Read on esquire.com
PHILADELPHIA—Everybody wants a piece of Deray. Strangers want selfies. Fist bumps. Handshakes. Hugs. They want to share their Twitter handles and hope he somehow remembers them. Most people just want to be in his presence, or to tell him thank you.
“People often ask what’s next,” McKesson told me Thursday afternoon.
Maybe you’re among the half-million-plus who follow McKesson (@deray) on Twitter. Maybe you saw him speak about race relations on Colbert. Maybe you heard about his highly publicized campaign for mayor in his native Baltimore. Maybe you saw the video of his arrest two weeks ago down in Baton Rouge. That night in Louisiana, McKesson was wearing a gray and black #StayWoke shirt, the same one Twitter founder Jack Dorsey wore in a recent public appearancewith McKesson. Dorsey immediately set off a minor firestorm of mockery on his own social network for trying way too hard to be “woke.” But that exact shirt looks different on McKesson. The hashtag was borne out of the black community, and Deray is a household name because he helped make Black Lives Matter a household phrase.
When you look back at that photo from the night of his arrest in Baton Rouge, you see McKesson on his knees. He’s sweating. A black backpack tugs on his shoulders. His shirt is pulled back against his stomach, the neckline starting to strain. Two cops grasp his upper body. He stares directly into the camera lens. McKesson was in jail for 16 hours that night because he was out protesting yet another death of yet another black American by the hands of yet another cop from yet another police department. That particular death was Alton Sterling, who was shot while pinned to the ground outside of a convenience store. Sterling joins Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, and countless others on a list that refuses to stop growing. The mothers of those three men were among those who appeared onstage at the DNC Wednesday night as part of the Mothers of the Movement segment. McKesson was in the crowd.
“I think it was important that they were given time to speak, that they spoke candidly about the issues,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that if Hillary is the next president, that these issues remain a center in the administration.”
Four years ago, Black Lives Matter was not yet an American refrain, let alone a movement that would stage marches at both conventions. Now it’s even spawned counter-movements like “Blue Lives Matter” and the more resentful “All Lives Matter.” We heard the latter two phrases everywhere at the RNC last week, and Obama had the difficult task of bridging all three groups this week.
McKesson has met with the President twice in private, but Wednesday night was the first time he had ever watched Obama speak before a live audience. “It was a reminder of the hope that people felt in ’08,” McKesson said. “Inside that arena, you felt that energy again. I think the message was strong. It was interesting to see him choose to end so soft, to try and de-center himself so that there would not be this thunderous applause for Obama, but so he could use his celebrity for Hillary.”
Obama, McKesson said, is finally transitioning into one of Hillary’s many surrogates. The First Lady is another, and she nearly walked away with the whole damn Convention after her speech on Monday night. Vice President Joe Biden is another, and he was on the verge of stealing Wednesday’s show, until Obama came on for what was likely one of his last major public speeches while in office.
“He did that thing,” McKesson said, “He talked about how our best days are ahead, hammering in the understanding that we’ve made progress. We’ve not made all the progress, but we’ve made progress. He says it a little different, whether you’re in a meeting or it’s in public, but the message is the same. The two meetings I’ve been in, we were meeting because of tragedy. Because police have killed people, so people walk in listening for very specific things from him. In the arena, we know the message is going to end with ‘I support Hillary.’ How he gets there is the interesting part.”
Obama got there.
He told the story of the past eight years and he alluded to the 80 years before that. He rejected the fear-mongering rhetoric that dominated the RNC a week earlier in Cleveland, where Tamir Rice was killed and where no officers were indicted. He made a case for his own legacy by making a case for America. But in the end, he stepped out of the way and made a case for Hillary. And then they shared a long embrace, and, as Charles P. Pierce noted, less than 80 years ago, in certain parts of the country, that sort of thing is what left black men dead. Black men are still dying for senseless reasons, but thanks to McKesson and his work with Black Lives Matter, millions of Americans now see it and hear it and feel it, even if they don’t quite understand it.
So now Hillary Clinton has 101 days left to fight, then likely four to eight years to continue Obama’s fight. She’ll have to fight Trump’s vitriol and misogyny and daily mudslinging. But more than anything, she’ll have to fight weariness. Exhaustion. Apathy.
McKesson told her as much.
“What I said to Hillary when I met with her was, ‘I hope the campaign doesn’t take for granted that some people are choosing not to vote,'” McKesson said. “The campaign will explicitly need to talk to those people. And I’m hopeful that will happen over the next hundred days. I’m hopeful there’s a strategy to do that.”