On Policing In Baltimore, Activist DeRay Mckesson Gets Retweets. Can He Get Votes?

Apr 12, 2016
Originally published on April 26, 2016 4:11 pm

If you don't live in Baltimore, but you know anything about the mayor's race, it's probably that an activist with Black Lives Matter is running. He's known as the guy in the blue vest, but he also goes by DeRay Mckesson. Mckesson is the city's highest-profile mayoral candidate, but one of the lowest in the polls.

The race for Baltimore's next mayor was shaken up a year ago, following the death of Freddie Gray, the young black man fatally injured in police custody. After violent protests, current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would not run again. Now, well over a dozen candidates are competing, and because of the city's past voting record, the winner of this month's Democratic primary will almost certainly become the next mayor.

Although that probably won't be 30-year-old Mckesson — he registered less than 1 percent in a recent poll by the University of Baltimore and the Baltimore Sun — he has been fielding a steady stream of national interviews. I find him working out of a trendy coffee shop, where he has run into some former colleagues.

"Woo!" His friend cheers, as they pose for a selfie that Mckesson posts online.

Mckesson has about as many Twitter followers — more than 300,000 — as there are registered voters in Baltimore, and he sneaks peeks at his phone throughout our interview. It's a following built since August 2014, when he heard about the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

"I packed three T-shirts, four pairs of underwear, one pair of socks, and like, I was there," he says.

Mckesson ended up leaving a six-figure job as a school administrator in Minnesota to protest police brutality full time. After the death of Freddie Gray, this mission brought him back to his hometown of Baltimore. Mckesson, the son of two recovering drug addicts, grew up in Baltimore until he went to middle school. Now he says he wants to shift his focus again from staging protests to bringing concrete change to people's lives.

"We can make a strategy to address adult literacy today," he says. "We can change the way that we police and think about safety today. And the local level is where, most often, those changes have the most impact."

Mckesson has gotten props for his detailed policy papers. But it's his activism that has drawn national attention, from a White House meeting with President Obama to an appearance on Stephen Colbert's show, with his trademark smartphone in hand. He's trying to leverage this attention and his social media savvy to amplify traditional retail politics. Mckesson says people will direct message him on Twitter to say they'll gather 50 friends at their house if he shows up.

"When I Periscope house visits or house parties, when I do Facebook Live, we average a few thousand people who look at all of that every time," he says.

But the vast majority of his followers are not registered Baltimore voters.

"Can he take all that social media and fame nationally, and turn it into a ground game?" asks Roger Hartley, who is dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs. So far, the answer is a resounding no.

Hartley says that for one thing, Mckesson entered the race at the last possible moment — months after the others. What's more, his many rivals are also talking about policing and inequality.

"And they have served," he says. "They have a record. They have won elections in those districts."

The front-runner is state Sen. Catherine Pugh, who has touted her role on state and national police reform commissions.

"Working with the state is really important in terms of how we reform the police department, how we create opportunities, and how we lift some of the issues that are painful in this city," she said during a March 22 debate on Baltimore affiliate WJZ.

Behind her in the latest poll is former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, whose experience cuts both ways. Dixon has faced jabs over a 2009 embezzlement conviction, though in the WJZ debate, she said that doesn't define her.

"My plans are very clear," she said in the forum. "I can hit the ground running the first day in office."

In a gentrifying midtown neighborhood, 23-year-old business student Becca McKenny is excited to vote. But she's been looking to social media to research candidates and is frustrated there's not more information out there.

"I mean, hey, make a YouTube video," she says. "Make a short, do a skit. People are very artsy here in Baltimore."

I am totally expecting McKenny to say she supports Mckesson. But I am wrong.

"Sheila Dixon has been out there, she's been hitting the streets," she says. "She even visited my apartment complex." That was late last summer. McKenny says she was impressed by Dixon and considers her embezzlement conviction small potatoes.

McKenny was among those who protested after Freddie Gray's arrest and death last April, and says it feels as if not much has changed in the year since. "I got pulled over by the police," she says. "Coming home from school, 10 at night, with — you see my pink neon backpack. And why?"

