n the evening of April 25 at the corner of Pratt and Light Streets, in Baltimore’s revitalized downtown district, more than 100 police officers in riot gear stood shoulder to shoulder, shields up. Six officers on horseback fidgeted behind them, staring down at a crowd of about 40, an odd mixture of protesters, journalists and protester-journalists. Earlier in the afternoon, well over a thousand people marched from the Western District police station to City Hall to protest the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose spinal cord was severely injured while he was in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Only a handful of live-streamers, an older man in a kente-cloth kufi, five or six teenagers with bandannas drawn across their faces and two young women in cocktail attire who had just been kicked out of a wedding were left. Each person was filming the police.
In the coming days, riots would convulse the city, with young people running through the streets, looting stores and setting fires, and the National Guard descending on their neighborhoods. But this protest looked much like the ones that have characterized the growing movement against police violence. Bodies moved in the dark, but the faces — protesters and police officers alike — were lit up by the thin, lunar glow of cellphone screens.
One protester was DeRay Mckesson, a 29-year-old former school administrator who has spent much of the past nine months attending and catalyzing such protests, from Ferguson, Mo., last summer and fall, to New York City and Milwaukee in December, to North Charleston, S.C., in April. Mckesson, who is from Baltimore, had returned to his hometown not long after Gray’s death to join the protests. Now he stood in his usual pose — his slender back straight as a ramrod, phone held in front of angular face, camera lens pointed directly ahead.
The phalanx of police officers began tapping their riot shields with their batons and shouting, “Move back!” Then, in a sloppy, seemingly unrehearsed lock step, they advanced on the protesters.
Mckesson crouched down and angled his phone. On its screen, I could see the dramatic shot he had composed: the faces of police officers, flat and impassive. As the police marched their way up the street, Mckesson posted a Vine, a photo and a 30-second video to his 85,000 Twitter followers. “What in the world is going on?” he asked. “There’s, like, how many hundred cops for 40 of us? This is wild.” He walked backward at a slow pace, eyes on his screen.
“It’s strange to come home after all that time in St. Louis,” he said, calmly. “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s really driven home the saying: ‘There’s a Mike Brown in every town.’ ”
Since Aug. 9, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot and killed Michael Brown, Mckesson and a core group of other activists have built the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century to date. Their innovation has been to marry the strengths of social media — the swift, morally blunt consensus that can be created by hashtags; the personal connection that a charismatic online persona can make with followers; the broad networks that allow for the easy distribution of documentary photos and videos — with an effort to quickly mobilize protests in each new city where a police shooting occurs.
We often think of online activism as a shallow bid for fleeting attention, but the movement that Mckesson is helping to lead has been able to sustain the country’s focus and reach millions of people. Among many black Americans, long accustomed to mistreatment or worse at the hands of the police, the past year has brought on an incalculable sense of anger and despair. For the nation as a whole, we have come to learn the names of the victims — Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray — because the activists have linked their fates together in our minds, despite their separation by many weeks and thousands of miles.
In the process, the movement has managed to activate a sense of red alert around a chronic problem that, until now, has remained mostly invisible outside the communities that suffer from it. Statistics on the subject are notoriously poor, but evidence does not suggest that shootings of black men by police officers have been significantly on the rise. Nevertheless, police killings have become front-page news and a political flash point, entirely because of the sense of emergency that the movement has sustained.
The movement began with a single image: Michael Brown, lying facedown on the asphalt, a stream of blood running from his head. That picture, combined with the testimony of witnesses who claimed to see the teenager surrender before being shot several times, brought hundreds of people from St. Louis out to the scene of his death the same evening. The following day, Aug. 10, protests began on West Florissant Avenue nearby, as well as outside the Ferguson Police Department; the crowds demanded justice for Brown and that the name of the officer who shot him be released, prompting the police to come out in force. That night, the QuikTrip gas station on West Florissant burned, which in turn brought out the mainstream media and an even more militarized police response. By Aug. 13, images from the Ferguson protests — plumes of tear gas, armored vehicles in the streets, packs of heavily armed police officers wearing military fatigues — were leading the news.
Mckesson watched all this from Minneapolis, where he was working in the public-school system. He was struck by the distance between the sensational accounts of rioting he saw on television and the reports he was reading on Twitter from people in Ferguson, who claimed that the cops had been firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of peaceful protesters. Mckesson decided to go see the protests for himself.
