Modern Black Liberation Is More Than DeRay Mckesson

The 21st-century civil rights movement isn't as homogenous as you're being led to believe.

DeRay Mckesson announced his run for mayor of Baltimore Wednesday night, and headlines immediately sprang up declaring that a Black Lives Matter leader is running for mayor. Some proclaimed that this is the movement’s first step into mainstream or “legitimate” politics.

The truth of the matter is more simple: DeRay Mckesson announced his run for mayor of Baltimore. DeRay is not affiliated with Black Lives Matter or the Movement For Black Lives. He is supportive of the work being done in the 21st-century black liberation movement. He is an activist with a very high profile who often uses his voice to draw attention to the concerns of the black community. He is part of the movement, but in a very broad sense.

Leaders in Black Lives Matter and the Movement For Black Lives are often unsung heroes. They log long hours within their communities. They are in the streets. They build strategies and participate in direct actions with their communities. They put in work at meetings and conferences, sharing tactics and coordinating their efforts. They risk arrest and bodily harm. They lift up and honor their people through the work. These are the criteria by which the movement defines leaders. DeRay makes sure that you are aware of some of that work. He plays an important role of support, to be sure, but it is not in and of itself a leadership role.

Amid the cheers of the headlines declaring DeRay the first candidate of his kind, those who are acquainted with activists and leaders in the movement for black liberation may have noticed exasperated sighs and eye rolls. For them, this news is already less about the movement and more about the DeRay brand that the press has decided is the face of Black Lives Matter, though BLM has never said any such thing. DeRay has never claimed membership to Black Lives Matter. Last September, DeRay himself stated on Twitter, “I, like many, am a part of the movement though I am not a member of the formal BLM organization known as the BLM network.”

While the Movement For Black Lives, Black Lives Matter, and affiliated organizations are working on policy platforms and looking at strategies around electoral politics, DeRay's decision is being wrongly attributed to Black Lives Matter in much of the early press. While he supports BLM, he is not acting on their behalf or as part of their strategy. Here's DeRay himself again, and note the distinction: “Some say I am not "accountable" bc I am not a member of an org. I am accountable to the lives of Mike, Tamir, Mya, Freddie, Aiyana, John &.”

I should also point out that DeRay is not the first or only black person to run for office whose politics are aligned with the current movement for black liberation. Arguably the most impressive name that comes to my mind is Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer, activist, and politician who spent much of his life promoting the rights of the working class, a man dedicated to upending the oppressive systems under which we live. On a radical platform of socialist ideals that called for improving the quality of life for everyone through a progressive system of raising taxes to be spent on the needs of the people, Chokwe Lumumba was elected to city council in 2009 and then as mayor in 2013 -- in Jackson, Mississippi. As a radically progressive socialist on the Democratic ticket. By a large margin.

Lumumba's work with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Republic of New Afrika made him a radical figure in black history. His work for the people made him a role model and a visionary. His sudden passing in 2014 was felt in communities far and wide. From his comrades in the movement in the 1960s to young activists who were drawn to him during his political campaign, thousands gathered to mourn his passing. Chokwe Lumumba was the embodiment of a true leader for his people that was led by his people. 

To his credit, DeRay did help establish an informative website to track police violence. He has been instrumental in educating the public about the struggle of black people in America. He is informed, passionate, and dedicated to being a voice for the movement. He knows how to engage an audience. These things make DeRay important in the context of the larger movement. They do not make him a leader within the movement itself. He is a voice concerned with the movement. He is not the voice of the movement. 

Some activists, myself included, do not see him as a leader in the movement but rather as a phenomenon unto himself, part of the ecosystem in which we all operate. He is the blue whale taking up a tremendous amount of space. The rest of us are smaller and more numerous in this sea, and just as crucial to sustaining life, but when he breaches the surface, tourists come to snap pictures of him, unable to see anything else. You'll note that Black Lives Matter and affiliated organizations are not exactly lighting up Twitter following DeRay’s announcement. That silence should be telling for anyone who is actually paying attention. It should at least raise a few questions about how the press engages DeRay and contextualizes his work in the movement.

These traits, the very same ones that make it problematic to call him a leader, may serve DeRay well in the political arena. He’s charismatic. He has garnered a high profile. He strongly believes in issues and can get people onboard with his message. But should the Movement For Black Lives or Black Lives Matter put forth actual candidates of their own in the future, it would be a shame to see them framed in the national discourse within DeRay's shadow.