Civil rights activist DeRay McKesson offers hope in local talk

MIDDLEBURY — A day after the midterm elections, with conversations about voting rights still front and center, civil rights activist DeRay McKesson took the mic at Middlebury College’s Wilson Hall and asked his audience a simple question:
“What can you buy for $300?”
Answers from the capacity crowd included “books,” “a television” and “sports-game tickets.” One student’s answer — “a hamster” — occasioned good-natured laughter throughout the hall.
McKesson’s question was quite serious, however:
“I asked you that because right now, in Florida, theft over $300 is a felony, and when you become a felon you permanently lose your right to vote and to run for public office.”
This will change, he pointed out (to great applause), because Florida voters the day before had amended their state’s constitution, automatically restoring voting rights for people with prior felony convictions (except for murder or a felony sexual offense), upon completion of their sentences. But similar thresholds and laws still exist in many other states. Until 2001 the Oklahoma threshold was only $50.
(Unlike most states, which disenfranchise felons, Vermont allows them to vote, even from prison.)
We are conditioned to think about felons as having committed murder or blown up a building or robbed a bank, McKesson explained. “But imagine stealing a bike at the age of 18 and being labeled a felon for the rest of your life.”
McKesson, a Black Lives Matter advocate and author of the memoir “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope,” appeared as part of the Vermont Humanities Council’s First Wednesday series.
Wearing his trademark blue vest, McKesson started his talk with reference to the big news of the day: President Trump had fired U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions thus endangering the investigation of Robert Mueller into Trump’s connection to Russian election meddlers (see story).
Photo by Jason Duquette-Hoffman
After that detour, though, McKesson returned to the broader message, drawing on his teaching and protesting experiences to bring clarity and add nuance to a number of complex subjects, including the pernicious effects of dominant (white) culture (“it’s like smog: you breathe it in whether you want to or not”), the murder of African Americans by police and the nature of activism itself.
Regarding the latter, McKesson, in discussing strategies of persuasion, pointed out that thorough, well-crafted speeches might feel good to deliver, but they often fall on deaf ears. Civil rights activists should “shift the cognitive burden” to the people who are engaged in denial, he suggested.
As he put it in his memoir, “We do this by building a chain of questions that force them to reinvestigate basic truths, which then lead to larger acknowledgments.”
To those who view social safety nets as free handouts enabling lazy people, for instance, McKesson would ask: How should a four-year-old earn dinner? How should a seven-year-old earn shelter?
Or for those who cannot engage with the broader concept of policing, McKesson would ask: Do you need a gun to rescue a cat? Do you need a gun to walk a kid back to school? When do the police really need guns?
This is not to say there is only one way to talk about a subject, he said. When activists build spaces for conversation, they should honor the different ways that people tell stories, and they should validate others’ lived experiences.
“Much of what we do sometimes is, when we are morally right, we become self-righteous about the way that we enter, and we’re like, ‘If people don’t enter this way then they don’t care, they don’t believe, they’re not ready.’”
ANNAN DUQUETTE-HOFFMAN, with his mom Kerri looking on, talks with activist DeRay McKesson after his talk at Middlebury College this past Wednesday evening.
Photo by Jason Duquette-Hoffman
No, McKesson said. On the contrary, the work of organizers should be to help people find their way in.
Much of this might sound like “preaching to the choir,” but McKesson suggested that this is a good thing.
“I’m not reaching out to convince the other side — I’m trying to build a bigger choir,” he said. “People are just waiting for an invitation to be a part of something larger than themselves.”
But which choir?
One question McKesson fielded from the audience reflected both deep and ambivalent engagement.
Niyafa Boucher, a first-year Middlebury College student from Brooklyn, spoke of the dissonance she experienced around the idea of “community.”
“My parents sort of taught me to be disengaged from our community at home,” she told McKesson. “It’s always about getting out of your community.”
Boucher described an encounter back home, when she and some of her friends — all of whom attended privileged (and majority-white) high schools and colleges — measured the age of a local pizza shop in terms of their own lifetimes. Overhearing their discussion, a longtime resident told them the restaurant had, in fact, been around since his childhood.
“And we sort of all looked at each other,” Boucher said. “We couldn’t fathom this idea of being in one place — especially this place that we were sort of taught to get out of — for our entire life.”
Now that she thought about it, she added, she didn’t know how to engage with the place she came from. She didn’t attend school there, she doesn’t know anyone there and her friendships were formed elsewhere.
“I feel comfortable preaching to the choir in these spaces (like Middlebury College), where my parents are OK with me building community,” she said. How, she wanted to know, can she take the things she’s learned “here” and be an effective person at home?
While Boucher spoke, a number of heads in the audience nodded with what seemed like agreement or recognition.
“What you’re talking about is actually one of the corollary effects of the way that the dominant culture works,” McKesson told her sympathetically. What she could do, he said, was to literally put herself into those home community spaces, whether through volunteering or exploring.
“What you’ll see really quickly is that you’ll understand the assets and gifts (in that community), because they’re already there,” he said.
McKesson had begun his presentation with a number of stark facts and statistics:
•  A third of all homicides committed by strangers every year in the United States are committed by law enforcement.
•  White high school dropouts earn more money on average than black college graduates.
•  Many police union contracts in major cities create a self-protective system of justice completely separate from the one that governs everyday Americans.
But he ended on a hopeful note.
The diversity of the incoming House of Representatives, for instance, which included the first Native American and Muslim women ever elected to Congress, will help change the way we think about “who it is that leads.”
There is, he concluded, a common set of beliefs and values that most people share — things like fairness and equity.
“We just don’t communicate it loud enough that people actually share them.”
The way forward, he said, was leading “with our values so that we can attract the people around us to be in the biggest choir.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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