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'There should be no trauma in the first place': Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson speaks on campus

Police violence is a structural problem in the United States, said civil rights activist DeRay McKesson at an event Thursday.

McKesson, an activist in the Black Lives Matter movement and a podcaster, spoke to students about his new book “On the Other Side of Freedom—The Case for Hope.” The book centers on activism, resistance and justice. His lecture was hosted by the Duke University Union.

McKesson stressed that justice and accountability are two different notions. 

“Accountability is what happens after the trauma, whereas justice is the fact that there should be no trauma in the first place,” he said.

McKesson became well-known for his year-long protest after the shooting of Michael Brown—an African-American man killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—and after the Charleston church shooting of nine African Americans by a white supremacist. 

In fact, he spoke in the royal blue vest that he wore through his protest in 2014 after Brown's death.

McKesson and his fellow activists have been collecting data on people killed by police since 2013, a project they called “Mapping Police Violence.” 

According to their data, most killings began with police responding to non-violent crimes—such as a traffic violation—or cases where no crime were reported. In 2017, black people were 25 percent of those killed despite being only 13 percent  of the population. 

“In general, black people were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed,” McKesson said. 

Police union contracts, state laws and other institutions in America grant too many privileges to the police, he added.  

“You can have a great prosecutor, you can have a great city council, a great mayor, but when rules give people such a dramatic weight, it actually doesn’t matter,” he added. 

The structural design favors efficiency of governing over the involvement of people, a key symptom of white supremacy, McKesson argued. Officials can easily ignore the feedback from the general public in the name of preserving the status quo. 

“The dominant culture says whoever has the power just has the right to be comfortable in that space,” he said. “But we know the only way to grow and get better is to live in discomfort.”

Although there are numerous public and private programs to help people in need, McKesson emphasized that they aren't adequate substitutes for a better system and people should never quit trying to improve the system itself. 

Many underprivileged people, notably African-Americans who live in poverty, have grown up getting used to the constraints on their lives, McKesson noted. 

“Resistance can’t be withstanding all the bad’s—it should be about how to offer something better,” he added. 

At the end of the event, McKesson said his activist movement is not about delivering grand speeches. Instead, he solicits answers from the audience and asks them to reflect on the issue with him. 

Calling his work a “preach to the choir,” he said he hopes to generate a positive experience, where his audience learns how to use their voice to resonate with a larger community. 

“There are always people waiting for an invitation, there are always people who don’t believe they could turn that mumble into a melody, who don’t believe their humming could be a hymn,” he said. “But we know it’s possible.”

Junior Cynthia Shyirahayo, who attended the event, said she started following McKesson in 2015 and was impressed by his dedication to civil rights activism, especially the data collection that he started from scratch. 

“As students, we always assume we know we know what is going on and feel we have a grip on this issue,” Shyirahayo said. “But seeing people like him who are more on the ground doing the activist work, I think what we know is still limited.”


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