Four days after he first climbed to the top of a West Baltimore roof to encourage voter turnout, Elder Harris was still there up there. The good news was that he had just received word that the 500-voter mark had been crossed, meaning he could finally come down. “I’m sorry you’re not here to see me descend,” Harris told me over the phone. “It won’t be long and I’ll leave my home up here in the sky.” He said he had stayed on the roof the entire time waiting for votes to roll in. He had a sleeping bag, and when it grew unbearably cold at night, someone carried up a heater. (“That helped out a lot,” he said.) Harris told me he hadn’t expected to be up there so long.
Harris, a pastor at Newborn Community of Faith Church who grew up in Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, said he hoped that the unconventional get-out-the-vote strategy would help city residents channel anger and frustration into political power, adding that it was particularly important for him to make sure that Sandtown-Winchester residents got out to vote. “I told them I would sacrifice myself,” he said, recalling how he devised the plan. “I said, ‘Well, maybe I can wake up our community to concern themselves in a peaceful, nonviolent way of protesting, and that’s through voting.’”
Many Baltimore residents seem torn between optimism and apathy: They hope that things will get better—that their city will get safer, that their quality of life will improve—but they also seem resigned to the idea that empty promises will be all they get. The city witnessed dismally low turnout in the 2011 mayoral primary election, but there are early indications that this race will be different. Turnout has already hit record highs for early voting. Still, reform, no matter who pledges to deliver it, isn’t likely to come quickly. Government institutions move at a glacial pace. Campaign-trail promises get watered down when the election is over. Plenty of Baltimore residents, particularly those who have lived their lives in the shadow of racial disparity, understand this all too well.
At least some residents are not waiting for government to deliver the changes they hope to see in their city. “We appreciate support in City Hall, but we’re not holding our breath,” said Heber Brown III, the senior pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and a member of the group Baltimore United For Change. In the past year, Brown said, community activism in Baltimore has been spurred by a dawning realization that the city government may not have the kind of power that many once believed. “There’s another political power that exists when people have had to raise their voices out of necessity to make sure they are not wholly forgotten,” he told me.
No matter who wins the race, activists in Baltimore, and in cities across the country, will forge ahead. There is always the risk their work will be undermined by discord. Since the Black Lives Matter movement is decentralized, however, and stands more as a diagnosis of a problem than a set of concrete solutions, airing disagreement may be constructive in determining the way forward. The high-profile mayoral bid of an activist associated with the movement could prove instructive for others seeking to bridge the divide between protest and political office in the future. Meanwhile, incremental, under-the-radar work at the state and city levels will be critical to achieving gains, such as improving police accountability, even if that work does not consistently capture media attention. In the weeks, months, and years to come, the rest of the country will see whether, and how, change comes to Baltimore—and if it arrives slowly, quickly, or barely at all.