On the morning of Aug. 16, Mckesson drove to St. Louis. Inspired, in part, by the Twitter accounts he had been following — at the time, Mckesson had fewer than 900 followers and tweeted inconsistently — he decided to live-tweet the trip. Setting out, he tweeted: “En route.” A couple hours later, he tweeted: “So, this stretch through Iowa has trucks that aren’t very good drivers.” And when he finally arrived in St. Louis, Mckesson noted: “I should’ve gotten gas in Iowa. Much more expensive in St. Louis.”
Mckesson arrived in Ferguson, and the next day he headed over to West Florissant, where he was tear-gassed. His terse, matter-of-fact updates, which had seemed almost comical when describing the banalities of everyday life, took on a forceful lucidity in the context of the protests, especially when they were accompanied by raw photographs from the scene.
“Y’all, tons of police,” he tweeted that night. “Tear gas. It has begun #Ferguson.” He added: “Also, the noise sirens are out. Tear gas feels like extreme peppermint tingling. F.Y.I. #Ferguson.” Then, about an hour and 30 tweets later: “Phone is dying. I am nowhere near my car. I am lost in #Ferguson. Really bad car accident. Looting across from it. Pray for me. #Ferguson.”
Mckesson was radicalized that night. “I just couldn’t believe that the police would fire tear gas into what had been a peaceful protest,” he told me. “I was running around, face burning, and nothing I saw looked like America to me.” He also noticed that his account of that night’s tear-gassings, along with a photo he took of the rapper J. Cole, had brought him quite a bit of attention on Twitter. Previously, Mckesson used the social-media platform to post random news articles that interested him, but now he was realizing its documentary power. He quickly grasped that a protester’s effectiveness came mostly from his ability to be present in as many places as possible: He had to be on West Florissant when the police rolled up in armored vehicles; inside the St. Louis coffee shop MoKaBe’s, a safe haven for the protesters in the city’s Shaw neighborhood, when tear gas started to seep in through the front door; in front of the Ferguson Police Department when shots rang out. He had to keep up a steady stream of tweets and carry around a charger so his phone wouldn’t die.
Mckesson eventually returned to Minneapolis, but by then he had committed himself to the protests. He started traveling down to St. Louis every weekend. On one of those trips, Mckesson met Johnetta Elzie, a fellow protester who goes by Netta. They became fast friends.
Elzie is “Day 1,” the term given to Ferguson protesters who showed up on Aug. 9. She grew up all around St. Louis, spending much of her childhood in the beauty salons where her mother worked. The day Michael Brown was killed, Elzie, who had been mourning the death of her mother, went down to Canfield Green, a housing complex near where Brown was shot, to pay her respects.
The first thing Elzie did was tweet: “It’s still blood on the ground where Mike Brown Jr was murdered. A cone in place where his body laid for hours today. #STL #Ferguson.” She experimented with other networks to see if they could do a better job of spreading what she was seeing. “I took an Instagram photo — there was one teddy bear; maybe three, four candles on the ground,” she told me. “I even tried Tumblr, a social-media platform that I never use. Those videos got hundreds of thousands of reposts.”
Over the next few weeks, Elzie, who studied journalism in college, emerged as one of the most reliable real-time observers of the confrontations between the protesters and the police. She took photos of the protest organizers, of the sandwiches she and her friends made to feed other protesters, of the Buddhist monks who showed up at the burned QuikTrip. Mckesson, too, was live-tweeting when he was back in Ferguson, integrating video and referring to protesters and police officers alike by name. Mckesson’s tweets were usually sober and detailed, whereas Elzie’swere cheerfully sarcastic, mock-heroic and forthright: a running account of events that felt intimate.
Other voices came to the fore as well. There was Bassem Masri, perhaps Ferguson’s most famous live-streamer, who attracted tens of thousands of viewers to nightly feeds that showed what the protests looked like beyond the media barricades. Another local activist, Ashley Yates, created T-shirts and hoodies that read “ASSATA TAUGHT ME” — a reference to the former Black Panther Party member Assata Shakur — and that became part of the protest iconography. Clifton Kinnie, a senior in high school, organized other students throughout St. Louis. By the fall, these activists and a handful of others had gone from lone Internet figures to recognized faces of the movement.
