Deray McKesson — Black Lives Matter activist, founding member of We The Protestors, “curator, connector,” and Twitterer extraordinaire — gave a speech on Saturday at a San Francisco gala hosted by GLAAD.
McKesson spoke about the protest in Ferguson, and how those early days grew into a movement. About what it means to love himself as a proud black gay man. About the power of Twitter as a force in fostering community and sustaining activism, and how social media has enabled those who have felt alone to find one another — and to make their voices heard.
Because I believe this speech is too good not to be heard, I am sharing it here.
Because I can’t be the only person who prefers reading to listening, I also transcribed it. (You’re welcome!)
Because I proved unable to control myself, I have added emphasis to certain passages below. Mostly these’re the ones I want to run through the streets shouting into people’s faces, so I figured a font change was the better choice. (You’re welcome again!)
Without further ado — take it away, Deray…
A year ago in St. Louis, we never thought that the protests would spread the way that they have. We never thought that people would rise up in their own communities. We knew that people were going to stand with us in St. Louis, but we didn’t know that it would spread. But it did. And here we are.
In those early days, we made two commitments:a commitment to stand today, and a commitment to fight tomorrow. We made those commitments despite it being illegal in St. Louis to stand still. We made those commitments despite being arrested for what we knew was right. We made those commitments despite being teargassed and shot at with rubber bullets. We made those commitments because we knew that we were on the right side of justice.
And those commitments started as commitments of protest. Protest is confrontation, protest is disruption, protest is the end of silence. And for us, the protest began in the street. But protest is so many things.
I think often of this tweet:
Not only because I stand here as a proud black gay man. But because of what I’ve learned, what I’ve lived, is that there’s danger in the either/or. When loving myself only looks one way — when protest is either in the streets or not at all — this puts constraints on the ways that we express ourselves and the ways that we can get free.
Expressing and loving myself is often so much more complex than “out” affords me. I called my father one day, for the first time for relationship advice, and it happened to be about my first boyfriend. He handled the call so well, and it was the first time that we talked about sexuality. And I wasn’t “in the closet” — but I was “in the quiet” with him.
When I think about “the quiet,” I think about the places where you are not supposed to make noise. For so many of us, the world is a place where we are not supposed to make noise. Where we are asked to hide who we are and be silent about the injustices that we face.
I’ve been to a lot of colleges recently, and I’ve been thinking about this notion of “in the quiet.” What does it mean to come “out of the quiet”?
The image of the library comes to mind. I think about the library as a place where supposedly you can’t learn if there’s noise, a place of exploration that demands your silence. But there are always people whispering in the library. There are always people passing notes in the library. There are always people finding voice, given the constraints. There are always people coming out of the quiet.
See, when those people come out of the quiet and they come together, the world changes.
[McKesson turns to point at the screen behind him.]
Hopefully we’re gonna see the world change…
[Audience laughter, as the image of a world map comes up. Lights flash like fire across the map, most heavily concentrated across the United States and Europe.]
Over the past year I’ve that there are so many people coming out of the quiet, so many people looking for ways to be seen and heard. Waiting for others to share the belief that there is a collective power in those whispers coming together.
It is what you see here. [Points to map.] You see all of us tweeting, all of us who thought that we were alone, all of who thought that nobody would hear our cries about the injustices that we faced — you saw it happen. We saw it. We lived it, when the protests started. You see here the power of people coming together out of the quiet. You see here those whispers spreading and changing the world.
Our work as organizers is neither to tell the people whispering in the library to be quiet, nor to tell them to shout. Our work is to listen better.
Because we have never been the voiceless. We have been the unheard.
Social media became and is a place where the people come out of the quiet together. Where the collective power of the whisper is captured. Where the silence is rendered into a deafening sound. Because of Twitter, I’ll never forget how the Palestinians taught us what to do when we got teargassed, and because of Twitter, we learned to fight against erasure.
Erasure often manifests in two ways. One is that the story is never told, and the other is that it is told by everybody but us. In this moment, we became the unerased.
We’ve heard in the past year, so many people who thought they were alone. So many people who sat in the library silently — but who suddenly began to whisper last August. And those collective whispers made a noise that changed the world. Made a noise that brought this conversation about race to the forefront in really powerful ways. We had — and we continue to have — these robust conversations about the 21 transgender women, mostly black, who’ve been murdered in 2015 simply for being who they are. We now are talking about misgendering and pronouns in ways that many of us never thought would happen.
I often think that the Black Lives Matter movement has helped people come out of the quiet about racism in America, but the fight for equality and equity is long. And it is not just a fight about race. It’s also a fight about systemic and structural issues that affect so many of us around LGBT issues as well. People like me.
Each of us will have to continue to find the people who are in the quiet, and create space for and with them to come out of the quiet. Just because people aren’t shouting, doesn’t mean they are being silent. And just because people aren’t showing up in the ways that you expect, doesn’t mean that they are hiding.
If we do nothing else after this night, let us continue as my friend and role model Jussie [Smollett] has done, to use our platforms to render visible the invisible, to help us see the beautiful complexity in all of our identity.