Deray Mckesson: America's Most Exciting Mayoral Candidate
One year ago today, Freddie Gray fell into a coma while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. April 12th, 2015 marked a turning point that led to widespread protests within the city, violence, trials for all officers involved, and even a federal investigation. It also led the now-famous DeRay Mckesson to take a second look at his hometown. He’d spent his childhood in Baltimore, leading the human resources department for the city’s public school system before full-time activism took hold in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014. A week after Brown was shot down in Ferguson, Mckesson got in his car and drove hundreds of miles to take to the streets, before moving from protest to protest across the country as a full-time civil rights activist.
Since then, he’s become one of the most prominent faces in the Black Lives Matter movement, though when we talked on the phone last month, he was quick to add that the movement is bigger than any one person or any one organization. It’s hard not to see past his star power within the movement, given his 334k Twitter followers, dozens of television appearances, and celebrity endorsements. He’s been to the White House so many times that it doesn’t even phase him. Now, the 30-year-old civil rights activist is back in Baltimore with a bigger goal in mind. After filing hours before the deadline to run on February 3rd, Mckesson has set his sights on becoming Baltimore’s next mayor. We caught up with him in between campaign stops and Twitter posts to talk about running for mayor, the future of social media in politics, what’s next for the BLM movement, and more.
What made you want to stop full-time activism to run for mayor?
So far, my career has focused on issues related to children and families, but for the last few months I’ve focused on issues related to justice—more specifically, around safety. Running for mayor is about being in a position and making the concrete changes that’ll impact people’s lives today, tomorrow, and in the next five years. That’s why I ran. I believe in the promise and possibility of the city of Baltimore. I was born and raised in Baltimore. I know it’s talented. This is the way to bring about change that’ll positively impact families and lives.
“You are enough and you should work together with other people. You don’t need permission.”
What are your platform’s core components?
I focus on the approach in two waves: one is about strategy and the other is about scale. The strategy is about how do we connect our resources and tap into the energy that’s already in the community—the resources that are already in the city—so we can coordinate that to maximize impact. That’s across all areas.
As for scale, the problems in Baltimore are scaled, so the solutions have to be on a scale. We live in a city where 40 percent of our adults are illiterate, 70,000 people are addicted to substances, and 22 percent of Pre-K students are chronically absent. The platform I’ve offered is across all areas. It’s about crime, safety, education, public health, arts, culture, and the environment. It’s expansive in that way because this is about a whole city. I’m the only candidate with a platform that focuses on all of Baltimore.
You’re also a candidate with a huge social media reach. You’re always tweeting, and you have over 330k Twitter followers. Do you think that’s the future for young politicians who are trying to be more approachable to their constituents?
I think Twitter allows us to have conversations that we wouldn’t otherwise have. It allows us to bypass traditional media mechanisms and outlets. I think that is really powerful. Of course, we still need to talk to people face-to-face and that will always be a part of it.
Definitely. What do you think Twitter has impacted most in our political system?
I don’t have an answer to that. I think that it’s created direct access to elected officials in ways that we couldn’t imagine 50 years ago. I think that’s really powerful.
As young people become more involved in the political process, do you think that politicians can work effectively without having a social media presence?
I think we’re on the cusp. We’re at the beginning of really seeing the power of social media. I think that it will come to play an important role in politics and so many other parts of life.
A criticism of Twitter is that it can limit people solely to participating in online activism and nothing else. Do you think these social media platforms are doing enough to push out the message?
So much of the movement has been, and continues to be, about telling the truth in public. Twitter is a way that people tell the truth and we know that we aren’t born woke. Something wakes us up. I think, for so many people, it is a place where they learn the truth and tell the truth. I would never disparage truth-telling, which is why I’ll never disparage Twitter.
— deray mckesson (@deray) September 16, 2015
Moving to the presidential race, you’ve expressed some support for Bernie Sanders on Twitter. In terms of his message, what does his campaign mean to you?
I haven’t endorsed any candidate. I’ve met with both of them. Bernie Sanders, importantly, has addressed issues of race and equity after he was pressed about it. He’s covered a wide range of issues, which is powerful. The question for him is that people want to know his priorities and how he will make his policies happen.
I think, with Hillary Clinton, she has addressed a subset of very important issues about race and equity. In terms of how she will implement them, I think people are looking for more. I think there is a worry that she’ll only address these issues when pressured, as opposed to addressing them to do the right thing.
Now that you’re one of the first activists from the movement to transition from protesting to running for political office, how do you see the movement shifting focus?
I think there are two things that will come next. One thing is coalition building. Can the movement build entrances for people who might not have the same goals but want the same outcomes? That ranges from gun lobbying to gun control. They might not have the same goals, necessarily, but we all want to live in a world where there are no mass shootings. They don’t want to live in a world where there’s dirty water like in Flint and other cities like it.
I think that’s really important. I think the movement will continue to grow, so it’s important for people to press on. It’s important that people implement changes inside the movement so it keeps moving.
I think it’s already changed the dynamic, as well. In the Flint, MI debate, Hillary and Bernie spent nearly an hour discussing—among other race related topics—what their racial blind spots are. That’s a significant change from even the 2012 election. Do you think the movement may inspire more people to run for political office?
There’s no one practice or strategy. It’ll take people in community organizations, in classrooms, and in office. It will take people everywhere to bring about the world that will be the most equitable and most just. There’s no one way to do it.
You’ve become a role model, especially for young gay people. Do you think that people who openly identify as LGBTQ like yourself will become the norm in politics?
I think the complexity of identity is important and we’re now having public conversations about that—whether it’s about the trans community or queerness or so many other identities. I think it’s powerful that we’re doing that in public and I think it helps.
You’re part of a new generation of socially-conscious and politically active young people, and you’re a role model to many of them. Do you have any kind of message or advice that might inspire them to run for office or go into community service work?
There’s no blueprint and there’s no one way to do any of this work. You are enough and you should work together with other people. You don’t need permission.
Images via The Washington Post, David Carson, Twitter, Interview
Stay tuned to Milk for more from the new wave of politicians, activists, and community leaders.