Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson spoke on the University Union Plaza stage during Cal Poly’s Take Back the Night event May 29. Presented by Cal Poly Safer, Take Back the Night is an annual, international event with the mission to end sexual violence and domestic abuse.
San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, founder of the San Luis Obispo Women’s March Dawn Addis and Hunter Snider on behalf of California State Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning spoke to the crowd of approximately 150 people. Following the speeches, there was a short march, an open mic to allow attendees to sing or make comments, and a candlelit vigil. This year, instead of focusing entirely on issues of sexual assault and gender-based violence, the event took a more encompassing stance on the intersectionality of race and gender.
Mckesson is a prominent civil rights activist — especially within the Black Lives Matter movement — and was very involved in protests in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was killed by police in 2014 and in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. He is a co-founder of Campaign Zero and hosts Pod Save the People, a weekly podcast addressing current issues. Mckesson utilizes social media to expand his activism with more than one million Twitter followers.
Safer campus advocate Shelby Bachelder said Mckesson was a positive voice to bring to campus due to the recent events surrounding the blackface incident and other racist occurrences on campus.
“We invited DeRay to speak on the intersections of race- and gender-based violence in lieu of some of the things that have happened here on campus, but also to just really explicitly dig into that issue and make it a campus community issue,” Bachelder said.
Political science sophomore Rosa Elena Lopez attended the event and sang an a capella version of “Rise Up,” originally by Andra Ray, during the open mic. She said that Mckesson is someone she looks up to in her forms of activism and she is excited to continue advocating for change.
“Taking back the day, the afternoon, the evening, it all starts right here at events like this,” Lopez said. “[We are] showing up and proving we are a force to be reckoned with and we will not be silent until change has happened.”
Prior to the speech, Mustang News spoke with President Jeffrey Armstrong, who was present for part of the event.
“Just like everyone else today, I want to show support for sexual assault awareness,” Armstrong said. “I am not as familiar [with Mckesson] as I should be, but I’m excited that he is here. I’ve heard a bit about what he has done.”
Mustang News also spoke with Mckesson. He shared what the event means to him, as well as his main motivation for activism.
“This is a conversation about ‘How do we make sure people address the imbalance of power?’ and that we talk about real systems of justice and accountability that people can feel and touch and see,” Mckesson said. “Seeing people understand that they have power, there’s nothing greater than that.”
Mckesson spoke for about 20 minutes, reciting a prepared speech and answering audience-submitted questions. Attendees had the opportunity to write down questions for Mckesson before the talk; Safer members chose four of the submitted questions for Mckesson to answer. Here are the main points Mckesson spoke on:
The idea of resistance vs. the work of resistance
Mckesson started out the speech with a humorous anecdote about his experience teaching sixth grade. One day, his students asked if they could leave class early to go to gym and Mckesson agreed. However, his students quickly returned, and he learned the students liked the idea of gym more than the work of gym. This sentiment was translated to activism.
“In this moment, there are people more in love with the idea of resistance than the work of resistance. And I want to figure out how we talk about the work a little bit better,” Mckesson said.
No justice, no peace
Mckesson said that while protesting for 400 days in St. Louis, Missouri, he and his fellow protesters would say the same chant daily: “No justice, no peace.” He asked the audience to repeat the chant a few times before expanding on the meaning.
“The reason that we said this every day, every night, is because we knew that any call for peace that was not rooted in a demand for justice was just a call for order and compliance,” Mckesson said. “We don’t want an abstract justice because an abstract justice is predicated on an abstract peace. We want a justice that you can feel and touch and see and hear. We want a justice that doesn’t wash away racism and sexism as just another day on campus.”
Take back the night, and then some
Referring to the event’s title, Mckesson stated the need to reclaim more than just the night.
“Take back the night — I like the idea — but I also know the night is not the only time that we face the terrors that we talk about. That we face them in the day and the afternoon as well. We know that they happen in our classrooms, in our boardrooms and in our bedrooms, so in some ways the call is to take back the day, the night and the afternoon. We want to take it all back.”
To do this, he suggested honest conversation, remembering “you are not alone,” and reminding yourself that “the system was designed, and because it was designed, we can build something different.”
Q & A session
The four audience questions Mckesson answered revolved around healthy ideas of sexuality, numbness in the face of violence, how to advocate for a cause and his opinions on Cal Poly’s campus climate.
To cultivate a healthier idea of sex and sexuality, Mckesson suggested we change the dialogue around sex, particularly the use of harsh terms such as “bang,” “nail” and “screw.” He also said that people have begun to expect trauma, and we must cut off the expectation of trauma for change to be achieved. To effectively advocate for change, Mckesson said instead of preaching to people, “We want to share the cognitive burden with them,” and allow other people to process problems for themselves.
Prefacing his opinion on Cal Poly’s campus climate with the fact he had been on campus for less than a day, Mckesson shared three main points. First, he said he generally believes there is an overemphasis on unconscious bias, “Blackface seems pretty conscious to me,” he said.
Second, he wanted learning communities to allow spaces for people to learn, but also to hold students accountable. Third, he said that people in power need to understand issues first-hand.
“There has to be people who have significant amounts of power on campuses like this who already understand the issues because they live the issues. If the only people who make decisions about the issues are people who have to read about it and study it all day so they can understand it, that actually changes the way that power works. There are people that are like, ‘I believe it and I’m well-intentioned,’ and sometimes that just is not enough,” Mckesson said.