Whose Voice Is At The Table Of Criminal Justice Reform

DeRay McKesson is one of the leading voices in the Black Lives Matter movement, which is really quite a remarkable accomplishment.  And he came upon his activism organically, making it even more remarkable as there appears to be nothing in his background to suggest that he would rise up to take the lead. Via his wiki page:

Prior to becoming a full-time activist Mckesson worked as a school administrator in Minnesota. On March 4, 2015 he announced via Twitter that he had quit his job and had moved to St. Louis. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 2007.

In June 2015, Mckesson was the focus of a Twitter campaign while he was in Charleston, South Carolina to protest the Charleston church shooting. The campaign featured the hashtag “#GoHomeDeray”, which was accompanied by statements demanding that Mckesson leave the city. Mckesson responded to the hashtag, stating that he was there as a sign of solidarity for the nine deaths and that the hashtag was proof that “Racism is alive and well in places like South Carolina, and in towns across America.”

Where he will ultimately go from here isn’t clear, but if the wiki is right, he might end up being the first person to make his bones on twitter ending up with this own office in New Haven.

In autumn of 2015, he was offered a teaching position at Yale Divinity School as a guest lecturer.

Nothing to sneeze at. But when DeRay Mckesson twitted of his meeting as a spokesman for #blacklivesmatter with the front-running Democratic candidates for president, it signaled an issue that goes beyond civil rights activism.

I recently joined protestors and activists in meeting with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to discuss the #BlackLivesMatter movement and policy proposals, anchored in #CampaignZero, to end police violence.

They met. They talked. They listened. But notice that it wasn’t just a matter of #BlackLivesMatter, but also #CampaignZero. What’s that?


This goes far beyond the issue of police violence toward blacks, and deep into the structural nature of law enforcement and the legal system.  These are big issues. Huge issues. Union contracts?

While DeRay Mckesson has tons of cred as a spokesman for his movement, there is nothing in his background to suggest he’s qualified to speak to any other aspect of the overarching structural issues with law enforcement.  This isn’t to blame him for doing so, and for wanting to seize control of the problem to promote the interests of his movement. Hell, who wouldn’t do the same?

But even if you tend to agree with the agenda, its aspirational goals are still a ways from translating into a solution of the problem for everyone.  And if you have issues with the agenda, well, no one cares because you aren’t worthy of a seat at the table.  You see, you don’t have enough twitter followers to make your voice loud enough to be heard.

In a wistful leap of faith, I’m going to assume that Mckesson has gotten the advice of people far more knowledgeable about the system, its structural issues and the law of unintended consequences, before presenting his Campaign Zero agenda.  Who these people might be, I dunno, but it seems fair to assume that he didn’t come to this agenda all by his lonesome in a dream one night.

Yet, that doesn’t answer the question of whether the choices made are the ones that are best for everyone.  This is a fundamental problem with activism, that they have an agenda that they believe is right and make choices as to how things should be for everyone, including all of us who don’t wear the team baseball cap.

And he sat down with presidential candidates, and, if his notes on the meetings are accurate, appears to have gotten some commitments out of them. And he may well sit down with some more candidates and get some more commitments. And there isn’t a chance in hell that those of us who aren’t activists, who don’t have more than 200,000 followers and a blue check mark next to our handle are going to be allowed to sit at the table when these meetings happen.

What this suggests is that the next war may not be reforming the current system, but reforming the reforms of the system to take its place.  These are extremely complex issues, fraught with conflicts and unintended consequences. Have they been thought through to their logical extremes?

Have choices been made to sacrifice one group of aggrieved for the benefit of another? Is there a built-in naiveté that comes from believing in cool cop tricks like training and community oversight that have been tried and failed time after time?  Do they know how and why these seemingly good ideas have never worked before, and won’t work the next time?

While this isn’t to suggest that Campaign Zero is a bad thing, or a movement down the road to perdition, it is to suggest that no group of activists speaks for everyone or owns the right to make societal choices for the future of people who aren’t included on their team.

This creates an unfortunate conflict, as candidates sit with someone who airs legitimate grievances and their vision of critical solutions.  Do we entrust the rights of everyone to these activists who mean well, and are doing their best to resolve intransigent problems, or do we take issue with those solutions with which we disagree and thus undermine their efforts at getting someone who might be president to reform a system that we all agree needs reforming?

It’s a conundrum. The simple answer is that whatever DeRay Mckesson is saying will be better than what we have now, so we should get behind it, go with it, support it, even if it’s not what we would offer if it were left up to us.

The deeper answer is that we don’t get too many chances to reform a system that is killing way too many unarmed people, far too many with black skin and too many with white skin as well.  And if that reform falls short of what will accomplish meaningful goals, that’s the best we can do until the next generation of outrage.

Even more problematic is that reform for some may well come at the expense of others. And if you’re going to burn some people to save others, you ought to give them a chance to make their case as well. We already have a system that would have some people “take one for the team” for safety, which is exactly what’s wrong with it now. Trading that for a system where someone else is expected to “take one for the team” isn’t a good deal. Is Mckesson up to the challenge of cutting a deal that all of us can live with?


6 thoughts on “Whose Voice Is At The Table Of Criminal Justice Reform

  1. mb

    You could fit a lot of bad policy under each of those ten headings, but as a list of concerns and aspirations, that’s a lot better than mindless babbling about all cops being racist and the suggestion that victimization is randomly distributed across the whole population of black people.

      1. mb

        I meant that I expected something stupider, having heard nothing but pure, distilled stupid about the issue.

  2. Eliot Clingman

    Campaign Zero is open and willing to incorporate many voices. You can refine, object to or add proposals here: [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]
    And you are still an obnoxious jerk!

    All the best, Eliot Clingman

    1. SHG Post author

      You’ve missed the point completely. I’m neither seeking, nor suggesting anyone else seek, a seat at DeRay’s table. He is not the national voice on criminal law reform, nor does he have any qualifications to be so. While the goals of Campaign Zero are generally fine, I find them to be simplistic, naïve and inadequate to achieve their purposes.

      I have a rule, never to argue law with children or fools, because it’s futile. Begging for Campaign Zero to grasp the complexities of law, police and death that are so far above their heads would be a monumental waste of time. It’s not that they shouldn’t be able to join the discussion, but it isn’t their discussion any more than it belongs to any other identitarian group.

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