A short drive away, near Gray's neighborhood, Brian Mcalily wants a new mayor to change the way police treat people.

"Do like we used to do in the old days," he says. "The police need to come out here and shake hands with everybody, get to know the neighborhood."

Political analyst Roger Hartley says there's widespread frustration. With a lame duck mayor and at least a third of the City Council also set to change, he says it has left a vacuum.

"Not a lot has been done and it's almost like there's been a hold button placed right now, to see who's going to be the next leadership," he says.

The Democratic primary is April 26, and Baltimore's next mayor may face a leadership test soon after. The trials of the police officers charged with Freddie Gray's death have also been on hold and are set to start again next month.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It was a year ago today that Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore. He was fatally injured in police custody, and he died a week later. After violent protests following his death, the current mayor said that she would not run again, and now crime and criminal justice are top concerns in the city's crowded mayoral primary this month.

The winner of the Democratic run run-off is almost certain to be the next mayor, and there are more than a dozen Democrats running, including a prominent activist with Black Lives Matter. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Now, the race's highest profile candidate is among its lowest polling. I find 30-year-old DeRay McKesson working out of a trendy coffee shop in his signature blue vest, taking a selfie with former colleagues.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, look at it.

DERAY MCKESSON: That's great. Snapchat me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Woo.

MCKESSON: Reunions (laughter).

LUDDEN: Nearly two years ago, McKesson left a six-figure job in education to protest police brutality full-time. That brought him back to his hometown where McKesson says he now wants to focus on concrete change.

MCKESSON: We can change the way that we police and think of our safety today, and the local level is where most often those changes have the most impact.

LUDDEN: McKesson's activism has drawn national attention - a meeting with President Obama, an appearance on Stephen Colbert's show, smartphone in hand. He has as many Twitter followers as there are registered voters in Baltimore.

MCKESSON: You know, when I Periscope house parties and I do Facebook live, we average a few thousand people who look at all of that every time.

ROGER HARTLEY: Can he take all of that social media and fame nationally and turn it into a ground game?

LUDDEN: So far, no, says Roger Hartley of the University of Baltimore. McKesson registers barely 1 percent in polls. Hartley says he entered the race late, and his rivals are also talking about policing and inequality.

HARTLEY: And they have served. They have a record. They have won elections in those districts.

LUDDEN: The front-runner is State Senator Catherine Pugh. In a debate on local CBS affiliate WJZ, she touted her role on state and national police reform commissions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CATHERINE PUGH: Working with the state is really important in terms of how we reform the police department, how we create opportunities and how we lift some of the issues that are painful in this city.

LUDDEN: Behind her in the latest poll - former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, whose experience cuts both ways. Dixon's faced jabs over a 2009 embezzlement conviction. But in the WJZ debate, she said that doesn't define her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEILA DIXON: I know how to roll up my sleeves. I know how to work with communities and bring people together. My plans are very clear that I can hit the ground running the first day in office.

LUDDEN: In a gentrifying midtown neighborhood, 23-year-old Becca McKenny is excited to vote. She protested after Freddie Gray's arrest and death last April and is frustrated that not much has changed. Just recently, she says...

BECCA MCKENNY: I got pulled over by the police coming home from school 10 at night with my - you see my neon pink backpack. And why?

LUDDEN: A short drive away near Freddie Gray's neighborhood, Brian McAlily wants a new mayor to change the way police treat people.

BRIAN MCALILY: Do like we used to do in the old days. The police need to come out here and shake hands with everybody, get to know the neighborhood.

LUDDEN: Political analyst Roger Hartley says there's widespread frustration. With a lame-duck mayor and at least a third of the city council also set to change, Hartley says it's all left a vacuum.

HARTLEY: Not a lot has been done, and it's almost like there's been a hold button placed (laughter) right now to see who's going to be the next leadership.

LUDDEN: The likely next mayor will face a leadership test soon. The trials of the six police officers charged in Freddie Gray's death have also been on hold. They're set the start again next month. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.