don't need a membership card to tweet the bot and get information.

You wear a blue Patagonia vest all the time. Do you have a relationship with the brand? Have they asked you to be in ads?

No. I love Patagonia. Rose [Marcario], the CEO, emailed me when I got arrested in Baton Rouge. They have been great about repairing my vest every time it rips, and they have to restuff the down. The Baton Rouge police took my book bag and still haven't given it back to me. Patagonia sent me one.