DeRay Mckesson Faces First Test Of Mayoral Campaign At Baltimore Forum

“I’m running ... because I saw something unacceptable and said, ‘I have to do something about it.’”
Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson is running for mayor of Baltimore.
Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson is running for mayor of Baltimore.

BALTIMORE -- Prominent civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson made his first appearance Tuesday as a candidate in Baltimore's mayoral race in front of a room packed with at least 300 people.

The Democratic candidate joined 24 other candidates, including Republicans and independents, at a question-and-answer forum at the Belvedere Hotel, a midtown home for young working professionals and artists.

The 30-year-old former schoolteacher and administrator shared anecdotes of what led him to activism, including the time a Baltimore police officer pointed a gun in his face. He stopped asked himself how long he was "willing to wait to make a difference" and stood up, he said.

“I love this city. It’s the city where I was born and raised, where I live, where my family lives and where my family is from -- and I’ve watched it continue to be a city that isn’t working for people,” Mckesson told the crowd.

“I’m running for the same reason I decided to teach, the same reason I initially went to St. Louis and Ferguson," he added, referring to his protests in those cities against police brutality. "And it was because I saw something unacceptable and said, ‘I have to do something about it.’”

Mckesson, who came to prominence as a protester in Ferguson, Missouri, after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a police officer, released a wide-ranging platform last week and has raised more than $115,000 in two weeks as a candidate.

“You’ll see the platform that I’ve released -- just the first three buckets, there are five more buckets to come -- but it ranges from homelessness to poverty to work around the environment to arts and culture, because all of those things matter,” Mckesson said in his opening speech at the forum. “You should see yourself in the plans of people who say they can lead this city. At the core, it’s making this city work for people and that’s what I’m running to do.”

Some attendees found him to be personable and his rhetorical style powerful, and noted that his outsider status could shake up Charm City's political establishment.

“I'm impressed with the depth and substance of DeRay's platform so far, and I think the forum showcased his ability to appeal to those discomfited by the political status quo in Baltimore,” said David Pontious, an activist for City Bloc, a student grassroots organization through Baltimore City College.  

But Pontious added that he has problems with Mckesson "as a candidate," and was glad to see him "subjected to scrutiny" at the forum.

He wasn't alone -- audience members challenged Mckesson on several points of his platform, and even accused him of having been "absent" in Baltimore.

Kinji Scott, who is from St. Louis and now works in community affairs in the State Attorney’s Office for Baltimore City, named multiple black men killed by Baltimore Police officers -- including Anthony Anderson, Tyrone West and George King -- before asking why Mckesson would abandon his native city.

“Why did you have to go to St. Louis when you could did it right here? When you talk about activism, where have you been in Baltimore City?” Scott asked. “Why are you absent in this city, and then today, you come and take charge? I don’t support all these folk up here. But you come and you indict them and you haven’t been visible in this city. Why are you running for mayor of [Baltimore]?”

Mckesson responded by pointing to his time working in Baltimore since 1999 as a teenager and youth organizer for Baltimore’s Safe and Sound Campaign, where he trained adults and youth community leaders.

Ralikh Hayes, a community activist, said that while Mckesson did well, it was difficult to "get a feel" for the candidates, since they each got only seven minutes to speak.

“I think he did OK, all things considered. He was a little nervous but it was a massive crowd with some fire to them,” Hayes said.

Those who knew Mckesson, and were familiar with his activism and what he’s done in other cities and Baltimore, had mixed reviews. Some were impressed with his education policy, his words on policing and other facets of his newly released platform. But 20-year-old ShaiVaughn Crawley, a community activist, said that while Mckesson handled his first forum well, it was not promising.

“I'm still not convinced that he is who we need to get the job done in this city,” Crawley said. “The political DeRay cannot and will not reflect the greater good of the Black Lives Matter movement. Though distinct and unorthodox in his dialect, his rhetoric and confusing indirect explanations fall right into the category of the other 15-plus candidates that we heard from last night.”

Despite the knocks he’s taken during his short campaign, Mckesson told The Huffington Post that he looks forward to participating in more forums, and that it was powerful to connect with Baltimore’s citizens and discuss the city’s power and promise.

“I’m not a millionaire. I’m not a former elected official. I’m an activist. I’m a son of Baltimore," Mckesson said. "I’m somebody who has been in this city and in other cities across the country demanding that the city works for people. And I’m ready to do it here."

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