Why DeRay Mckesson Is Running for Baltimore Mayor

An interview with the Black Lives Matter activist, who insists he’s not a politician, and says the city must work for everyone.

Michael B. Thomas / AFP / Getty

DeRay Mckesson, the high-profile activist affiliated with the civil-rights protest movement Black Lives Matter, wants to be mayor of Baltimore.

Mckesson entered the race earlier this month. He’s calling for policing reform, expanding access to education, and raising the minimum wage. But it won’t be an easy race to win. Mckesson faces off against a crowded field of Democratic candidates competing to take over when Stephanie Rawlings-Blake steps aside as Baltimore mayor.

He has a ready-made platform to broadcast his message with a Twitter following that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Still, it remains to be seen if that will translate into votes. Reaction to Mckesson’s entry into the race has so far been divided. Twitter lit up with congratulations after he announced his bid. But he is also facing questions over his sincerity as a candidate and the extent of his ties to the city.

I talked to Mckesson about the mayoral race, Baltimore politics, Black Lives Matter, and the 2016 presidential election. A transcript, edited lightly for length and clarity, appears below.

Clare Foran: So you’re running for mayor. What’s that been like so far?

DeRay Mckesson: We’re early in the campaign. We’re starting to assemble a team that is strong. I think people all across the city are looking for a different type of leadership, and a vision and a plan. The platform that I have put out it’s all about the concrete things we can do to make people’s lives better today, tomorrow, and the day after.

Foran: You’ve talked about protest as a form of disruption. You could think about your bid for mayor as trying to disrupt the way government is run. But there’s a difference in being outside the power structure and challenging it and trying to become part of it. Do you think about what that means? How do you not become someone who compromises as you try to become part of that power structure you’ve been fighting against?

Mckesson: It will always be important that people continue to push on the system from the outside. It will also be important that people make the changes that we know are necessary on the inside.

Foran: Do you feel like it’s not fair to say that you’re going from being a protestor to trying to become a politician?

Mckesson: I’m not a politician. I’m somebody who knows the world can be better and I’m willing to fight for it.

Foran: As a movement, Black Lives Matter calls attention to the idea that not everybody’s lives are valued equally. If you become mayor, you’d be representing everybody. What do you think that would be like?

Mckesson: The work in activism has been about making sure that things are equitable and just, and that carries over. Equity is about making sure people get what they deserve. The city has to work for everybody. That is the goal of it. When I think about being mayor that is what my goal is. When it only works for one neighborhood or one community, it actually doesn’t work at all.

Foran: You talk about how an issue like safety isn’t just about policing, it’s about education and jobs. That sounds like you’re taking kind of an intersectional approach. Is that how you see your plan for the city?

Mckesson: Intersectional, the term, is about identity, but I get the way you’re using it. It’s like a holistic approach to safety. If you close your eyes and think about where you feel the most safe, you’re probably not going to tell me it’s in a room full of police. You feel safe where you’re around people that love you, when you have food and shelter, when you’re being pushed to be your best self and learn. Law enforcement is a part of the safety equation but it’s not the entire equation.

Foran: What does the city mean to you and how do you feel connected to it?

Mckesson: I love Baltimore. I was born and raised in this city. There truly is a charm to this city. I began my work as a youth organizer here in 1999, which has deeply informed everything I’ve done since. I founded an after-school out-of-school center on the Westside and was a senior leader in the headquarters of Baltimore City Public Schools. Baltimore is a city of promise.

Foran: So you feel like your roots go far and deep?

Mckesson: I don’t know how deeper it could go than being born and raised here, like I literally don’t get it.

Foran: You’ve played a role in the 2016 presidential race by meeting with candidates. Now that you’re running for mayor, does that reflect a change in your thinking in terms of change being more possible at the city-level or the local-level than the national level?

Mckesson: Cities are a part of the national conversation. Baltimore is a city that people across the country look to. But so much of the change that will improve people’s lives happens at the local level. The biggest leverage we’ve found is at the city level or at the state level. When I think about being mayor it has become really clear that there is so much that can be done right at the city level to make a demonstrable change and impact on people’s lives.

Foran: Do you still feel like you’ll be part of the national conversation as far as pushing the presidential candidates?

Mckesson: I’m still a voter. I’m still a citizen. I’m not renouncing my voting in the presidential election because I’m running for mayor. I have not forgotten the importance of public conversation about who’s going to lead the country just because I have become a candidate myself.

Foran: Have you decided yet who you want to vote for?

Mckesson: Nope.

Foran: Hillary Clinton has been talking about what’s happening in Flint, Michigan and the water crisis there. Do you have any thoughts about how she’s handled that? More broadly, do you feel like the candidates on the Democratic side have evolved at all?

Mckesson: With Hillary, there was an opportunity for her to discuss issues of race and equity months ago, and I think there are some who question even her best plans coming forward now given how long it’s taken her to release them relative to her experience in politics. The plans that she has released are solid. With that said, she has either been slow to address issues or still has not addressed some issues. With Bernie, he early on addressed a whole host of issues and has continued to revise. I think the challenge with Bernie becomes people wanting an indication of either his priorities or how he plans to do what he says. Either of them. It’s like where are your big stakes in the ground given that you've covered so much ground.

Foran: What about the Republican side? What do you think about the fact that we’ve seen Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country, and Black Lives Matter protesters reportedly showing up at his events and in some cases getting attacked and him not denouncing it? Are you shocked by that?

Mckesson: I’m not shocked as much as I’m disappointed.

Foran: Looking at the past year for Black Lives Matter, the movement became more prominent in politics and on college campuses. But the year also ended with a hung jury in the William Porter trial, a non-indictment in the death of Sandra Bland and a grand jury not indicting in the death of Tamir Rice. Did that feel like defeat to see those outcomes?

Mckesson: Systemic change rarely comes overnight. The movement has, in relatively short time, created the first national conversation on race and policing in my generation. When I think about the non-indictments it's a reminder that there is work to be done to at the structural level to hold the police more accountable. What we've seen so far is that given the ways that the existing laws have been written is that officers who make poor choices, who make racist choices, officers who kill people, are protected in ways that aren't in line with any understanding of justice. The no indictments do not say that the officers did not do anything wrong, they say that given the way the system is structured officers can almost do nothing wrong. The movement is young. I don't feel defeated.