It is hard to imagine that many mayoral race announcements — particularly one made by an activist with no previous experience in elected office, no known campaign staff or war chest, and made a mere two months before the primary election — would generate stories in The Washington Post, the New York Times and on CNN.com.
But that's precisely what happened when DeRay Mckesson, an emerging activist on the national scene who got his start and found his political allies on social media, declared himself a candidate for Baltimore mayor on Wednesday. Mckesson, an African American activist rarely seen in public without his signature blue puffer vest, will seek the mayor's seat as a Democrat. He joins a crowded field of seasoned politicians, all of them black Democrats much more deeply invested in a kind of mainstream, compromise-driven near-leftism that has come in for a fair bit of scorn and critical examination. The ones doing that examination: activists such as Mckesson and others affiliated with some portion of the Black Lives Matter movement.
By most accounts, Mckesson's move would seem to place him firmly in the camp of Black Lives Matter activists who think the next logical step in the recent political movement focused on alleged police misconduct and its sometimes deadly results is to seek public office or get political in other ways.
In 2015, a Black Lives Matter PAC took the necessary steps to begin raising money and distributing the proceeds to candidates who share the PAC's view that eliminating police abuse or power and unjustifiable deaths at the hands of police are central, not peripheral, political matters. For Mckesson, it seems as though Black Lives Matter amounts to a guiding political philosophy shaping his thoughts on everything from traffic control and municipal service fees to police misconduct. It's a way of thinking that also would seem to put Mckesson not quite as far to the revolutionary left of his competitors as his critics might be inclined to assume.
There are many reasonable ways to view Mckesson's move into the mayoral race.
It is, on the one hand, a public step — a foray into formal politics and a system into which almost all activists at some point choose to accept and enter or opt out. Even politicians must, indeed, get their start somewhere, sometime.
There will always be novice candidates trying to make a transition from activism to office, from corporate suites to the halls of government or other "first careers." There is an increasingly popular idea that these candidates will somehow resist the pressure created by fundraising demands, the need to compromise and strike deals.
In truth, descriptors of Mckesson as an activist — found just about everywhere — without any sort of public experience or political ties and obligations are probably a bit too simple. He was, after all, an administrator in a Minneapolis school district before quitting to chronicle short-term protests that erupted nationwide in connection to alleged incidents of police misconduct. Later Mckesson got knee-deep in the sometimes-tangled, contentious and disjointed movement that has developed since.
And Mckesson ranks among the Black Lives Matter activists willing to talk, appear, act and network in ways that utterly establishment (and even somewhat centrist) progressives, such as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, find palatable. Clinton has made no secret of her connections to and time spent talking with Mckesson.
Mckesson even appeared on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" a couple weeks ago.
On the other hand, the very 21st-century idea of trying to enter public life with whatever credentials and qualifications can be gleaned from one's follower and retweet counts, catapult over many other time-tested paths to expertise or knowledge, and then command some sort of official or important role is large and growing.
This is, after all, the era in which young women who enjoy working out dub themselves fitness experts and models on Instagram and soon wind up with six-figure book deals on the, um, strength of the way they fill out a yoga pant. This is a time when people take all sorts of critical financial, health and potentially costly consumer guidance from people who simply enjoy making and posting videos on YouTube. And, this is an age in which the ability to share one's "real life" with a reality TV audience and attain fan-favorite status can make you a national icon — even a leading presidential candidate.
What all of these thoroughly modern characters have in common is the ability to describe and convey what seem like simple solutions to often complex problems. But where politics and the lives of many Americans are concerned, there may be something real and valuable to be gained when such a social media character or a social justice activist spends time on a volunteer community council or planning commission. Mastering the art and skill of shaping policy that will support broader goals, networking, constituent service, ethical fundraising and yes, how to compromise and work effectively with those who do not share your views all seem like rather important skills to gather before taking on the myriad and long-standing challenges that vex a city as big and as complicated as Baltimore.
For starters, Baltimore is a city of almost 623,000, where nearly a quarter live in poverty, fewer than 30 percent hold a bachelor's degree and the median income sits just above $41,000. It's a community where a racially mixed group of police officers are facing trial this year in connection with the in-custody death of a a black man, Freddie Gray. And Gray, was one of thousands of Baltimore residents whose lives were tragically altered in early-childhood when lead exposure damaged his brain.
Baltimore is a city with all of the problems of Ferguson, Mo.: allegations of excessive policing and profiteering built on top of that, public schools so unsound that most are widely regarded as institutions to be avoided; and problems with drug addition, vacant and decrepit housing so monumental that the city is, for many Americans, emblematic of urban decay and divestment. But it's leadership and corps of elected officials is not, as in Ferguson, all white or utterly disconnected from the experiences described above. For that matter, even the mayoral race is complicated. One of the men seeking the mayor's office, for example, is the husband of the prosecutor who brought a slew of charges against the aforementioned police officers.
If all of this is not enough to consider, the primary bearing down on the city in April is likely to decide the race. The Democratic Party is so dominant in Baltimore that there's almost no logical or feasible path for any Republican challenger in a general election later this year.
In other words, this is all happening very quickly.
But in an odd way, the questions confronting Baltimore voters aren't unique. They are the very same questions that voters across the country could and perhaps should contemplate as they consider the slate of outsider and revolutionary challengers vying against more established politicos right now for the White House.