Johnetta Elzie wants to remind you that she — and not DeRay Mckesson — was there first.
Ever since Elzie left Campaign Zero, the police-reform organization she and Mckesson founded along with Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Samuel Sinyangwe, she has refused to give on-the-record interviews about what went wrong. But now, she says, she’s ready to be blunt and honest — qualities Elzie argues have been “missing from the movement for a very long time.”
On August 9, 2014, Elzie was on the scene in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, shortly after Michael Brown was shot; she was there when his body was still on the ground.
“I saw a tweet from someone who said there was a Black man who got shot by the cops and was left dead in broad daylight,” Elzie, a native of St. Louis, says. “I went down with a few of my friends to see what was up, and my life was never the same.”
Brown was only 18 years old when he was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer. Witnesses to the incident claim that during the altercation between Brown and Wilson, the former put his hands up to surrender before getting shot six times — inspiring the chant “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Protests would prompt a militarized response from the police. The public outcry got international attention.
During those intense weeks, Elzie met with Packnett Cunningham, who was the executive director of the St. Louis branch of Teach for America. According to Elzie, Packnett Cunningham wanted to introduce her to a man named DeRay Mckesson, also an affiliate of Teach for America. Mckesson had been working in Minneapolis as a schools administrator but came to Ferguson to protest. The plan was for the three of them to connect to find better ways to support efforts on the ground.
Shortly after their meeting, Mckesson launched the Ferguson Protester Newsletter as a digital hub to send information to activists across the country on what was happening in the area. Elzie and Packnett Cunningham soon joined him. Mckesson, who earned a massive following on social media for his notable presence at protests (he stood out in photographs in his signature blue bubble vest from Patagonia), found Sinyangwe, a Stanford grad and tech whiz, on Twitter. This connection would lead to the formation of Campaign Zero, which would become one of the most visible policy-driven organizations calling for police reform in America.
For many years, it was just that — an endeavor led by four unique personalities, each with his or her own superpowers: Mckesson was the outward-facing big-ideas guy, Elzie was the community-outreach voice, Packnett Cunningham was the communications-and-policy wonk, and Sinyangwe was the tech-and-data guru. Their efforts took them from the streets of Ferguson to the White House — a feat that earned them admiration and some skepticism.
In 2016, Wired named Campaign Zero one of the 20 most influential tech-driven political organizations in the country: “Campaign Zero’s founders are taking ideas long embraced by on-the-ground protesters and using the power of social media to persuade politicians to embrace those ideas, too.” According to Sinyangwe, who previously served as the board treasurer, the organization would eventually come to be worth more than $40 million.
Today, Mckesson is the sole co-founder still attached to Campaign Zero — the other three have either resigned or been fired. In addition to Elzie, Mckesson and Sinyangwe are speaking openly for the first time about how Campaign Zero got to this breaking point. (Packnett Cunningham declined to comment for this article.)
Like similar stories of movement organizations that have been thrust into the spotlight, this is a tale of how something so promising collapsed because of ego and misguidance. But it’s also one that measures the evolution of progressive views — and how the ideas behind Campaign Zero got left behind.
Five months after the Ferguson protests began, Oprah Winfrey made headlines when she said the protesters inspired by Black Lives Matter lacked leadership. “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest, and it’s wonderful to see all across the country people doing it,” Winfrey 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 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.’ ”
On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton made a similar argument: She asked protesters to come up with a specific “vision and plan” to address the racial injustice they spoke about. “That’s what I’m trying to put together,” Clinton said, “in a way that I can explain it and I can sell it — because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on the shelf.”
Elzie, Mckesson, Sinyangwe, and Packnett Cunningham saw an opportunity. The goals of Campaign Zero were tangible from the start, calling for community oversight of law enforcement, the end of broken-windows policing, and limits on the use of excessive force. Soon, Winfrey was praising their work, and high-profile endorsements came in from Barack Obama, Jack Dorsey, and Ariana Grande.