Mckesson and Elzie focused much of their attention on criticizing the mainstream media, who devoted too much airtime, they felt, to violence and discord among the protest community. As a corrective, in mid-September, they teamed up with Brittany Packnett, the executive director of St. Louis’s Teach for America program, and Justin Hansford, a law professor at St. Louis University, to publish the This Is the Movement newsletter, which scrutinized and curated the daily news out of Ferguson. A wide range of readers, from reporters to protesters to officials within the Department of Justice, subscribed. Pretty soon, Mckesson and Elzie were appearing regularly on TV and radio. The two cultivated appealing personas, becoming easily recognizable to their many followers. Mckesson had begun wearing red shoes and a red shirt to protests. Later, he replaced this outfit with a bright blue Patagonia vest, which he now wears everywhere he goes. (Someone created a DeRay’s vest Twitter account.) Elzie often wore dark lipstick, a pair of oversize sunglasses and a leather jacket: the beautician’s daughter channeling a Black Panther.
Mckesson and Elzie have always insisted that the movement is leaderless, that it is a communal expression of pent-up anguish spilling onto the streets, but over the fall, they were frequently called upon to serve as its spokespeople. Elzie was invited to conferences and panels, and talked with established social-justice activists around the country about the actions in Ferguson. Mckesson, who was dutifully putting out the newsletter during this time while still working at his job in Minneapolis, began using Twitter to announce actions throughout St. Louis. He and Elzie would tweet a time and location and then wait for the people to show up. By October, they were also being followed by the police, who would sometimes arrive at the scene of the action before the protesters themselves.
Together, Mckesson and Elzie were developing a model of the modern protester: part organizer, part citizen journalist who marches through American cities while texting, as charging cords and battery packs fall out of his pockets. By Nov. 24, when Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted on murder charges, a network of hundreds of organizers was already in place, ready to bring thousands of people into the streets with a tweet.
I first met Mckesson on Dec. 7, the 121st day of continuous protests in Ferguson. Three days before, a grand jury in Staten Island decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, of the New York Police Department, on charges of killing Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by choking him. Demonstrations broke out across the city, with major bridges and tunnels shut down every night by protesters, and Mckesson traveled to New York to join them. In Grand Central Terminal, I ran into a group of 30 protesters who had just performed a “die-in,” lying quietly on the ground for four and a half minutes — the duration symbolizing the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. A handful of police officers stood by, looking bored and stern.
The crowd headed outside into a cold rain and started up the chants: “Black lives matter!” “I can’t breathe!” “We need freedom from these racist-ass cops!” Three young white protesters in front of me — all dressed alike in thick, fur-fringed coats covered with see-through, formless rain ponchos — marched in a straight line with their phones set to video mode, holding them solemnly in the air like processional candles. At 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, near the New York Public Library’s main branch, I saw Mckesson, recognizing him by his blue Patagonia vest. He was walking at the edge of the crowd, head buried in his phone.
We walked with the group until it came to a halt in Times Square. Mckesson stood under a bank awning, shivering. When I asked why he didn’t wear something warmer than a vest, he smiled and said, “I feel bulletproof in this.”
An elderly man in an orange rain parka walked up to us and said he had been inspired by Mckesson’s Twitter account and wanted to thank him for the work he did in Ferguson. “You just keep it up and stay safe,” the man said. Mckesson, who speaks in a high-pitched, singsong voice, thanked the man for his kindness before turning his attention back to his phone.
After the protest, Mckesson and I retired to a nearby cafe in a Japanese bookstore. Mckesson took out a large charging device, roughly the size of a deck of cards, and plugged in his white iPhone 6 Plus. Then, reaching into a vest pocket, he pulled out another white iPhone and plugged that in as well. Dozens of Twitter notifications piled up on his screen, and Mckesson shared them with me. Earlier that day, he asked if any of his followers knew the address of William Bratton, New York’s police commissioner, thinking that he might organize a protest.
In response, one person called Mckesson a “Mongoloid,” while others asked if he was threatening Bratton’s life. Some tweets were obliquely menacing: “I look forward to seeing your ass rightfully beaten” or “I hope one of his Rottweilers takes a bite out of your ass.” The tone of these replies went beyond standard trolling — an odd familiarity ran through them. The Twitter users, especially the more vicious ones, seemed to actually know Mckesson and some of his fellow protesters.
“This is, like, every day,” Mckesson told me. “The trolls are wild. They know where I am at all times.”
Mckesson had come to New York to attend workshops and to spread the word about actions in the city. He wanted to see if the wave of dissent that had gathered in the streets of Ferguson and radiated out across the Internet could become something substantial and organized. Two weeks later, after a series of actions involving tens of thousands of people, the murder of two New York police officers had a chilling effect on the street protests. For now, though, Mckesson was in his element, using his phone to create a connection between the outrage on social media and the actions in the streets.
In the cafe, surrounded by shrink-wrapped pastries and a gathering of lucky cat figurines, he answered WhatsApp messages from fellow organizers and text messages from friends, and tried to fact-check a future tweet. When he wasn’t sending out data, he was swiping down on Twitter to refresh his timeline with such frequency that it looked as if he were petting his phone.
“When I tweet, I’m mostly preaching to the choir,” he said. “But the heart of the movement is in the actions. It’s in shutting down streets, shutting down Walmarts, shutting down any place where people feel comfortable. We want to make people feel as uncomfortable as we feel when we hear about Mike, about Eric Garner, about Tamir Rice. We want them to experience what we go through on a daily basis.”
Mckesson is a restless man. In the time we spent together, the only occasion I can recall him sitting in one spot for more than 15 minutes was in an Applebee’s in St. Louis, where, after a long day of protests and TV interviews, he laid his head down next to a plate of salmon — he almost always orders salmon — and fell asleep. But his habit of seeing every minute of relaxation as a minute lost serves his activism well. In the rare quiet moments between police shootings and actions, Mckesson tweets and retweets stats, trivia, inspirational messages and the names of the dead.
NYC TV stations report crimes committed by blacks more frequently than they even occur.
Love is the Why.
Justice is not an abstract concept. Justice is a living Mike Brown. Justice is Tamir playing outside again. Justice is Darren Wilson in jail.
I once watched Mckesson spend a good five minutes trying to edit down a tweet that ran long before calling one of his closest friends. They talked through the tweet together. Ultimately they landed on this: “Blackness in America is never a question of afraid or unafraid; it’s a matter of varying degrees of fear, as we are victims of state terror.” This obsessive focus is evident in every part of Mckesson’s life. He makes a point to never curse in public. He is too busy to watch movies or television. He does not have a boyfriend (some in the movement have objected to having a gay man in a prominent position). And although fellow protesters sometimes call him “the storyteller,” his tweets gain their force from their concision and relentlessness rather than from narrative flair.
Mckesson grew up in Baltimore, the son of drug addicts; his mother left the family when he was 3, so his father and great-grandmother raised him and his sister. Starting in sixth grade, Mckesson was elected to the student government every year all the way through college. He went to Bowdoin, the small, elite liberal-arts college in Maine, paying part of his own way through a work-study job in the mailroom. During lulls, he would study the rows of mailboxes in the student union, trying to learn the name of every student on campus, hoping it would give him an edge in the coming campaigns. He also worked as a campus tour guide and diligently honed his patter. When he found that he was stumbling through the list of languages Bowdoin offered, he practiced reciting them. When he saw that prospective students weren’t reacting to his presentation as enthusiastically as he hoped, he tweaked his delivery until he got it right. There is a touching earnestness to Mckesson that makes you want to believe everything he says.
“There was a whole generation of Bowdoin students who came to the college because of the campus tours DeRay would do,” said Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin, who considers Mckesson a close friend. “He’s always known how to inspire a group of people, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s become a thought leader for what’s going on out in Ferguson.”
After graduating in 2007, Mckesson joined Teach for America and taught middle school for two years in East New York, Brooklyn, before moving back home to Baltimore to work in H.R. for the city’s schools. He developed a reputation as a ruthless administrator — every hiring and firing was justified, in his own mind, by what was best for the kids in the district.
His career, both academic and professional, was built on an unusual faith in effecting change from within a bureaucratic organization, whether a student government or the city public-school system. But when he saw Michael Brown lying dead in the street, he felt as if he had come up against the edge of that belief. “I kept thinking, Kids can’t learn if they’re dead,” he told me.
