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Does Baltimore Need DeRay Mckesson?

Lawrence Lanahan

Slate Magazine

Last week, I co-moderated a forum of Democrats running for mayor of Baltimore. We had 11 candidates, a feisty standing-room-only audience, more than two feet of snow on the ground—and a potential circus on our hands.

At the front of the room were some of the usual suspects, ambitious city council members and a few people who’d run for mayor before. Two of the leading candidates could barely shake their baggage: city councilman Nick Mosby, whose wife is the state’s attorney prosecuting the six Baltimore police officers implicated in the death of Freddie Gray, inspiring accusations of a disqualifying conflict; and former mayor Sheila Dixon, who resigned in 2010 after pocketing gift cards intended for the poor. Crowd members yelled over Dixon and Mosby several times. We had to ask one of Mosby’s hecklers to leave after he nearly incited a fight.

But there were also some exciting young upstarts: a 29-year-old policy wonk concerned with racial equity, a career bank management specialist who wants to flush the deadwood out of city government, a young engineer who would have Baltimore’s children learn calculus by 11th grade. Some of them made substantive points, and by the end, the forum had turned out to be fairly civil and productive. At the very least, I left with distinct impressions of each candidate and the sense that, despite the very severe problems facing my city, there are at least some interesting solutions out there, and some interesting people proposing them.

This week, I’m wondering what would have happened if DeRay Mckesson, the well-known Black Lives Matter activist and Baltimore native who on Wednesday announced he’s running for mayor of Baltimore, had been there. Would our would-be circus have devolved into a three-ring calamity?

Baltimore’s 2016 mayoral race comes at a pivotal time for the city, which is still raw from the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray and hungrier than ever for solutions to the decades of poverty and structural racism. With Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s decision not to seek re-election, this very consequential election is now an unpredictable one, too. By the time Wednesday’s filing deadline had passed, 28 candidates were competing to take Rawlings-Blake’s place.

Just as we were getting to know the candidates, one of the most famous activists in America has jumped into the race. We will undoubtedly continue to talk about police reform and affordable housing and economic development, but for now we’re talking about DeRay, a 30-year-old activist and educator who made his name outside of the city, and who has more Twitter followers than the number of people who voted in Baltimore’s last election. Surely the national media will home in on his blue vest, bringing to Baltimore far more attention than a municipal election would normally merit. For those of us here who still resent the sensational cable-news coverage of April and May 2015—and yet also sympathize with the critique of police violence that the Black Lives Matter movement has helped elevate into a national debate—Mckesson’s entrance into the race promises both anxiety and possibility.

Here’s why I think Mckesson could improve this election for the better, no matter what chaos he brings with him. Turnout has been low in recent Democratic primary elections—34 percent in 2003, 28 percent in 2007, and 23 percent in 2011. (And with few non-Democrats living here, the primary usually decides the winner). If Mckesson can engage people who don’t normally vote along with some who do, he has a shot at shaping the issues at the fore of the primary—and maybe even at winning it. But that means getting Baltimore voters to do something they’re usually reluctant to do.

Right now, Dixon leads by nine points in the polls, and behind her are state Sen. Catherine Pugh, city councilman Carl Stokes, and Mosby, all elected officials with three decades in office among them. Name recognition gets you a long way in Baltimore politics.

But DeRay, one of the most prominent faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, doesn’t even need a last name to get recognized. If he manages to poll decently in the coming weeks, he could knock the other leading candidates off balance, and force them to make a stronger case that their platforms—whether on education, health, public safety, employment, or any other issue—can create opportunity in the city’s poorest, most neglected neighborhoods. And perhaps those candidates will feel more pressure to be accountable with the national media watching.

It’s worth remembering, of course, that the issues that Mckesson cares about—police reform, the empowerment of black communities—already have their proponents in Baltimore, and they’re not necessarily looking for his assist. His entry into the race has drawn derision from some 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. Dayvon Love, the 28-year-old public policy director of Baltimore’s Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a local think tank focused on black communities, told me that Mckesson lacks a connection to the black-led, grassroots community organizations that have the most at stake in the election.  “It’s one thing to be able to show up to an event in a major mainstream media moment,” Love said. “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.” In other words, Mckesson may first have to plead for support from the Baltimore constituencies that might seem to already be on his page.

Baltimore’s primary takes place in April, one year after Freddie Gray received his fatal injury in a Baltimore Police van. Police brutality is still at the fore of many Baltimore voters’ minds. At last week’s forum, when the audience was asked to pass up questions that they had written on flash cards, a community activist named J.C. Faulk walked to the front of the stage, holding up his card and demanding that candidates answer his question. I told him that to be fair to the audience, he needed to hand in his card like everyone else. A few moments later, that card ended up in my lap with a star on it—the forum organizers had decided it would be the first question posed to the candidates. It read, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” I turned to the candidates and asked the question, to the enthusiasm of the many seasoned protesters in the room who had been waiting all night for the issue to be addressed.

Next time that question gets asked at a forum, DeRay Mckesson will likely be there to field it. Many Baltimoreans will be listening. There is a large pool of registered but disaffected voters that Mckesson could energize, and with municipal elections now happening alongside a presidential election (until 2011, they were held in odd years), they are more likely than ever to show up.

DeRay Mckesson’s candidacy will likely fracture alliances and test loyalties, from the grassroots to the corporate suites. That could be good for Baltimore. Perhaps a model of using a national civil rights movement to disrupt local elections could even serve other cities suffering from a similar comorbidity of structural racism and civic apathy.

What the Black Lives Matter movement is about and what this election is about aren’t that far apart. In America the deck is stacked against the poor, urban, and black. In Baltimore the deck is stacked against the poor, urban, and black, the city’s predominantly black elected leadership notwithstanding. Since the death of Freddie Gray, this city of hyper-segregation and ubiquitous racial disparities has tried to wrangle with its divisions and inequities, particularly the roots undergirding a police force that has spent millions of dollars on brutality-case settlements. Many of our candidates are calling for the same things that have propelled people into the streets of American cities over the last two years, even if, sometimes, the urgency of those messages get lost amid the crowded electoral din. A best-case scenario might be that, in more and more elections in more and more cities, people like Mckesson can help elevate those issues with increasing clarity.

Of course, we might just end up with a nationally televised circus. But maybe from that circus the city can emerge at least a little better off than it was before.

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