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Deray Mckesson talks to one of Africa’s biggest activists about reparations, equality, and reconciliation

Georgia Frances King
deray mckesson and boniface mwangi at bretton woods 75

It was a meeting of the greats.

Last month, two of activism’s heavyweights—America’s Deray Mckesson and Kenya’s Boniface Mwangi—spoke in public together for the first time. Deray became one of the leading voices in the Black Lives Matter movement following the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Boniface’s notoriety formed around his work as a photojournalist covering the violence following Kenya’s 2007/2008 elections, which ultimately killed 1,500 Kenyans and displaced a further 300,000.

Both have amassed eyeballs and ears through Boniface’s photographs, Deray’s podcast, and more than 1 million followers each on their Twitter feeds, creating a network of next-gen activists who demand change. Both have tried to shift the system from the inside out, with Boniface running as a candidate to become a member of parliament in Kenya in 2017 and Deray running for mayor is his hometown of Baltimore in 2016. They have been fighting in their own ways for their own people—but also for the health of the global community writ large.

Deray and Boniface took the stage at Bretton Woods 75, a conference organized to envision a new kind of economic world order. Seventy-five years ago, hundreds of political and financial leaders gathered in northern New Hampshire to determine the postwar fate of the economic system, which resulted in the creation of the International Monetary Fund (the IMF) and the World Bank. The cohort deciding the future of the global economic system was all male, nearly entirely white, and only represented the upper echelons of society.

That was 1944. Today, the world is in dire need of new values and new leadership. Deray and Boniface sat down to discuss what this new mainframe might look like—and how to make sure it’s much more inclusive than the past. What follows are some edited excerpts of key moments from the interview.

Deray, on why words matter

Part of the work of activism is about defining the term. So when we use terms like diversity and inclusion, diversity is often about bodies, and inclusion is about culture. You can hire 20 more black people and still have a racist company. You can recruit 20 more trans members and still have a transphobic place.

 The truth has to come before the reconciliation. We also think about other terms like accountability and justice. People often use them interchangeably, but we’re reminded that accountability is often what happens after the trauma. Justice is the idea that people shouldn’t have to experience a trauma in the first place.

Then there’s the notion of truth and reconciliation. We’re always reminded that the truth has to come before the reconciliation. There are a lot of people who want to do the reconciliation without doing the truth, but we want to force people to deal with the truth first.

Boniface, on Kenya’s political landscape

African politics is a lake—a very dirty, polluted river. But you can’t empty a river. The only way to clean up polluted river is by adding clean water. So that’s what we’re trying to do: We’re trying to cleanse politics by getting people in power who have a vision, have integrity, and represent change. The poverty of a country is a reflection of the leadership. So if your country’s poor, if your people are suffering, it’s a reflection of who is leading the country.

Boniface, on the role trade plays

I think Africa needs more trade than aid. For every dollar we get in Africa, we lose $2. We are losing about $100 billion dollars every year through illicit financial flows—the money leaves the continent. We have the gold, we have the diamonds, we have the cotton, we have the tea, we have the coffee, the uranium, the colton for your cell phones. We have all these things, but the companies that actually mine these things don’t pay taxes in Africa. They take their money offshore and then they pay somewhere else.

We are being exploited, and the exploitation has happened over centuries. The strongest men and women in our continents were taken away and became slaves in America, in Britain, and in other countries. So they’ve been stealing our resources—from human capital to raw goods—for a long, for the longest time.

Deray and Boniface, on reparations

Deray: Can you define reparations?

Boniface: Pay, pay, pay! You’ve got to pay. It’s very hard to give people checks for what happened to them—but you can decide to become a better human being.

Boniface, on making greed a crime

So, 26 billionaires in the world own half of the world’s wealth. Those 26 billionaires only pay 4% of the tax. So how do you get the people who have much more to give back? How do we try and make greed a crime? Because you must limit how much one person can have. The people who have more money are the ones trying to turn you into consumers of things that you don’t need. So we must limit how much one person should have. It’s not socialism, it’s just common sense. How much can you have? How much is enough? We’ve seen in history that human greed has no bounds.