There is an indelible picture of Mckesson taken on his first full day in Ferguson. He is standing by the side of the road, right fist raised defiantly in the air; in his left hand, he holds a cardboard sign that reads: “My Blackness Is Not a Weapon. #handsup #dontshoot.” Behind him are the dull greenery of St. Louis in August and hints of the one-story, uniform brick houses off West Florissant. After a night of photographing and documenting everyone else at the protest, Mckesson, the education executive with a six-figure salary, finally turned the camera around on himself, revealing the awkward resolve of a student-body president who had lost confidence in all those systems and was trying something new.
In March, Mckesson and Elzie traveled to Selma, Ala., for the 50th-anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday, the pivotal moment in the civil rights era when protesters marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were brutally attacked on national television by Alabama state troopers. I stood with Mckesson on the bridge. “We’re really up high,” he said, staring down at the brown waters of the Alabama River. “Can you imagine having all those troopers on horseback riding toward you, trying to beat you down? Where do you run? You definitely can’t jump over the side here.” All day, hundreds of tourists had been walking over the bridge, solemnly touching its supports and snapping selfies in front of its historical markers. If Mckesson was feeling the sway of the 50th anniversary, he betrayed no emotion. Instead, he asked me how far I thought the drop was down to the river, and started searching Google for answers.
Mckesson and Elzie have each expressed ambivalence over whether the youth movement should try to draw from the popular image of the civil rights movement. They worry that the constant comparisons with something that happened 50 years ago will dilute the immediacy of today’s protests. Much as they admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — each is well versed in his writings — they feel his legacy has been distorted. He is held up as an avatar of genteel protest, invoked by conservative politicians and leaders in the black community as a way to discredit their movement. Mckesson and Elzie frequently point out that King was in fact a revolutionary who believed in the power of confrontation, and that it’s a crime against American history to confuse the real King with an appealingly passive one. To make their point, they participated in an action called #ReclaimMLK, which sought to counter “efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless women and men into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits.”
“Also,” Elzie often says whenever someone brings up King as a way of questioning their work, “they killed him too.”
If you ask Mckesson and Elzie why there is no central figure in today’s movement, they will again insist on the advantages of leaderlessness. If you bring up legislative reform, they will point out that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been all but rolled back and that their aims go well beyond small changes to the criminal-justice system. If you bring up nonviolence as the only civilized way to effect change, they will recite King’s words: “A riot is the language of the unheard,” or they will say they don’t condone rioting, but they understand it. Their resistance to confining the civil rights movement to a museum made Mckesson and Elzie an awkward fit for Selma, which was filled with people doing just that.
At dinner that night in Montgomery, Mckesson and Elzie received the news that a 19-year-old unarmed black man, Tony Robinson, had been shot and killed in Madison, Wis. They spent the meal with their heads bent over their phones, compiling and tweeting out all the information they could confirm through their sources in the Madison protest community. Piece by piece, a digital portrait of Robinson emerged: a photo of him in a graduation gown, his arm around a female friend; a few tweets he sent out in the days before his death. Then, around midnight, dinner long gone by, Mckesson sighed and held up his phone to show Elzie a photo of the front steps of Robinson’s home, which were streaked with blood. “That’s where they dragged him out of his house,” Mckesson said.
The next morning, in the lobby of the education center at Selma’s George C. Wallace State Community College, Mckesson and Elzie took selfies with Diane Nash and her son Douglass Bevel. In the early ’60s, Nash, along with Bernard Lafayette Jr., John Lewis and others, founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C.). She also helped organize the Freedom Riders, helped lead the march from Selma to Montgomery and played a key role in the push to integrate lunch counters throughout the South. Between photos, Nash talked to another admirer about a call she had received from one of Bobby Kennedy’s aides, who pleaded with her to cancel an action because Kennedy thought there was a good chance people would be killed.
Mckesson and Elzie seemed almost star-struck, peppering Nash with questions about the civil rights movement and then posting her answers on Twitter. Mckesson told Nash she needed to get on Twitter to share her wisdom.
“Twitter?” Nash asked. “I just figured out how to have a Facebook.”
“Twitter is the revolution, Ms. Nash,” Mckesson said.
For him, the social network seemed to have become not just the site of revolution but the conduit for his ideas. Two days later, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Mckesson was scheduled to speak at a rally before a ceremonial crossing of the bridge. As we drove from Montgomery to Selma, Mckesson wrote drafts of tweets on his phone.
