BRUNSWICK, Maine — Eight years ago, DeRay Mckesson had just celebrated Ivies Week at Bowdoin College and was preparing to graduate.
On Tuesday, while Baltimore remained under a state of emergency after violent protests overnight Monday, the Bowdoin graduate and Baltimore native tried to explain to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer the violence and rioting reflects a community in pain, not a siege by lawless terrorists or unruly thugs.
“There’s no excuse for that kind of violence, right?” Blitzer asked the community activist who co-founded the newsletter This is the Movement and recently was named one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders by Fortune magazine.
“There’s no excuse for the seven people that the Baltimore Police Department has killed in the past year either, right?” Mckesson replied.
He acknowledged that protests should be peaceful but said he doesn’t have to condone the violence to understand it.
“You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” Mckesson said to Blitzer, taking the veteran news anchor to task for his focus on looting instead of the violence and oppression he believes set off the Baltimore riots. “Freddie Gray will never be back, but those windows will be.”
Thousands of marchers protested peacefully for days after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died after suffering catastrophic spinal injuries while in police custody earlier this month. An attorney for Gray’s family says his spine was 80 percent severed during the encounter with police, Reuters reported.
Six police officers have been suspended, and the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the incident for possible civil rights violations.
Gray’s family called for peace after his funeral Monday. But by Monday afternoon, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan imposed a weeklong 10 p.m. curfew and called out the National Guard to bolster police efforts to quiet protesters, Reuters reported. As of 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, 21 police officers had been injured, about 235 people arrested and a number of buildings burned, including the a church and a senior center.
Gray’s death again focused global attention on race relations in America, but the Baltimore riots — not long after a similar series of protests after the Aug. 9, 2014, death of Michael Brown after an encounter with police in Ferguson, Missouri — shift attention from the real issue, Mckesson said.
Mckesson dismisses the notion of “black rage,” as presented by many media outlets. Instead, he describes the protests as outlets for the cumulative effect of black people and culture being marginalized by authority figures, many of whom are white.
“This unrest is the condition of the pain manifesting,” Mckesson told the Bangor Daily News in a phone interview Tuesday. “What would you do if the people who were supposed to protect you not only got you killed but got away with it?”
Mckesson was born in Baltimore to drug-addicted parents, he wrote in the Bowdoin Orient newspaper in 2010. His father recovered and raised Mckesson and his sister. His mother, he said, “didn’t recover.”
He served as president of his class at Bowdoin College, as well as president of Bowdoin Student Government.
“He was extremely active, very engaged — a very popular person, very smart and charismatic and good at organizing,” said Clark Gascoigne of Washington, D.C., who graduated from Bowdoin a year after Mckesson. “He’d been engaged back in Baltimore and wanted to get back into local activism and take back a lot of stuff he was picking up from his organizing and engagement at Bowdoin to his local community.”
Mckesson told Salon magazine in December that he and Johnetta Elzie co-founded This is the Movement in 2013, the night a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.
“I couldn’t find any information,” McKesson said. “I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.”
Each issue of the email newsletter begins with three numbers: the number of days officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown in Ferguson, has remained free; the number of days Kajieme Powell, a mentally-ill man killed just days after Brown by St. Louis police, has been dead; and the number of days 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr., also killed by St. Louis police, has been dead.
The newsletter includes videos, articles, photos, tweets and media reports McKesson feels have been overlooked or misunderstood.
After Michael Brown was killed last August, Mckesson left his job in Minneapolis to join the protest in St. Louis, near Ferguson. In recent weeks, he started the website Baltimore Uprising.org to keep protesters updated of events such as clean-up efforts, churches and other organizations that would provide free meals while schools were closed, and times for a protest, a peacewalk and a community forum Tuesday.
Mckesson said he’s not sure what to expect overnight Tuesday, except that “people will come out into the streets to confront a system that is corrupt.”
Nor, he said, could he predict whether similar events would be likely elsewhere in the U.S. during coming days and weeks.
“What we saw in Baltimore was not so much a protest as an uprising,” Mckesson said. “Black people across the country continue to experience this trauma. The entire community is in pain.”