BALTIMORE (AP) — DeRay Mckesson, the Black Lives Matter activist turned mayoral candidate, is door-knocking on the streets of Charles Village. This is not the Baltimore of “The Wire,” but rather a tidy neighborhood of pastel townhomes in the shadow of Johns Hopkins University.
For two blocks, nobody answers a rap. Then Ralph Moore, himself an activist and a lifelong resident, rushes up to Mckesson to shake his hand – and to break the bad news: Moore is voting for Sheila Dixon, the former mayor who resigned amid ethics charges and is running again. She’s one of the front-runners in polls ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic primary – the de facto election in this majority African-American city.
“The problem is people don’t know you here,” Moore tells Mckesson, who has held court with President Barack Obama, been endorsed by actress Susan Sarandon and has 365,000-plus Twitter followers, including Beyonce. “I saw you in Stephen Colbert’s chair when I was channel surfing, but I don’t know you.”
Mckesson is one of the most recognizable faces to emerge from the Black Lives Matter movement – a former educator who built a national following after he left his then-home and job in Minneapolis in August 2014 for Ferguson, Missouri, to document the rising anger over race relations after the police shooting of Michael Brown.
But before Black Lives Matter birthed @DeRay, he was a self-proclaimed “son of Baltimore,” born and raised in this city still striving to move past its own racial strife a year after Freddie Gray died from an injury suffered in police custody and riots erupted.
The path from activist to politician is one many black leaders have navigated successfully, but Mckesson is struggling. He entered the mayoral race late, he’s deep down in the polls, his skeptics are plentiful, and observers have been left asking: What, then, is the next step for him, and for the movement that helped launch him?
“He’s seeking his next big stage, and he’s not going to be the only one doing it,” said Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins and a Baltimore resident.
Mckesson’s campaign comes as both Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement wrestle with growing pains.
Gray’s death further inflamed the movement, an amorphous and decidedly leaderless undertaking born out of a series of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers. The crusade took off on social media as a hashtag and spurred street demonstrations, and has remained in the spotlight this presidential election season, with activists disrupting candidate rallies, demanding to be seen and heard.
Yet some within the movement have shunned more traditional paths to change. One Black Lives Matter activist turned down an invitation to meet at the White House with Obama and other civil rights leaders, condemning the gathering as a photo opportunity. Mckesson attended.
Kayla Reed, a 26-year-old activist in St. Louis who emerged from the protests in Ferguson, said organizers are becoming more open to conventional tactics – and Mckesson’s campaign reflects that.
“A lot of times, we’re not seeing justice because of the way the laws are written, so it only makes sense to go after the lawmakers as part of the larger strategy,” she said.
The movement has already seen victories on the policy front. Using social media, campaign events, voter registration drives, fundraisers, and neighborhood canvassing, Black Lives Matter activists worked to bring about change in several high-profile races. Among them: the election of black city council members in Ferguson, the ouster of the Illinois district attorney who waited more than a year to bring charges against a white Chicago police officer who shot a black teenager 16 times, and the primary loss for the Ohio prosecutor who declined to charge the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
“Municipal elections matter,” Reed said. “To achieve long-term change, you need policy and protest.”
It’s that kind of thinking that drove Mckesson to seek office. As he said to one potential voter in a Facebook chat recently: “I want to be in a position to do work that will change people’s lives. What we did in the last 18 months was help change the conversation around the country, knowing that conversation change leads to actual change.”
Mckesson’s candidacy is in line with a tradition of black organizers who transitioned to politics. Martin Luther King Jr. lieutenants Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and John Lewis went on to become mayor, run for president, and get elected to Congress after the civil rights movement. Barack Obama was a community organizer on Chicago’s Southside before running for public office, first as a state senator, then a U.S. senator before his historic presidential election eight years ago.
