Photo by Baltimore City Dept. of Planning
DeRay Mckesson was working at his day job in Minneapolis when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Mckesson dropped everything and drove South to join the protests. He has since emerged as a leader of the movement to end systemic racism and has gained a substantial following both in real life and on social media. A key player in the Black Lives Matter movement, he is running for the mayor of Baltimore, his birthplace.
Mckesson was born in 1985 raised by a single father during the Reagan era, a time of government retrenchment that decimated quality of life in urban America. Mckesson graduated from Bowdoin College with a major in government and legal studies. He worked as a school teacher in the Harlem Children’s Zone with Teach for America.
Mckesson’s last-minute entry into the Baltimore mayoral race generated a lot of national buzz. But his connections to the city are undeniable: He began organizing there as a teenager in the late 1990s and his recently released vision statement for the city, “Promise and Possibility,” reflects a deep knowledge of Baltimore and a fresh outlook for its improvement.
I spoke with Mckesson just after the protests in Chicago that forced Donald Trump to abort his rally.
Q: You’ve had a chance to digest the protests against Donald Trump in Chicago. What are your thoughts?
Mckesson: Trump is dangerous. We saw people coming out and saying, “This isn't OK.” The truth is that the bigotry and hatred that he speaks have real consequences in people’s lives.
Q: You have said that you when you joined the protests in Ferguson, nothing you saw looked like America to you. What did you mean by that, considering the history of U.S. race relations, violence and police brutality?
Mckesson: We weren’t born, something woke us up. For me, it was the death of a friend and the subsequent response by the police. It is when I got tear gassed and I never could have imagined being tear gassed in an American street.
I was there when injustice happened, but I didn’t know that the police had all that military equipment. I didn’t know that they had tear gas and that they would use it on civilians. I had no clue. Now I know so much more.
Q: You recently said you were not an insider. Do you worry now that you’re working toward becoming an insider that it might affect your goals?
Mckesson: No. I think it’s not an either/or. It’s important that people press from the outside. It’s important that people are able to make change from the inside. Both of those things are important. Protest is fundamentally a political act.
Q: What do you consider the three most critical issues the country is facing right now?
Mckesson: We’ve got to deal with safety. We know what hasn’t worked. We know that mandatory minimum sentences don’t work; we know that arresting people doesn’t work; we know we can’t arrest our way out of the problem. We know that gun buyback programs don’t work. There’s all this stuff that we know for a fact doesn’t work. We need to come to and think about things differently.
Safety is much more substantial than policing. Rather, it’s about strong communities, jobs, and access to resources and schools. We have to figure out how to make sure that we respond to trauma differently. When our response to all trauma is to call the police, then that gets us into a cycle of perpetuating trauma. Mental health trauma is different from somebody breaking into a store. Those are not the same things, and our response has to be different.
Leadership means making sure that people are adequately skilled, making sure people are earning a living wage, making sure people have access to resources. That’s not sexy, it doesn’t sound great at a rally or a forum, but that is actually the work that it will take to change cities. We know that.
The second thing is education and literacy. Not only do we need to focus on classrooms, but adult literacy is a huge issue in historically marginalized communities. Baltimore is a city where about 40 percent of our adults are still illiterate. That’s a crisis, and it’s one that you can’t see.
Finally, I think often about the idea of health beyond hospitals. So much of what people think about when they think about health is primary care, but health is so much more than that. Health is about the decisions you make everyday. It’s about where you sleep. It’s about are you exercising, it’s about what you eat.
Q: I’ve noticed that you’re very upbeat and optimistic for somebody who came up at the time you did. Where do you get that from?
Mckesson: Both of my parents were drug addicts. My mother left when I was three and my father raised us. I’ve seen optimism because I grew up in communities of recovery where people put their lives back together and find tomorrows that they didn’t think would be there. That fundamentally changed my life and is so much of where my hope comes from.
Q: Is that the idea behind the campaign commercial where your father appears and talks about love?
Mckesson: Yeah. My campaign is about how to address concrete changes for a whole city, where so many people think about crime, safety and education. There are so many other issues, too—the environment, art and culture, homelessness. We have to put forward a plan that is about all of these things. I am the only candidate who’s done that.
Q: Can you talk a bit about Campaign Zero?
Mckesson: Campaign Zero is the first and only conferencing platform centered around ending police violence informed by protesters all across the country. We’ve used it to have conversations with Hillary Clinton, with President Obama, Loretta Lynch, Valerie Jarrett and Vanita Gupta. The key to it is this idea that there’s no one thing that will decrease violence, it will be all these things working in concert with each other and that’s really important.
Q: How has Donald Trump’s rise impacted your work?
Mckesson: I don't want to live in a world where Donald Trump is the President. He is not doing anything in Baltimore, but I am dedicated to using whatever platform I have to make sure that he is not the President. This is not simply a disagreement about ideas. It’s a disagreement about values, and the values that he espouses are values of bigotry and hate, and that isn’t OK.
Q: How do feel about Baltimore’s future, whether you are in charge or not?
Mckesson: My candidacy has already forced a conversation about real issues in a way that was not happening and I’m proud of that. There is excitement all across the city for a new type of leadership. We have 40 days to go and there is a lot of work to do.
Brian Gilmore is a Washington DC based poet, writer, and public interest law professor who writes for The Progressive Media Project.