How DeRay Mckesson Turned Social Media Into a Powerful Tool for Social Justice
And harnessed Twitter to grow the Black Lives Matter movement
By Kristina Monllos
DeRay Mckesson is tweeting. More specifically, he’s tweeting about the rapper Young Thug. We’re sitting in a mostly empty Mexican restaurant inside the Dream Hotel on West 16th Street in New York, where we’ve been talking about the movement, about Black Lives Matter, about Campaign Zero, about his work for the Baltimore public schools, about his blue Patagonia vest, about Twitter, and community and relationships. It’s a good conversation, one we’re both engaged in. But there’s a little problem. Young Thug is one of the only other people in the room, and at some point we’re going to have to accept the fact that we’re both distracted by his presence.
It’s Sept. 11, the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on this city, and 31-year-old Mckesson, activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, is here for quite a different reason: New York Fashion Week. (It’s his first time. He has been invited to the Pyer Moss show.) The night before, he’d been over at director Kasi Lemmons’ house with the rapper and actor Common. That morning, he’d strolled around the city with Empire star Jussie Smollett. Suffice it to say that Mckesson—who has also been to the White House a number of times, hung out with Beyoncé and spent time with any number of boldface names—isn’t intimidated by the short distance between our table and that of Young Thug. Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, the artist had released his latest music, a mixtape titled Jeffery, and made headlines for wearing a dress on the cover.
“I can’t believe it’s him,” Mckesson says. “He just did an interview where he said that his father used to beat him when he wore women’s clothes. That’s deep.”
Which brings us back to that tweet. Mckesson doesn’t tweet what the ordinary person might (“OMG, just saw Young Thug!!”) but, rather, a link to the aforementioned article detailing his history with womenswear.
That is what Mckesson does. He’s become a curator for his 582,000 followers, bringing thought-provoking bits of information to their feeds—the kind of news that might help shift the culture to be more accepting, or more tolerant, or at least more aware. He is Twitter’s de facto educator.
It wasn’t always that way. A little more than two years ago, on Aug. 16, 2014, Mckesson, like so many of us, saw what was unfolding in Ferguson, Mo., via social media and the TV news. But unlike the rest of us, Mckesson got up from his couch and drove the nine hours from where he lived in Minnesota to Ferguson to join protesters pouring into the streets, distraught and angry over the death of a young, unarmed black man named Michael Brown, who was shot by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
“I didn’t know anybody in Missouri,” says Mckesson, pointing out that I’d probably read this story before. (I had.) “I had 800 followers and I just wanted to go to be a part of what was happening at the beginning.” Mckesson is tired of telling his now-famous origin story, but he tells it anyway. He seems to understand that even though, as he repeatedly makes clear, he is “just one of many voices” to help shape how people are using social media for social justice, he is also arguably the best-known activist to become associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mckesson did not start BLM—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created the hashtag. But as one of its most forceful and popular voices, he’s sometimes given the credit—drawing some ire. What exactly is behind his rise? Since he was flying solo in Ferguson, “Twitter was the friend that was always awake,” he explains. “I was experiencing some of the wildest stuff I’d ever experienced, and I needed to process it. Twitter was how I processed it. I quickly understood Twitter to be a really powerful organizing tool, and we used it to bring people together, to challenge narratives that were untrue, to push people to think differently. It became a real force.” (For more of Mckesson’s thoughts on social media and social justice, see the accompanying Q&A.)
By mid-September, Mckesson’s Twitter following had swelled to 3,402. (He joined the social network in April 2009.) Clearly, what he had to say about what was happening in Ferguson was resonating. Part of that had to do with the shock and sadness on the part of everyone watching the events unfold, explains Brittany Packnett, activist and co-founder of the police-reform movement Campaign Zero. “The imagery and the storytelling of Ferguson was so compelling for people,” she explains. “A lot of people didn’t believe it was happening on American soil, a lot of people didn’t believe it was happening in fly-over country, in this municipality they had never heard of.”
But of all the people tweeting and posting images from the scene, why was it Mckesson who rose to the top? “DeRay is really adept at telling very succinct stories, so it’d be, ‘I’m running from tear gas #Ferguson’ or ‘I have to sleep under my steering wheel to get away from the police #Ferguson,’” notes Packnett. “There is something clear and sharp about his language that really speaks to a lot of people.”
“What social media allowed us to do was accelerate the pace of impact,” says Mckesson. “Very quickly, people all across the country had language, had ways of coming together and knew how to organize quicker than ever because social media allowed the message to spread and it changed who decided who the messengers were. … We didn’t discover injustice in August 2014. We did have a different set of tools.”
Much has happened in these last couple of years. Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher and many others have died at the hands of the police. Images of the last moments of their lives have been shared across social media. There have been protests nationwide. “Over the past two years, we have created a critical mass of people who acknowledge there’s a problem,” says Mckesson. “Two years ago, people thought there was a problem with police violence in St. Louis. They had not yet accepted that there’s a problem across the country. And they have now.”
The impact has been massive. In August 2015, Mckesson, along with Packnett and fellow activists Johnetta Elzie and Sam Sinyangwe, created Campaign Zero. In its first two weeks, it recruited 18,000 volunteers, according to Sinyangwe. Since then, the group has made a real difference in places like Orlando, Fla.—which, following a meeting between Campaign Zero and the city’s police chief, changed the police department’s policy on use of force, a key issue for Black Lives Matter activists. “The mayor-elect of Sacramento, Calif., just proposed basically a word-for-word copy of Campaign Zero’s use-of-force [recommendations],” adds Sinyangwe. But those aren’t the only places the group has had impact. Campaign Zero has also played what Sinyangwe calls “a significant role in shaping Hillary Clinton’s platform.”
This month, Mckesson and Packnett met with the Democratic presidential nominee for the first time since she detailed her stand on racial justice. “It was a productive meeting,” notes Mckesson. In the 20 minutes the group sat with Clinton in Cleveland, they spoke about racial equity, criminal justice, police training and what Clinton’s first 100 days as president would look like.
In a Washington Post op-ed piece on Oct. 26, Mckesson announced he was endorsing Clinton for president. “Clinton’s platform on racial justice is strong,” Mckesson wrote. “It is informed by policy failing of the past and is a vision for where we need to go.” The endorsement made headlines from the Los Angeles Times to Politico to BuzzFeed. And immediately, tweets flew that Mckesson’s vote had been paid for by the Clinton camp or by her backer, multibillionaire George Soros. “It’s not true,” Mckesson tells Adweek in a text message. “I have only ever spoken with HRC about issues related to her platform and racial justice. In the op-ed I note how I arrived at my decision. I believe that our ideas can be in conflict without us being in conflict.”
“There has been so much misinformation that’s been put out there, specifically from conservatives and the right wing, in attempts to sort of delegitimize DeRay,” says Sinyangwe. “That has an impact as well. There was an article in The Washington Times a while back that said that DeRay was getting millions of dollars from George Soros. Meanwhile, he hasn’t received a dime from George Soros, while a number of other groups have been getting some money from George Soros—but not DeRay, and not us. You can say that, and there will always be people on Twitter going, ‘Oh, this Washington Times article.’”
Despite the conspiracies and attempts to besmirch Mckesson, “DeRay has brought mass visibility to one of the most critical movements in the world right now, which is Black Lives Matter,” argues Jason Stein, founder and CEO of digital agency Laundry Service.
“He’s empowered people to stand up to the rampant racism that’s going on in our country. … A lot of people feel as though they may not have a voice in this or they can’t make an impact if they speak up, and I think he’s showing millennials—and everyone—that they can.”