DeRay McKesson’s connection to Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore is well documented, but in a somewhat unusual step, he waited until Feb. 3, the last possible filing day to run in the Democratic primary for mayor. It is the first time any member of Black Lives Matter has gone from confrontation activism to pursue conventional politics. “We cannot rely on traditional pathways to politics and the traditional politicians who walk that path,” McKesson told EBONY.com.
The decision to step into the political world for the 30-year old was a difficult decision. He met with friends and fellow activists — some of whom are a part of the Campaign Zero platform — before taking on this humongous task. He will join a crowded field of 13 candidates that include a former Mayor, a State Senator, a pair of Baltimore City Councilmen, a former State’s Attorney, and an entrepreneur.
To differentiate himself from the field he says he wants to “bring a different vision to the city.” Those who are looking to replace current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have echoed similar sentiments. But, McKesson’s bid for the position is different because of his background. At best he’s novice, however if successful, he will join the ranks of civil rights activists who began with protesting to change the system from the outside only to become agents of change from the inside as members of the political class.
McKesson was working as a school administrator in Minneapolis when he quit to join Michael Brown protesters in Ferguson, Mo., marking the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Then, last April when Freddie Gray was killed, he moved back to his hometown of Baltimore. He was the visible presence of Black Lives Movement in the city. His social media presence was cited by national media organizations as one that gave a voice to those who were protesting and rioting.
“DeRay plays an important role in social media for activist,” said 21-year old Kwame Rose, who has been a constant presence during the Freddie Gray protest and trial. He notes that McKesson has some 300,000 followers just on Twitter.
And yet, not everyone is happy with his announcement. Critics like CEO and Founder of the Baltimore based grassroots organization, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Adam Jackson have challenged his credentials. In a searing Facebook rant, Jackson posted, “This man is only here when the cameras is. What hood [knows] Deray? He don't be [sic] in Baltimore the majority of the time.” Jackson goes on to question the Black Lives Matter spokesman saying McKesson was never interested in joining local groups who are affecting change on the ground.
A similar sentiment was expressed by Johns Hopkins University Professor Dr. Lester Spence, who was active in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. He suggests that McKesson’s rise to fame came at the expense of other chapters of Black Lives Matter (there is no chapter in Baltimore) and considers McKesson a “parachute activist.”
“This is revisionist history,” said McKesson in reaction to his detractors. He believes he has been on the ground doing work in Baltimore long before many of these organizations came into existence. “It’s odd…I grew up in Baltimore as a teenager. People now don’t believe I know anything about Baltimore and they don’t believe I’m engaged in the city.”
Historically, there was similar snipping between organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam in the 60’s and 70’s. Each one was trying to challenge the status quo but argued over the best way to receive results.
In the last four Baltimore mayoral election cycles, older Black women have made the difference in who gets elected to run the city. Is it a group McKesson hopes to tap into? He rejects this idea noting these women aren’t the only folks who can decide. “There are many undecided voters and those who haven’t voted before,” said McKesson. “I look forward to the undecided.” Part of that untapped group could have a significant say. In the coming weeks, the Maryland State Legislature will override a veto of a bill the governor rejected which would give convicted felons serving parole and probation the right to vote. It may add as many 40,000 new voters to the rolls.
The first of several mayoral candidate forums was held earlier this week. McKesson, who was not there, says he wasn’t invited and had he attended, it would have been difficult to keep him off the stage. McKesson knows that standing with your peers gives you legitimacy. He plans to participate in future forums and debates, but could this one missed opportunity end up being detrimental to his chances?
Even his critics admit there is a segment of the electorate that will see this candidacy as an affirmation of what today’s movement of angry, young Black people are all about. According to Rose, McKesson has potential but needs to do more than just inspire the crowds saying, “he needs to be involved with more people.”
Next on his list is putting together a platform which he says he is currently working on with advisors. He recognizes running a major city like Baltimore is a multibillion dollar job. While he knows it won’t be easy, he believes his background as a community organizer has prepared him sufficiently. Going from protesting on the ground to using social media behind a phone to running a city in person will tax his intellect, his spirit, and his fortitude. What’s happened in the last 48 hours after his announcement is only the beginning, but he says confidently that he’s ready.