North America

Black Lives Matter leader says movement can learn from Indigenous Australians


As a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, DeRay Mckesson has received death threats but he says he won't stop fighting for modern civil rights.

In the summer of 2014, then-school administrator DeRay Mckesson decided to make a nine-hour drive across the US to join the swelling crowds of protesters on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

They had gathered as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, protesting against the fatal shooting of local teenager Michael Brown who was killed by police officer Darren Wilson.

The 18-year-old was unarmed, college-bound and held no criminal record, with witnesses claiming the young African American man had surrendered to police before the shots were fired. His body was left lying on the road for four hours, in a pool of blood.

Michael Brown's mother scatters rose petals over the road on which her son was killed.
Michael Brown's mother scatters rose petals over the blood stains of her 18-year-old son, who was killed in the middle of the street in Ferguson.

“There was a call for people to come and stand,” Mr Mckesson told SBS News on Friday.

“And I thought, [that's] the least I could do for the weekend,” he said.

“The police killed a teenager … let me go [and] do this.”

With an original commitment of two nights in Ferguson, Mr Mckesson instead stayed for 400 days of protest.

“None of us knew that the protests would last that long, we didn’t know that they would spread in the way that they spread,” he said.

“I quit my job, depleted my retirement account, put my stuff in storage.

Protesters used their mobile phones to record interactions with police during the protests in Ferguson.
Protesters use their mobile phones to film interactions with police in Ferguson, a day after the anniversary of Michael Brown's death was punctuated with gunshots.

“I was one of many people who said, you know what, we’ll sacrifice in this moment because we know that we’re on the right side of justice.”

Through the growing community on the streets and the mounting action on social media, a purpose was ignited inside Mr Mckesson.

“Imagine what it’s like to be in front of 200 to 300 police officers when you’re armed with a cell phone and the truth and they have machine guns,” Mr Mckesson said.

The rise of the digital activist

A vehicle for grassroots mobilisation and accountability, it was through social media that Mr Mckesson helped build a formidable modern civil rights movement.

“The beauty of the platform of Twitter is that it allows a big idea to spread whether you have a big following or not,” Mr Mckesson said.

“Anything that’s ever changed the world started on a porch, in a kitchen, in a basement."

This sentiment has translated into Mr Mckesson’s own experience.

“The big idea was that we could live in a world where the police don’t kill people,” he said.

“But the biggest idea, especially in the beginning, is that Mike Brown should be alive today.”

Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson used social media to hold the police to account.
The death of Michael Brown motivated DeRay Mckesson to join the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson.
SBS News

Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 through a viral hashtag of the same name, after George Zimmermann was acquitted for fatally shooting African American teen Trayvon Martin.

The movement has since challenged police brutality, systemic racism, inequality and the role of justice; with the Ferguson protests marking a modern civil rights turning point for many in the African American community.

As the police and protestors clashed in the county of St Louis, Mr Mckesson live-streamed and posted evidence online to his army of followers spanning the globe.

“So many [protests] were born because of the way people in St Louis, in that moment used the internet to spark change,” Mr Mckesson said.

“People thought there was a problem in Ferguson, they didn’t think there was a problem in America.

“I think we helped people find the courage and their voice and use it … to find their power and use it.”

The year 2018 saw 998 Americans shot and killed by police according to a Washington Post data base, with 23 per cent of those identifying as Black.

Mr Mckesson said police brutality and systemic racism needs to be combatted with common-sense policy.

“Most of the things that would save people’s lives are actually pretty simple, they’re not contentious,” he said.

“We know that officers should use deadly force as a last resort, not at the beginning.

“[If] somebody [steals] something from a 7/11 [service station] there’s no reason to shoot them in the back.”

Lessons from Australia

Since Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement has also created a groundswell in Australia.

“It’s not a surprise to me that the energy that was born in St Louis spread across the country and spread across the world,” Mr Mckesson said.

“Any country that has been colonised has the vestiges of colonisation built into the fabric.

“In America we see that in the criminal justice system … in the way that land was distributed, redistributed or not distributed at all.”

Drawing similarities to Australia, Mr Mckesson called for a unified approach to overcoming shared experiences of police brutality, deaths in custody, displacement and systemic racism.

“In Australia there are still disparate outcomes when we think about Indigenous communities, incarceration, and the same thing in New Zealand,” he said.

“We stood in the street [in Ferguson] because of what was happening at home but … these issues aren’t only happening at home.

“Countries like this [Australia], countries like the United States would not have the wealth and prosperity, if not for the work of Indigenous communities.”

Deray Mckesson says he can learn from First Nations movements in Australia.
DeRay Mckesson says he took to the streets in 2014 to protest inequality at home and abroad.
SBS News

Telling SBS News that he hopes Australians “can take the passion and take the focus” from the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr Mckesson said he in turn can learn from “the way that Indigenous communities have fought here [in Australia]”.

“We can learn from the way people push the system, that people have forced conversations in places that have been uncomfortable,” he said.

“I think what activists do better than anybody is that they take the truth with them into every room.

“There’s a lot of people who take a lot of things into rooms; they take their resume, their ego, a whole lot of stuff; they don’t always take the truth.”

Five years of protest

The legacy of Michael Brown is never far from Mr Mckesson's mind.

August marks five years since the 18-year-old's death and the activist's subsequent decision to dedicate himself full-time to the fight for civil rights.

His belongings from his former life are still in storage and of the 9 people Beyoncé follows on Twitter, Mr Mckesson is one of them.

But according to the man recognised best by his trademark blue puffer-vest, “it’s been a long five years.”

“I’ve been sued by five police officers in two states; all of those cases got dismissed.

“One [recently] got overturned and we’re still struggling legally in the court of appeals.”

Police arrest DeRay Mckesson in 2016, during a protest along a major road that passes in front of the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters.
Police arrest DeRay Mckesson in 2016, during a protest along a major road that passes in front of the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters.

Between his phone getting hacked and being evacuated from a movie theatre due to death threats against him, social media has also brought Mr Mckesson strife.

“The first person to ever get permanently banned from Twitter was banned for raising money to try and get me killed,” he said.

But Mr Mckesson won’t stop putting his body on the line for change.

“I know that I’m in a community of people who believe in a better world and are willing to fight for it,” he said.

“The reason I stay committed to this work is that I know we can win.

“I think that we’ll look back in 20 years and [say], that was hard, that was wild, I can’t believe that took so much but we did it.”

DeRay Mckesson will be speaking at Antidote Festival at the Opera House in Sydney on Sunday and at the Melbourne Writers Festival on September 3.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch