Ferguson Activists: A Whole New World

Last night I went to a discussion with Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson, two young Ferguson organizers. Their passion and disciplined commitment were impressive, of course. But it’s their self-awareness, skill with non-violent language, and practice of radical democracy that made it seem like a whole new world. A few examples:

DeRay: We have a view of leadership that is not about hierarchy or charisma. We are not a leaderless movement. We are a leader-full movement.

Johnetta: Sometimes there would be closed door meetings, all men. They would invite me in because I am so outspoken and I know so much about what is going on. But they would talk over me or just not listen to what I was saying. It didn’t matter because I could leave the room and tweet something and 10,000 people would be paying attention.

DeRay: I got in a rental car and started to drive from Minneapolis to Ferguson. I didn’t know what I would do, I didn’t know anybody there. I tweeted on my way, hoping someone knew someone. Before I got there I had names to contact. I’m a Bowdoin graduate, and someone from Bowdoin lived there and invited me to stay at their place for a week.
People experienced with tear gas used social media to tell us how to deal with it.

Johnetta: There was patriarchy in the way I was raised. I was to be respectful and listen to the church elders, all men. But that meant that I didn’t listen to myself.
In answer to a clumsy question from a white man about whether things are getting worse with all these stories of police shooting Black people, Johnetta: Not to be rude, but that’s a question that comes from a privileged place. I am Black, and I know it has always been this bad.

DeRay: What is new is that we are telling our own narrative in real time. We have the power to shape a story and make it news.
In response to another clumsy question from a white man: as DeRay asks clarifying questions, he says, “I am asking, not to challenge, but to understand.” He used this phrase a number of times.

In answer to the moderator’s comment that Jonetta and DeRay are on the front lines: I don’t want to say that we are on the front lines. Black people are always on the front line.

The law says police officers must provide their name when asked. One, stony-faced, refused repeatedly. DeRay took his picture and tweeted in along with the badge number. Four minutes later, he showed the police officer that thousands of people all over knew who he was and that he was refusing to give his name.

A stark illumination of white privilege: How many in this room are a second or third generation reader? No white hands go up, many Black hands go up. DeRay says, “My grandmother knew how to sign her name, but that’s all.” In one moment he has shown me the divide in access to tools that I have always taken for granted.

Johnetta: Our whole lives are full of trauma having to do with being black. DeRay: Our culture as a healing place from that trauma.

This discussion was sponsored by the Cambridge Forum. A video of the forum will be posted on the Cambridge Forum YouTube channel
A podcast will be available at
Find DeRay on Twitter
Find Johnetta on Twitter

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About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances & Publications
3/12/19 Peace, Justice and Transformation, Parallel Conference to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, 777 United Nations Plaza, NYC
11/13/18 A Journey from Guerrilla to Grandmother, Lifelong Learners: An Independent Collaborative, Temple Shir Tikva, 141 Boston Post Road, Wayland, MA 01778
10/10/18 Provincetown Women’s Week Reading from Doing Time:Papers from Framingham Prison, AMP, 432 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA
4/6-9/2018 The Nature of Change, Radical Imagination Conference, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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