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.

You recently left your job in the Baltimore public schools to be a fellow at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics. You're an educator, both in academia and in social media. How does that duality play out for you?

Online activism and offline activism work in cooperation with each other, not in competition with each other. I believe that people don't have to die by police violence. I believe that every kid deserves a great education. I believe there are amazing adults out there that want to make sure that our kids have what they deserve. I believe all of those things and that they work in concert with each other.

Constantly working to educate people must take a toll.

It is real work to talk about trauma so often and to help people process it and to process it myself. I am mindful now of every time there's a new incidence of police violence or a new incidence of any racial injustice; it makes me double down on trying to figure out what the solutions at scale are. That is where I devote most of the energy now.

You're a funny person, but your persona as it's been portrayed is rather serious. Do you ever feel you can't be your whole self when you're trying to organize or mobilize?

I'm mindful that—black people, we've always been more than our pain. Joy has always been so real and so present in how we have survived and sustained and thrived in the midst of continuous trauma, and I try to live that in my own life. The reality is that we spend so much time in the street … that was tough, that was in the midst of trauma, and I was just one of many people who was out there. But … we did build a different type of community that was rooted in this deep love of black people. That love manifests sometimes in silly ways, fun ways, adorable ways, and we can't forget that. You're right in that sometimes I read what's been written about me and I'm like, that guy is really mean and that's not me, but the work is serious and I think people focus on that independent of my personality. I'm a pretty joyful person.

What's your advice to marketers that want to be better activists?

So much of this is about, how do we tell the stories in ways that mobilize people and help people to think about the world differently. That at its root is what marketing is—it's about storytelling. In the movement around police violence, I think we, by happenstance almost, have been very good storytellers in having people understand the trauma. We can live in a world where the police don't kill people. I think about all the conversations that happen on Twitter, which forces people to be concise—these are the easily replicable messages that are being produced that people can say in every part of your life. I remember people used to say, "Harriet didn't vote for her freedom," as a way to push back on all the people who were like, vote and suddenly everything will end. Voting is one of many tools; it's not the only tool. I think about the larger space around the solutions and it would be powerful to leverage the marketing community and think about, how do we tell these simple truths or these complex things in terms of simple truths so that we can end mass incarceration—and mass incarceration is not just about arrests, but it's about probation, parole, sentencing. I would love to leverage different peoples' capacity and think about how we tell these messages.

This story first appeared in the October 31, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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