It’s almost been a year since the death of Freddie Gray––the innocent 25-year-old, unarmed black man who was enjoying a nice April day near his home in West Baltimore when he was illegally stopped, arrested and fatally injured while in police custody. Six police officers are facing trial in his death, a death that sparked unrest and multiple protests that received national attention.
Gray’s death was transformative for the city of Baltimore, exposing the many factors that contributed to his death, including the systemic racism responsible for black poverty and Baltimore’s long history of police brutality—all of it sparking an activist explosion. Change-makers were crawling out of anywhere and everywhere. Some already had a long history of doing great community work, some were phonies who faded when the cameras left, but inspiringly, a host of others were awakened by the diverse collection of people who united around Gray’s death and wanted to continue the mission. Scores of residents started or joined nonprofits; others found young people to mentor; I expanded my literacy-outreach program; and one of our country’s most well-known protesters, Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson, decided to run for mayor.
Following in the footsteps of President Barack Obama, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and many other organizers who moved from activist work to public office in an effort to make a difference on a larger scale––Mckesson has the same goals and high ambitions of becoming Baltimore’s change agent. While Mckesson has zero traditional political experience, he is a graduate of the prestigious Bowdoin College; is an educator who has lectured at some of the top universities in the country, including Yale; has run multimillion-dollar budgets for the Baltimore City Public School system; has worked extensively on police-union contracts; and has a stronger social media presence than all of the 29 candidates in the race combined.
And even though Mckesson was the last candidate to file, he was the first to release a platform that covers everything from police and education reform to public health and arts and culture.
Many met Mckesson with praise––inspired that a local guy with so much national attention would come home to try to run the city that Bloomberg magazine once called the worst place in the country for an African-American man to live. I sat down with the top-ranking Black Lives Matter organizer and asked him if he had heard that before.
“Yes, that’s an intense statement,” Mckesson says. “We have to get to the root cause of these issues and the platform I’ve offered does. Baltimore is, in many ways, a city in recovery—a city trying to find its way to a better tomorrow. We are a city with resources, with the untapped potential of so many, with a thriving nonprofit community, and many people dedicated to change. But there isn’t a strategy or a plan led by City Hall that addresses the issues of Baltimore at scale, that thinks about how we implement solutions that have the greatest impact.”
Finding those common goals could be difficult for the 30-year-old activist, primarily because Mckesson’s entry wasn’t met with universal approval. A few local activists came out against him after he announced. Mckesson says that some of very activists who oppose his campaign greeted him with open arms when he returned to Baltimore, and flipped when he didn’t ask for their permission before declaring his candidacy. These activists argue that his ties to Baltimore aren’t strong enough to hold public office, that he’s only in town because of the national attention brought by the uprisings and that he hasn’t done enough community work on the local level to qualify as a reputable candidate.
“I grew up off of Poplar Grove and Presbury in West Baltimore,” says Mckesson. “I've had the same hardships as anyone else—addicted parents, poor schooling, you name it. But I’ve also been exposed to a lot of different ideas that come with leaving Baltimore and learning in different spaces, ideas that can and will make the city a better place.”
People who aimlessly attack McKesson are missing the mark. His celebrity status makes him an easy target. The famous blue vest and his TV recognizable face effortlessly stand out in the midst of the overcrowded race, which is full of candidates who have few community connections and easily deserve the same ridicule. The race is a circus full of candidates, including some with little to no name recognition; an ex-mayor who pleaded guilty to taking gift cards meant for the poor; politicians who saw the conditions that led to the uprising and did nothing; and a bar owner, to name a few.
Disagreements with the Mckesson campaign should be based on policy, not his celebrity status or his history of grassroots work in Baltimore. Mckesson has already done more than most in the city, and the last three mayors never made it to my neighborhood. Former Mayor Martin O’Malley couldn’t care less about the black citizens of Baltimore. His policies led to thousands of illegal arrests that ruined the lives of thousands of black residents––we all laughed when he mentioned the love he had for us in his failed presidential run. The murder rate went down under former Mayor Sheila Dixon, but we still felt locked out of our own city under her reign, and everybody except the rich developers is waiting for current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to go.
The people of the Baltimore should be excited about a member of Black Lives Matter running for office. It’s a 63 percent black city that has a long history of treating black people as if we don’t matter. I hope Mckesson’s campaign sparks a wave of other Baltimore activists taking their talents into public office, because rarely do I hear politicians say, “Black lives matter,” let alone believe it, and we need more like-minded people fighting these wars on every front.
The real question people should be asking is what happens if Mckesson doesn’t win. Is there an opportunity for him to use his long-term relationships to help our roughest neighborhoods, to use his global connections to expose our kids to more, to be a voice? Will other local activists partner with him in an effort to make these things happen? Or does he leave Baltimore for the laundry list of opportunities that I’m sure are coming his way?
“I plan on continuing my work in the movement and still having a strong focus on tech and education reform,” Mckesson says. “I plan on winning this race, but either way, I’m committed to Baltimore.”
D. Watkins is the award-winning author of The Beast Side. His forthcoming memoir, The Cook Up, will be released in May of 2016. Watkins is a professor of creative writing at the University of Baltimore.