Activist DeRay Mckesson is running for mayor of Baltimore. In doing so he’s underlining the success of Black Lives Matter.
This isn’t to say the Mckesson will win the race. The crowded field includes 13 other candidates, and though his entry garnered national press attention, Mckesson has to be considered a long shot. But his willingness to try to move from activist to political office is an indication of one of Black Lives Matters’ strengths: its ability to change.
The Black Lives Matter movement began through commentary and reporting on the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometid, following George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Mckesson, like many others, became involved in August 2014 when policeman Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in in Ferguson, Missouri.
Mckesson, a Baltimore native, had moved to Minnesota, where he worked as a school administrator. But when he heard about Brown’s death he traveled to Ferguson to protest and report. With his friend and collaborator Johnetta Elzie he became one of the most visible commenters on the protests. Between summer 2014 and today his Twitter following grew from around 800 to 299,000.
Mckesson’s focus on social media reporting and organizing has been criticized as frivolous or useless, and street protestors have been attacked for being unruly and lacking discipline and respectability. Yet the combination of protest and reporting has managed definite, though not sweeping, achievements. Police violence against black people has become a national issue, creating a context for press coverage of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and the 2015 death of Sandra Bland in Waller County, Texas.
Police killings still almost never lead to murder charges, but there have at least been steps towards recognizing that this is in fact an injustice. In Baltimore district attorney Marilyn Mosby, perhaps spurred on or abetted by the Black Lives Matters movement, indicted six police officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Mckesson was involved in protests in the city following Gray’s death, reconnecting him with the city and its politics.
Protests have been the most visible aspect of Black Lives Matter, but the movement has been involved in other initiatives as well. Activists helped push for change in the make-up of the Ferguson City Council during local elections in 2015 and helped increase black representation on the six-person board from one to three.
His victory would be a huge news story and would put office-holders nationwide on notice that the BLM platform was a source of serious political clout.
Over the summer Black Lives Matter activists tried a new tactic. They staged protests at a number of rallies by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. They were widely criticized for doing so. Sanders is the most left-wing candidate running for president and the one whose initiatives seem most likely to help a black constituency. Many of his supporters argued that BLM activists were hurting themselves by challenging him. But, as Jamelle Bouie wrote at Slate, “Sanders is simply the best available vessel for bringing activists’ concerns to the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”
Forcing Sanders to confront policing and racial justice issues has paid off. Both Clinton and Sanders have beefed up their platforms around criminal justice, and both have held meetings with BLM activists, including Mckesson.
There have been other initiatives, too. A number of activists, including Mckesson, have put together a list of specific recommendations for police reform under the organization Campaign Zero. On the local level Black Lives Matter activists in Chicago just filed suit for access to records relating to the shooting of Rekia Boyd by officer Dante Servin in 2012.
Activists with BLM, in other words, have been willing to try a number of tactics, both protesting the political system and working within it. In that context, Mckesson’s decision to run for office seems less like a departure and more like an elaboration.
Whether it will be more or less successful than other Black Lives Matter efforts is difficult to say. If Mckesson wins the race, despite the long odds against him, he would be in a position to try to enact many of the policing reforms he’s advocated. More than that, though, his victory would be a huge news story and would put office-holders nationwide on notice that the BLM platform was a source of serious political clout.
Even if he loses, the organizational effort and attention generated by a run could help push others towards greater police accountability, both in Baltimore and elsewhere. He may also lead the way for other BLM activists to seek office. The movement has politicized a generation of black organizers whose work could serve as a basis for electoral success, just as John Lewis, Julian Bond and others were able to transition from Civil Rights protests to governing.
Win or lose, though, Mckesson’s election campaign is only one of many ongoing BLM efforts. The movement has been around less than three years at most but looks set to become a permanent, active part of the Democratic Party’s political landscape. Change is slow and difficult, and I think there can be an impulse to dismiss BLM because it hasn’t ended police shootings in the U.S. or been able to hold police accountable in many of the cases its highlighted. Activist readiness to experiment with a range of tactics, though, has achieved some successes. It seems like a blueprint for achieving more—whether through victory in the Baltimore mayoral race or otherwise.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.