BALTIMORE (AP) — DeRay Mckesson, the Black Lives Matter activist turned mayoral candidate, is door-knocking on the streets of Charles Village. This is not the Baltimore of “The Wire,” but rather a tidy neighborhood of pastel townhomes in the shadow of Johns Hopkins University.
For two blocks, nobody answers. Then Ralph Moore, himself an activist and a lifelong resident, rushes up to shake Mckesson’s hand — and to break the bad news: Moore is voting for Sheila Dixon, the ex-mayor who resigned amid ethics charges and is running again. She’s a front-runner ahead of Tuesday’s Democratic primary — the de facto election in this majority African-American city.
“The problem is people don’t know you here,” Moore tells Mckesson, who has held court with President Barack Obama, been endorsed by actress Susan Sarandon and has 365,000-plus Twitter followers. “I saw you in Stephen Colbert’s chair when I was channel surfing, but I don’t know you.”
Mckesson is one of the most recognizable faces to emerge from the Black Lives Matter movement — a former educator who built a national following after leaving his then-home and job in Minneapolis in August 2014 for Ferguson, Missouri, to document the rising anger over race relations after the police shooting of Michael Brown.
Before Black Lives Matter birthed @DeRay, he was a self-proclaimed “son of Baltimore,” a city striving to move past its own racial strife a year after Freddie Gray died after suffering an injury in police custody and riots erupted.
The path from activist to politician is one many black leaders have navigated successfully, but Mckesson is struggling. He entered the mayoral race late, he’s deep down in the polls, his skeptics are plentiful, and observers have been left asking: What, then, is the next step for him, and for the movement that helped launch him?
“He’s seeking his next big stage, and he’s not going to be the only one doing it,” said Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins and a Baltimore resident.
Mckesson’s campaign comes as both Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement wrestle with growing pains.
Gray’s death further inflamed the movement, an amorphous and decidedly leaderless undertaking born out of a series of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers. The crusade took off on social media as a hashtag and spurred street demonstrations, and has remained in the spotlight this presidential election season.
Yet some within the movement have shunned more traditional paths to change. One Black Lives Matter activist turned down an invitation to meet at the White House with Obama and other civil rights leaders, condemning the gathering as a photo opportunity. Mckesson attended.
Mckesson was born to drug-addicted parents in Baltimore, a story he readily shares on the campaign trail. His father got clean and moved him to Catonsville, a predominantly white suburb. After high school, Mckesson attended Bowdoin College in Maine.
Mckesson then taught sixth grade in Brooklyn through Teach for America, which places college graduates in poor districts for two-year commitments. He later returned to Baltimore and launched an after-school program before joining the public school system in an administrative job. He left again in 2013, this time for the Minneapolis school system. When Brown was shot, Mckesson drove 500 miles to Ferguson.
Being on the streets, he said, “woke me up.” And so Mckesson returned to Baltimore, with the promise of a spare room at a family friend’s home and a plan to run for mayor. Hours before the Feb. 3 deadline, Mckesson filed his paperwork, the last of 13 Democrats to declare his candidacy.
On his agenda: plans to establish a system of community first-responders to de-escalate violence, and hire people who’ve been affected by police brutality to train officers on racism and community engagement.
“People want hope. They want transparency … a mayor who has a plan, who understands the issues deeply,” Mckesson said in an interview.
On the ground, however, his efforts have met with resistance and skepticism, especially from some of Baltimore’s longtime activists. They criticize him for not engaging with them, and question whether his campaign is merely a ploy to grow his “brand.”
“Who sent you and who will you serve?” Jamye Wooten, founder and publisher of an online forum linking social justice issues and faith communities, asked in a blog post. “Here you earn your stripes by serving and being in the community when there are no cameras.”
Mckesson has worked to shed his star status during the race. On the trail, he’s rarely talked about Black Lives Matter.
Most in this city know Mckesson won’t win the primary, save for some miracle come-behind victory. And the candidate himself prefers not to comment on his prospects or his future beyond the race.
University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray said candidates like Mckesson don’t always enter competitive races to win, but to gain traction for future political roles.
“I would be surprised if DeRay got into the race thinking he would win,” Ray said. “Sometimes, the people who lose garner a lot of support — and the people who win think about how to incorporate them.”