On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope By DeRay Mckesson • Viking • 2018 • 240 pages • $25
At the halfway mark of his book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, DeRay Mckesson describes his second meeting with President Barack Obama as “the longest non-national security meeting the President participated in while in office.” The author deals less with what transpired in the meeting than he does with what made it controversial. He was among a select group of civil rights activists, young and old, invited to the White House to talk about, among other things, police reform. Several activists publicly rejected the invitation, believing the White House was complicit in the problem.
Mckesson recalls feeling that the Obama Administration had “been slow to pressure police departments to change their practices,” slow to condemn police brutality, and had waited too long to validate the movement that would come to be known as Black Lives Matter. But he took the White House meeting anyway, out of a duty to engage with the political process, and based on the notion that true change doesn’t take place through street protests alone. “[I]f we only meet with people with whom we totally agree, then progress will never happen,” writes Mckesson. “And if the goal is real, lasting change, then we will have to take the fight everywhere—and that included the Obama White House.”
This isn’t exactly a radical take. It is, in fact, a well-tread axiom of democracy. But if you’re a budding activist today, coming to this book for advice from a new-generation activist like Mckesson, who’s, nonetheless, been battle-tested on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge, you might have questions about whether taking “the fight everywhere” really means everywhere. Are there any limitations to this dictum? Is there ever a strategic reason for why you wouldn’t take the fight to the White House, especially considering its current occupant, Donald Trump?
We are living, after all, in a climate where Trump’s white nationalist former adviser Steve Bannon was pressured and booted out of The New Yorker Festival; where Kanye West has been lambasted for meeting with Trump while touting a gospel of love, and booed on Saturday Night Live for singing that gospel; where the heads of powerful companies such as Uber and Microsoft were shamed out of serving on the President’s economic advisory council; and so on. If anything, the current milieu indicates a shrinking appetite for meeting, engaging, and negotiating between parties in disagreement, especially over race and politics. Surely this isn’t the first time in U.S. history that there’s been a chorus of activists clamoring for rejection of anything that smacks of armistice. But ever since the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, in 2014 and 2015 respectively, if not before, America has become more polarized and politically entrenched.
A young activist might therefore still wonder, after reading his book, if Mckesson believes there truly are circumstances when a meeting with those she disagrees with might not be the most productive idea—if there’s a time, that is, to draw the line. This book won’t answer that question. It’s not concerned with nuance about the rules of engagement with the enemy. The book certainly calls for, but does not explore in depth, innovative paths to democracy, particularly for those who’ve been ill-served by the democratic process. Presenting such paths is not part of the case for hope Mckesson is making. The book mostly argues that the traditional structures of the democratic system are still worth pursuing and that social media, along with protests, can be successfully deployed to reach those more traditional ends. You could forgive a young activist for doubting that bit of political sagacity given the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and the ensuing rollback of voter protections for people of color ever since—not to mention the continued impunity accorded to police for killing often unarmed and/or legally armed African Americans. And so, the question is: What is it about DeRay Mckesson’s strategy that says we should believe him? That everything is going to be all right, that we can find ways to keep hope alive?
Before Mckesson became the mononym and celebrity activist known simply as “DeRay,” he worked for the Minneapolis Public School district. He was born in Baltimore to parents who had once been addicted to drugs, while his mother abandoned him as a young child, which he addresses with tenderness in the book. As a teenager, he became a youth organizer for Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign, which helps at-risk young people and struggling families. Mckesson was still working with the Minneapolis school district when he flocked down to Ferguson, Missouri, joining hundreds of other activists who did the same after watching protests beginning to unfold in the small municipality north of St. Louis. The precipitating events were the videos that began circulating of a young unarmed black man named Michael Brown laying dead in the street after a Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, shot him several times.
While reading On the Other Side of Freedom, you have to remind yourself that it’s through social media that most of us have come to know DeRay. It was his incessant updating and chronicling of the fiery events transpiring in Ferguson, through vehicles such as Twitter and online newsletters, that brought him to national prominence. He effectively used these mediums to channel the outrage of the voiceless and to marshal resources for those crying out for help. It was through his tweets that we bore witness to the atrocities perpetrated on the ground by the police against innocent civilians exercising their First Amendment rights.