At the same time, other organizations were focusing on more radical proposals, including police abolition. In July 2015, a month before Campaign Zero was conceived, the Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of more than 50 advocacy groups focused on Black liberation, had a meeting at Cleveland State University. The coalition’s platform eventually called for reparations, eliminating jails and prisons, and defunding the police.
“Campaign Zero is a reformist organization. Their work is centered on tinkering with the existing system of policing to enact change,” says Leslie Mac, a police abolitionist who was one of the lead organizers of the gathering at Cleveland State. “Inherent to reformists is a basic belief that policing is necessary and needed. That is in complete opposition to the work of abolitionists.”
“I’m a realist,” Elzie says when asked whether she’s an abolitionist. “I do believe in some of the defund tenets, like reallocating funds and supporting diversion in rehab. I do feel we need a complete overhaul in policing and punishment, but I also believe that violent criminals should face some sort of retribution.”
Mckesson argues that such distinctions between reform and abolition are “false choices” that “take away the humanity of organizers, the communities that are served, and distract from the work and goals we are trying to accomplish.”
“When I brought everyone together to start Campaign Zero, we coalesced around the basic belief that we can live in a world where the police do not brutalize and kill people,” he says. “To do this work well means to live in the tension between alleviating the suffering and pain that people in our communities experience today while maintaining both a focus and commitment to undoing the systems and structures for the long haul. As strategies, harm reduction and abolition coexist simultaneously.”
Even as the conflict between abolition and reform groups grew, several activist leaders were becoming famous. The co-founders of Black Lives Matter were gracing the covers of magazines. Mckesson, Packnett Cunningham, and Elzie were being named on influential power lists and appearing on television. Other activists, such as Tamika Mallory and Shaun King, were also being signed to speaker bureaus, where they were being paid top dollar. In 2019, a giant photograph of Mckesson was hung in the National Portrait Gallery.
The attention Mckesson in particular received became a source of tension within Campaign Zero, even as its message of reform reached a wider and wider audience.
Mckesson, now 36, is probably the best-known activist of the Black Lives Matter era. From meetings at the White House to special-guest appearances at New York Fashion Week, Mckesson has been everywhere spreading the gospel of wokeness — and signing lucrative book and video deals along the way.
“I think it’s hard for organizers to see others prospering financially when they are struggling to make ends meet and are doing the hard work of transforming communities,” says Mac.
Mckesson’s fame fits a pattern: The public has grown accustomed to treating Black men as if they’re at the helm of national civil-rights movements — even though Black women led many of the most important activist groups. In the 1960s, the media focused on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X while often ignoring the contributions of Gloria Richardson, Kathleen Cleaver, Diane Nash, and other Black female activists. That Mckesson has become one of the most prominent faces of the movement today seems like history repeating itself.
In our interview, Mckesson was reluctant to talk about his fame but later acknowledged that his “visibility is a tool to advance Campaign Zero’s work and mission.” In 2016, he was on the cover of The Advocate magazine as “The Face of a Movement.” That same year, he received an honorary doctorate from the New School and made a guest appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
It was around this time that Mckesson decided to run for mayor of Baltimore, his hometown. Elzie questioned his decision to enter the race. “It was a disaster, and it lacked the principles that every organizer should know,” she says. “When I got there, he had too many white people working on his campaign in Baltimore, a very Black city. When I would knock on doors, many of the locals didn’t even know who he was or thought that his campaign was a joke. Even though on-the-ground canvassing proved to be a bust, DeRay did get a lot of outside campaign money, but that was about it.”
Mckesson disputes the idea that his campaign was dominated by white people, pointing out that his campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, and treasurer were all Black women. “We had a diverse team of staff, consultants, and volunteers,” he says. He eventually raised more than $250,000 for his campaign but received less than 3 percent of the vote.
In the months that followed, Mckesson continued to make frequent media appearances, serving as the go-to person for all things social justice related. And increasingly, he talked about Campaign Zero as if it had been his idea alone.
