Seated at the Remington coffee shop Charmington's last month, DeRay Mckesson seemed to be nervously checking his phone, or at least more often than usual, and he checks it plenty already.
The day before, activist news site AlterNet published a specious hit piece on Mckesson's campaign. The article, by Drew Franklin, a white leftist activist running for D.C. City Council who appears to have a hard-on for attacking Mckesson's campaign and Teach For America, questions Mckesson's bonafides as a leader of the protest movement and attacks his ties to Teach For America. It was bouncing all around the internet.
Mckesson mentions that he's considering releasing a response to attacks like this on his official website, which he did several days later. Called "Reality Check," the post addresses his Teach for America ties ("He has never been an employee of Teach For America. . .He was a corps member with TFA, which assisted in placing him into a school within the New York City Department of Education," it reads) as well as even more out-there conspiracy theories such as, among other things, that Mckesson is a member of the Illuminati (he is not a member of the Illuminati, by the way).
Mostly, though, Mckesson is anticipating the release of his full platform, which added to and updated a short platform he'd released a little more than a week earlier. It proposed that Housing Director Paul Graziano has to go, the war on drugs needs to end, rent court needs reforming, and lead paint has to be completely eradicated. Still, the prevailing concern on the internet, which appeared to annoy Mckesson, was this rather pithy article.
The 30-year-old Baltimore native, best known for being at the forefront of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, has become one of the most recognizable leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. As such, his last-minute entry into the Democratic mayoral primary made headlines across the world, and it is his national prominence that compels writers from across the country to comment on his candidacy—or, in the case of AlterNet, attack it.
Conversely, Mckesson's traveling activism, which has taken him to protests around the country and led to meetings with the Obama administration, causes locals to question him, too, including prominent activists such as Duane "Shorty" Davis, Makayla Gilliam-Price, Adam Jackson, and Kwame Rose.
Though he has become one of the figureheads in the movement against police brutality and institutional racism, Mckesson himself admits, "I wasn't born woke."
At Charmington's, Mckesson recounted a moment back in 2009 when Baltimore police pulled him over around 6 a.m. and pointed a gun at him. At the time, he thought this was just an isolated incident, not a part of "a larger broken culture of policing," he says.
Brown's death was a personal turning point.
He has repeated this anecdote in some form at a few mayoral debates, and activists searching for evidence that Mckesson wasn't authentic enough often mention it. At a Feb. 16 mayoral debate at the Belvedere, in response to Mckesson citing Brown's death as his moment of clarity, Kinji Scott—who is employed by the State's Attorney's Office headed up by Marilyn Mosby (her husband Nick Mosby is running for mayor)—asked where Mckesson was during the 2013 death of a Baltimore man, Tyrone West, in police custody. Mckesson not being down from day one—whenever day one was, it changes depending on the age and approach of the activist—is evidence he's a fraud, activists claim, even though some of them surely went through a similar awakening at some point.
And then there's a Twitter account called @MeRay4Mayor, which lists the location as "Baltimore (for now)," lampoons Mckesson as a "Charter schooler & neoliberalist running for Mayor of impovrished [sic] historically black town," and highlights online donors to Mckesson's campaign who are not actually from the city, or even Maryland. Similarly, a BuzzFeed report that Mckesson would be holding a fundraiser for his campaign in the New York City home of a former Citibank executive who is on the board of Teach For America drew plenty of criticism. He has developed a reputation as a frustrating, elusive presence amongst journalists and other establishment figures such as church leaders and event organizers, adding to a perspective typical of embattled Baltimoreans: Mckesson isn't "one of us" and he's running a national campaign for a local leadership position.
But Mckesson is from here and spent most of his life here—he is surely the first candidate for mayor to shout-out beloved Bmore club personality Miss Tony in an official announcement. And Mckesson was a consistent, if quiet, fixture at Baltimore protests. His social media support of local activists during the uprising was instrumental in spreading their word nationally. Mckesson was here during the first week of Freddie Gray protests and hovered near the Inner Harbor on the day that Rose was arrested last September during the first motions hearings for the officers charged in Gray's death. And he was one of maybe 30 or so who stood in front of City Hall on the evening of Nov. 25, the one-year anniversary of Baltimore protests over Brown's death in Ferguson. The commemoration was held during the weekly West Wednesday protests named for Tyrone West, whose name Mckesson has frequently tweeted out in solidarity.
Tawanda Jones, who has been dedicated to keeping her brother Tyrone West's name in the news, is a Mckesson supporter. "I'm going to support him one hundred percent. I feel like he would make an awesome mayor," she recently told The Sun.
It was around late fall that rumors first began circulating—whispers, off-the-record—that Mckesson was considering a run for mayor. In November, the subject of politics came up in an interview with New York Magazine: "Many people have asked me if I'd consider running for mayor of Baltimore. And I think it's — I don't know at what point I'd think being an elected official would be the best way to be in the work, because right now we are trying to apply this pressure from the outside. And force systems to change and respond, forcing these conversations. I'm confident that protesters will run for office at the local level soon. And do transformative work. And I want to support that. And know protesters would be completely capable."
His thinking on the best way to affect change shifted in the lead-up to his decision to run. Days after filing, he told City Paper: "I've been thinking about, 'What space can I be in to make the impact around a broad set of issues that will change the outcome in people's lives?' That's sort of been the question, what does that mean? For so much of it, it was about challenging from the outside, right? It was about pushing systems and structures to acknowledge issues of inequity and then offering solutions. With this run, being mayor is about changing things from the inside."
That shift presents its own challenges, as seen at a mayoral forum held at MedChi earlier this month. After Gersham Cupid, a sergeant in the Baltimore Police Department running for mayor, said he'd want to glean ideas from all the candidates, heplaced a hand on the activist's shoulder and snarkily said, "Even Mr. Mckesson."
The moment spoke to some of the competing factors pulling at Mckesson's candidacy: How will the police take to a candidate so openly critical of them? Will other activists entrust Mckesson to carry out their reforms of that same department? Mckesson opened the door a bit on March 4, when he tweeted he had a "spirited conversation" with members from the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
"In the meeting w/ @FOP3 staff today, we agreed on the need for a safer Baltimore," he tweeted. "We differed on a host of issues re: reform & change."