His updates assured us that the protests weren’t over when the city and state quickly declared otherwise. He was the Don Lemon we needed while the real Don Lemon was in Ferguson casting aspersions on the protestors when he smelled weed or heard gunfire. It is not off target to say that the landmark Department of Justice investigation into the Ferguson Police Department may have been helped by Mckesson’s trail of digital breadcrumbs, showing federal agents where to look and who to question.
But if you’re looking for a blow-by-blow of Mckesson’s experiences on the streets and behind the tweets, there’s not much in the book to satisfy that curiosity. Instead, most of what Mckesson is offering is a treatise on the meaning of certain terms and values you probably didn’t know needed demystifying, including: hope, belief, faith, optimism, protest, imagination, memory, denial, history. Very little ink is spent on the kinds of personal biographical details that might typically draw a reader into a book by an activist on the frontlines of perhaps the defining movement of this zeitgeist.
That is unfortunate considering there’s a lot that must have transpired amidst the tear gas and clashes in Ferguson and Baltimore that would be worth unpacking and illustrating. It’s telling that the reader gets near the end of the second chapter before she learns why Mckesson traveled to Ferguson from his home in Minneapolis in the first place. Throughout the book, there is little mention of Michael Brown—the trigger for the Ferguson uprising. There is zero mention of Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, who while carrying the burden of her son’s murder, and holding steady amidst the chaos that erupted afterward, made her personal experience a political one, having decided to run for Ferguson’s city council.
Other than occasional mentions of moments shared with colleagues, such as St. Louis natives Brittany Packnett and Johnetta Elzie, whom Mckesson met during activist training sessions in Ferguson, the book does not feature much dialogue with the people of Ferguson. You can only assume that he’s had the chance to speak with people and learn their stories throughout his journey. Instead, Mckesson’s book reads more as homily, preaching to readers—mainly white readers—about what they ought to think about how power works, how bigotry works, and “how whiteness works,” as his famous phrase goes. There is even a two-page long metaphor about school rulers—this is not a joke—to explain what white privilege is, in a chapter titled “The Choreography of Whiteness.” And it’s in this passage that you begin to realize who the target audience for this book is: white people sympathetic to the Movement for Black Lives, and looking for entry points into wokeness.
On the Other Side of Freedom has a tendency to chide other unnamed activists. Perhaps, on some level, that is deserved. It is no secret that Mckesson has not been well received in some circles, whether he asked to be in those circles or not. The reasons for this range from petty to fair. On one of the first stops of his book tour in Ferguson in September, local activists disrupted his talk to accuse him of exploiting the uprising for his own profit. It should be stated that several people who participated in the Ferguson uprisings, either as journalists or activists, have written books about their experiences, but he seems to be the first one that was met with rank hostility from some Ferguson activists.
Mckesson is aware that certain people are disgruntled with him, but addresses it only indirectly in his book. There is no self-inquiry or reflection on why the critiques exist or whether any of them hold merit. There’s a whole chapter on confronting bullies, but nothing on confronting what some might perceive as his own bullying tactics, such as when he called out fellow activist Shaun King on Twitter, chastising King about accusations of misappropriating funds for a nonprofit the latter started—something that probably should have been handled privately offline, as it only gave ammunition to right-wing forces looking for any reason to shut down both Mckesson and King for good.
Of course, the book doesn’t need to relitigate public squabbles. But if a primary takeaway here is that we must be willing to engage with those we disagree with, because such is the way of democracy, then a reader, or a young activist, would have much to learn from how Mckesson personally handled conflicts with those among his own ranks, not just with those in the White House. It is honorable that he was willing to take a seat at the table with Obama. But was he willing to do the same with other Ferguson and Black Lives Matter leaders? The book doesn’t say whether any such meetings were even attempted, but if they had been, it would have been instructive to learn what came of them.
