Black Lives Matter’s Mckesson: Activist or ‘actorvist?’

Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson chats with campaign volunteers before canvassing in Baltimore last year.
Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson chats with campaign volunteers before canvassing in Baltimore last year. AP

In this week’s episode of Majority Minority, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson discusses the future of the movement and criticism that he’s more of an "actorvist" than grassroots activist.

"Everybody has a role to play, and I’m trying to figure out what my role is," Mckesson said on the McClatchy podcast about the people of color changing Washington and politics.

"I don’t think you need to be a member of an organization to make an impact, I don’t think you need to have a chapter or something to have an impact. The Internet has opened up a new type of organizing, and I’m trying to figure it out,” he said.

Mckesson first gained a platform in 2014 when he traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to join the protests spurred by the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police.

Mckesson gained a following through his deft use of social media and a newsletter that chronicled what was happening on the ground in Ferguson. He became a go-to interview for cable news networks.

The attention raised the blue vest-wearing Baltimore native’s profile among Black Lives Matter activists.

With 1.1 million Twitter followers, Mckesson has become a sought-after speaker, hosts the "Pod Save the People" podcast, and talks with politically powerful people such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and entertainers such as Katy Perry.

But his profile has also raised questions among some activists about whether his involvement in social justice causes is sincere or a publicity binge. Some have disparaged him as an "actorvist," someone pretending to be an activist.

"I understand the critiques and people who feel any type of way about me — whether kindly or unkindly," he told Majority Minority co-hosts Franco Ordonez and William Douglas. "When I ran for mayor people were probably meaner to me than anything I’ve ever done in my life. So I get that part of it, but when I think about how I process it, I know I’m one of many people, and I try to use this platform for good."

He has taken a different path from some other Black Lives Matter activists by gravitating toward the political structure. He endorsed Clinton for president and unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Baltimore last year, a move that stirred some controversy. He finished sixth in the Democratic primary with 2 percent of the vote.

"I did a fundraiser in New York City and it was literally a BuzzFeed story, like ‘DeRay Caters to Rich Elite,’" he said. "I also got people really upset that I sort of came out of nowhere, right? And that’s interesting because now, when people run for office, it’s like a good thing that you’re not beholden to the establishment. But then it was, like, I didn’t do a tour of the city’s leaders and ask for their permission."

Mckesson believes that Black Lives Matter has "changed the conversation about race and justice undeniably" but noted that more needs to be done because "there are more people that want to do good than there’s an infrastructure to absorb their energy."

"When I think of what comes next it’s like, ‘How do we get people concrete wins across the country?’" he asked. "Withstanding (Donald) Trump is, like, obviously part of it, but what does it look like to (get rid of mass incarceration), make your school system equitable and just?

“I think those things are possible in a way they have not been possible before. And the question is, can we put together a plan that can do it, can we create space where everybody has a role to play? I think that’s what comes next."

On the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, three prominent Black Twitter activists read their tweets from the past year and reflect on the challenges and legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez