DeRay McKesson Sees Opportunity and Risk As Democrats Say Black Lives Matter

Varying factions of the protest movement that exploded after Ferguson are taking different approaches to partisan politics.

DeRay McKesson, shown in St. Louis on Aug. 7, is one of the most vocal activists since last year's shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson. (Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Democratic Party is attempting to speak the language of Black Lives Matter, different factions within the larger movement are taking different approaches to make sure their cause is not absorbed into partisan politics.

In August, during the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting, the DNC passed a resolution affirming the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements. That resolution was immediately met with criticism by the Black Lives Matter Network, which argued it would not bring the change sought by the movement.

But other components of a broad, national movement that grew out of last year's protests in Ferguson, Missouri, are actively working to engage with establishment politics, and hold big names accountable. DeRay McKesson, part of We the Protesters and one of the most public voices in the broader movement, told National Journal, “we have spoken to staff on all three campaigns” for the Democratic presidential nomination—Hillary Clinton's, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley's, and Sen. Bernie Sanders's. McKesson said that the campaigns will need to directly address issues that impact people in the movement.

“The reality is that people vote—coalitions don’t, they don’t, like, go to the ballot box,” McKesson said after an event this past weekend in Washington. “People will vote or choose not to vote depending on the strength of people’s platforms and their perspective and approaches to the issues, and I have full faith in that.”

Speaking at a panel on Black Lives Matter in Washington at Busboys and Poets on Sunday, McKesson further responded to concerns about being co-opted.

“I didn’t take the DNC resolution to co-opt the space,” McKesson said at the panel. “We always have to work to make sure we are not crushed or co-opted.”

During the panel, McKesson said the DNC was more of a natural ally than other political organizations, but that the presidential campaigns offered an opportunity to push for their cause with candidates. He emphasized a need to hold public figures accountable, as well as an opportunity to get people more involved in politics.

Last month, McKesson and other activists helped launch Campaign Zero with the goal of ending police violence, and included a candidate tracker which showed where presidential candidates stood on each of the priorities of the campaign. Sanders’s plan addressed eight of the priorities, while O’Malley’s platform addressed seven. Clinton’s only addressed two of the 10 issues.

“With the Democrats, O’Malley has a strong comprehensive platform that is out,” McKesson said. “Sanders has like a strong first draft policy platform. And from my understanding, the Clinton campaign is engaging people in a series of conversations to inform an eventual platform to roll out.” But McKesson also said it is too early to say who has the strongest platform.

Campaign Zero’s candidate tracker has Sen. Rand Paul—whom McKesson said “is the only candidate on the Republican side that addresses any aspects of criminal justice”—addressing four of Campaign Zero’s issues, and the other two candidates tracked, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, have not released proposals.

Paul has also suggested Black Lives Matter change its name to “All Lives Matter” or “Innocent Lives Matter.” When fellow presidential contender Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, was asked if he would meet with protest organizers, he responded, “I’m going to talk to voters,” and that the question was “ridiculous.”

But relations between the Black Lives Matter network and Democrats have been testy in the past. O’Malley and Sanders were confronted by activists at Netroots Nation in July, and Sanders was similarly shouted down at an August event in Seattle.

With most Republican candidates not seeking them out, Black Lives Matter faces the challenge of making sure Democratic presidential candidates listen to their demands while not simply co-opting their language and taking them for granted.