When Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson announced he was running for mayor of Baltimore in early February, he got mixed reactions. The public, it turns out, is polarized on the fusion of activism and politics.
Haven’t activism and politics often worked as one, though?
Look, for example, at US Sen. Bernie Sanders. He’s now campaigning for the White House, but he started out as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Before that, he marched for civil rights and was arrested for protesting school segregation.
Sanders isn’t the only elected official who hit the streets during the civil rights era. So did Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who in the 1960s organized lunch counter sit-ins, challenged bus segregation, and helped lead the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. And the late Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba was a long-time activist who protested against Western Michigan University’s lack of black professors the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Eric McDaniel, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says many black people joined the political system after realizing that the system would protect them if they were included in it. Mckesson’s candidacy, then, came as no surprise to McDaniel. After all, efforts to address racial issues have been gaining steam in Baltimore, where Mckesson grew up. “It makes perfect sense,” McDaniel said.
Even if Mckesson doesn’t win the primary in April, McDaniel added, his candidacy will at least put race at the forefront this election.
Towson University political science professor John Bullock, on the other hand, was surprised, especially because Mckesson filed for mayor so close to the deadline. And while Mckesson grew up in Baltimore, Bullock points out that much of his activism work has been national, not local. That could explain how he’s managed to fundraise more than $73,000 in a week. Plus, Baltimore’s recent mayors have held previous government positions, Bullock says.
Mckesson hasn’t held a governmental office, but he has pushed for change in other ways: rallying, protesting, and educating. He once taught sixth-grade math in New York City, got arrested for protesting in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and has inspired people through speeches nationwide.
Madison, Wisconsin, Mayor Paul Soglin took another approach during his activist days: petitioning. He grew up in Chicago, where, in 1965, he went door to door fighting discrimination by real estate agents against black homebuyers, which eventually led to his marching with Dr. King. Two years before, Soglin had protested US military involvement in Vietnam alongside 200 other classmates.
This sort of political engagement scored Soglin – then still a graduate student – a seat on Madison’s Common Council in 1968. “If you’ve got an activist background, it brings you closer to the community and gives you a lot of connections to people who are concerned about the future of the city,” he says.
First elected in 1973 as the city’s youngest mayor, Soglin is now serving his eighth term. He says he knows what it takes to succeed as an activist-turned-mayor: how to manage and administer the city government, when to say no to friends, and how to change the culture of the institution. Soglin says most people think that problems within an organization, including governmental agencies, result from an inept individual or structural problems. “That’s rarely the case,” he says. “More often than not, it’s a question of the culture of the organization, and that means building trust and building access.”
Activists tend to build community trust, but this trust comes from outside the establishment, not within, as McDaniel notes. Mckesson will need to tap into the existing institutions if he wants to win – and if he wants to push his ideas forward after that. “If everybody’s against him, he can’t do much as mayor.”
Mckesson didn’t respond to interview requests.
McDaniel compares Mckesson to Sanders. If Mckesson can do like Sanders and lessen the impression that he’s a “fringe candidate,” he will have a greater chance at winning. Sanders’ New Hampshire primary win – by nearly 23 percentage points – shows how far he’s come.
Mckesson doesn’t have much time to move from fringe to front-runner. Regardless of the primary results, those who came before show that activists can make it in office. On-the-ground action coupled with political will might just be the perfect recipe for democracy.