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Who Is DeRay Mckesson of Black Lives Matter?: The Man Who Won't Say Where His Money Comes From Appears To Be A Front Man for Privatizing Public Schools

I reached Mckesson by phone soon after he announced his candidacy for mayor. When I asked him how he funded all of his travel despite not having a job, he initially replied, “I don’t have an answer to that. There’s an answer in the New York Times article.”

After being informed that the Times offered no such answer, Mckesson stated, “You know, people ask me this, and I haven’t even had to answer this. I, you know, me and you don’t have a relationship. You know, you’re a reporter to me, you know—I’ve answered it many times. I will put that on my list of things and try to double back with you.” Several hours later, Mckesson texted me the link to a Tweet from last spring claiming that his excursions were funded by unnamed “family and friends.”Drew Franklin

DeRay Mckesson (Screen capture from YouTube video)


By Drew Franklin
For those who’ve never paid much attention, Teach For America sounds like a benevolent and benign idea: recruit bright college grads, give them some teacher-training and place them in some of the nation’s neediest schools for a two-year commitment to teach kids.

The reality behind TFA’s sunny exterior is somewhat more sinister. Education policy experts today consider the nonprofit founded by Wendy Kopp in 1990 to be at the vanguard of the school privatization movement. TFA is also a media juggernaut in its own right, known for deploying a sophisticated public relations arsenal to advance an agenda focused on crushing teachers’ unions and privatizing public school systems. TFA's funders, including the Waltons, Bill and Melinda Gates and top Fortune 500 corporations, all have plenty to gain from the commodification of public goods and the destruction of public service unions, and its 11,000 corps members provide a valuable service to that end.

Teach for America’s peculiar brand of social justice was on bold display at its 25th Anniversary Summit the weekend of February 5. The confab drew 15,000 corps members, alumni and supporters to Washington for three days of seminars on lofty issues like, “Allies, Co-Conspirators and Coalition Building: Showing Up for Justice Across Lines of Power.” But one of the biggest draws was the discussion on “The New Civil Rights Agenda and Education,” co-headlined by DeRay Mckesson, the TFA alum and 30-year-old Black Lives Matter activist who received a $10,000 award from TFA last year.

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When Mckesson announced his campaign for mayor of Baltimore this month, his name topped the list of trending topics on Twitter for several hours. Even without outlining a strategy to defeat better-known, more entrenched candidates, Mckesson received nearly $130,000 in online donations, met with President Barack Obama (who said Mckesson and associates “were better organizers than I was”), and secured his status as one of the country’s most closely watched political outsiders. Headlines appeared across national media, from Slate to the Guardian to the Washington Post, with the progressive online magazine Truthdig proclaiming Mckesson "Truthdigger of the Week."

With his candidacy for a city whose public schools are a key target of the education reform movement, the time seems right to scrutinize Mckesson’s relationship with Teach for America more closely. His high-profile appearance at the TFA gala only days after filing his last-minute bid to enter the race was only the latest collaboration with the organization spearheading a sustained attack on teacher's unions and traditional public schools.

Promotion From TFA, Shade From Local Organizers

DeRay Mckesson is a prolific Twitter personality who first came to national prominence during the uprising of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. His live-tweeting of protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death quickly garnered a massive following, and as a wave of protests swept the United States, Mckesson was consistently among the first on the scene, making him and his Twitter feed an invaluable source of information for journalists.

With his rapid emergence, Mckesson developed a well-tailored image as a media darling, known in equal measure for his ubiquitous blue Patagonia vest and composed attitude, holding his own in interviews with the most confrontational cable news hosts. The name “DeRay” became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter protest movement, boosted by features in mainstream news magazines and promotion from international celebrities like Beyonce. His influence emanates from Twitter, where he maintains over 300,000 followers, mixing live updates from demonstrations against police brutality with commercial-style promotions of corporations like McDonald's and Spotify.

As Mckesson rose to prominence, TFA was there to provide promotion through its powerful PR apparatus.

Mckesson had no connection to Ferguson when he first arrived on Aug. 16, 2014, according to an interview he gave Huffington Post later the same year. But it didn’t take him long to connect with another protester named Brittany Packnett, with whom he began working the same day. The fact that Packnett is executive director of TFA’s St. Louis chapter likely contributed to their immediate rapport.

At the time, Mckesson was senior director of human capital for Minneapolis Public Schools. He says he commuted to Ferguson on weekends before eventually quitting his job to protest full-time.

A Twitter search query produces a clear timeline of Mckesson's subsequent transition from human resources manager to social justice talent, aided by promotion from Teach For America. It begins with a post to TFA’s official blog, in which Mckesson pontificates on his activities in Ferguson. TFA tweeted a link to that post on Aug. 21, 2014, at which point Mckesson would have been in the besieged midwestern town for five days.

The next item on the timeline, dated October 29, is an advertisement for a “national conference call featuring TFA alumni @MsPackyetti [Packnett] and @deray.” Two weeks after that, the Washington Post published a profile of McKesson and TFA promoted it on social media, identifying him again as a “TFA alumnus.” On Dec. 10, Time Magazine named him along with a handful of peers, collectively referred to as the “Ferguson protesters,” as runners-up to its 2014 Person of the Year, and TFA promoted that too.

Mckesson’s big break, however, was a cover story for the May 4 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with the headline "Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us." The 6700-word article profiles McKesson and fellow overnight celebrity Ferguson protester Johnetta Elzie, as they drop in to demonstrations in cities across the United States over the course of nine months.
I reached Mckesson by phone soon after he announced his candidacy for mayor. When I asked him how he funded all of his travel despite not having a job, he initially replied, “I don’t have an answer to that. There’s an answer in the New York Times article.”
After being informed that the Times offered no such answer, Mckesson stated, “You know, people ask me this, and I haven’t even had to answer this. I, you know, me and you don’t have a relationship. You know, you’re a reporter to me, you know—I’ve answered it many times. I will put that on my list of things and try to double back with you.” Several hours later, Mckesson texted me the link to a Tweet from last spring claiming that his excursions were funded by unnamed “family and friends.”


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