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Protesting is Power: A Talk with DeRay McKesson



Last week, American University School of Education hosted "A Talk with DeRay McKesson." First gaining prominence during the summer of 2014, using Twitter and Instagram to organize protests in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown, McKesson since turned his platform into a push for education reform and an end to police brutality.

McKesson began protesting in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland as a teenager. Protesting is now a patriotic act, McKesson clad in his signature shiny blue Patagonia vest, told the auditorium full of students, staff and faculty. Trauma, like racism or dealing with the police, makes you lose power - "organizing gives back that power," said McKesson.

Take American University for example. On any given day, students participate in protests organizing against police brutality, tuition hikes or anti-immigration policies that directly impact the community. And that's just on campus. Venture into the city, and you can stumble upon anti-Trump, pro-woman and climate change marches all happening in the same day.

"This work will always be more important than it is popular," McKesson said. Aside from tackling systemic racism and police brutality, much of McKesson's work has revolved around education - working for Teach for America, advocating for public and charter school reform, and now as the interim chief human capital officer for Baltimore City Public Schools. McKesson imagines a world where students are not limited to a five-paragraph essay to tell their stories. Education and youth development were a key part of McKesson's 2016 mayoral campaign in Baltimore. On the campaign trail, he admits to learning that people are typically trained to hear problems, not solutions.

"People would say, ‘What are you going to do about public schools?' and one by one, the candidates would say, ‘The public schools are broken,'" said McKesson. "And [the audience] would be like, ‘Yeah!' And, like, if you gave a moderately real answer, people would be like, ‘I don't know.'"

McKesson's honesty, and well - realness - may not have won him the job of mayor, but it has made him one of the most influential activists of our generation. When asked about his success, specifically how he raised $300,000 on his mayoral campaign without cold-calling or built a massive platform on Twitter and accrued over 705,000 followers, he simply stated that "people want to follow people."

McKesson calls Twitter "the friend that's always awake." He tweets just about anything from politics to spaghetti. He is human. He is relatable. McKesson is one of many activists, like the founders of Black Lives Matter or Johnetta Elzie, who have reimagined social media beyond its intended purpose to share photos and mundane life updates with family and friends.

McKesson went on to tell a story about a time when he and a friend were trying to start a protest in Ferguson. They tweeted about it, and within hours thousands of people showed up. In many ways, protesting really is one of the most patriotic acts that one can do. A protest is more than a hashtag or a brightly colored sign - it is the bold assertion that my rights matter, my classmate's rights matter, the woman who cleans the lounge in my residence hall - her rights matter, too. A protest says, let's make this country better.

"It took us two years for us to convince people that [police brutality] was a real problem," said McKesson. Now, more than ever, is it important for us to resist.

Cover photo provided by Author.

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