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A year after Freddie Gray’s fatal encounter with police sparked protest, which vision for the future will win out?
BALTIMORE — Elder C.W. Harris was on the roof and he wasn’t coming down. Harris, a community activist and religious leader in Baltimore, had climbed to the top of a building overlooking Pennsylvania Triangle Park, a triangle-shaped slab covered in red brick and grass, in West Baltimore on a recent Saturday. The plan was to stay put until at least 500 people had cast a ballot in the Baltimore mayoral primary election.
The primary was still more than a week away, on April 26, but early voting had already started. One of Baltimore’s many community organizations, the No Boundaries Coalition, was holding a block party, and pulling out all the stops to get residents of the city’s 21217 zip code, an area where neighborhoods have been hard hit by poverty and crime, to the polls. A poster in the park declared: “Elder Harris won’t come down until 500 people vote!” It ticked off the number of people who had voted so far: The tally stood at just over 100.
When I asked Ray Kelly, the coalition’s community-relations director, if the voter-turnout operation was typical, he told me that this year is different. Since the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who sustained a fatal injury in police custody last April, “attention was brought to concerns this community has been trying to voice to the city for decades,” Kelly said. “This is our time, but we don’t want people to change things without coming in here and asking us what we feel and what we want. We want to make sure we have a voice.”
The past 12 months have put Baltimore at the center of a tense national conversation over police accountability and the consequences of deeply rooted racial disparity. After Gray’s death, the city was gripped by protests that turned violent at times. Some of the problems that plague Baltimore have grown worse since then. Crime spiked following the unrest, earning 2015 the ominous distinction of being the deadliest year (on a per-capita basis) in the city’s history.
Following backlash over the way the city responded to the protests, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced she would not run for reelection. A crowded field of candidates stepped forward to fill the void. Each has sketched out a vision for the way forward, a set of ideas that have met with a mixture of apathy, distrust, and optimism. The candidate who wins the Democratic primary is expected to eventually become mayor in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. What happens next in Baltimore could shed light on the complex challenge of how to rebuild a fractured city—or how not to.
In the wake of Gray’s fatal encounter with the police, subsequent tumultuous protests, a mistrial for one of the officers charged in connection with Gray’s death, and a crime spike, Baltimore, for better or worse, has become a poster child for government failure. So it might seem odd that two of the candidates who have topped the polls during the mayoral race are widely talked about as veteran political insiders. Catherine Pugh and Sheila Dixon might not describe themselves that way, but Pugh is a Maryland state senator and Dixon is the city’s former mayor. Dixon’s time in city hall came to an abrupt end when she stepped down not long after a jury convicted her of stealing gift cards intended to be set aside for needy families.
Of course, things often look different at the ground level than from the outside looking in. Supporters of the candidates don’t see them as part of a broken system as much as they view them as individuals with deep ties to the community, politicians with a track record of achievement in city government, and people who have been there for Baltimore. “I’m certainly not a part of the problem; I’ve been more a part of the solution,” Pugh told me at the block party, where she arrived to make the rounds and, when asked, to shake hands, take selfies, and give hugs. “I stood on the corners every single day during the unrest to keep the peace in our streets and to let people know that there are people in this city that care.”
Dixon also kept a relatively high-profile after Gray’s death, and even received a standing ovation at his funeral. Her pitch to Baltimore rests, in part, on reminding the city of what she achieved in office, including a decision to transition away from a zero-tolerance policing strategy and a decline in violent crime. Dixon is still haunted by her past, however. “I made a mistake. I paid for that mistake,” she said at a recent mayoral debate, adding: “I also know that that does not define the greatness of how I was as a mayor and as an elected official.” Many Baltimore voters seem to have forgiven her already. “I don’t hold that against her as much as politics is a dirty game. Far more worse crimes happen,” Kwame Rose, a well-known Baltimore activist, said of Dixon. Sitting at a table at a local Starbucks, Rose nevertheless said he believes Pugh is the best candidate. “The right step that Baltimore needs now is someone who has been a politician, but has also been a strong community leader that has the political power to actually make change in Baltimore happen,” he said. As he talked about the future of the city, however, Rose suggested that one day he’d like to see “a grassroots candidate” take office.
And yet, there is already someone in the race who looks an awful lot like a grassroots candidate: DeRay Mckesson is a 30-year-old Baltimore native talked about in the media as the most visible face of the Black Lives Matter movement. He rose to national prominence protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri—after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot by a police officer—as well as in Baltimore after Gray died last April. Mckesson has made a name for himself as an activist and talks about his work as a youth organizer in Baltimore, a track record that suggests he should be able to harness the power of the grassroots. He has never been elected to public office and suggests he’s the best choice for the city precisely because he is not part of a broken political system. “I’m the only candidate not beholden to the establishment,” Mckesson told Baltimore radio station WBAL recently. “Following the traditional pathways to politics, I think that reinforces a type of establishment politics that I just don’t believe in.”
The only problem is the message doesn’t seem to be catching on. Mckesson registered at less than 1 percent in a poll released on April 7 by The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore. (The poll showed Pugh in the lead with 31 percent of the Democratic primary vote and Dixon in second place with 25 percent.) He has also faced public criticism from community activists who say he entered the race without strong enough ties to the city and its neighborhood networks. Mckesson points to his fundraising as one indicator of resonance. Still, the race shows the limits, and challenges, of attempting to translate national visibility into political power at the local level. Less-than-glowing coverage of his mayoral bid seems to have taken a toll. “People are writing these post-mortem stories already, and it’s hard,” Mckesson told me at Red Emma’s, a café that serves vegan and vegetarian food not far from Baltimore’s Penn Station, adding that he believes most voters are still undecided. “People are still listening,” Mckesson insisted. When asked what the danger is if things don’t change, he replied: “Oh, I think we know. It'll be exactly what it is now. We know what the status quo feels like because we are living in it.”
There may be far-reaching agreement that the status quo isn’t working, but there seems to be far less consensus over what change should look like. Even so, there are indications that the protests after Gray’s death, and the national attention they received, have shifted the politics of the mayoral election. Political observers say the race has been unmistakably dragged to the left. Candidates have promised police accountability and talked about the need to build trust between city residents and officers. They have emphasized treatment over punishment as a way to deal with drug abuse and addiction, and called for a focus on addressing the root causes of crime by creating jobs and improving education. There are plenty of candidates to chose from, including businessman David Warnock, attorney Elizabeth Embry, and City Councilman Carl Stokes, three of the other Democratic candidates. In the end, voters may have to decide whether they want an establishment candidate who offers power coupled with a pledge to listen to the will of the people or a nontraditional candidate from outside the current political system.
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.