“I do this to make sure what I say can be tweetable,” he explained. “And it helps me be precise in what I say.”
He muttered lines to himself. “We must always confront,” he said, but something about the phrase displeased him. He deleted the words and started from the top.
Mckesson and Elzie arrived in Selma and walked to the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the starting point for the original march across the bridge. Inside, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. was addressing the congregation. The crowd outside was made up largely of union members carrying placards for their local chapters. Mckesson, Elzie and Packnett, who arrived the night before, tried to find a contact who would take them to the foot of the bridge, where Mckesson would speak. After 20 minutes of confusion, they walked back through the crowd to a small auditorium off Broad Street, where Bernard Lafayette Jr. was holding a book signing. When they walked in, an elderly woman said, loudly enough for all to hear, “Social media just showed up.”
In the end, Mckesson did not get to deliver his speech. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who followed Holder, went long, and there was no time left.
In an interview with People magazine to promote the release of the film “Selma,” Oprah Winfrey voiced some of the questions skeptics have had about the modern protest movement. “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest, and it’s wonderful to see, all across the country, people doing it,” she said. “But what I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say: ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’ ”
Certain factions of the movement have made explicit demands. During the Eric Garner protests in New York, a group called the Justice League NYC, which is affiliated with Harry Belafonte, came out with a list that included the immediate firing of Officer Pantaleo and the appointment of a special prosecutor. In the wake of the Department of Justice’s report on Ferguson, some people within the St. Louis protest community demanded the recall of Mayor James Knowles III. But on the whole, the movement does shy away from specific policy prescriptions. Instead, the work seems to be aimed at an abrupt, wide-scale change in consciousness, channeling the grief and anger that these police killings engender around the country. The pipelines for that energy are still under construction, but asking the leaders of the youth movement what they plan on doing with it is akin to barging into a funeral and asking the mourners why they haven’t donated their inheritance to charity yet.
Soon after I met them, Mckesson and Elzie took me on a tour of some of the sites around St. Louis where black men have been killed by the police. Many of the buildings that burned during the protests were standing in ruin. “They want to leave them all up,” Elzie said, referring to the St. Louis city government. “They want this to be a museum of black rage.” As we drove from the Six Stars Market, where Kajieme Powell, 25, was shot in August, to the gas station where Antonio Martin, 18, was killed in December, Elzie talked about the emotion behind the movement and how, for many people in St. Louis, the Ferguson protests represented the first time they were able to collectively voice their frustrations with the police. “Our demand is simple,” Elzie said. “Stop killing us.”
The starkness of that demand has been enough to create some measure of change, purely by creating an atmosphere of awareness and constant urgency around an issue that was previously ignored. Although Ferguson’s mayor was not recalled, the Department of Justice report did lead to the resignation of the police chief, the city manager and a handful of city employees who sent racist emails. The swiftness with which the movement now acts, and the volume of people it can bring out to every protest, have turned every police killing into a national referendum on the value of black lives in America.
In April, after cellphone video footage showed a North Charleston police officer firing eight times at the back of a 50-year-old black man named Walter Scott as he was running away, the officer was arrested and booked on murder charges the same day, and nearly every prospective candidate in the coming presidential election subsequently released a statement, expressing horror at Scott’s death and promising to address criminal-justice-system reform. Later that month, after riots broke out in Baltimore, Hillary Clinton gave a speech at Columbia University in which she explicitly allied herself with the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, and implicitly rejected some policies that her husband put in place during his presidency. Her proposals were hardly specific or new: widespread adoption of body cameras by police officers, “a renewed focus on working with communities to prevent crime” and a call for a “true national debate” on how to end the “era of mass incarceration,” but the fact that Clinton chose to address these issues at such length suggests that police reform will be an unavoidable subject during the campaign season. “What we’ve seen in Baltimore should, indeed does, tear at our soul,” Clinton said. “And from Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable.” She listed the names of Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, and called for “real reforms that can be felt on our streets, in our courthouses and our jails and prisons, in communities too long neglected.”
Perhaps the most telling evidence of change was the charges filed on May 1 against six Baltimore police officers related to the death of Freddie Gray, which ranged from misconduct in office to second-degree depraved heart murder. While making the announcement, Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore state’s attorney, said: “To the people of Baltimore and the demonstrators across America, I heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace.’ Your peace is sincerely needed as I work to deliver justice on behalf of this young man.”