“I had to correct DeRay several times throughout the years on how he mischaracterized the role he played in co-founding Campaign Zero and how he was erasing me as a Black woman,” Elzie says. “After feeling unheard and reduced several times by him and others within the group, I decided to leave Campaign Zero at the end of 2016.”
In 2017, Mckesson faced a backlash after having Katy Perry on his podcast, Pod Save the People, to apologize for her history of cultural appropriation. The timing of the pop singer’s remarks looked suspicious; the episode was released the same week as her album Witness.
“Hmmm, Katy cozies up to another friendly and well-known Black man who doesn’t challenge her on her cultural appropriation,” tweeted #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign. Mckesson turned to Twitter to answer his critics, who accused him of allowing Perry to use his platform to absolve her guilt. “I’m not aiming to be anyone’s savior, as some have written today,” Mckesson wrote in a long thread. “I appreciate the people who’ve pushed me either now/before to be thoughtful about how I engage. We might not always agree, but I hear you.”
By the time Mckesson’s auto-biography, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, was released in 2019, such criticism became confrontational. He was heckled during a book-tour stop in St. Louis by a local Black activist who accused him of exaggerating the role he had played in the city during the protests. “This is a lie. This is not the truth … DeRay, you know,” the protester yelled. “You ain’t no part of us. Stop using us! You have made money constantly off us.”
Mckesson declines to respond to these instances in particular but says, “I’ve been made better, as a person and as an organizer, by being held to the values and commitments that led me to this work. Even at my best, I have made mistakes, my intentions have not matched my impact, and I have been wrong, and I have learned from each of these moments.”
The publication of On the Other Side of Freedom also led to conflict with Sinyangwe, who says Mckesson had him write an entire chapter, uncredited, for the book. “The chapter where DeRay goes into deep data on policing, I wrote all of that,” says Sinyangwe. “I did this because I thought it was necessary for the work. But this was all just another time where he has taken up space and more credit than he should have.” (Mckesson denies that Sinyangwe wrote the chapter.)
Sinyangwe also points to a May 2019 article published in the Los Angeles Times that featured a study he spearheaded. Mckesson, in addition to being quoted at the top of the piece, is the only co-founder whose headshot was included in the story. (Mckesson declines to comment on what he describes as “personnel issues” among Campaign Zero’s co-founders.)
Today, Elzie blames Mckesson’s “impulsive decision-making” for most of the organization’s troubles. “The fame had definitely gotten to his head over the years,” she says, “and it was only a matter of time before things would fall apart.”
The final break for Campaign Zero’s founders came shortly after the unprecedented protests following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. It could have been a moment of great possibility for the organization; according to Sinyangwe, the nonprofit received millions in donations in a matter of weeks. But in June 2020, Campaign Zero released a policy proposal showing just how far it stood from mainstream progressive thought — and how quickly police abolition came to dominate the discussion that year.
Sinyangwe claims Mckesson came up with the plan to launch #8CantWait that month — but that the original idea was Sinyangwe’s own. In 2016, he had produced a study that called for significantly reducing police violence against Black people through eight policy changes. Among them were restrictions on choke holds and strangleholds, a de-escalation mandate, a duty to intervene, and a requirement that police give a verbal warning before shooting. After Campaign Zero introduced #8CantWait in 2020, Winfrey joined a group of celebrities and elected officials who promoted the idea on social media.
A few days later, 8 to Abolition, a group calling for defunding the police, attacked Campaign Zero for proposing “a slate of reforms that have already been tried and failed, that mislead a public newly invigorated to the possibilities of police and prison abolition, and that do not reflect the needs of criminalized communities.”
An article by Olivia Murray in The Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review claimed that #8CantWait was an obstacle to the more important goal of police abolition. On Twitter, one activist called the plan “ridiculous” and said it “totally obscures the demands of longtime organizers to strip resources from police. #8cantwait is the easy way out for politicians.”
