DeRay Mckesson, the nationally known civil rights activist informally affiliated with Black Lives Matter, is running for mayor of Baltimore, his hometown. Mckesson announced his bid Wednesday night, shortly after having registered (at the very last hour of the filing deadline) for eligibility in the ongoing Democratic primary. It now boasts 15 candidates. The race, which launched in earnest seven months ago, features several local leaders, disgraced former mayor Sheila Dixon, a self-financed venture capitalist, and, to date, no clear frontrunner.
Historically, the popular vote winner of the city’s Democratic mayoral primary goes on to win the general election with little difficulty in November.
Mckesson’s mayoral campaign, now in its nascent stages, will be a virtuous spectacle, if nothing else.
Baltimore, which has long and infamously been an epicenter of so many bleak social concerns, is most notably reeling from the death of Freddie Gray, a black resident who died in police custody, under brutal circumstances, in April 2015. The ensuing demonstrations and property damage resulted in the deployment of the Maryland National Guard. The ongoing criminal trials of the six Baltimore police officers directly involved in Gray’s death continue to fuel angst among residents, five months after city officials approved a $6.4 civil settlement with Gray’s family.
“I have watched our city deal what seems like an endless series of challenges and setbacks,” Mckesson wrote in his official campaign declaration, which he posted to Medium. “We must demand more from our leaders and local government.”
Mckesson’s mayoral campaign, now in its nascent stages, will be a virtuous spectacle, if nothing else. Despite Mckesson’s long odds in the race to succeed the outgoing mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Mckesson will likely escalate the prominence of police reform and racial division in this season’s remaining mayoral debates. The primaries, scheduled for April 26, will take place a week after the anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death.
As the mayoral race plays out, homegrown activists in Baltimore have organized in the shadow of the city’s electoral politics. Today, Slate published comment from Dayvon Love, the young director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, who said that Mckesson isn’t as connected to Baltimore communities as many as observers might assume. Mckesson, whom the New York Times Magazine profiled alongside fellow activist Johnetta Elzie during the Freddie Gray protests last spring, has spent much of the past decade away from Baltimore.
In the many months since Mckesson and Elzie rose to prominence as avatars of a resurgent civil rights movement, other activists and observers have debated the value, purpose, and motives of such individualized prominence, which comes at some supposed expense of the broader Black Lives Matter movement. The music critic and civil rights activist dream hampton advanced such criticism of Mckesson and Elzie’s engagement with national media and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign last summer, and that criticism has reprised, in general, in the few days following Mckesson’s declaration of candidacy.
Others have questioned why a civil rights activist, so aligned against institutionalized corruption, would run for public office, and at such a young stage of his advocacy. After all, the former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis, now a veteran U.S. congressman, was 41 years old when first elected to the Atlanta City Council.
On the other hand, the community organizer Barack Obama was 34 years old—just four years older than Mckesson is now—when he launched his bid for the Illinois state Senate.
Whatever questions we may have about Mckesson’s experience, and whatever cynicism we reserve for career politicians, many of us are nonetheless encouraged by the possibility that this latest generation of civil rights leaders will become a real force in official politics at all levels; from Baltimore City Hall to the Sanders campaign. “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,” Mckesson wrote. That’s where you come in.