DeRay McKesson says that tear gas feels like peppermint scrub on your face, and that after his first experience with the chemicals he was “pumped” to have avoided being blinded. Somehow, while being honored at the 2015 Howard Zinn Awards in Cambridge last week, he was able to smile despite having two canisters of gas thrown at his feet during protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Sitting next to McKesson, Johnetta Elzie was also being recognized as an American writer who, in the spirit of Zinn, has demonstrated dedication to recording the people’s history.
Shortly after protests in Ferguson became a daily occurrence, McKesson, joined later on by Elzie, began publishing a newsletter that aggregates articles relating to protests in St. Louis and elsewhere, and that also features meeting announcements. With their coverage and prolific Twitter feeds—McKesson says he fewer than 900 followers in August; now he has over 70,000—they bear witness from the epicenter of a movement and relay knowledge from the ground that few journalists access. In that regard they are also facilitators: When press reached out to protesters to see what they needed, Elzie told them to report in person: “We needed help and we needed witnesses.”
As Howard Zinn said, “Truth has a power of its own.” Or as McKesson put it in Cambridge: “The truth is damning enough.”