Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson started off this year’s Black Heritage Celebration with a keynote speech Tuesday night in the Marvin Center.
Mckesson, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Baltimore last year, is well known on social media for spreading the word about issues like police brutality and racial profiling, as well as his involvement in protests like Ferguson and in Baton Rogue this past summer.
Wearing his trademark blue Patagonia vest, he called on the audience to remain attentive during the Trump administration and continue to protest actions by the president that they find unjust.
Here are some of the highlights from the event:
1. The power of ideas
Mckesson opened his speech by saying that people need to put aside specific language like “Black Lives Matter” and instead focus on the purity of ideas like equal opportunity.
“We have to think about how to keep the idea pure, even if the words change. The ideas are the things that matter,” he said. “People who generally agree with the same ideas sometimes need to sacrifice the words.”
Mckesson added that a shift in fundamental thinking and ideas is required to create lasting change.
“When you think about the KKK gradually becoming the alt-right you see that the ideas are still the same, even if the manifestation is different,” he said.
2. Standing up to Trump
Although he described President Donald Trump’s first 11 days as exhausting, it is important for those who oppose his policies on the left to remain vigilant, Mckesson said.
“We believe that the right idea will magically be the idea that wins. But history shows us that that isn’t true,” he said.
Mckesson added that Trump is a primary example of how what many described as a fundamentally wrong worldview can prevail and thrive. The best way to combat this reality, he said, is to express ideas like gender and race equality through protest.
“I think of protests as a way of telling the truth in public,” he said. “We disrupt board meetings and commissions to tell the truth: they aren’t using their powers to help people of color.”
Students are especially important in fostering a lasting tone of activism, he said.
“The important thing about universities is that they will outlast you,” Mckesson said. “Part of your work is making sure the door is open and that you have a seat at the table.”
3. Building a lasting foundation
It’s not only important to engage in protest, but to also have the goal of improving the existing system, not destroying it, Mckesson said.
“People are so interested in tearing things down that they don’t see the building part of the work. Some people are more interested in fighting than winning,” he said.
But establishing this lasting collaborative foundation between all viewpoints does not mean we should overlook the existence of racism and unequal opportunity, he said.
“When we don’t talk about it we allow people to forget. We let people off the hook,” Mckesson said.
He added that pushing for fundamental changes to take place will come from every person taking on that responsibility themselves.
“A lot of people are waiting for permission,” he said. “I didn’t get a call from Harriet Tubman and no one called her. If you can help push people to get involved that is a huge part of this work.”