Can a Black Lives Matter activist win the Baltimore mayoral race

DeRay Mckesson has launched a last-minute bid to become the mayor of Baltimore. It is unclear if the attention gained from his activist work will be enough to help him win the competitive mayoral race.

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
Protester and social media activist DeRay McKesson records outside the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse Monday, in St. Louis (8/10/2015). McKesson has recently announced he will run for mayor in Baltimore.

Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson launched his bid to become mayor of Baltimore roughly 10 minutes before the deadline. The last-minute entry surprised many as it leaves the candidate only 83 days till the Democratic primary on April 26.

Mr. Mckesson’s entrance adds to an already crowded 2016 mayoral race in Baltimore. The city has become a focal point in the national discussion of inequality and police brutality after the shooting of Freddie Gray. Mckesson, an activist who gained renown for his work in Ferguson and with the Black Lives Matter movement, returned to the city soon after the shooting.

Current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was heavily criticized for her handling of the riots and protests spurred by the death of Freddie Gray. She is no longer seeking reelection, which leaves the path to mayor open to any of the now 13 Democratic candidates.

Mckesson’s run for mayor reflects a shift in the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement initially opposed the political system, but has sought political clout as it matured.

"Every movement grows and matures," Brittany Packnett, a member of Campaign Zero, a group closely associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, said to USA Today in November. "It is important to continue connecting the dots from protest to policy and back and forth." 

The Black Lives Matter movement originally began as a hashtag on Twitter after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, but soon morphed into a political movement roughly a year later with the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and continued across the country, focusing on inequality and police brutality against black Americans.

While Black Lives Matter proved effective at organizing protests, entering the political discourse, and bringing attention to situations of oppression that proponents say have gone for years without notice, the group was criticized for its diverse messages and goals. 

“I was a civil rights activist, and we had specific goals, specific things that we wanted to see happen,” St. Louis political insider Elbert Walton, 73, told The New York Times.  

Recent actions by the diverse groups that make up the Black Lives Matter movement has shown increased acceptance of prompting change from within the political system. A decision Mr. Walton approves, saying it shows “that they understood that their problem was a government problem.” 

In an effort to gain political clout, Black Lives Matter launched a political action committee in October. The PAC aims to make financial donations to political candidates that further the movement’s goals.

Toward the end of 2015, groups associated with the Black Lives Matter movement also attempted to obtain a Democratic presidential debate focused on issues impacting black Americans. While the Democratic National Committee balked at the initial proposal, they did grant the group a town hall forum focused on the same issues. 

DeRay Mckesson is one of the first of the Black Lives Matter generation of civil rights activists to seek political office.

It still remains unclear whether the attention he gained from his activist work will be enough to gain a foothold in the highly competitive mayoral race.

The city of Baltimore is largely Democratic, with 288,000 Democrats in a city with 369,000 registered voters, according to the Baltimore Sun. And with the advantage being so widely in favor for Democrats, the open race has drawn 13 official candidates, including Mckesson.

The front-runners in the race consist of a former mayor, a state senator, and two city councilmen, among other Democratic candidates.

Sharon Dixon, a former mayor who is leading in the polls, did not appear phased by Mckesson’s entrance, citing the brief window left before the primary. 

"There are 84 days left. I'm staying focused," Ms. Dixon said to the Baltimore Sun.

It’s clear that Mckesson plans to spin his unconventional entrance and untraditional past into strengths.

"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," he wrote in an announcement post. 

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