As I walked into the Orpheum Theater Thursday evening, I was handed a note card with the statement, “What does the other side of freedom look like to you?” This thought-provoking question set the tone remarkably for what inquisitions came next.
I arrived rather early in anticipation of beating the rush who would follow not long after I found my seat. Around 7:30 p.m., the theater grew louder and fuller as audience members arrived, excited to witness Deray McKesson and Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black,” engage in conversation.
Beginning at the start of September, McKesson’s “On the Other Side of Freedom” tour has included numerous activists, authors and awe-inspiring individuals who want to make a difference in this world. McKesson’s talks hone in on the subject of police brutality as this is the leading force of the protests in Ferguson. His stop in Madison focused largely on this issue, prison policy and reform.
The show opened right at 8 p.m. with a video about McKesson and his past in activism, leading to his first book release and arrival in Madison. McKesson then walked out with Kerman and welcomed the crowd warmly.
McKesson and Kerman began the talk seated in front of the stage, but stood up almost instantly after numerous members in the crowd had noted they could not see the duo. Initially scattered across the theater, most of the audience quickly rose from their seats and moved closer to the stage and one another.
Throughout the discussion, Kerman asked McKesson several personal and political questions relating to his new book. “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope,” released in 2018, highlights the perilous journey McKesson undergoes in order to unintentionally become one of the leading faces of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Upon hearing about the death of Michael Brown, McKesson quit his job as an educator and drove down to Ferguson to join already existing forces on the streets.
“It was one of those moments where I was willing to risk it all,” McKesson said.
He wrote the book after moving beyond the pain he experienced during his time in Ferguson as a peaceful protestor. St. Louis County, Mo. has the highest rate of police violence in the country, McKesson said. Over the course of 400 days with the presence of 1000 protesters, McKesson spent much of his time walking around to keep himself moving because simply standing still was forbidden.
After seeing the impact McKesson had created with fellow protesters, he took the work back to his hometown of Baltimore. McKesson wanted to go home, but he also wanted to do more about the dire state of police brutality in the U.S. For example, citizens in the state of Maryland can file any complaint against an officer with the exception of brutality, he said.
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In an interview prior to the event, McKesson explained how the more privileged can help others if they are not comfortable joining forces in the streets.
“If you grew up with the governor, go to his house and complain all night at dinner about it, that is more impactful than you probably standing next to me out here next,” McKesson said. “How do you use all of the access that you have to demand equity for everyone?”
It seems the system is often set up against us, but to change it, we have to understand how it works. McKesson discussed the crucial balance between reform and revolution in order to help audience members understand the movement is not only about the physical fight.
The amount of work necessary to fix such issues affecting Black lives and other Americans relates well to a question asked by Kerman: “Where has the progress we thought we have made gone?”
Kerman also wrote a book about her own experiences with the prison system and reform. In “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” Kerman focused heavily on her privilege and cognitive dissonance that stemmed from being a college-educated white woman in prison.
Now, Kerman uses her privilege to help others who are facing injustices within the prison system.
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McKesson noted that a large part of adjusting dissonance is naming it.
“People tell me that the end to mass incarceration is like a 300-year solution. Why do we have to accept that? We don’t,” McKesson said. “If they can rewrite the tax bill on the back of paper towels and napkins, then we can do all of this in a generation.”
Though the content of McKesson and Kerman’s discussion wasn’t necessarily pleasant, it was easy for the pair to make the crowd laugh and feel comfortable with the difficult decision at hand. The goal of McKesson’s discussion with Kerman was to leave audience members not only with more information that they entered with but also more skills.
Their conversation was followed by a handful of questions from audience members, accompanied by high praised to Pod Save the People, a podcast started by McKesson and fellow activists Brittany Packnett and Samuel Sinyangwe.
One audience member, Shauna Washington, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin asked about the role higher education ought to play in social justice work.
“There are all of these people who have actually done incredible studies, things that could help us with the work immeasurably,” McKesson said. “How do we figure out how to link directly with the academic community because they are doing things and just thinking about things in ways we don’t know. And we are thinking about things in ways they wouldn’t think about.”
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In conclusion, collaboration is key — a long-running theme throughout the discussion.
Copies of “On the Other Side of Freedom” were sold at the venue all signed personally by McKesson. As I walked out of the theater inspired and ready to learn more, I came to find myself staring at a nearly empty table with one book remaining and a faster fan within its reach.
Since the event was in partnership with A Room of One’s Own, the book can be purchased at 315 W. Gorham St. while supplies last, or online at any major bookselling outlet.
Following the talk, McKesson and Freedom provided the opportunity to each and every individual who attended the show to get a picture and speak with the pair personally. Their ingenuity shone through bright until the final moments of the night when the last person in line got their chance at a personal connection.
“The world is not a gruesome place — we can all win. We can live in a world where every single kid eats breakfast, lunch and dinner, and nobody loses in that scenario,” McKesson said. “Truth comes before the reconciliation.”