Q&A: DeRay Mckesson on Pod Save the People, Snowden interview

DeRay Mckesson. Photo by Daniel Stewart.

“It happened again,” began a New York Times article on the fatal police shooting of a black teenager in a Dallas suburb in late April. The incident happened a week before the Justice Department announced it would not charge officers involved in the death of Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot outside a Louisiana convenience store last summer.

It was just the sort of news cycle that leads a large audience to check inon social media or elsewherewith DeRay Mckesson, one of the most high-profile figures of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mckesson, 31, is an activist, organizer, and media figure whose most recent project quickly rocketed to the top of the iTunes podcast charts. Pod Save the People, which launched in April, aims to promote social advocacy and give listeners tools to discuss racism and inequality. The podcast is published under Crooked Media, which was founded by former staffers of President Obama.

The weekly podcast has hosted guests including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, singer John Legend, and former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden. CJR caught up with Mckesson as he was dining on hash browns and orange juice at Detroit Metropolitan Airport after he missed a flight to Washington, DC. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What purpose does the podcast serve?

It is about creating space for conversation about the most important issues of the week. It is also about making sure people have the information they need to be the most thoughtful activists and organizers. That’s why the first episode had Andy Slavitt, who used to run Obamacare and helped talk about healthcare in a way that many people hadn’t heard, starting from the basics, like what’s the difference between Medicare and Medicaid.

The second episode had David Kamin, who was the special assistant to the president and he helped us think about taxes in a way that actually empowers people. Snowden was a fascinating conversation about surveillance, and today’s episode (which will be released Tuesday evening) is a panel of experts on voting and voting rights.

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Brittany Packnett, an executive with Teach For America, says during a Pod Save the People episode “I will claim [President Trump] when he claims me.” Do you ever have any fears that you might alienate some listeners with divisive language?

Our perspective is always one of equity. The difference between equity and equality: Equality is everyone gets the same thing; equity is people get what they deserve. We are always focused on equity. The thing about, “I’ll claim him when he claims me,” is that’s a thing that applies to many people in this country at this moment. Anybody who has a pre-existing condition; any immigrant; any person of color; women. Right?

When we think about Trump, he has actually sort of held it down the most for… I can’t even just say, straight white men, because it’s only a subset of those people. There is actually a huge part of the country that he does not identify with, that he does not stand for, that he is not working to protect, so Brittany’s statement in that context is not alienating at all.

 

You are one of the most high-profile figures of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Washington Post had an article saying BLM is shifting its focus toward policy rather than protests. What the podcast’s relationship is with the BLM?

I think
The Washington Post story was hollow in some ways. We launched Campaign Zero, a comprehensive policy platform, in August 2015. If you read that article, you would think that we rolled that out yesterday. We’ve met with Obama twice, Brittany Packnett was appointed by Obama to his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and she was on the Ferguson Commission. We met with Loretta Lynch. I think that article was misleading at best in that regard.


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The movement has always been about protest, and protest at its root is this idea of telling the truth in public. So we sit in the street to tell the truth with our bodies, and the podcast is a different way to tell the truth: How do we create as many stages as possible where people can get people educated, get organized, and take action? There are some things that people aren’t working to make better, or to change, or transform because they just don’t know about them.

 

Let’s talk about the Snowden interview. You say during the podcast that you all connected on Twitter, but can you tell me a bit more about how you got him on the pod? I’m surprised to hear that you can book Snowden through Twitter.

I watched Citizenfour, the documentary; that was really my first extended introduction to Snowden. He doesn’t use a phone, so I don’t have his number. He tweeted when I got arrested in Baton Rouge. During the podcast interview, I thought he was really mindful of saying his ideas in a sort of as concise way as he could considering the topic. It was going to be recorded on Wednesday, and it was going to be recorded that day no matter what; Comey just happened on Tuesday.

 

Do you have any thoughts about the lack of diversity on podcasts?

I wasn’t a big podcast listener before I started one. I think that for a lot of black communities, radio is still huge. When people go to work in the morning and come home, there’s Tom Joyner and Rickey Smiley. The transition to podcasts hasn’t happened in some places.

Pod Save the People has done well, but I am mindful of how few podcasts with people of color hosts are in the top 100 of the charts on iTunes. That’s a reminder of the work that has yet to be done.

A post shared by deray mckesson (@iamderay) on

 

What do you plan to do with the podcast in the future?

Right now, the focus is on quality content for every episode. I’m sure at some point there will be live shows. I’m an activist and an organizer; those things haven’t changed. The question is how do we help create a space for people to make the most meaningful impact they can, whether that is giving them language, exposing people to new ideas, or creating a space to organize offline.

 

You probably didn’t fully understand what you were getting into when you started your activism. Has it been uncomfortable dealing with unexpected consequences of your work?

Snowden talked about this, the fact that surveillance at its root is a conversation about power. The government has always tried to [use surveillance] when it comes to civil rights organizers, activists, or leaders, to make the state of fear so great that people won’t act anymore. I am aware of that and undeterred.

 

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.