Sept/Oct/Nov 2018

Rant and Fave

A Twitter star’s hopeful manifesto

Mychal Denzel Smith


On the Other Side of Freedom:

The Case for Hope

by DeRay Mckesson

Viking

$25.00 List Price

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DeRay Mckesson is a frustrating figure. I don’t mean Mckesson the person, but rather Mckesson the persona, which is what you become once you have achieved his level of visibility. In the span of about four years, Mckesson, an educator and activist associated with Black Lives Matter, has gone from around eight hundred Twitter followers to more than a million. One of those followers is Beyoncé. To give a sense of how big of a deal this is, it must be noted that Beyoncé follows only ten accounts—and none of them belong to her husband, Jay-Z. Mckesson was photographed alongside Janelle Monáe, Donald Glover, Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, Rashida Jones, Tracee Ellis Ross, Shonda Rhimes, and others at Vanity Fair’s 2018 Oscar party. He is easy to spot because he is never seen in public without his signature blue vest, which has become such a part of his identity (or brand) that Mckesson and his followers chided the producers of War for the Planet of the Apes for mocking him by featuring an ape character in a similar puffy blue vest in their movie.

But what, exactly, is he so famous for?

It all started when he went to Ferguson, Missouri, during the uprising after the police killed Michael Brown in August 2014. The story has been told in nearly every profile written about him. In his new book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, Mckesson retells it in his own words. “I was living in Minneapolis at the time and working as the senior director of Human Capital for Minneapolis Public Schools,” he writes. “Late on August 15, 2014, I was watching the news and saw the protests unfold, and then I checked my phone and saw the conversation on Twitter. On TV, it looked like the protesters were angry and unruly. On Twitter, it looked like the police were out of control and reckless. I wanted to see what was happening with my own eyes.”

Mckesson drove to Missouri and began chronicling, on Twitter, what he saw as residents of the Saint Louis suburb filled the streets to mourn and protest Brown’s killing, his body having been left in the street, uncovered, for nearly four and a half hours. Unable or unwilling to rely on traditional news media outlets to provide accurate reports about the protests, more and more people turned to social media, much like they had during the Arab Spring. Mckesson stood out for his unambiguous, frequent tweets. “Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that these aren’t peaceful protests,” he wrote on his second day in Ferguson, eight days after Brown’s death, following this with dozens of tweets a day for many weeks. “There’s an incredible sense of community here.” He later turned this knack for writing immediate, on-the-ground dispatches into a newsletter, coauthored with fellow protesters Brittany Packnett and Johnetta Elzie, which also amassed a sizable following. Reporters looking for a quote knew they could track down the guy in the blue vest. A CNN clip of Mckesson refusing to denounce so-called rioting in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death went viral a year later. He became, as Janet Mock wrote in her 2016 Advocate profile, “the messenger of the movement.”

The designation itself isn’t bothersome; of course, there is no single messenger of any movement, but it is a title befitting Mckesson’s public role. He has traveled to demonstrations around the country, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to his native Baltimore, and documented them in real time via social media. He is, at the moment, the most visible spokesperson of a certain part of the movement: the protest. “Protest is telling the truth in public. . . . Protest is, in its own way, a storytelling,” he writes. “We use our bodies, our words, our art, and our sounds both to tell the truth about the pain that we endure and to demand the justice that we know is possible. It is meant to build a community and to force a response.”

Click to enlarge

DeRay Mckesson, Baltimore, July 24, 2017.

On the Other Side of Freedom is filled with short bursts of this kind of beauty. In service of what, though? In twelve chapters covering organizing, identity, activism, and more, Mckesson sets out to provide an “intellectual, pragmatic political framework for a new liberation movement.”But he doesn’t move much beyond poetic rhapsodizing about protest, which he romanticizes to the exclusion of most other aspects of resistance. Indeed, he’s outright dismissive of some. In the chapter “On Organizing,” he recounts his frustrations at a training session led by a national organizer, which wasn’t, he felt, useful to the situation in Ferguson. This could have been a great opportunity to describe new directions that activism might take, but his description of the meeting’s shortcomings are frustratingly vague. He is unhappy with the notion of the “top-down model in which an organizing body or institution confers knowledge, gives direction, grants permission.” The protesters, he points out, don’t need this kind of guidance—they already possess the skills necessary for effective activism. “The tactics that were effective in bringing about change in the sixties, seventies, and eighties are well known to all,” he explains. “And thus we needed new tactics for a new time.” And what are those new tactics? “To ignore the role of social media as difference-maker in organizing is perilous.”

This is why his role as a spokesperson rankles. Despite his enthusiasm, Mckesson’s vision for moving forward is hazy and uninspired. He is skeptical of traditional organizing—and there are plenty of critiques to be made—but he also doesn’t seem to completely understand what it is. “Organizing is the act of bringing people together in an effort to harness communal energy to challenge a system or structure to bring about a specific, desired change,” he writes. The first half of the sentence sounds right, but “specific”? Organizing is also about political education and the democratic (and sometimes messy) debate of ideas, followed by collective decision making on the best means of implementing those ideas. And organizing is a deliberate process that works only offline. It is about forming blocs of solidarity, connected through a shared vision and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the many over the whims of the individual—pretty much the opposite of what happens on Twitter.

Mckesson is, it must be said, a master of the tweet, and many of the best reflections in The Other Side of Freedom would fit into 280 characters and still sound profound. On Twitter he will often tweet “Watch whiteness work” in relation to some cultural moment, such as when the police refused to label the Austin bomber a terrorist. In cases like this, those three words are all he needs. But long-form writing generally requires qualities such as specificity, meaningful examples, evidence, and storytelling, and many of the powerful, pithy statements made in Mckesson’s book turn flat in the absence of evocative description and context. In a chapter called “The Choreography of Whiteness,” Mckesson ventures to impart an important lesson about realizing that white people are sometimes wrong by way of a story of a white teacher making a mistake in the classroom. “I don’t even remember the details of her mistake, but I remember realizing that she was wrong, and I can still see her correcting herself,” Mckesson recalls. It’s not that he’s wrong—the problem is that the example is unfocused and ultimately unconvincing.

Given the opportunity to write long, Mckesson also contradicts himself, without ever trying to account for it—another tendency more easily forgiven on Twitter. In “A Letter to an Activist,” he writes: “The words we use or the words we create matter to describe the world we live in, the freedom and justice we deserve. It matters not whether you call yourself protestors or organizers, activists or the like.” Though it’s true that there is often overlap between these distinct roles, there is value in clearly defining what each one requires of us. What exactly are our words for, if not to describe this work?

His best writing appears in the first chapter, “On Hope,” because his definition of hope is clear. “Faith is the belief that certain outcomes will happen and hope the belief that certain outcomes can happen,” Mckesson writes. That sounds right, and potentially rescues “hope” from becoming a tattered vestige of the Obama years. The problem is that Mckesson doesn’t give us any sense of what to hope for. He invites big-picture dreaming for a new system free of racist practices; he also remains hopeful that reforms to our current system can have powerful effects. But the only way to achieve the former by means of the latter is to support reforms that radically undermine the system, and on this front Mckesson is lacking. In my own writing, I have advocated abolishing the police system entirely, because it protects and serves a select few at everyone else’s expense. I, for one, would feel safer without it. I also believe that this would be achieved best by a series of radical reforms—starting with the disarming of officers. This would immediately make them less deadly, but the reform would also lead to a new system entirely: Eventually police would become obsolete as commmunities learn to address societal ills without state intervention.

I’m not saying Mckesson needs to offer a detailed plan to abolish the police. But I wish he had a detailed plan for something. He provides vital information in the chapter “The Problem of the Police,” in which he lays out the work of the website Mapping Police Violence. This project, a collaboration led by Mckesson, Packnett, and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe, not only shows the failure of law-enforcement institutions to track police killings but also sheds light on union contracts that go to absurd lengths to protect police from prosecution. It’s essential information in understanding the extent of the problem with regard to police getting away with killing (mostly black) people. But the fact that Mckesson follows his careful analysis with a call to use the collected data to make a vague “series of different choices” blunts its impact. Why aren’t such specific data followed by specific actions that could be taken? When I say that Mckesson frustrates me, it is because of moments like this. Mckesson’s deeply meaningful Twitter presence has placed him in a role he cannot fulfill. He has been crowned a messenger, but the messenger is uncertain of what his message should be.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (Nation Books, 2016).

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