Hope and faith for a Black Lives Mat­ter leader

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Ken­neth W. Mack, a his­to­rian and a pro­fes­sor of law at Har­vard, is the author of “Rep­re­sent­ing the Race: The Cre­ation of the Civil Rights Lawyer” and a co-edi­tor of “The New Black: What Has Changed — and What Has Not — With Race in Amer­ica.”

One of the most vis­i­ble faces to emerge from the protests in Fer­gu­son, Mo., and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment they sparked, is DeRay Mckesson. Days af­ter the protests be­gan in Au­gust 2014, Mckesson, then a 29-year-old school ad­min­is­tra­tor in Min­neapo­lis, be­gan driv­ing to Fer­gu­son to join in. He live-tweeted his jour­ney to Mis­souri and posted it on Face­book, at one point ask­ing for a couch to sleep on when he ar­rived. Once there, he and other par­tic­i­pants took to Twit­ter as an or­ga­niz­ing tool and an al­ter­na­tive to the main­stream me­dia, which, they thought, mis­rep­re­sented the protests as vi­o­lent.

Mckesson spent more than a year in the streets of Fer­gu­son, be­com­ing eas­ily rec­og­niz­able in his ever-pre­sent blue vest (which he says he wore just to keep warm). He un­ex­pect­edly took on the role of doc­u­men­tar­ian and or­ga­nizer. Since Fer­gu­son, he’s helped cre­ate a data­base to track po­lice shoot­ings. He’s tweeted to pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to re­quest meet­ings (and got­ten them) and run for mayor of Bal­ti­more. He’s been sued by po­lice of­fi­cers and wor­ried at var­i­ous mo­ments that he faced im­mi­nent death at the hands of po­lice. His work has won him awards from civic or­ga­ni­za­tions and gar­nered him an in­vi­ta­tion to de­bate pol­icy at the Obama White House. As host of the pod­cast “Pod Save the Peo­ple,” Mckesson has reached un­told num­bers of lis­ten­ers with frank dis­cus­sions about so­cial jus­tice, cul­ture and pol­i­tics.

Mckesson’s un­ex­pected rise to promi­nence has also sparked crit­i­cism and sus­pi­cion that he has put him­self for­ward un­duly as the face of a move­ment that pro­fesses to have no lead­ers and whose name is still hotly de­bated.

His book “On the Other Side of Freedom” is, in part, Mckesson’s re­sponse to the charge that he has grabbed too much of the lime­light and is un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the dis­persed net­works of or­ga­niz­ers, on­line ac­tivists and street pro­test­ers who com­pose this dif­fi­cult-to-de­fine move­ment. It is a com­bi­na­tion of mem­oir, self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and in­spi­ra­tional guide to imag­in­ing a dif­fer­ent world of racial pol­i­tics and crim­i­nal jus­tice. The book is di­vided into 12 short chap­ters, each com­mu­ni­cat­ing lessons Mckesson has learned on his jour­ney through protest and life.

Mckesson clearly feels the weight of his­tory that has set­tled onto his shoul­ders. Each chap­ter be­gins with epi­grams and quo­ta­tions from James Bald­win, Shirley Chisholm, As­sata Shakur, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass and oth­ers. The book is best in its ear­li­est pages, where Mckesson stays closer to what hap­pened in Fer­gu­son and to his dif­fi­cult child­hood in Bal­ti­more.

The first chap­ter, “On Hope,” is a mes­sage to those who balk at the no­tion that a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent sys­tem of polic­ing and crim­i­nal jus­tice is pos­si­ble in the near fu­ture. That kind of change is pos­si­ble, Mckesson in­sists, in­vok­ing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for in­spi­ra­tion, if grass-roots ac­tivists main­tain faith and hope, and re­main com­mit­ted to do­ing the dif­fi­cult and frus­trat­ing work to cre­ate it. In early chap­ters, Mckesson also cites some brac­ing facts about Fer­gu­son and po­lice shoot­ings, in­clud­ing the “five sec­ond rule” — the in­sis­tence by Fer­gu­son po­lice that no one stand still for more than a mo­ment dur­ing a pub­lic protest. Mckesson’s tweets, doc­u­ment­ing the ex­is­tence of the rule, helped get that pol­icy struck down in fed­eral court.

