who were the 2010s?

In the 2010s, the Black Lives Matter Started a Revolution — and a Counterrevolution

DeRay Mckesson on the new age of activism.

DeRay Mckesson is arrested during a protest of the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling on July 5, 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Max Becherer
DeRay Mckesson is arrested during a protest of the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling on July 5, 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Max Becherer
DeRay Mckesson is arrested during a protest of the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling on July 5, 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Max Becherer

As the decade began, there were rea­sons to be optimistic: America had elected its first black president, and despite a global recession just two years earlier, the world hadn’t cascaded into total financial collapse. Obama­care, for all its flaws, was passed, and then came the Iran deal and the Paris climate accords. Sure, there were danger signs: the anger of the tea party, the slow hollowing out of legacy news media, a troubling sense that somehow the bankers got away with it. But then maybe the immediacy of social media gave some hope, at least if you listened to the chatter of the bright young kids in the Bay Area trying to build a new kind of unmediated citizenship. Maybe every­day celebrity, post-­gatekeeper, would change the world for the better. Some of that happened. But we also ended up with the alt­-right and Donald Trump, inequality, impeachment, and debilitating FOMO. How did we get here? Throughout this week, we will be publishing long talks with six people who helped shape the decade — and were shaped by it — to hear what they’ve learned. Read them all here.

Few American social movements shaped the 2010s as definitively as Black Lives Matter, and few of its activists have proved to be as galvanizing — and controversial — as DeRay Mckesson. The then-29-year-old school administrator drove from Minneapolis to Missouri in August 2014 to join the protests against the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. He quickly became one of BLM’s best-known voices, playing a key role in updating the rest of the country about what was happening on the ground, all while being teargassed and hounded by local law enforcement. But with the attention came criticism: Mckesson was dismissed as an unaccountable showboat by some fellow activists and cast as “public enemy No. 1” by BLM’s detractors in government, right-wing media, and the police. When those forces rode into the White House in 2016, Mckesson’s warnings about their power and cruelty seemed all the more prescient.

What was it about Michael Brown?
It was this moment of me being like, I can’t say that I value kids and would do anything for young people and I’m unwilling to at least go to stand in solidarity with people for a weekend. They killed a teenager.

With the benefit of hindsight, do you think something like Black Lives Matter was inevitable?
Nothing about it was predictable. In hindsight, we know that the police violence the region faces, especially at the time, was unlike any other in the country. So if it was started anywhere, it makes sense it started there. But hindsight has also helped me understand that people actually just don’t believe in poor black people. So what you saw emerge was this idea — three people must have started a movement. It couldn’t possibly be this incredible network of black people who did it without hierarchy, without having studied organizing, without having read everything.

Do you consider BLM a success?
There’s still so much room for things to change, but undeniably the protest changed the conversation about racial justice in the country. If you think about the rise in black media, you think about what it sent to Hollywood — this is a direct result of the protests in St. Louis and how they influenced the spread across the country. That’s huge. With the police, it’s sort of mixed. The police have actually killed more people since the protest. That is not a success. I think we know more about how that happens now and why the police are protected. And that is a good thing.

What were the movement’s mistakes?
Those of us who were there had no clue that the protests had resonated so deeply with so many people across the country. But I think there were a lot of people in the nonprofit space that understood it really well, and they understood that this could be a cash cow. I remember when they came to St. Louis and had this convening. We walked in the room, and it was literally like, “If you need money, just ask us, and we will find money for you.” I just saw it tear away at this really interesting fabric we had woven together. Not that everybody loved each other, because we certainly didn’t, but we hadn’t been fighting about money. Suddenly, the money conversation became the conversation. That became the overriding fault line. If there’s anything I would have changed, I wish that we had all been a little more thoughtful about that.

I’ve heard the argument that there is a direct line from BLM to Donald Trump’s election, especially to the law-and-order theme of the Republican National Convention that summer, which doesn’t really work without the image of black people protesting at the forefront of people’s minds.
I think Trayvon’s death was the first time that the hope train was teetering for people, but it crashed in 2014. And there was a generation of people who, either their hope was challenged to the point that it was going to be hard to rebuild, or they just were like, “Wow, I just didn’t know that the country was still like this. I didn’t think we’d get teargassed in the middle of the street.”

So when 2016 rolled around, there were a lot of thinkers that we respect who said things like, “We can afford to lose an election. We can’t afford to lose our values.” There are people who will never, ever, acknowledge these statements today, but that was happening at the same time that Trump was performing this election that we had never seen before.

