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 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.
By DeRay Mckesson
Viking. 220 pp. $25