Today, prominent Black Lives Matter activist and Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson launched a campaign website, providing a first look at his platform. As predicted, it proposes overhauls of the city’s education and policing systems, aimed at improving conditions for Baltimore’s large poor black population. Mckesson also released two videos. One features endorsements from Baltimore youth and educators, and the other is a recommendation from his father.
Mckesson announced his campaign last week via Medium post, and submitted his application just minutes before the deadline to enter the race. He has since raised nearly $80,000 for his campaign. Apparently lots of people would like to see Mckesson, in his signature blue vest, at the helm of this deep-blue city.
But his bid has been met with suspicion, too. People from both sides of the aisle are asking — does Mckesson have anywhere near the experience necessary to be mayor? In his campaign announcement Mckesson spins that lack of experience as an asset, writing, “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.”
Mckesson wields a considerable amount of media influence: He has over 300,000 Twitter followers, has been profiled in national magazines and appeared on popular talk shows, and has met with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. His blue vest has its own Twitter account, which boasts more followers than Baltimore mayoral front-runner Sheila Dixon’s account.
Some local black progressives, however, are unconvinced. “Who is he, other than Twitter?” asked Baltimore activist and minister Kinji Scott. “What has he done for any of us to pay attention to?”
Grassroots Baltimore organizer Adam Jackson commented, “In terms of his actual connections to working-class black people here and actively working to improve the quality of black life, I have not seen that from Mckesson.”
“He has never run anything,” said one frustrated Baltimore blogger. This isn’t true, strictly speaking: Mckesson runs a media campaign and advocacy organization called Campaign Zero that makes policy suggestions on policing and criminal justice. But it exists primarily on the Internet, where Mckesson shines. Campaign Zero shows Mckesson to be a smart and effective advocate — but does anything in his resume suggest that he’d be able to coordinate effective programs to meet the needs of the struggling city? The question has Baltimoreans divided.
Before Twitter, black activist organizations raised their profile by providing goods and services to the needy. In the late 19th century, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union provided free vocational training and other educational programs to black farmers in the South. In the early 20th century, mutual aid societies helped black people stay afloat economically while they transitioned to life in Northern industrial cities. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee provided food donations and free legal aid in the ’60s.
When Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1972, he highlighted his governing experience, instead of downplaying its importance. His campaign emphasized that even though he had never held office, he’d long acted as the leader of an organized community service network. He announced his candidacy, along with Black Panther Elaine Brown’s run for Oakland city council, at an event called the Black Community Survival Conference. Over 4,000 black Bay Area residents attended the event, where the Black Panthers gave out 2,000 bags of groceries and 1,000 pairs of shoes, and administered sickle cell anemia tests.
The Black Panthers were equipped to coordinate all this because they had been providing hands-on community programs for years. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the organization ran nearly two dozen “survival programs” in cities across America, including a breakfast program for young children, medical clinics, transportation for the elderly, a 24-hour ambulance service, a food program, and books for university students — all for free.
The programs were a means to provide for poor urban black people where the government had failed them and to raise consciousness about political issues. “If they have a need we will serve their needs and attempt to get them to understand the true reasons why they are in need in such an incredibly rich land,” wrote Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Panthers with Bobby Seale.
The word need is peppered throughout the literature of the Black Panther Party. As scholar and activist Cornel West writes, the Black Panthers were determined “to see the people’s needs as holy.”
“That’s why I ran for mayor of Oakland in the first place,” said Bobby Seale in an interview in 1988, “so we could reorder [the city] and redirect it and make sure it served the real basic desires and needs of the people.”
Systematic fulfillment of basic material needs is also what government does, on its good days. As leaders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown were already involved in a kind of government — just not the official kind. They both lost in a close and politically charged race, effectively ending the Panthers’ effort to gain public office. If they had won, though, they would have taken office with experience coordinating the education of children, the alleviation of hunger and the emergency care of the sick and injured.
But Black Lives Matter, in its current incarnation, doesn’t work like that. It’s a string of protests, a hashtag, a demand, a political scene, a loose coalition of loose coalitions, a news cycle, a meme, a social movement in the broadest sense of the word. Through many of its leaders work for community-oriented nonprofits, Black Lives Matter itself isn’t a systematized organization like the Black Panther Party was. There is a formal group bearing the Black Lives Matter name, but it doesn’t count Mckesson as a member. The fact that Mckesson has emerged as the public face of Black Lives Matter without holding an official leadership position is a testament to the movement’s decentralization.
That decentralization is one of Black Lives Matter’s biggest strengths. It presents a low barrier for participation: You don’t need to join up, you just need to join in the chant or, simpler yet, share your support on social media. It’s a viral phenomenon — the more the hashtag appears online, the more empowered people feel to voice the movement’s demands in the streets, and vice versa. Disruptive and frequent Black Lives Matter protests put pressure on law enforcement to hold officers accountable and reconsider policing tactics in black communities, and it’s working.
But being associated with Black Lives Matter doesn’t itself guarantee any solid community leadership experience. Mckesson’s resume is not blank, of course — he worked as a human resources administrator for Minnesota Public Schools and Baltimore Public Schools. He also spent two years working with Teach For America — a connection that educators have criticized, rather than applauded — and a few short stints at various nonprofits. When we consider these accomplishments apart from his fame, do they qualify him to run a city with problems as complex as Baltimore’s?
“It’s one thing to be able to show up to an event in a major mainstream media moment,” said Baltimore-based grassroots organizer and activist Dayvon Love, speaking critically of Mckesson’s campaign. “It’s a different thing to get people from Baltimore to go to Annapolis for a hearing on police reform on a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon.”
“Just because folks aren’t engaged in the work in ways that you’re engaged doesn’t mean that folks aren’t working,” Mckesson tweeted on February 8, in response to reservations about his experience. And there’s no doubt that Mckesson does do effective media, awareness and agenda-setting work. But as the Black Panthers learned through years of coordinating complicated and vital programs, the work of meeting people’s material needs requires more than fiery rhetoric, a strong political vision and a high profile. It requires plain old, run-of-the-mill, traditional organization.
Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown lost back in ’72, but they registered thousands of black voters in the process, and temporarily revitalized the flagging black liberation movement in the Bay Area and beyond. Black Lives Matter could see a similar boon from Mckesson’s run — so far, the more publicity it gets, the stronger the movement grows. By this equation, there’s a great potential upside to Mckesson’s campaign. Whether Baltimore voters think that he’s qualified for mayorship remains to be seen.