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Black Lives Matter's DeRay Mckesson is running for Baltimore mayor. Here's why it matters.

DeRay Mckesson.
DeRay Mckesson.
Kimberly White/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, a top Black Lives Matter activist made a big announcement: He is running for mayor of Baltimore.

DeRay Mckesson's late entry into the mayoral race is filled with uncertainty. It's still unclear just how organized his campaign is, and how much of a chance he stands in a race that already has a big field of candidates just on the Democratic side.

But Mckesson's entrance into the race is a big deal: It's the first time a major Black Lives Matter activist has directly entered the political arena as a potentially serious candidate.

Mckesson's candidacy is also notable because of where it's happening. Less than one year after protests and riots rocked Baltimore over Freddie Gray's death in an alleged act of police brutality, the city is still one of the major battlegrounds over the broader issue of racial disparities in the criminal justice system and police use of force.

But let's back up a bit. To understand why this is a big deal, you need to know who Mckesson is, and how we got to a point where the mayoral race is so contested that an unconventional candidate can enter the race.

Who is DeRay Mckesson?

Mckesson rose to national fame during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old. But Mckesson is originally from Baltimore, which was later roiled by its own protests over what demonstrators saw as excessive use of force by police against another black man — this time leading to the death of Freddie Gray, a black 25-year-old.

Since the Ferguson protests, Mckesson has played a tremendous role in the Black Lives Matter movement. He became particularly well-known through his Twitter feed, where he helped draw national attention to the Ferguson protests, engaged in advocacy, and organized demonstrations. Later on, he played a similar role in Baltimore and other protests across the US as he traveled from city to city to help lead demonstrations.

Most recently, he has played a crucial role in setting out the Black Lives Matter movement's policy agenda through his platform, Campaign Zero.

The campaign — led by Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie, Samuel Sinyangwe, and Brittany Packnett — has laid out a clear policy agenda, as well as issued several research reports into police departments around the country analyzing use-of-force policies, police contracts, and the implementation of body cameras, among other issues. (For more about Campaign Zero, read Vox's explainer.)

Campaign Zero's policy proposals.

Lauren Dorman

Elzie, another prominent Black Lives Matter activist, will also join Mckesson's campaign, Baynard Woods reported for the Guardian.

In announcing his mayoral candidacy, Mckesson appears to be taking the next step in this advocacy work. He wrote:

I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs. Many have accepted that our current political reality is fixed and irreversible — that we must resign ourselves to accept the way that City Hall functions, or the role of money and connections in dictating who runs and wins elections. They have bought into the notion that there is only one road that leads to serve as an elected leader.

It is easy to accept this, because those of us from Baltimore live and experience the failures of traditional politics and pathways to leadership. Too often the elected individuals we put our public trust in, disappoint us. We have lived through lofty promises and vague plans. We have come to expect little and accept less. When we rely on this traditional model of politics we are rewarded with consistent, disappointing results.

In order to achieve the promise of our city and become the Baltimore we know we can become, we must challenge the practices that have not and will not lead to transformation. We must demand more from our leaders and local government.

Mckesson's political ambitions apparently have a long history. Mckesson's father told the Guardian that Mckesson had wanted to run for mayor since he was 9. And in 2014, Mckesson told the Washington Post he wanted to be deputy mayor of Baltimore.

But the fact that Mckesson, someone with no electoral experience, can potentially run a viable campaign for mayor at all speaks to the turmoil the city faced over the past year.

Baltimore's mayor agreed to not run again after protests, riots, and a wave of homicides

Protests and riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's funeral.
Protests and riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's funeral.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Ultimately, Mckesson's candidacy goes back to Freddie Gray's death.

Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury on April 12, 2015, when he was tossed around the back of a police van. He was shackled by his hands and feet but unrestrained by a seat belt, which meant he couldn't protect himself from the impact as he crashed into the interior of the vehicle. An autopsy report found Gray likely received the fatal injury when the van suddenly decelerated. He died a week later, on April 19.

Gray was not the first victim of an allegedly abusive Baltimore police force. A September 2014 report by Mark Puente for the Baltimore Sun found, for instance, that the city had paid about $5.7 million in settlements since 2011 to more than 100 people — most of whom were black — who claimed that officers had beaten them, although police didn't admit fault in those cases.

Critics of Baltimore police also blamed Gray's death on a practice cops had allegedly used in the past: "rough rides," in which handcuffed detainees are driven in a reckless manner while they're not wearing seat belts — all to purposely cause injuries.

More broadly, Gray's death exemplified, in Black Lives Matter activists' view, the racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system. (More on that issue in Vox's explainer.)

police shooting by race Joe Posner/Vox

All of these factors led to massive protests — and at times riots — in Baltimore after Gray's death. The protests eventually calmed down after a few weeks, when Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney for Baltimore, announced criminal charges against the officers involved in Gray's arrest and transportation.

Following the protests and riots, Baltimore also dealt with horrific levels of crime, and the city finished 2015 with its highest homicide rate on record. Although it's unclear how much of a role the protests and riots played into the increase in violence (some reports, for example, suggested police suffered from understaffing even before the protests), criminologist Peter Moskos told me the riots likely played the big role — by demoralizing police officers and emboldening criminals.

In the face of the protests and violence, and criticisms of how she handled the riots in particular, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced she would not run for reelection. The surprising announcement left a bit of a power void in the city, allowing several candidates to step into the race — and now Mckesson.

The Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Mckesson's entry into the mayoral race shows the growing confidence the Black Lives Matter movement seems to have developed over the past couple of years as it's helped change the national conversation on policing.

Recent surveys show the shift. A June 2015 survey of 2,000 US adults from Gallup found that Americans are more likely to say that black people are unfairly treated in all aspects of society, including police encounters. And a July 2015 survey of 2,000 US adults from the Pew Research Center found a 20-year high in the percentage of Americans calling racism a "big problem" in society.

A growish share of Americans view racism as a big problem.

Pew Research Center

Moreover, Americans appear to be losing faith in police — with Gallup finding in 2015 that confidence in police was at a 22-year low.

Americans trust police less. Gallup

Beyond the polls, notable politicians have called on reforms to hold police accountable. President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have both called for police to wear body cameras that would record police officers on the job. The Obama administration has also said that the federal government needs to do a better job tracking police killings.

Clinton also dedicated her first campaign speech to criminal justice issues, including policing. And Black Lives Matter protests very early on in the 2016 presidential race forced some Democratic campaigns to release serious racial justice platforms.

Now, Black Lives Matter hasn't captured everyone's attention. Republican presidential candidates, for instance, have largely ignored or rejected the movement. And many conservative defenders of police look at the racial disparities in the justice system and argue that they're a representation not of police wrongdoing but of other problems in minority communities, where crime and poverty are higher.

(The research doesn't fully support this view: Studies have found strong evidence of subconscious racial biases among police officers, and a review of the research by the Sentencing Project found high crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons over the past several decades.)

Still, Black Lives Matter is now a serious national political movement. And it's perhaps even more potent in Baltimore, one of the cities that faced massive protests after an instance of alleged police brutality. Mckesson's entrance into formal politics is just the latest sign of the movement's growing legitimacy and reach.