Since the moment protests broke out in Ferguson in the summer of 2014, commentators — supportive and otherwise — have asked when and how the movement for black lives would channel its rebellious energy into policy. Last week, leading voices in that movement made very different attempts to do just that.
Late last Thursday, prominent activist DeRay McKesson enlisted the Washington Post, New York Times and Baltimore Sun to help announce that he’ll throw his hat into Baltimore’s upcoming mayoral race. McKesson will join 13 other contenders for the Democratic primary, all vying to replace outgoing Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Raised in Baltimore, McKesson wrote on Medium that he is running “in order to usher our city into an era where the government is accountable to its people and is aggressively innovative in how it identifies and solves its problems.” He first reached a national audience documenting protests in Ferguson on Twitter in the summer of 2014, later traveling to Baltimore to join demonstrations around Freddie Gray’s death in police custody last spring. Along with friend and collaborator Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, McKesson co-founded Campaign Zero and We Are the Protesters, a policy slate for criminal justice reform and an information repository, respectively, on both protests and police killings.
From recent appearances on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and the Daily Show to in-depth profiles in the New York Times, McKesson has been cast as a public face of the movement for black lives, and used his platform to prod national conversations on white supremacy and broadcast news of protests out to the world. The notoriety has paid off: Within 24 hours of its kick-off, McKesson’s campaign raised nearly $70,000. But as many organizers (and McKesson himself) have pointed out, he is not formally affiliated with either the 26-chapter Black Lives Matter Network — founded by Opal Tometti, Alicia Garza and Patrice Cullors in 2012 — nor with other groups leading up the broader movement for black lives’ on-the-ground organizing efforts in cities around the country, Baltimore included.
There’s been speculation, too, that McKesson’s national prominence may not translate to the city itself. “I suspect the vast majority of the most prolific voting bloc in Baltimore City do not know who he is,” Baltimore journalist Sean Yoes told the Baltimore Sun. “That’s going to be problematic for him.” Progressives have criticized McKesson’s open ties to the controversial education reform group Teach for America, or TFA, widely cited as one of the key organizations driving forward the privatization (and often de-unionization) of inner-city public schools. As a Baltimore and then Minneapolis public schools human resources administrator, McKesson spoke at TFA’s 25th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. this past weekend alongside charter advocate Michelle Rhee. The executive director of the organization’s St. Louis outfit sits on Campaign Zero’s planning team. Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Caucus of Working Educators also penned an open letter to McKesson last fall, when he came to the city to speak at a TFA-hosted event.
Although not an organizer, per se, as a self-described protester, McKesson is as much a part of the movement for black lives as those taking to the streets in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. And while his announcement has faced mixed reviews, McKesson’s bid for local office presents one of several options for what the next phase of the movement for black lives could entail.
Another came earlier last week — on the first day of Black History Month and to comparatively little press — when BYP 100 unveiled the Agenda for Building Black Futures. According to its authors, the idea was “to articulate a set of economic goals and structural changes that could improve the lives of Black people living in America.” The group is a cross-sectoral, member-based outgrowth of the Black Youth Project, founded in 2012 by feminist scholar Cathy Cohen. Most recently BYP 100 has mobilized in Chicago around the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, calling for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez.
The agenda, nearly 50 pages of thoroughly researched policy recommendations, model legislation and campaign suggestions, is the second such report from the group, which previously released an Agenda to Keep Us Safe that targeted criminalization and police accountability. Among the Agenda to Build Black Futures’ ambitious policy proposals are reparations, divestment from private prisons, the elimination of fines within the legal system, the scaling back of police budgets, universal childcare and reproductive health coverage, expanded services and legal protections for trans people, community land trusts, and the adoption of a Workers’ Bill of Rights with provisions for a living wage, guaranteed employment and a guaranteed national income. Notably, as BYP 100 National Director Charlene Carruthers recently told In These Times’ Salim Muwakkil, policy pushes are one of a three-part theory of change for BYP 100, alongside direct action and electoral and civic participation.
“Our goal is to provide a well-researched and accessible resource to activists who want to change public policy on national, state and local levels,” Carruthers said in the report, noting that the agenda is intended as a tool for local BYP 100 chapters (in Chicago, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Washington D.C. and Detroit) to be used in developing local campaigns. “ It is not an exhaustive list of demands, but rather a wake-up call to those who have been asleep, and a call to action for all,” Janaé Bonsu concludes in the report’s afterword.
At the agenda’s core is a budgetary putsch, rerouting local, state and federal funds away from systems of punishment — policing and prisons — and toward a revitalized public sphere and redistribution that addresses the historical inequity wrought by anti-blackness. “Bold, expansive and wide-reaching public policy change that moves our economy towards equality and equity is the only solution,” the agenda argues. “This kind of change can only be achieved through a well-organized political movement for justice.”
The agenda’s closest predecessor might be the Freedom Budget for All People, released by a group of civil rights leaders — including Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King in 1966. It was a self-described “practical, step-by-step plan for wiping out poverty in America during the next 10 years,” featuring plenty of policy-specific overlap with BYP 100’s proposals. Another corollary is the more controversial Black Manifesto, drafted in 1968 at Detroit’s National Black Economic Development Conference, which demanded $500 million for black-led economic projects from white churches and Jewish synagogues. But the agenda for Building Black Futures also offers a fundamentally new, 21st-century vision for black liberation, centering radical inclusivity and a black queer feminist perspective.
Neither McKesson nor BYP 100 are walking on uncharted territory. They are also grappling with the same question that movements from Occupy Wall Street to the black freedom movement have faced for generations: What comes after the spark? Like all movements, the one for black lives today doesn’t move in lock-step among its many component parts; it’s messy, multi-faceted and even contradictory. Its future may prove every bit as complicated.
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