Analysis Race

Black Lives Matter Activist’s Mayoral Bid Elicits Praise—and Skepticism

Kanya D’Almeida

From addressing racial disparities in the city’s public school system to overhauling its response to crime and ending the "war on drugs," DeRay Mckesson's website reads in many places like a manifesto for the movement itself.

DeRay Mckesson, the prominent Black Lives Matter activist who is running for mayor of Baltimore, has unveiled a campaign platform just over a week after announcing his bid.

From addressing racial disparities in the city’s public school system to overhauling its response to crime and ending the “war on drugs,” the DeRayForMayor website reads in many places like a manifesto for the movement itselfand highlights the ways in which Black Lives Matter has brought U.S. politics to a critical tipping point.

“I think [Mckesson’s bid] is a sign that Black Lives Matter is a movement not a moment, one of many examples of how the conversation about an alternative direction for this country is deepening,” Eugene Puryear, a Washington D.C.-based activist and author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America, told Rewire.

“The question before the movement is whether we are creating space only, or fighting to take power and change our lives. To the extent it is the latter, fighting in the electoral arena as well as the streets is going to be a necessary tactic,” added Puryear, who is also the 2016 vice presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “No movement that truly wants to fight for the power to change things can avoid having people assume positions of some prominence.”

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There is a long history of civil rights activists seeking public office: Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, California, back in 1973. He lost, but the race brought out “more black voters than any other election in the city’s history,” according to the New York Times. And as Matt Ford notes in the Atlantic, “While Mckesson is the first civil-rights activist of his generation to seek higher office, he follows in well-worn footsteps. John Lewis, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, Marion Barry, and Jesse Jackson are among the most prominent figures in the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s to win major elections, and countless other activists of the era also sought transitions into governance.”

In entering the Baltimore race, Mckesson has squeezed himself into an already crowded room—he is one of 13 Democratic candidates out of 30 overall competing in the April 26 election to replace the outgoing mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D). If elected, he will join some 500 African-American mayors representing 48 million constituents across the United States.

Mckesson’s crowdfunding appeal has already secured over $115,000 from more than 2,100 donors, a testament to his popularity in the virtual realm—within a single year, the 30-year-old has grown his Twitter following from 85,000 to over 300,000. This he accomplished through a combination of providing real-time updates from sites of popular protest—including Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and his native Baltimore during the wave of unrest that followed the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray—and sustained online commentary in the aftermath of protests about the growing movement to end police brutality.

His most recent endeavor, Campaign Zero, created jointly with fellow BLM activists Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett, and others, offers solutions to the scourge of police violence. Among its ten proposed policies, the data-driven platform calls for ending “broken windows policing,” which disproportionately criminalizes low-income communities of color; ending for-profit policing by clamping down on civil asset forfeiture abuse, which has been known to disproportionately punish Black communities; and demilitarizing police departments.

His own campaign, a three-pronged approach involving youth development, community prosperity, and public safety, echoes many of the same sentiments. The mayoral hopeful wants to overhaul the Baltimore Police Department’s use-of-force policies, implement mandatory anti-racism training for law enforcement personnel, and enact an “ordinance making chokeholds and ‘rough rides’ (leaving a person unrestrained in a police vehicle) by police officers illegal.”

The latter is a direct reference to Gray, who died of spinal injuries sustained while being driven around, without a seat belt, in the back of a Baltimore police van on April 12, 2015. Gray’s death touched off a public outpouring of grief and anger over police brutality, which often saw Mckesson in the spotlight. In a widely watched interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Mckesson called the protests an expression of Baltimore residents’ “pain … and mourning”—a direct challenge to the mainstream media’s portrayal of the situation as a “riot.” When the CNN anchor pushed him to denounce the “violent” tone of demonstrations, Mckesson said, “You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” adding, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”

Mckesson claims his understanding of the beleaguered city runs deep. In a Medium article announcing his bid, Mckesson recalled a childhood immersed in the city’s joys and also its pain. He revealed himself to be the child of “two now-recovered addicts,” who has “lived through the impact of addiction” and who, like so many other residents, has “come to expect little and accept less.”