The attention that political figures are paying to the movement points to real anxiety that African-American voters who supported President Obama won’t turn out again. “This issue is at the forefront of people in the black community,” Quentin James, co-founder of the public-affairs firm Vestige Strategies, which specializes in engaging communities of color, told me. “Not voting is a choice, and many may choose to stay home. If you look at a pivotal state like Ohio, African-Americans ended up overvoting in 2012. If they undervote in 2016, the election becomes a little bit shakier.”
In talking about the problem of police violence at all, these national political figures are reversing a three-decade presumption within the Democratic Party, one established by Bill Clinton himself in 1994, that there is zero incentive to advocate for the rights of criminal suspects. “The narrative used to be: ‘We support the police and whatever police unions say,’ ” James said. “That has changed. Technology, having a video camera anywhere, has changed the game.”
Most of the activists are deeply skeptical that the candidates will follow through on their promises. Rachel Gilmer, the associate director for the African American Policy Forum, pointed to the long history of Democratic candidates who have “embraced rhetoric that implies their willingness and readiness to produce systemic change. However, once they’ve solidified our support and are elected into office, we’ve seen that they aren’t willing to confront or align themselves with the powers, systems and interests that continue to exploit black lives.” Gilmer went on to say that, absent a candidate who would be willing to address white supremacy directly, many within the movement would be content to opt out of voting for “the lesser of two evils.”
But perhaps the question of political follow-through is misplaced. “Black lives matter” is a vital statement, especially when people are confronted with all the footage that shows police officers who may not agree. But it is more a provocation than a platform, a phrase that might be more appropriate for a rally than a sustained political movement. Jim Crow was an evil that could be addressed by Congress and argued against before the Supreme Court. But how do you legislate the worth of black lives? Could a law force a police officer to cut out the possible prejudice and fear he feels when he sees a young black man, however seemingly unarmed, reach for his waistband?
For now, the victories of the movement are difficult to quantify — the paradox, perhaps, of a movement that exists to raise awareness of death. Shortly after Tony Robinson was shot and killed in Madison, Mike Koval, the city’s police chief, released the name of the officer involved and visited Robinson’s mother. In an interview with CNN, Koval said: “We have a person of color cut down in his prime — he was unarmed — by a police officer. So whether I like it or not, I am inextricably tied to the Ferguson phenomenon.”
“Do I think that was influenced by the protests in Ferguson?” Mckesson said. “Yes. But Tony’s still dead, so how do you call that a win?”
On April 26, a bright, warm Sunday in Baltimore, Mckesson attended Freddie Gray’s wake. Across the street from the funeral home, a group of demonstrators held up signs that read: “We are ONE Baltimore,” “Our hearts are with you” and “We grieve with you.” Television crews had set up nearby. A cable-news anchor grabbed Mckesson and said, “It’s the esteemed DeRay.” The two had met back in St. Louis. Mckesson agreed to come back later that afternoon to record a short interview.
Inside, Gray’s body was laid out behind a gauzy shroud. His head, swollen and shiny, was covered by a white baseball cap. A pair of spotless white sneakers had been placed on his feet.
Looking at the body, I couldn’t help thinking that in the coming months, more incidents would arise in more American cities. Nobody can predict where and when these killings may happen, only that they will happen, and that the movement will continue to draw attention to them, and that the sense of grief within black America and of constant siege at the hands of the police will not abate.
“They never look like they do in life,” Mckesson said. “Being back here, it reminds me of how many funerals we attend.”
We walked back to Mckesson’s rental car. A big man in a tank top stood in the center of the road, holding up a sign that asked passing drivers to honk for Freddie Gray. “We come in peace!” he screamed. “We come in peace!”
I asked Mckesson what his thoughts were after seeing Gray’s body.
“I just tweeted my thoughts,” Mckesson said. Over the five months I had been following him and Elzie around, from Ferguson to New York to Selma and now to Baltimore, I found that Mckesson often tweeted the answers to my questions before I could think to ask them. I took out my phone to check Twitter, but this time Mckesson saved me the effort.
“I’m not desensitized to death,” he said. “I just expect trauma now and am trying to steel myself for what’s coming next.” For the first time since I met him, Mckesson seemed overcome by emotion. He turned his head away and covered the bridge of his nose with his hand.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” he said.