When Lester Spence talks about the young civil rights activist who recently, and to much fanfare, decided to run for mayor of Baltimore, his voice rises.
“The audacity of somebody like that,” says the political scientist, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “He’s never run for anything, never managed a budget, never hired and fired employees. You don’t start out by running for mayor.”
That might not be the reaction that DeRay Mckesson – a 30-year-old former educator whose activism with the Black Lives Matter movement has catapulted him onto the national stage – was hoping for. Then again, perhaps neither Mr. Mckesson’s bold method nor message should come as a surprise.
This is a man who, upon filing to run for mayor Wednesday, wrote: “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.”
Bringing the drive for transformational change from the streets to city hall or the state house is a well-worn path. Many civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ’60s consolidated their victories by becoming politicians.
But Black Lives Matter has set itself out to be different – a leaderless movement. Now Mckesson’s candidacy stands as a test of whether this generation of activists can make a political transition.
In a year when perceived outsiders touting antiestablishment sensibilities are dominating national politics, Mckesson’s call for change could resonate with voters, especially Baltimore’s disenfranchised youth. But Black Lives Matter’s lack of structure could make it difficult for any one figure to leverage the group’s influence to win an election.
“It looks like [members of the Black Lives Matter movement] are fairly well-networked for protests,” says Eric McDaniel, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. “But the thing about protests is they’re intense. At protests, you can be angry.”
“Politics is a slow, methodical process,” he notes. “Do they have the structure for [that]?”
The way Mckesson’s campaign unfolds may hold answers. If he gets establishment figures to back and legitimize his bid, for instance, that may help, says Professor McDaniel, who specializes in black politics and activism.
He likens the situation to the demonstrations that took place at the University of Missouri in November, when a boycott by the football team led university president Tim Wolfe to resign. The key was the support of the faculty and the football team’s coaching staff, McDaniel says.
“You need to be part of the establishment to change the establishment,” he says. “I do believe that [Mckesson] can make progress, but at the same time, he’s going to need people who are very experienced with working with the establishment. There’s a reason Obama brought Rahm Emanuel to the White House [as his chief of staff in 2008].”
The same lesson is true for Black Lives Matter, he says. “I think what’s got to happen is for it to be seen as less of a niche movement,” McDaniel says.
That perception could be a factor in the mayor’s race.
Though born and raised in Baltimore, and a vocal presence during the protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, Mckesson’s reputation may not resonate among many Baltimore voters.
“Mckesson has this presence and notoriety that reflects more of a national feel. I’m not certain if that translates necessarily in Baltimore,” says Kimberly Moffitt, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). “People here are very much about who are the folks doing the day-to-day work to make change in Baltimore. I don’t think people see him as one such individual.”
Not that Mckesson comes in without credentials.
The former school administrator has become a recognizable voice for racial justice, working with different advocacy groups and giving lectures at Ivy League institutions. He has talked white privilege with Stephen Colbert, sat down with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and boasts 300,000 followers on Twitter. (Even his signature blue vest has its own Twitter account.)
More telling, however, is how quickly he mustered support after his last-minute registration to Baltimore’s crowded Democratic mayoral primary – Mckesson is the 13th candidate on the list. Less than a day after filing, Mckesson had drawn $40,000 in funding from 700 donors, NPR reports.
Professor Spence acknowledges that Mckesson has a following.
“He’ll probably have some voters and younger people who support him,” he says.
But Spence, a scholar of black politics who has lived a decade in Baltimore and has deep connections with the local activist community, is skeptical of Mckesson’s ability to lead a city as embattled as Baltimore – where, Spence notes, Black Lives Matter doesn't even have a chapter.
“[Mckesson] hasn’t had to be transparent in his actions, he hasn’t had to hold himself accountable,” Spence says. “There’s a difference between being a public activist who appears at events and mobilizes people, and political organizing, where you’re embedded in an organization and communities, working with people where they are.”
The mayoral primary is set for April 26. If Mckesson manages to win, it would be a momentous achievement, Professor Moffitt of UMBC says.
“If it is DeRay, then it’s a major political watershed moment.”