Baltimore activist and author DeRay Mckesson is just 33 years old, but he has shot into the public sphere like a supernova.
In 2015, Mckesson and fellow activist Johnetta Elzie shared the No. 11 spot on Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 greatest world leaders. Frequently described as one of the most prominent voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mckesson has more than a million Twitter followers. His friends include Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. In 2016, Mckesson was twice invited to the White House, where he was among a group of civil rights leaders who met with U.S. President Barack Obama. The president later publicly praised the work Mckesson has done in Baltimore.
Not bad for a kid who says both of his parents were addicted to drugs, who was abandoned by his mother at age 3 and who was sexually abused by an older boy for four years, starting when he was 7 years old. Not too shabby for a boy who remembers sleeping on the floor when the sound of gunshots came too close to the northside home in which he lived with his father and sister, or for a teen who felt he had to keep quiet about being gay.
“I learned quickly that this world wanted me to apologize for my desire, for the way my voice did not sound like the men I saw on TV, for the butterflies I got in the presence of men I dated, the men I loved,” Mckesson writes in his first book, “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope,” which will be published Tuesday. “But we are to apologize for our mistakes and who I am is no mistake. I refuse to apologize for the timbre of my voice, the sway of my gait, the gender of my love.”
Each of the dozen essays included in “The Other Side of Freedom” begins with a personal recollection and culminates in the author’s ideas for solving social ills. The week before the book’s debut, Mckesson chatted with The Sun about topics as varied as the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, his troubled but improving relationship with his mother and how he’d reform city police and school departments.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
What was the inspiration for the essay collection?
I’ve spent so much time processing what was happening in real time in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge. I’ve had a leadership role in the Baltimore school system, and I ran for mayor. Writing the book was a chance to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned. This was the first time I’ve written about my mother, the first time I’ve written about being gay.
Putting it more simply, I once listened to a sermon called “Don’t Tell Your Story Too Soon.” That was fascinating to me. I think that sometimes when you talk about your story too soon, you talk about the pain but not about the purpose. That’s why I didn’t want to write a straight-up memoir. I wrote this book to finally understand the experiences I’ve been through.
Can you explain the book’s title?
It comes from a talk I gave about the two sides of freedom. On this side of freedom, where we are now, we know the outcomes: The police are still killing people. The racial wealth gap is as wide as it ever was. There are places in Baltimore where kids can’t read and write, and that isn’t their fault.
Freedom isn’t just the absence of oppression; it’s also the presence of justice. The question is, how do we get that other side?
You write in your book that your mother was addicted to drugs and left the family when you were 3. What were the circumstances under which she went away?
I don’t know. I was raised by my father and great-grandmother. There was no custody battle for me or for my sister. I think that when my mother left, she told my father that we’d be better off living with him.
She’s clean now and back in my life. Hopefully, that’s a conversation she and I will be able to have some day.
You object to being described as a founder of Black Lives Matter. Why?
Because no one or two people founded this movement. The civil rights movement was born out of institutions. We [Black Lives Matter] came together out of the middle of the streets. People forget that we were on the streets of Ferguson for 400 days. Some people put together the bail fund, some people led people on the streets. Keeping a movement going for that long is hard. It’s not something that just one or two or three people could have done.
How would you reform city police departments?
A key reason why officers get involved in corrupt acts and violence is because the structures in place actually prevent accountability. You can get all the right people in place, but if the rules and structures don’t change, it won’t do any good.
Changing the structures isn’t as hard as people think. In Austin, we got the City Council to vote unanimously to reject a police contract that didn’t go far enough to make the police accountable. Campaign Zero [a grassroots organization that Mckesson co-founded] has shown that police departments with the most most restrictive use-of-deadly-force policies are 72 percent less likely to kill people than are police departments with less restrictive use-of-deadly-force policies.
I’m not convinced that policing is the only way to think about safety. Two hundred years ago we were draining people's blood and saying that cured disease. We spend a whole lot of money on policing, but the police clear almost no cases and crime is not going down. And yet we keep pumping more money into the police. It’s wild.
How would you improve education?
The paramount thing is to increase funding. Every day we are making important decisions with fewer resources than the kids need and that they deserve. Renovating all the school buildings in the Baltimore City Public Schools 21st Century Plan is one step. There are all these neighborhoods where the kids have never been to school inside a beautiful building with natural light. That would be a start.
What’s next for you?
I have enough public speaking engagements to pay my bills. Luckily, I don’t have a ton of costs. I want to figure out how to change these flawed structures, and then I’ll go to work on changing the laws. Do I plan on running for public office again? Definitely.
About the book
“On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope” by DeRay Mckesson is being released Tuesday by Viking Books. $25, 240 pages.