At Campaign Zero, some of the founders recognized that the moment called for more than incrementalism. Sinyangwe says that he and Packnett Cunningham “did not agree with the timing, rollout, and lack of accountability/course-correction” of the campaign. “Unfortunately, the rollout of the campaign and the messaging around it were flawed and detracted from the broader, transformative conversation happening in this moment,” he wrote in a statement posted to his Twitter account. “The initiative was rushed, and despite calls from myself and Brittany Packnett Cunningham to slow things down, it went out anyway.”
Sinyangwe says that while the co-founders participated in discussions about #8CantWait before Campaign Zero began promoting it, they didn’t collectively approve the language that claimed the eight policies could decrease police violence by 72 percent, a figure that was lifted from the study without sufficient context.
“An influencer who was friends with DeRay came up with that data-driven tagline, and it was false,” Sinyangwe says. “This moment emphasized a fundamental strategic disagreement between the co-founders over how we should be making decisions as a collective moving forward, who the organization was accountable to, and the extent to which we should be moving in alignment with the broader movement.”
In a post published on Medium on June 9, 2020, Packnett Cunningham announced her immediate departure from Campaign Zero, admitting in her statement that her “experience is not in data science and these concerns were new to me — but given what I have now become aware of, I chose to resign and to focus on other important work, for and with our most marginalized communities.”
Although he didn’t leave until later, Sinyangwe publicly backed Packnett Cunningham and tweeted out a statement explaining that “the process sought feedback from some, but not from the communities whose feedback it should have sought first and centered.”
Mckesson sees the situation differently, calling #8CantWait “the largest rollback of the power of the police in a generation, and there are 40 years of research that shows that more restrictive use-of-force policies save lives. It is the most substantive structural change to come from the 2020 protests, and it is still not enough — no one campaign/strategy will be.” He admits that he learned “many lessons from that rollout” that would help Campaign Zero continue to grow. “We will not always agree,” he says, “but that is a part of doing anything good in the world.”
It was during this time that Campaign Zero saw many swift changes. With Packnett Cunningham out, Elzie says, Mckesson asked her to come back — this time as Campaign Zero’s head of community. Sinyangwe and Elzie were surprised, however, as Mckesson began “stacking the board with his friends,” though Mckesson says the new board members were endorsed by all of the co-founders.
At the beginning of 2021, Mckesson became the organization’s executive director; Elzie and Sinyangwe had both severed ties with the organization by year’s end. (In a statement, the board of directors claimed Elzie and Sinyangwe were terminated “for failing to meet the basic requirements of their jobs.”)
Sinyangwe says that “despite our best efforts to seek compromise and agreement over an organizational strategy,” it became clear that “DeRay preferred to continue operating without regard for the vision or expertise of the other co-founders or regard for the work being done by others in the movement.”
Elzie agrees. “In retrospect, I do not believe that all four of the co-founders were supposed to make it to the end with this organization that we created,” she says. “I was working with a person who was interested in advancing Black liberation and himself at the same time, which isn’t a bad thing but does become problematic when you begin to prioritize the self over the people.”
Today, Packnett Cunningham is pursuing a media career as an MSNBC contributor and podcast host. Elzie is focused on rebuilding her own professional path and personal life. Sinyangwe, now an outspoken abolitionist, is the founder of Mapping Police Violence, a new nonprofit organization that serves as the permanent home for the data projects he created, including the Police Scorecard: the largest public database of policing in the U.S.
Mckesson too has recently started sounding open to abolitionist ideas. “We can live in a world beyond policing,” he tells me, “where our understanding of safety is more expansive than calling people with guns to manage conflict.”
In the meantime, he is committed to keeping the organization afloat. “Campaign Zero has been and will always be more than any single person or set of people,” he says. “People will continue to come and go as formal parts of the Campaign Zero team, but the work and mission remain absolute.”
Over the past few months, Elzie and Sinyangwe have remained in contact with each other about their work. Neither has spoken to Mckesson.