When Mckesson does actually address detractors, it comes in fits. “Critics of the movement have accused us of ‘chasing cameras’ during the protests. I have to remind them that we were the cameras!” he writes. But instead of elaborating on what it meant to “be the cameras,” Mckesson drifts away into his views on storytelling in the age of social media and, eventually, a questioning of who really was the first person to say “black lives matter.” This is a frustrating pattern throughout the book: Mckesson issues aspirational proclamations, but when it comes time to unpack the logic behind them, the writing often gravitates toward score settling or a series of new platitudes.
Where the book excels, however, are those times when Mckesson really dives into “the work”—that is, the actual things accomplished during the Ferguson trials and tribulations. The most instructive distillation of this comes in his chapter titled “The Problem of the Police,” where he recounts how he and his colleagues, along with fellow activist and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe, began building out the Mapping Police Violence (MPV) website, which was one of the first accessible online databases to tally verifiable instances of police brutality. They did this by compiling data from traditional media outlets, social media, and records requests from public agencies. It’s hard to believe that, up until they launched the site in 2015, no government authority was collecting these data. Several media outlets, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, have since started their own police violence databases, as has the Department of Justice (which up to that point had collected data only on instances when police were the subject of violence).
The Mapping Police Violence project has been an invaluable tool, not only to journalists and sociologists, but also to police reform activists. Since the crowds in Ferguson, Baltimore, and beyond have dissipated, some activists have turned their energies toward running for office, usually on a police reform platform. A lot of those candidates continue to quote the material created from MPV, even if unknowingly. Analysis of the MPV data has led to findings that have shattered many assumptions made about where and why police fire their weapons at civilians, and which populations are most victimized by this. The project found, for example, that every person killed by a police officer in Cleveland between 2012 and 2017 was black, and that St. Louis has the highest rate of police violence in the nation. These researchers and activists also learned that, in 2015, there were only 14 days of the year when a police officer didn’t kill someone somewhere in the United States. And that police officers in departments with the most restrictive use-of-force policies are 72 percent less likely to kill people in the line of duty than those officers governed by lax use-of-force policies.
Beyond just unloading a litany of police stats, Mckesson provides useful context and probing lines of inquiry to interrogate the fundamental problems with the state of policing itself:
When challenged with these facts, the police construct new narratives to justify their behavior. When we identified more restrictive use of force policies as a solution to police violence, and presented them to the police, the police responded by saying such policies would “handcuff” officers, preventing them from protecting themselves or others from harm. They didn’t have any data to support their conclusions. But we did.
This is long-division problem-solving, and Mckesson shows the prodigious amount of work involved. Unfortunately, this is one of the few places in the book where he describes those kinds of concrete solutions. He is clear in this passage that policing as we presently know it is an unacceptable form of conflict resolution and protection, especially for communities of color. He dares to dream up alternative models of public safety and encourages the reader to do so as well. In fact, if there is one consistent theme in his book, it’s Mckesson’s vision of a future where oppressive systems do not rule the day.
This charge is, as mentioned, more pronounced and detailed in certain parts of the book than others. He has, no doubt, covered a lot of ground since springing into the limelight in 2014, and he has much to say. But there are also a lot of other people in Ferguson—the place responsible for launching Mckesson into that limelight—who do as well. For those of us who only watched Ferguson from afar, it would have been great to get a closer look at what transpired during that long string of months when protestors withstood military encroachments, teargas, pellets, and bullets to seek justice for Michael Brown’s family. And who better to give that account than DeRay, given his magniloquent platform? Did it all add up to a renewed sense of hope, freedom, and democracy? The book never tells us. What we do know is that Donald Trump was elected less than three years after Ferguson, and with him came Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has made it his priority to undo the kinds of police reforms that people like Mckesson fought for in the streets with other activists, and at the table with Obama.
So where should young, new activists take the fight today? Should they accept a meeting with Trump? Are there lessons from how activists engaged with Ferguson’s mayor, police chief, the governor of Missouri, or even with each other that a young activist could learn from to help answer their questions? On the Other Side of Freedom argues that we should be bold enough to take the fight everywhere, including outside of our comfort zones, and that is a laudable goal, but we can’t forget the reason why we are fighting in the first place, as this book sometimes does.