Mainstream-media figures often portray social media as a buzzing hive of useless outrage. Thinkpieces present hashtag activism as vanity activism, in which narcissistic pronouncements substitute for actual engagement, and anger is leveraged at best for petty entertainment and at worst for coordinated harassment.
Yet activists themselves often argue that social media is important to their work. DeRay Mckesson, who has emerged as one of a number of leading organizers and activists against police brutality, has spoken on his feed about how vital Twitter is for boosting a movement. When he first drove from his home in Minneapolis—where he works as a school administrator, traveling for protests mainly on weekends—to Ferguson to participate in the protests, Mckesson knew no one; he didn't even know where he would sleep. Facebook networks found him a couch, and social media was vital in connecting him with the community of protestors. Mckesson reports live from protests through Twitter, where his following has ballooned from 800 followers to more than 61,000 since he began his activism. He's also used social networks to raise awareness and to organize, by for example creating a text-message alert that informed thousands the instant the grand jury in Ferguson returned a no-indictment verdict in the Michael Brown case.
I talked to Mckesson about social media, protest, and the connections between the two. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noah Berlatsky: What role has social-media activism played in the movement against police brutality that started in Ferguson?
DeRay Mckesson: Missouri would have convinced you that we did not exist if it were not for social media. The intensity with which they responded to protestors very early—we were able to document that and share it quickly with people in a way that we never could have without social media. We were able to tell our own stories.
The history of blackness is also a history of erasure. Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people. The black people in the struggle haven't had the means to tell the story historically. There were a million slaves but you see very few slave narratives. And that is intentional. So what was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded.
The other thing I will add is that Twitter specifically has been interesting because we're able to get feedback and responses in real time. If we think about this as community building, and we think of community building as a manifestation of love, and we think about love being about accountability, and accountability about justice, what's interesting is that Twitter has kept us honest. There's a democracy of feedback. I've had really robust conversations with people who aren't physically in the space, but who have such great ideas. And that's proven to be invaluable.
Berlatsky: The civil-rights movement of the '60s obviously didn't have Twitter or social media or the Internet, but it was able to get its message out to the media in other ways. Why wouldn't traditional media be adequate now?
Mckesson: Ferguson exists in a tradition of protest. But what is different about Ferguson, or what is important about Ferguson, is that the movement began with regular people. There was no Martin, there was no Malcolm, there was no NAACP, it wasn't the Urban League. People came together who didn't necessarily know each other, but knew what they were experiencing was wrong. And that is what started this. What makes that really important, unlike previous struggle, is that—who is the spokesperson? The people. The people, in a very democratic way, became the voice of the struggle.
Our access to information is also so much greater than in the past. For instance, there's an officer in Ferguson who is really aggressive with protestors for no reason. And I was able to take a picture of him—he would cover his badge with his hand, he would not show his name. So I took a picture of him, put it online, and within 30 minutes they knew everything about him. And that's a different way of empowering people.
Berlatsky: It sounds like you're saying that Twitter allowed the movement to be a lot more decentralized. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage? It seems like it might be a disadvantage in terms of settling on specific goals, for example.
Mckesson: It is not that we're anti-organization. There are structures that have formed as a result of protest, that are really powerful. It is just that you did not need those structures to begin protest. You are enough to start a movement. Individual people can come together around things that they know are unjust. And they can spark change. Your body can be part of the protest; you don't need a VIP pass to protest. And Twitter allowed that to happen.
I think that what we are doing is building a radical new community in struggle that did not exist before. Twitter has enabled us to create community. I think the phase we're in is a community-building phase. Yes, we need to address policy, yes, we need to address elections; we need to do all those things. But on the heels of building a strong community.
Berlatsky: You also publish—along with Johnetta (Netta) Elzie—an online newsletter about the protest movement called Words to Action. Do you see yourself as a journalist? Or as an activist? Or both? How important is social media to those roles, or to combining them?
Mckesson: I see myself as a protestor who is also telling the story as it happens. The newsletter started—I remember when Trayvon died, I wanted to follow the case, but I didn't know what was fact or fiction. I didn't want that to be the story of Mike Brown. There was so much news; there was so much stuff that was unclear. There were so many questions. The goal was to create a space where people could go to get true news.
Now the movement has spread beyond St. Louis, we cover stories from around the country. So the goal was to be a hub of information. I think the first newsletter that went out had 400 subscribers, and we're at a little bit less than 14,000 now. And we did a text-message alert for the no-indictment—you could sign up to get a text when the decision came out. And 21,000 people signed up in 10 days, which was wild. So the work is focused on, how can we use the tools we have access to in order to create infrastructure for the movement.
And that's what Netta and I have been focused on. None of this takes away from our protesting. We don't put the newsletter out when we're out until 4 in the morning protesting. The trade-off always veers in the favor of protest. It's rooted in the confrontation and disruption that is protest. We want to make structures to empower people. The newsletter is a way to empower people. Because we believe that the truth is actually so damning that we can just tell you all the news that's happening and you should be radicalized. We believe that.
Berlatsky: I saw you talking about Iggy Azalea and issues of appropriation on Twitter a little bit back. That's the sort of cultural issue that I think many people would say is just a distraction, or is just a way for people to express outrage without working for social change. Do you see cultural conversations around Iggy, or similar issues, as a distraction from your work as an organizer? Or are they complementary?
Mckesson: Good lord. Iggy. (laughs) You're really trying to get me in trouble.
When people think about protest, they think that protest is always confrontation, protest is always disruption. But protest is also intellectual confrontation and disruption. So part of what we do when the police speak is that we question. The thing about people like Iggy is that we also question. We question what it means to have your success be on a medium and a platform that was born of black struggle, like hip-hop or rap, and what does it mean that you identify with everything but the struggle part? Which is the Iggy issue.
We question these issues of race and struggle and white privilege, because we know that those issues are real, and because those issues have real implications in black communities. And white supremacy is not only dangerous but it is deadly. We know this to be true.
Berlatsky: Do you get a lot of harassment on social media?
Mckesson: Yeah, the death threats aren't fun. They put my address out there, that's not fun. I get called a nigger more than I've ever been called that in my entire life. I've blocked over 9,000 people, so I don't personally see it as much anymore, but my friends do. So that sort of stuff I don't love.
But what social media has done is that it has exposed the intensity of hatred in America. People who you wouldn't expect to be racist ... some of the tweets are from people who are well-intentioned but racist. And I appreciate that that's exposed. People now understand where you're coming from. And it's deeply problematic. But we don't have to guess anymore; we get it.
The harassment is never a good thing. But there's something valuable in making sure you're not surrounded by people who think like you. It helps you understand what you think better. And I appreciate that about Twitter. It's a cacophony of voices. Even when you don't agree, you at least understand different perspectives. The medium itself sets that up.