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DeRay McKeeson: Outside Agitator

06/24/2015 02:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

The person across from me is not the man I expected to meet. During our correspondence, Deray McKesson, 29, came off as someone with little interest in convivial formalities. This image is bolstered by his Twitter profile -- McKesson's media of choice -- where a young, goateed, black man stares lock-jawed through the camera at an imposing angle. But in person, I find no hint of his online persona. McKesson is generously conversational and, speaking with a tone of surprising femininity, he stretches his thoughts into lengthy paragraphs of thesis quality. When we meet for the first time, over a late breakfast at St. Louis' City Diner in mid-town, the civil rights activist ignores my expectations to sip on a mimosa between bites of syrup-soaked pancakes.

McKesson is clearly tired, but he refuses to give in to the fatigue that has accumulated from nights of endless protest. Sitting taut, in the ripped-red vinyl booth, he covers both eyes with open palms to smother the sleep away in waxing circles. Eight months ago, McKeeson got all the sleep he needed. He was well into a career in education, working first as a grade school math teacher, and more recently as the hiring director for the Minneapolis Public School system. Until the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, his focus was education, not the civil rights movement, saying, "This was not my issue." But ask him now, and he can tell you how to shut down a packed mall through organized protests; stop rush hour traffic with a line of human bodies; or even provide instructions for neutralizing the sting from a concentrated dose of CS gas -- never wear contacts.

It took six months before I was able to convince McKesson to sit down with me for an interview. His caution was understandable. Since dedicating himself to activism full-time, McKesson has become the most recognizable figure from the dozens of loosely connected cadres operating under the Black Lives Matter flag. As such, he has been the target of police surveillance and suffered a barrage of online death threats from Twitter trolls -- some of whom he suspects are cops. So, for a man whose fight is against a predominantly white police force intent on maintaining their impunity, I may just look like another face in the riot-line across from him.

I begin the interview by asking about his impression of St. Louis. As a native of the city, I am always curious to know how visitors perceive my hometown. The conversation usually starts and ends with Gateway Arch, but McKesson is not a tourist, and this is not a vacation. "I only know this city through protest," he says. Comparing St. Louis to his hometown, Baltimore, McKesson continues, "the police or city officials (in Baltimore) are definitely incompetent -- potentially corrupt -- but here, I am convinced that people are racist. Not just malfeasance, but legitimate racism." It is a brazen critique, but hard to argue.

The racism McKesson speaks of is seldom acknowledged by its citizens, but demographic maps of St. Louis corroborate his experience. From above, the division between blacks and whites is so defined, they look to have been engineered by city planners. One of the most notorious partitions is known as "The Delmar Divide," a 15 mile boulevard that dissects poor black communities in the north from affluent neighborhoods to the south.

To hear white St. Louis talk about Delmar Boulevard, sounds as if they are boasting about a local landmark -- a tourist attraction to be admired for its historic charm. Here, century old Beaux Art manses are buttressed by dilapidated row houses with caved-in roofs, exposed interiors, and forgotten yards. Just a block from the gated communities and a world-class hospital, there is a dearth of civic attention, which is evidenced by the parking lots that have been appropriated as illegal dump sites-the trash piling as tall as cars at times.

McKeeson asks why I think these conditions have been ignored in the shadow of a bustling city center. I would be embarrassed to restate my answer-a torrent of uneducated drivel about structural inequalities, for which I am still paying off the student loans. As a 33 year-old white male from the Midwest, I maintained a long held belief that outward, open, racism was a relic of the past, lobbed onto the growing pile of outmoded philosophies and defunct practices because of its absurdity.

McKesson understands the structural racism argument-he was a political science major at Bowdoin University-but says the textbook explanation, which excuses racism as an unavoidable byproduct of free-market democracies, doesn't fully account for the hatred he has experienced as a black man in America. "I don't think racism is rooted in this economic thing," he says. "At the end of the day it's rooted in power. And that seeps out into many things -- one of which is structures-but the more insidious thing, is that it seeps into our actions."

To demonstrate his point-that racism is instinctual, McKesson juxtaposes the development of urban housing projects with the image of an overcrowded slave ship, calling the former a, "fascinating example of the worthiness of black bodies." He continues, "You would never stack white bodies the way you stack black bodies. And it's not just a function of economics, it is also a function of power. [They] will depress these people in any possible way. Privilege only works if there are others who are not privileged."

McKesson's analogy echoes a line from Saul Bellow's, Herzog, that addresses the inability of those unmolested by suffering to understand its condition. Describing the divide between experiential knowledge and allegorical knowledge, Bellow's writes, "this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended."

The sentiment remains true. With each video of an unarmed black man being shot by police, those ignorant to the modern form of racism, rise up n chorus to repeat a common refrain: the victim should not have resisted. McKesson chides this response, calling it the essence of white privilege.

"It's insulting to say I wouldn't run because the reality is, the fight or flight instinct is real. I didn't do anything and [the cop] already has his gun out. Part of me wants to run to be near people-it's a momentary decision. You are speaking from a (universal) perspective, not black."

Until unaffected populations begin to acknowledge what lies beyond their purview -- a world where racism is cloaked by nuance -- the system will continue to exist in a self-policed vacuum, and cops will continue to act with impunity. As the de facto head of the Black Lives Matter movement, McKesson's goal is to drag the cloistered masses from behind their white-washed picket fences in order to show them an unacceptable reality: a black population living in fear of the very police force tasked with protecting them.

And while this may seem like too heavy a burden for any one person, McKeeson has a surprisingly positive attitude regarding his new mission. Addressing the struggle that can seem unending, he says, "In blackness, people have overcome so much, there is this solid well of joy that has existed in the midst of trauma deeper than this. And I exist in that legacy. So yes, I can find happiness and joy, but it's hard to escape.