On Wednesday, February 3, 2016, DeRay Mckesson, a protester and Teach for America alum – who identifies himself as a Black Lives Matter activist, entered the crowded race for Mayor of Baltimore City.
While I have been critical at times of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, overall I’ve been supportive. I think it is more important to be in the room with folks, to break bread, to listen, build relationships and see how we can build a movement that is inclusive of us all, a movement where all Black Lives Matter. I know movement building takes time, Black folk are carrying a lot and facing battles on all fronts. However, we must also create space for principled critique while we celebrate the victories and build for real sustainable change. I celebrate a movement that has shifted the narrative from the suites to the streets and from traditional civil rights institutions to the grassroots community.
I have been writing and speaking on decentralized movement building for a few years – what I like to call #MLK2BAKER. #MLK2BAKER looks at the role of social media, traditional media and social justice organizing and raises a couple of questions:
- As social media begins to democratize communication, can the hashtag lead us to an Ella Baker moment and movement?
- How can these tools be utilized to help us move #BeyondReActivism? How can these tools help move us beyond the tweeting and protest of #blackdeath to a sustained movement – #OrganizingForPower or holistic community development where the end goal is not reform or rights, but power.
In order to build decentralized and sustainable movements, I suggest that they, along with their associated hashtags must have a holistic ideological framework, ideology being the glue that holds decentralized organizations together.
Activism rooted in principles holds community members accountable to an agreed upon framework. Disagreements are about principles, not petty and personal. We must move #BeyondReActivism and toward holistic community development as a way of life, not a campaign in response to white supremacy and state violence.
The Rise of the Protester
Following Ferguson and New York protests around the state sponsored deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, many articles began to appear championing certain individuals as the new civil rights leaders. I thought this was somewhat dangerous and a little premature. This is not a criticism of folks that appeared on the lists, but just to point out how media and outside actors can elevate certain individuals for their own agenda. We didn’t know enough about who these people were. People were being elevated without being vetted. We knew they were against state violence, but we didn’t know their ideological framework, their principles, or their end game. This is why I argue for a holistic ideological framework based on principles. Currently there are no barriers of entry, which means anyone can infiltrate the movement. There must be a way to check folk who do not operate in the spirit of the movement. This may be for every local community to decide, but there also may be some national principles that can be agreed upon as well.
Three days after the death of Freddie Gray I worked with local grassroots leaders to develop Baltimore United for Change (BUC). BUC is a coalition of organizations and activists with a long track record of working for social justice in Baltimore. We are a group of organizers that share principles and a framework for the development of Black independent institutions.
As the national media spotlight began to shine on Baltimore, we began to get calls from national organizers offering their assistance. We held off for a moment, we wanted to make sure we crafted our own narrative and gave voice to local organizers before getting swept up in the national conversation around state sponsored violence.
In the spirit of collaboration, a host of organizers describing themselves as “low ego and high impact”, descended on Baltimore offering their expertise and willingness to serve the coalition.
Deray, however seemed to move more like a freelancer. When it was brought to my attention that he was duplicating some of our efforts online, I reached out to him. I offered him the opportunity to tweet on our behalf and to help us with communications, he declined. We ended with an agreement that he would take his website down in a week and redirect his site to BmoreUnited.org, which he eventually did.
I began to ask myself, why a Ferguson organizer or “protester” would come to Baltimore and not work with local organizers. Who sent him and who was paying for him to travel the country and tweet #blackdeath? Many of the grassroots organizers I spoke to around the country told me that he does his own thing and is more interested in building his own platform.
Needless to say I was surprised on Wednesday when I learned that DeRay announced his candidacy for Mayor of Baltimore City. It’s odd to read the national news stating that he is a Black Lives Matters activist from Baltimore, because no grassroots organizations here will vouch for him. The people don’t know him and what type of grassroots organizer announces a candidacy without first getting the charge from the people. A grassroots leader carries the agenda of the people, not their own. There must be accountability to the community. So questions remain for DeRay – who sent you and who will you serve?
Dr. Barbara Ransby, historian, activist and author of the highly acclaimed biography, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision”, recently wrote about such freelance activists stating,
“An independent or freelance activist may share their opinion, and it may be an informed one, but if these words are not spoken in consultation or conversation with people on the ground, they are limited as a representation of a movement’s thinking and work. When a leader-organizer puts him, her or themselves on record as being a part of a larger whole, that group can say, “You can or cannot speak for us…That is accountability.”
Organizing in Baltimore is relational. In Baltimore, grassroots leaders don’t earn their stripes on twitter or on the protest line; Here you earn your stripes by serving and being in the community when there are no cameras.
DeRay has the right to run for Mayor of Baltimore, but one cannot run in the spirit of the current movement without meeting with grassroots leaders and carrying the agenda of the people.
Let Us Rise Up and Build.
#MLK2BAKER #BeyondReActivism #OrganizingForPower