Boniface, on keeping fighting even after you’ve won

 How do you change a country? You change a country one person at a time, one word at a time. Change is never an event. A good example is Barack Obama’s presidency. He had this movement of young people, people of all colors, saying that they won’t change. And then he runs on hope and hope and hope, and then he gets elected. Then he gets elected again for the second time. When he’s about to leave office, there are the Democratic primaries. Hillary wins the primaries—which we don’t like as much—but [those young people] say if she’s going to win anyway, I don’t even have to vote. And then you don’t vote, and then you get Trump.

The point is change is not an event. It’s a continuous thing. The gains you gain when you fight or you win ground, you must defend those gains. Because if you don’t defend them, you’re going to go backward. Impunity fights back. The rich fight back. Capitalism fights back. Everyone fights back.

How do you change a country? You change a country one person at a time, one word at a time. And when you change that one person, you defend the ground that you gain.

Boniface, on local vs. global activism

We’ve tweeted about it, we’ve spoken about it—we need to do something about it. Be an active citizen. Most of us say, “I’m a lawyer, I’m a filmmaker, I’m a doctor, I’m a venture capitalist, I’m an angel investor.” You say all those things about you, but beyond the money that you make every day, are you trying to make a difference in your community, in your society?

You don’t have to go beyond the borders of your states. There are problems in your country. Work locally. Change locally. And then once you’ve solved your problems locally, then you can go abroad and change things aboard. But you can’t say you’re going to come and save the continent or save Africa or save Kenya when your own country’s in shit.

Deray and Boniface, on not being afraid of death

Deray: Do you worry about your own safety? I ask because I worry about my own. The first person ever permanently banned from Twitter was banned for trying to raise money to have me killed. I’ve been arrested in a movie theater—it got evacuated because somebody said they were gonna kill me. So I think about this intimately. How do you continue to do the work while you think about your own safety?

 The question is: What are you going to do between now and your death? Boniface: I don’t worry about my safety anymore. I used to worry about it many times. I used to worry that they’re going to kill me, that I’ll leave my family. I had this talk with my wife and the kids: that you shall all die eventually. If you worry about your death, you become ineffective—because you die so many times in your mind, because you live in fear. If you think about change, and you think about life in terms of that you’re going to die—we shall all die! The good guys, the bad guys, the rich, the poor, we’ll all die.

The question is: What are you going to do between now and your death? Wake up every day and say, “Today I’m going to make a difference. Today I’m going to live my life.” You can never achieve anything without courage. And so you must have courage. The courage to live a life, the courage to love yourself, the courage to do right, the courage to care, the courage to believe that you are not insignificant. The courage to believe that you can make a difference.

So you just say, “Today I’m going to be the best person I can be in my life.” And if death comes, you’ll find you’re ready to go. It’s true. Maybe the next life is going to be better.

So let’s not worry about death, people. Let’s not worry. You know, fear makes you become paralyzed. Fear is the reason why we don’t do right. Because if you are being judged, if you’re being called names, you fear all these things. But when you’re dead, who cares? You’re dead! You’re gone. It’s true, man. You’re done!

So don’t live in the fear of dying. Live your life every single day. Live every day like you’re going to die. I die. You die. So live your life.

Deray and Boniface, on not giving up

Deray: What do you say to people who have done all the things they were told to do? They emailed, they protested, they called, they went to the city—they did all the things, and the world hasn’t quite changed the way they wanted it to change. What do you say to those people?

Boniface: Don’t lose hope. Don’t lose hope because you’re in a marathon, and a marathon is not like a sprint. At the end of the marathon is when you die. And when that happens, you pass on the baton to the next runner, and the next runner, and the next runner—so don’t give up. You can’t afford to give up, because there’s so much hurt and hate and so much grief in the world. If you give up, what happens to the people who have no voice? Because you’re blessed to have a voice. You’re blessed to be in a country where you are able to protest and have your voice heard.

Just keep doing that. Yes, you have protested, yes, you’ve been arrested, you’ve been threatened, you’ve felt like giving up. But when you give up, what happens to you? You die inside. You’ll be a walking shell. You’re running away from your destiny. Don’t do that.

 

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