DeRay McKesson first entered public consciousness during the August 2014 protests surrounding the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. As control of the protest narrative shifted from influencers and talking heads to protesters on the ground, DeRay emerged as one of the most recognizable. His daily chronicling of the protests on Twitter, along with the Ferguson newsletter he produced with fellow protester Johnetta Elzie, made him one of the primary sources, if not the primary source, of Ferguson news for millions of people. Appearances on cable news exposed him to offline audiences, and just like that DeRay became a trusted source of news and updates for generations young and old, the Walter Cronkite of the Movement.
Trouble is, DeRay was already more false prophet than friendly presence. Seeing the potential for unlimited exploitation in the Ferguson protests, Twitter co-founder and Saint Louis native Jack Dorsey arrived in Ferguson in the middle of a rush of white celebrities attempting to siphon protest energy into their own brands and ends. No one was more successful than Jack; his Ferguson visit is arguably the state’s most successful single strike against the civil-rights movement so far this century. Jack and Twitter’s recent past in San Francisco was everything Ferguson protestors stood against: white supremacist/misogynist staff and hiring, gentrification, joining Silicon Valley’s partnership with the police state, lack of concern for violent abuse of users, leveraging of city hall/local officials for its benefit, you name it. The day after spending Christmas together, DeRay and Jack held a photo op at a local cafe with Elzie and Jack’s Uncle Dan, resulting in DeRay’s glowing approval of Jack as “a genuine good guy.” Never mind years of evidence in San Francisco to the contrary. None of that mattered now. DeRay and Jack would soon erase all that in favor of a more palatable narrative.
Unfortunately, ignoring tech’s violent behavior in its own backyard is a cottage industry among white liberals, so most were happy to play along with the idea of benevolent tech CEO Jack helping lead the charge against white supremacy. Twitter’s association with Ferguson was due to residents using the service to mass report police terror, not because the corporation itself had interceded in any fashion. DeRay aided in this by increasingly centering the role of the corporation over Ferguson residents who were the true genesis of the protests, and repeatedly doubling down on his belief in and commitment to, Jack and Twitter. These constant affirmations lent more and more credibility to Twitter’s performances as social-justice (white) savior, and allowed its execs and staff free movement through social-justice circles, where they could surveil, co-opt and disrupt to their hearts’ content.
DeRay’s first public post-Ferguson visit to San Francisco for “a conference” in late May 2015 highlighted his priorities. Though the city’s vulnerable were under constant attack from violent gentrification and displacement, police terror and disintegrating social services, all due to and/or funded by tech, DeRay’s focus was on BART’s “color coding system,” disparaging SROs, and the neighborhood of SOMA, which is tech’s terraformed home in San Francisco. DeRay was ignoring neighborhoods like the Fillmore and Bayview/Hunters Point in favor of meetings with techies. While he did meet with activists in the East Bay, he mentioned none of their specific work or goals and omitted mention of San Francisco activists entirely.
DeRay soon added tech evangelist to his list of titles, and always had the inside scoop on which apps to choose and which new tech services to try. Having already seen the power of livestreaming via the Ferguson protests, Twitter bought livestreaming startup Periscope to add as a Twitter feature and enlisted DeRay to boost Periscope at the expense of rival livestreaming app Meerkat. DeRay also gave early and important blessings to services such as Snapchat and Medium. Not only was DeRay giving Silicon Valley cover for decades of white supremacy, he was now organically selling their products to brilliant audiences that white tech CEOs never thought nor cared to reach. Jack’s visit to Ferguson continued paying dividends.
While DeRay wasn’t keen on joining an existing group such as Black Lives Matter, he was in the process of forming WeTheProtesters.org with Elzie, Brittany Packnett, Samuel Sinyangwe and others. The site promotes police reform via collaboration with the state and was the launchpad for Campaign Zero, which took those same ideas and added a bevy of charts and statistics. Just as DeRay often appeared with Jack and other tech CEOs to lend them credibility against constant allegations of racism, Campaign Zero became an ally for Democrats who wished to appear tough on police terror without ever having to genuinely act upon it.
DeRay’s bond with Democrats strengthened earlier this year during his campaign for Baltimore mayor. A literal last-minute addition to the field, DeRay quickly clashed with established local organizers who saw his candidacy as a Trojan horse for white liberals and an open gateway for tech and Wall Street to plunder whatever parts of the city that were still there for the taking. Well-publicized donations from Wall Street and tech CEOs gave credence to the suspicions of local organizers. Though DeRay assured critics that this was current political reality that any serious candidate had to suffer, it was yet another example of DeRay entering white supremacy’s corridors of power, only to exit with pats on the back and pockets overflowing with cash. His campaign lacked the necessary grassroots support to advance beyond the primaries, drawing only 2% of the vote, but the campaign was far from a loss. DeRay walked away with quite a war chest, partially gained through Silicon Valley fundraising apparatus CrowdPac, and invaluable contacts gained through fundraising and campaigning. His star continued to rise among the people he professed to be about stopping.
In June of this year, DeRay again appeared with Jack, this time on stage at Code 16. In the almost two years since his visit to Ferguson, Jack and Twitter had negligibly progressed, if at all, on executive/staff diversity, violent misogynist and white-supremacist abuse remained Twitter’s norm and the company, along with other tech elite, continued to fund laws and politicians that supported the policies DeRay claimed to be against. Instead of making the slightest effort to press Jack on any of these issues, DeRay explained “people feel the platform is as safe as it could be,” directly contradicting everything I’ve ever read. “If it were not for platforms like Twitter,” DeRay also said, “Missouri would have convinced you that we didn’t exist.” Note how DeRay continues erasing Ferguson residents who were the Twitter users making themselves heard. By crediting the “platform,” he is crediting the corporation, and by extension his dear friend Jack. It’s the platform that deserves the praise, and more importantly, the funding. The individual users who Followed DeRay to fame two years previous? So much grist for the mill.
Their Code 16 interview included another interesting item: Jack’s Stay Woke tshirt. The sight of him in the shirt was as dissonant as an Iggy Azalea cover of Nina Simone. Jack’s history was the polar opposite of anything Stay Woke, yet there he was smugly wearing the shirt with the gleeful blessing of his invaluable partner DeRay. Several weeks later, DeRay was “arrested” at a Baton Rouge protest, righteously posing in front of cameras wearing a Stay Woke shirt. Tech companies were elated seeing one of their fellow brands centered in civil-rights protest. Why should they care about changing their white-supremacist ways when they were not only friends with one of the biggest names in the movement, but also now centered within that same movement. In the early weeks of the Ferguson protests, it would’ve been unthinkable for a protester to emphasize the platform over the people and center companies and CEOs that were responsible for many of the conditions that made Ferguson residents so vulnerable to police terror to begin with. Now it was what paid the bills.
Stay Woke took its latest form this week with the debut of an eponymous website. Originally nothing more than a Donate button, the site is now a user survey. Where this new iteration will lead is anyone’s guess, though a brief look at a survey question suggests the same police-reform-via-state-collaboration approach as before. Whatever direction it takes, be certain it will center DeRay’s brand, state collaboration and all the Silicon Valley apology you can stomach. And donations. Always donations.
Watch whiteness work, indeed.