Hope, faith and work helped him achieve con­crete goals, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of the first po­lice shoot­ing data­bases. The data paints a hor­rific picture of the fre­quency of the killings and, more im­por­tant, Mckesson con­tends, shows that these tragic and seem­ingly in­evitable events are closely con­nected to lo­cal poli­cies and pre­vi­ously secret po­lice union con­tracts that shield the sys­tem from ac­count­abil­ity on all lev­els.

Mckesson also weaves in per­sonal sto­ries of his up­bring­ing as the child of two al­co­holic par­ents, his first ex­po­sure to at­tend­ing school with white children (and to the priv­i­leges that whites take for granted), his child­hood sex­ual abuse by an ac­quain­tance, and his com­pli­cated role as a gay black man in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. “Those of us who were there” in Fer­gu­son — a phrase he re­peats again and again to es­tab­lish his authenticity as the face of a move­ment sus­pi­cious of lead­ers — “have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­mem­ber” the move­ment and to tell its sto­ries with­out the ex­clu­sions and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions that a sys­tem of white priv­i­lege and dom­i­na­tion seems to de­mand.

This is a po­etic, pas­sion­ate and deeply per­sonal book that du­ti­fully dis­claims any pre­tense of lead­er­ship, cred­it­ing ev­ery­thing to the col­lec­tive ac­tions of in­di­vid­u­als in the streets of Fer­gu­son. Mckesson spends an en­tire chap­ter jus­ti­fy­ing acts that brought him at­ten­tion — from meet­ing with fig­ures such as Barack Obama, Hil­lary Clin­ton and Bernie San­ders to run­ning for mayor.

He ends with a “Let­ter to an Ac­tivist,” where he ad­vises read­ers that they al­ready pos­sess all the knowl­edge and all the skills to work for a new fu­ture of racial and crim­i­nal jus­tice with­out the as­sis­tance of lead­ers, or even the ex­am­ple of those who came be­fore them. It’s al­most as if he has noth­ing to teach them, other than to have faith in their in­nate ca­pac­ity for change. Mckesson is con­vinc­ing in his ex­pla­na­tion of why he has hope, but be­yond this, it isn’t en­tirely clear why oth­ers should feel sim­i­lar in­spi­ra­tion.

Mckesson, of course, is not the first African Amer­i­can to face ques­tions about how he be­came the face of a move­ment and whether he de­serves that role. In fact, al­most ev­ery his­tor­i­cal fig­ure he in­vokes — Dou­glass, King, Chisholm and oth­ers — faced sus­tained crit­i­cism from or­di­nary African Amer­i­cans con­cern­ing their rep­re­sen­ta­tion as the face of so­cial change. “Who elected them?” is a ques­tion that has been asked re­peat­edly about those who came to the fore by some com­bi­na­tion of chance and their own ev­i­dent skill. It has been asked even of the per­son who ac­tu­ally did get elected in part be­cause of the strength and pas­sion of vot­ers of color — the black pres­i­dent whom Mckesson has to jus­tify meet­ing. “The Other Side of Freedom” is a good guide to the ironies and con­tra­dic­tions of this new so­cial move­ment, and of the in­di­vid­ual who has re­luc­tantly come to per­son­ify it.


RIGHT: Po­lice ar­rest DeRay Mckesson in Ba­ton Rouge dur­ing a protest in 2016 over the fa­tal shoot­ing of Al­ton Ster­ling, a black man, by white of­fi­cers.


By DeRay Mckesson Viking. 220 pp. $25


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