Mckesson was born to drug-addicted parents in West Baltimore, a story he readily shares while campaigning. His father got clean and moved him to Catonsville, a small, predominantly white suburb. After high school, Mckesson left for Bowdoin College, a liberal arts school in Maine. He was elected president of the student body, and graduated with a degree in government and legal studies. Even then, he recognized the need to step up to help create change.
“The people who could do the most and could be the most influential just don’t get involved,” he told the college paper.
But instead of pursuing government, Mckesson went into education. He taught sixth grade in Brooklyn through Teach for America, which places college graduates in poor districts for two-year commitments. He later returned to Baltimore and launched an after-school program before joining the public school system in an administrative job. He left again in 2013, this time for the top human resources job with the Minneapolis school system. When Brown was shot, Mckesson drove 500 miles to Ferguson to join the protest.
Being on the streets, he said, “woke me up.” And so Mckesson returned to Baltimore, with the promise of a spare room at a family friend’s home and a plan to run for mayor. Hours before the Feb. 3 deadline, Mckesson filed his paperwork, the last of 13 Democrats to declare his candidacy.
On his agenda: plans to establish a system of community first-responders to de-escalate violence, and hire people who have been affected by police brutality to train officers on racism and community engagement.
“People want hope. They want transparency … a mayor who has a plan, who understands the issues deeply,” Mckesson said in an interview.
On the ground, however, his efforts have met with resistance and more than a little skepticism, especially from some of Baltimore’s longtime activists, who had been organizing around social justice issues for years before Black Lives Matter rose into the national consciousness. They criticize him for not engaging with them, and question whether his campaign is merely a ploy to grow his “brand.”
“Who sent you and who will you serve?” Jamye Wooten, founder and publisher of an online forum linking social justice issues and faith communities, asked in a blog post. “Here you earn your stripes by serving and being in the community when there are no cameras.”
Spence, of Johns Hopkins, said that in a city like Baltimore, with its deep roots and personal connections, you don’t “earn your stripes on Twitter or on the protest line.”
Mckesson has worked to shed his star status during the race. On the trail, he’s rarely talked about Black Lives Matter or his role as a protester except when explaining his social justice awakening.
At one recent house party, a dozen people gathered in a tidy sun-filled living room to meet Mckesson. The event was streamed live on Facebook, too. Among the first questions to pop up on the site: Why do you think you’ve gotten so much pushback about your candidacy?
“There are people who believe that because I haven’t done the work the way you’ve done the work that the work isn’t valuable, and I just don’t believe that,” he responded. “And there are people who are frustrated that I wasn’t focused on police violence before Mike Brown’s death. I simply didn’t know.”
Later that day, Mckesson headed for a second party in a neighborhood where leafy trees dot the streets and the homes are large and lawns pristine. He’d been invited by an old friend – the man who recruited him to Bowdoin years ago. This crowd was older and almost entirely white. Bottles of sparkling water and individually wrapped chocolates sat on a coffee table. A framed antique map of Maryland hung on the wall of a den.
Mckesson spoke for nearly two hours. Leo Horrigan, who works for a Johns Hopkins program focused on food systems, said Mckesson seemed sincere, with great ideas – but he’s not sure that’s enough.
“It’s obviously not a frivolous campaign,” said Horrigan, who remained undecided. “I do believe the old guard can be overthrown, but it’s a long-term project.”
Indeed, most in this city know Mckesson won’t win the primary, save for some miracle come-behind victory. And the candidate himself prefers not to comment on his prospects. He is just as evasive about his future beyond the race, leaving both admirers and skeptics to wonder about his end goal.
After listening to Mckesson at the second house party, business owner Carol Siems said she hopes “if he doesn’t win, that he stays in Baltimore and does something great.”
University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray said candidates like Mckesson don’t always enter competitive races to win, but to gain traction for future political roles.
“I would be surprised if DeRay got into the race thinking he would win,” Ray said. “Sometimes, the people who lose garner a lot of support – and the people who win think about how to incorporate them.”
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