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Longform

Building tools for digital activism


In the years since Trayvon Martin’s shooting death in 2012, thousands of people — and, particularly, people of color — have turned out in the streets and online to cry out against police violence, and demanded accountability. The collective resistance of those protests coalesced early on into what is now known as the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM, further fueled by the deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and countless others, has become one of the most vibrant political forces of our time. It has also called into question what it means to protest in 2016 and how Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other social platforms can be used to effectively shine light on injustice, and spark change.

One of the Black Lives Matter movement’s most prominent voices is 31-year-old DeRay Mckesson. With his now-iconic blue vest, Mckesson, now the interim chief of Human Capital for Baltimore City Public Schools, has balanced using his platform online and off in order to draw attention to matters such as public safety and law enforcement reform. He has protested against police violence in places like Ferguson, Missouri; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Charleston, South Carolina. Through Campaign Zero, he and other BLM activists designed a policy plan calling for police reform. He even ran for Baltimore mayor this year, and though he lost, he drew widespread attention to his effort to bring BLM to the halls of government, where real change happens.

Last month, we sat down with DeRay in New York City to discuss Black Lives Matter and the future of activism, both in the streets and on the internet.

The Interview

Over the last two years, you’ve become an activist, organizer, and even mayoral candidate. Where do you think you’ll be in 2021?

The movement has created a critical mass of people who understand that there’s a crisis. Two years ago, there were people who thought that there was a problem in Ferguson, [but] they did not yet accept that there was a problem across the country. We won that battle. The next part of the work is to create a critical mass of people who know what the solutions are and have the skills to implement them. In five years, I’m hopeful that I’d be in a place, as an organizer, where we created that critical mass. I’ll probably still be doing work around education and kids because that has been so much of my career. I’m also hopeful that we’ll be celebrating some of the accomplishments around criminal justice reform, and we will have figured out how to use technology to build community differently.

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As an activist, you use Instagram and Twitter. How are activists using these tools, and how do you see that changing?

I love Twitter. I think about Twitter as the friend that’s always awake. It’s why I tweet so much. I’m interested to see which of the platforms will be the first one that allows people to build skills. Right now, mostly, it’s about information sharing. We haven’t seen a platform really be [about] skill building, so I’m hoping that’ll come next. It’s been interesting to see Snapchat grow and change, [and] I think that in the coming years we’ll see that. I’m not one of the people who is a Twitter doomsday person. I think that we’ll see the golden days of Twitter ahead.

I think that we have to be open to new ways of organizing and new ways of building community. I’m mindful that we aren’t born woke, something wakes us up, and for so many people, what woke them up was a tweet or a Facebook post, an Instagram post, a picture. I never criticize people who [others] deem to be Twitter activists, or hashtag activists, because I know that telling the truth is often a tough act, no matter where you tell that truth. I think that’s important. I think that we’ll continue to see the platforms push and redefine the way we organize.

In terms of the new organizing, you think about how you can use people on Slack and mobilize them, you think about how we can spread messages on Twitter. I think that we’re just at the beginning of seeing the power of technology to really push in the social justice and the equity space. I think that moving forward in terms of what the solutions look like, I think we’ll see platforms like Twilio be really important. I think we’ll see these sort of quieter, seemingly, platforms take a primary role.

Is it on Silicon Valley companies to address issues of social injustice, institutional racism, et cetera? Or should that be more the task of the government?

I think the reality is that there’s a role for everybody to play in the work of social justice and that we have to organize everybody. That means that Silicon Valley has to be organized, the fashion industry has to be organized, the formerly incarcerated have to be organized, the teachers. We have to figure out how to build a critical mass that is different from the critical masses we’ve tried to build before and leveraging people’s skills and talents as we think about issues of equity injustice. I think that Silicon Valley and technology can play a huge role in redefining what community looks like and how people come together and what authentic relationships look like, but that is not only their burden. We also have to be as organized on the inside as we are on the outside.

How will institutions like local government and Congress use these tools to engage with people on the ground?

I think that one of the things that we’ve learned is that there’s no one solution. Body cameras can be implemented effectively as a part of a comprehensive set of solutions, but alone they are not the win. The White House is actually doing some interesting research around body cameras, about how we can use the audio from body cameras to detect aggression in officers before the trauma happens. Right now, we think about body cameras [in terms of] post-trauma. Something bad happens, we look at the video. But could we use the audio? I think that’s fascinating. I think we’ll see many more things like that start to come to the fore around how we can use technology to hold people accountable.

The other thing is about data. I know there are a lot of incredible coders and people in the tech space who are trying to help us think about some big data questions. If you’ve heard any number about police violence at all, ever, it is all from local media reports. That means that if you get killed by a police officer in America and a newspaper does not write about it, you are not in the data set. That is wild. There are some towns that don’t have newspapers. If the police kill somebody in that town, they just aren’t in the data set.

I [also] think there are a lot of data questions about bail, about sentencing. Most people don’t realize that the homicide rate in cities actually includes the people that the police kill. In places like Albuquerque, one in three people killed in Albuquerque is actually killed by the police. But if you just look at the homicide rate you don’t know that. I’m most interested in how we think about big data surfacing some of these things that have just not come to the forum because the government does not have the resources to bring them forward.

Is there something you would create yourself to remedy some of these situations in the next five years?

