DeRay Mckesson has become somewhat of a luminary figure over the past few years. His work nationwide as an activist combating immoral policing tactics and speaking out against injustices in disadvantaged communities placed him as one of America’s foremost voices in urban reform. A member of Black Lives Matter, Mckesson helped push the movement to the forefront of mainstream media attention firmly standing his ground on the fluctuating narrative of black voice and protest in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, and New York.
Before his days as an organizer, DeRay was a school administrator and worked as the head of Minneapolis Public School’s Human Resources Department. Now as a recently announced candidate for mayor of Baltimore, he’s taking his background in both education and public protest to city hall in hopes of fundamentally changing the community he grew up in.
Today (February 18), along with other black leaders like Al Sharpton and Cornell Brooks, Mckesson is slated to meet with President Obama in honor of Black History Month and to present his own perspective to the nation’s highest in charge. The event is described as a first-of-its-kind gathering of leaders representing different generations of the civil rights movement.
BET.com spoke with DeRay Mckesson on the eve of his presidential meeting and shortly after he announced his bid for mayor of Baltimore. He, like so many who became top leaders nationwide, decided to officially start local. His potential mayorship of one of America’s ground zeroes for social injustice would be a great way to start.
What made you want to run for Mayor of Baltimore?
DeRay Mckesson: The question for me is how long are we willing to wait until the city is a place that worships people again – and I’m not willing to wait any longer. I think we have an opportunity right now to make the city better for people today, tomorrow and the day after and the plan that I put forward shows that. I’m not an insider. I’m somebody that knows how to make this a better city and I’m willing to fight for it.
As a former school administrator it seems like a lot of your platform is based on education. You want to expand opportunity, especially for younger kids. Why is that a main emphasis for you?
DeRay Mckesson: There are five other buckets coming out today. We just couldn’t finish the .PDF in time, but they’ll come out soon, which you’ve seen of safety, crime and economics, but there are buckets around neighborhoods and all that stuff, so check that out.
For the city to be a place where more and more people work and live and where they can thrive, we have to make sure we have a real strategy so all kids learn. We know that people are only their best selves when they are safe and those are anchors of what the city needs right now and in my plan – they are not the totality of it. I’ve created many more buckets that will come out soon like arts and culture and technology and those things as well.
Do you feel at the national level education gets enough play whether it be a focus of the president or congress?
DeRay Mckesson: There is a different scale though. [At] the city level we’re trying to figure out how change people’s today, tomorrow and the day after. At the federal level they are creating funding streams. They’re creating space for us to do this work at the city level. They manage very little direct services of any of this stuff. They do manage the dollars and the rules, so it’s just different.
If you won you’d be taking over the job of Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. How would you assess her job as mayor over the past six years?
DeRay Mckesson: I think Mayor Blake – to my understanding – she reduced the structural deficit and that’s important.
There are 29 candidates currently running for Mayor of Baltimore and like 13 democrats. Does that have you worried you may be lost in the fray among all these people?
DeRay Mckesson: Nope. The traditional fabric of politics and the politicians who follow them will lead us to the same results and I think people understand that.
In your letter announcing your candidacy you wrote, “our history is not our destiny.” Is that what keeps you going even among all the injustices we’ve seen, especially in Baltimore?
DeRay Mckesson: There’s a bright future and what we need are people who both see that future and can take us there. And I think I can do that.
I traveled to Baltimore in December and saw first hand what the city was like after Freddie Gray’s death. I talked to a lot of the people from his neighborhood and they seemed to think things had changed and it was almost as if the air was sucked out of that community. How does that make you feel both as a mayoral candidate and a native of the city?
DeRay Mckesson: I think people now are looking for the “what’s next?” kind of lead. How do we change the conditions now that there’s widespread attention to the problem.
I saw that you tweeted about the Black Panthers special on PBS. What were some takeaways you got from it?
DeRay Mckesson: We didn’t discover injustice last August and we didn’t invent resistance. There’s a long legacy of people demanding the government be better for people. I am just one of many people who understand that it is important that we push this through from the outside and continue to be the changings from the inside.
I took lessons back about how movements mature and how it’s important to make sure movements mature so that that people mature. [That’s] probably one of my biggest learnings.
Where do you see the Black Lives Matter movement heading now that we’re in 2016 and things have evolved a little bit?
DeRay Mckesson: To be clear, I’m running for Mayor of Baltimore. I think the larger movement, what will come in the movement is people and the movement being really intentional about building coalitions. Can we create entrances to the movement for people who might not have shared goals but have shared outcomes. You think about the gun control advocates and you put our goals up next to each other and don’t have the same goals, but want to live in a similar world? We do. We want to live in a world with no mass shootings. You think about the environmentalists. We put our goals up against each other and don’t have the same goals, but do we want to live in a world where there’s not dirty water like in Flint? We do.
Is there a candidate for President who has your full support yet?
DeRay Mckesson: Not yet. I still have not made a decision about the candidates yet.
Any that jump out at you so far?
DeRay Mckesson: Nope. I have questions about both of them.
What are some of those questions?
DeRay Mckesson: Bernie [Sanders] has importantly covered a host of issues and he did it early, and the question now is like what are his priorities, and/or how will he implement them? With Hillary [Clinton], she was slow to address a range of critical issues. And now that she has I think people question her sincerity and there are a set of issues she has not yet addressed and Election Day is near. So that’s how I feel about the candidates. That’s like my latest thoughts.
In the past, the Democratic Party has often taken the African American vote for granted. How important is it that they address black issues as black issues and not simply assume they have the vote of that demographic?
DeRay Mckesson: What I said to Hillary when we met with her was what I say to many people. I think many people, at this point, might stay at home, and the Democrats will not win if people stay at home. In public conversation I think that people are thinking of like, the narrative of taking for granted and assume that people are just going to vote – I think there are many people right now [who are] choosing not to vote and that should worry people. For people who are focused on this stuff, that should worry them.
Paul Meara is a Columbus, Ohio native and resident and has written for Billboard, Complex and HipHopDX, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @PaulMeara
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