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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Black LIves Matter Could Decide the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Johnetta Elzie and Deray McKeeson have emerged as the de facto spokespeople of a new civil rights movement.

by Max Berger
Sep 21 2015, 12:03pm

Illustration by Drew Lerman

[Editor's Note: In the run-up to the 2016 election, VICE will be profiling the individuals who are important to the presidential race. Some of them are famous, others you probably won't have heard of before—but all of them will have an outsize impact on how the country decides its future.]

Who are they? Johnetta Elzie, known as Netta, is a 26-year-old field organizer for Amnesty International. Deray McKesson, 30, grew up in Baltimore, and was a public school administrator in Minneapolis before becoming politically active. Both are leading civil rights activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Do you know them? That depends. If you've been paying attention to the rise of #BlackLivesMatter over the past year, or you're plugged into the teeming cultural force that is Black Twitter, then Netta and Deray have definitely come across your radar. As a generation of young black people take to the streets to protest high profile police killings, these two have become the leading sources of information on, and for, the movement. As with many new movements, Black Lives Matter doesn't have designated spokespeople, so activists who can access organizers and share information from the field have often become the de facto leaders themselves.

Both Netta and Deray have been involved in the movement since the summer of 2014, when, in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, they began the "This Is The Movement" newsletter, which became the go-to source of information on the protests in Ferguson.

As the movement swelled, Deray and Netta expanded their efforts, starting We the Protesters, an online resource aimed at supporting protests against police violence nationwide with features like a map of all police killings in the US, and toolkits on how to protest effectively.

By acting as a sort of bat-signal for the movement, Netta and Deray have gained a national profile—earlier this year, Fortune ranked the pair at No. 11 on its list of the World's Greatest Leaders, 12 spots ahead of Elon Musk. Speaking to Wolf Blitzer from Baltimore during the protests over Freddie Gray's death this year, Deray's polite but righteous smackdown went viral, resonating with those angered by the media's focus on misbehavior by the protesters.

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Why are they important in 2016? As the Black Lives Matter evolves politically, Deray and Netta have been at the forefront of the movement's efforts to shape the Democratic Party's presidential primary—efforts that could help determine the winner in 2016. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have dealt with highly publicized disruptions of their campaign events by Black Lives Matter organizers, who are calling on the black community to make sure their votes are not taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

The incidents have left Democratic candidates scrambling to speak to the concerns of the movement. After a series of embarrassments, Sanders eventually responded by posting a "Racial Justice" plan on his campaign website, and hiring a young black civil right organizer as his new press secretary. Clinton, meanwhile, has gotten a mixed response to remarks she gave in a private meeting with Black Lives Matter organizers in New Hampshire, a video of which was leaked online.


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The Establishment Left has similarly realized that it needs to pay heed to the movement. At its annual summer meeting this year, the Democratic National Committee passed an official resolution in support of Black Lives Matter. Now, as the 2016 primary race tightens up, and candidates compete more fiercely for the support of black voters, the movement's influence is only expected to grow.

Despite their repeated insistence that Black Lives Matter is leaderless, Netta and Deray have increasingly been asked to represent the movement on the political stage. Increasingly, they are using their media popularity and access to candidates to include a push for serious policy reform. Last month, Netta and Deray, along with fellow activists Samuel Sinyangwe and Brittany Packnett, unveiled Campaign Zero, a ten-part policy proposal to "end police violence in America." It's the most specific policy agenda released by members of the movement to date, and leaves the 2016 candidates little wiggle room when it comes to racial justice. The Campaign Zero website even includes a section that tracks where presidential aspirants stand on the movement's agenda.

The political world has taken note. Last week, the plan's four authors met with Sanders in Washington, DC, before sitting down with Obama's senior advisor Valerie Jarrett at the White House.

What do they want? As Netta said in a New York Times magazine profile of the duo this May, "Our demand is simple," she said. "Stop killing us."

Campaign Zero expands on that a stark message, outlining a mix of policy solutions that already have bipartisan support—like requiring cops to use body cams, and improving community policing programs—along with more controversial measures, such as amending union contracts to remove protections for officers accused of excessive force violations. While the goal of zero police deaths is widely considered unrealistic, the proposals have gotten a positive response among policy wonks for its practicality and effectiveness.

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Campaign Zero is less clear on how it plans to mobilize voters to pressure 2016 candidates on its agenda. The website is vague on the topic, does not include a place where voters can submit their information, or explain how they can take action on the issues.

Who are their supporters? Both Netta and Deray have enormous Twitter followings, and generally enjoy the support of other Black Lives Matter activists and the movement's cheerleaders in the progressive media, who see them as prototypes for the 21st-century civil rights leader: willing to go to the front lines, armed with a smartphone and a sense of purpose, ready to share with the world what's happening in their community.

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Who opposes them? Unsurprisingly, both Netta and Deray have attracted a wide set of detractors, particularly from the rightward end of the political spectrum. Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, for example, recently referred to Deray as "a race pimp," while The National Review has dubbed him "the leader of a new generation of race baiters."

In an echo of last century's civil rights battles, they have also reportedly been the target of federal surveillance. A recent VICE News report found that the Department of Homeland Security has monitored the social media accounts of Deray and other Black Lives Matter activists.

The decentralized nature of Black Lives Matter has also led to clashes among activists, between those cast as leaders of the broader movement, and those who belong to the official Black Lives Matter organization, a nationwide network with dozens of local chapters. Deray in particular has been at the center of some of these disputes, running afoul of Black Lives Matter organizers who take exception to his portrayal in the media as a leader of the movement, despite the fact that he is not affiliated with any Black Lives Matter organization.

This came to a head over the summer, when Deray and Netta were scheduled to meet with Sanders in response to a disruption by Black Lives Matter activists at a Sanders campaign rally in Seattle. They ended up not taking the meeting, after being called out on Twitter by other Black Lives Matter activists for not being legitimate spokespeople for the movement So while the Campaign Zero policy agenda has been cast as "the policy demands of Black Lives Matter," it remains to be seen if the proposal will unify the disparate factions of the movement.

When is their moment? The real measure of Deray and Netta's political influence will come in a few months, as the 2016 primary begins to heat up in earnest, forcing candidates, and particularly Democrats, to articulate their positions on Campaign Zero's demands. As the leaders of this generation's civil rights movement decide how to wield their newfound, unexpected, and surprisingly large degree of power and influence, their choices could determine the fate of this election.

Follow Max Berger on Twitter.