And although the city is currently nursing a 24 percent poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data, Baltimore is, in Mckesson’s mind, a place of “promise and possibility.”

“I am running to be the 50th Mayor of Baltimore in order to usher our city into an era where the government is accountable to its people,” Mckesson wrote. “We can build a Baltimore where more and more people want to live and work, and where everyone can thrive.”

His campaign website suggests to some locals that these are not empty words, but reflect a deep commitment to his native city. “After one week he has a better plan than a lot of the establishment candidates have after running for months,” Lawrence Brown, a Black professor at Morgan State University, reportedly told the Guardian soon after Mckesson released his platform. “It’s the craziest thing.”

In an interview with Rewire, Rukia Lumumba, daughter of the late civil rights lawyer and Mississippi mayor Chokwe Lumumba, called Mckesson’s bid a “bold move.”

“It probably wasn’t an easy decision to make, and it won’t be an easy run,” Lumumba said in a phone interview. “But anytime a younger person steps up to represent [Black communities], especially someone who has a strong understanding of people power and human life and is capable of dreaming bigger than what our current government looks like, it signals a positive change.”

Lumumba, who has held numerous institutional posts and organized nationally in the field of criminal justice reform for over a dozen years, added, “One of the many things my father taught me is that the center of any human rights struggle is the will and the need of the people—whoever is running for office with the goal of building freedom and self-determination needs to remember that.”

When Mckesson officially entered the mayoral race at the 11th hour on February 3, he sparked a wave of speculation as to whether, or to what extent, he was truly in touch with the needs of his constituency.

Slate’s Lawrence Lanahan claims Mckesson’s bid drew “derision from … local black activists who were working in disinvested communities and drawing attention to racial inequity and police brutality before the deaths of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.” (Mckesson himself deemed those deaths responsible for pushing him into full-time movement work.) Lanahan goes on to quote Dayvon Love, director of the local think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, casting doubt upon Mckesson’s ability to mobilize at the grassroots level: “It’s one thing to be able to show up to an event in a major mainstream media moment,” Love said, according to Slate. “It’s a different thing to get people from Baltimore to go to Annapolis for a hearing on police reform on a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon.”

Shortly after Mckesson announced his bid, Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun reported that one of the front-runners in the upcoming race, Sheila Dixon, had never even heard of the activist until he threw his hat in the ring. Whether Dixon’s claim was genuine or a political ploy aimed at deriding a newcomer into an already stiff contest, it goes to the heart of a larger critique among some Baltimore residents that an activist who has a bigger presence online than he does in the political establishment may not stand a chance at the polls.

Mckesson himself appears well aware of this critique, and even addressed it in the Medium post announcing his bid, when he wrote: “I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs. Many have accepted that our current political reality is fixed and irreversible — that we must resign ourselves to accept the way that City Hall functions, or the role of money and connections in dictating who runs and wins elections. They have bought into the notion that there is only one road that leads to serve as an elected leader.” 

Other commentators have noted that, though Mckesson has largely made a name for himself via social media and a number of appearances on popular talk shows, his résumé also displays several years of practical work. He has served as an administrator in Baltimore’s public school system and spent several years teaching at public high schools in East New York, experiences that have obviously informed his current campaign: His ambitious plans for strengthening Baltimore’s education system include scaling up public funding for pre-K education, investing heavily in after-school programs for middle and high school students, and expanding college and career support services in low-income communities.

While Mckesson is not formally tied to the official Black Lives Matter (BLM) network, which was founded in 2012 by three Black women with the aim of centering the leadership, lives, and voices of queer and trans Black women, his bid has elicited statements of support from other prominent voices within the broader BLM movement.

An article published by Black Youth Project, the Chicago-based organization that has been instrumental in heaping pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his administration’s role in covering up the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, called Mckesson’s mayoral bid proof that “he’s not just another person looking to point out problems with no intention to fix them,” and New York Daily News correspondent Shaun King said he was “enormously proud to see [Mckesson] take the plunge,” adding: “Local politics impact real people in the most critical ways and we need young, energized leaders all over the country to do what DeRay is going to try to do.”

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