If I could create one thing in the next five years around remedying the data issues, it would be a massive crowdsourced big data project that got volunteers from across the world to sift through some of these issues. Right now, we’re working on creating a public database of all the public information for all the elected officials in the country. We’re working on it. We’ll do it. You should be able to look up in any town and city who the elected officials are. You can’t look up what the bail amounts are and how bail is set. There are some big data questions. I would make a big data initiative around social justice that was also crowdsourced.

In your mind, is there a Black Lives Matter in 2021? Is it a social movement? A political movement? Something grassroots versus something happening in Washington? Is it economic? Or is it all of the above?

I think that in five years, the movement will be a comprehensive space. I’m mindful that the movement is young. When people talk about what we now call “the civil rights movement,” that was a decade. We are two years into this. I think there’s so much more work to be done. I think that in five years we’ll see some really focused economic organizing, that we’ll continue to see people pressing in the criminal justice space, and that we’ll be able to reflect on some key wins and talk about some legislative successes as well. I think it’ll be interesting to see in five years what the next president has done, and what the commitment to criminal justice reform in safety and communities looks like.

Speaking of safety and space being open to conversations with a multitude of people, how do you ensure that the people who are part of the movement are safe on these online communities?

The issue of abuse online is close to me. I get death threats. There was a movie theater that got evacuated because somebody tweeted that they were going to shoot me. I blocked 19,000 people on Twitter alone. Most of my life’s information is public. I got a text one day from a hacker who texted me all of my credit card information. It’s close to me. I think that the online space is in so many ways trying to figure out what is abuse and what isn’t abuse.

Twitter has made some important inroads but has a long way to go. Facebook, the same thing. In five years, we will see a more nuanced and a more consistent vision of what safety should look like in online communities. If I disagree vehemently, is that abuse? If I call you a curse word, is that abuse? Is there some in-between? It is murky right now. The only people having the abuse conversations are people who are impacted by it. The people who are developing the spaces aren’t engaging in public dialogue about it. They are just sort of doing things with their platforms. That is not helpful or productive.

How would you have companies like Facebook resolve that problem?

I think that engaging in public conversation or a broader group discussion about what safety looks like online would be really important. I’ve talked to the folks at Twitter about safety on the Twitter platform. I know that they’re actually working quietly behind the scenes on making some changes. I do think there’s a benefit to hearing from people who use the platform often about what it would look like. Facebook, it’s not always clear why they suspend some posts [and] why they deactivate some accounts. On Twitter, there’s a fine line between what is actually the thing that gets your account suspended versus the thing that’s going to get your account deleted. Moving forward, we will actually see much more nuance and much more consistency around how these things are applied.

Do you envision people generally becoming more aware of the fights against institutional inequality in the years to come?

In five years, the definition of what it means to be active and aware will be different. We’ve already started to push the space and say that a protester’s not only somebody who goes into the street. A protester is not only somebody who disrupts a board meeting. An organizer is not only somebody who sits in the basement of a church every Wednesday. We have pushed the boundaries. When I think about what it means to protest, a protester is somebody who tells the truth in public and there are many ways to do that.

Technology has opened up a new frontier in that space. I do think that more people will be woke. More people will be aware, but how we measure that will be different. We’ll see authentic relationships continue to build and blossom in digital spaces. [They won’t] replace offline work, offline organizing, or offline relationships, but enhance them and allow for more connection, a deeper connection, and more sustained connection.

What worries you as you look forward?

I worry sometimes that we have forgotten how to imagine what is possible. You think about things like slavery. It took a lot of imagination, some real mental leaps to be like, “These people are worthless, these people are worth more. We’re going to put them in chains.” In concocting the problems, people were really imaginative in the worst ways. We’re in these moments where we’re like, “Okay, the problems are bad. Let’s figure out how to undo them.” People are all of a sudden unimaginative. You say something like, “Give every kid born in a city in poverty a library,” and people are like, “We could never do that! We could never afford it!” That is just so mind-blowing to me, that people just lost their imagination.

I also think that something that happens in the social justice spaces is this idea that if you don’t organize with or like me, then you’re not an organizer. We have to continue to create spaces for people to open up new spaces. That there is no one way to do this work. There’s no one way to be someone who cares about justice or equity. There’s no one way to use tech platforms. If we had used Twitter the way that all the articles say that you use Twitter, we wouldn’t be here. We use it in a different way. We use Vine in a different way. You think about the beginning of the protests. It was before Periscope. It was before you could upload videos on Twitter. We were really patchworking platforms to make them work for us.

I’ve met so many young people who feel like there’s only one entrance to the work now. That if they don’t do it this way, then it’s not real. I worry that we might be missing out on some amazingly radical ways of organizing that we haven’t thought about.

You still sound very optimistic. Are you?

I believe that our tomorrows can be better than our todays. My sense of hope is rooted so much in my time as a teacher. I taught sixth grade math in East Area Brooklyn. I think every day about fighting for building a world that is worthy of the kids that I taught. That is real to me. The other piece is that I grew up in Baltimore. Both my parents were drug addicts. My father raised us. My mother left when I was three. I say that because I grew up in so many ways in the community of recovery. I saw people put their lives back together in ways that they did not think they could. I saw people come back from what they thought was their most broken to be whole in a different way and to be sound and to be loving and to be caring in ways that they had not yet imagined at the time. Those two things give me the sense of hope. It helped me believe and understand that some of this work is the slow painful work but it pays off in the end. The last thing is that in protests I met incredible people. I met so many people across the country who did not understand their own power, who did not believe the sound of their own voice and they found it over the last two years. Every time I meet another person like that, it reminds me that the people are there. We just have to figure out how to organize. The people exist, the passion exists, and we can do this.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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