How has Black Lives Matter influenced Baltimore's elections?

A year after the death of Freddie Gray sparked unrest, the city's Democratic mayoral primary features a slew of mainstream candidates and a Black Lives Matter activist.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Voters cast their votes inside the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Tuesday, April 26, 2016.

As Baltimore heads to the polls on Tuesday, a year after the death of Freddie Gray, many of the same issues that spurred large-scale protests last year are still lingering.

While 12 Democratic candidates vie to fill the seat of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), who declined to seek re-election in Tuesday's primary, residents in the majority-black, overwhelmingly Democratic city are weighing a variety of issues – questions about aggressive policing, the vacant, crumbling houses that line many streets, and the city's school system.

The death of Mr. Gray, who was black, from a fatal spinal cord injury sustained in police custody, sparked civil unrest last year and eventually led to charges against six Baltimore police officers.

While protests around the country and the Black Lives Matter movement have turned an increasingly bright spotlight on police violence and spurred election victories by candidates in contested elections in Chicago and Cleveland this year, Baltimore's leading mayoral candidates reflect a more established part of the city's politics.

But that hasn't stopped DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives activist with national recognition and thousands of online followers, from throwing his hat into the ring. 

"Who sent you and who will you serve?" Jamye Wooten, a local activist, asked Mr. Mckesson in a blog post in February. Polling numbers place the candidate with less than 1 percent support locally. "In Baltimore, grassroots leaders don't earn their stripes on Twitter or on the protest line; Here you earn your stripes by serving and being in the community when there are no cameras," Mr. Wooten wrote.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh (D), who is serving her third term, leads the field of candidates, with 31 percent support, according to an opinion poll by the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore from earlier this month. Just behind her is former Mayor Sheila Dixon, at 25 percent.

Ms. Dixon, a longtime city councilor before she was mayor, is attempting a comeback after being forced from office amid charges that she had misappropriated gift cards for low-income families.

Whoever wins in Tuesday's primary will cruise smoothly to the November general election, in a city that last elected a Republican mayor in 1963.

Mckesson's candidacy has sparked a debate, particularly with local activists who question Black Lives Matter's reliance on social media. Some argue his low poll numbers could be a sign that the grass-roots movement, which had prided itself on being leaderless, isn't well suited to the strictures of local politics.

But there are signs elsewhere that this might be changing. In Chicago, the defeat of two-term Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez by Kim Foxx in March was linked to local activism. Residents had increasingly called for Ms. Alvarez's ouster after she waited 400 days before announcing murder charges against a Chicago police officer who shot unarmed teenager Laquan McDonald in October 2014.

"We worked hard to get Kim Foxx elected," Jedidiah Brown, founder of the activist group Young Leaders Alliance, told Al Jazeera in March. "In fact, one of the most encouraging things of this campaign was how many young black people got involved in the process."

"What you see here in Chicago is a swelling of consciousness among young people," added Mr. Brown, who stormed the stage during a cancelled rally for Donald Trump at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Protests following the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, also played a role in the defeat of Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty. After he declined to charge the officer who shot Tamir, Mr. McGinty was defeated by Michael O'Malley, a former deputy county prosecutor in March.

Most of the candidates in Baltimore's mayoral primary have made job creation a key goal, with joblessness hitting 7.1 percent in the city in February, above the national rates, Reuters reports.

But for Mckesson, some of the issues he has made a key part of his platform may be stymied by Baltimore's dynamics. Greg Howard writes in The New York Times:

Education is Mckesson's career strength, and the first issue addressed on his platform, but Baltimore's mayor has no direct control over the schools – the city relinquished it to the state in 1997, after years of dysfunction. And if New York City police officers turned their backs on a mayor as relatively mainstream as Bill de Blasio, how could a man famous for protesting police violence work productively with the force in Baltimore?

But Sharhonda Bossier, his campaign manager, argues that the candidacy of a man media outlets has sometimes dubbed "the first Black Lives Matter mayor" – though McKesson has sometimes avoided mentioning the national movement during his campaign – could still have an impact.

"In a city like Baltimore and especially in communities of color, relational currency is so important," she told Mother Jones earlier this month. "What he has learned and what we're reflecting on is that it may not reflect into an electoral victory but [is] still very important."

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