What do you mean?
It was sort of an all-digital, all-rally campaign, which is so different. We’d never seen that before. It was the confluence of black people being disillusioned with the system and white people being racist and galvanized. Look at the polling: The protests actually pushed white people for the first time to believe that systemic racism was real — a majority of white people. So it wasn’t like the protests shifted it the other way. But by 2016, you saw the confluence of voter suppression and the disillusionment of black people. I don’t think of these things as equal, because the disillusionment of black people doesn’t outweigh in any capacity the sheer number of white people that voted for him. And then you saw this racist dog-whistling that people just didn’t take seriously. Even the smartest people were like, “This is so obviously wrong that people would never vote for him.” All those things happened at the same time. And then we get Trump.

You got some flak at the time for supporting Hillary Clinton.
I’ll never forget. You would’ve thought that I came out and said I hate black people and I hope everybody dies. People were so wild in their response to me about Hillary. The idea was he’ll never win, I am just pandering by supporting her, I’m just trying to get hired in the administration. I was like, “No, I think this man could win.” So what I won’t do is sit on the sideline while he wins. I’m at least going to try and do something to influence the election.

You got a lot of similar criticisms when you ran for mayor of Baltimore.
What I realize now, five years later, is that there are a set of people who have been professional organizers, like organizing was their career way before 2014, and this is a fault line within the movement. The phrase is “I believe in organizing an organization.” That is what they say, as if, if you don’t create an organization, then you’re not really an organizer. I just don’t believe that.

In 2016, there was the sense that the black political agenda was personified by BLM. But fast-forward to 2020 and there’s a lot of conversation about, okay, where’s the black vote going to go? So far, it’s been Biden, who’s this guy who has a history of endorsing everything BLM stood against, yet he has all this black support. Do you think there are lessons to be learned from that?
Trump has been so dangerous. I think people are so nervous, like, “We just have to win.” But I also think one of the things the Trump presidency has exposed is that there are actually so few writers, thinkers, who are helping us decipher the moment and consider how to move forward. A lot of thinkers are just repeating the moment back to us. So instead of saying, “Here’s the thing that happened, here’s what it means in a broader context, and here is how we can think about the next thing,” it’s like Trump tweeted this and let me write about why Trump’s tweet is intense. That’s what the public intellectual has become.

What would the counter to that look like?
What a public intellectual does, to me, is help us think through things in a way that we can potentially not do on our own. And I think that’s just absent in this moment. The art is no longer aspirational; the art is not helping us imagine a better world. The art is repeating back the trauma we have lived through, replaying these images of death or these images of victimization or these images of pain. They are not inspirational in almost any sense, not helping us think about a future, how to get through the pain, how to respond to the pain. And I think those things matter. Most of the movies that attempt to engage the police-violence issue are literally just replaying the fact that the police kill you and get away with it. And you’re like, “Well, we’ve seen that in real life. I don’t think I need to see ten movies about that.”

Is the fight for racial justice the defining story of this era?
This is undeniably the age of activism. I think there are a lot of people who didn’t know that their voice was special. They never participated in politics and didn’t think their perspective was valued. All that changed in this decade. One of the images I’ll never forget, we were in Milwaukee, the police had just killed somebody, we were marching in the streets. It’s after work, but it’s not night yet? We walked by this day care, and all these little black kids are at the window watching the protesters walk by. That, to me, is the image of this decade. There are kids for whom this is their orientation to the world, seeing people reclaim their power in a really public way — it’s the only world they’ve ever lived in.

Do you think that’s a durable sentiment? I can point to moments throughout the past century when a wave of public enlightenment toward a particular realm of injustice has been followed by a backlash.
This will be our test, right?

What do you think?
I’m still living in it, so I don’t know. I want to believe that we’ll look back and say this moment changed society. I want to believe that we’ll look back and say this moment was a catalyst for us in reshaping the way people think about safety in communities that was not rooted in policing. Time will tell, but I look at Twitter now and I remember, in 2014, when something happened around race, it would be a small set of us who’d be like, “I think that was racist.” And then people were like, “Y’all are always saying everything’s racist.” Now something happens and we don’t have to chime in at all, because the crowd just got smarter. People who had no analysis before are like, “I think that’s prob — ,” and you’re like, “Yes, that was problematic.” That’s actually a beautiful thing.

*This article appears in the November 25, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Protests after Brown’s death. The Black Lives Matter network was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin. Martin was killed in 2012 by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. The endorsement came barely a week before the election in a Washington Post op-ed. He finished sixth in the Democratic primary with just 2 percent of the vote.
DeRay Mckesson on the Black Lives Matter Revolution