On Policing In Baltimore, Activist DeRay Mckesson Gets Retweets. Can He Get Votes? : Code Switch The Black Lives Matter activist is the city's highest-profile mayoral candidate but low in polls. Voters, who say policing is a top concern, are looking to candidates with more experience.

On Policing In Baltimore, Activist DeRay Mckesson Gets Retweets. Can He Get Votes?

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It was a year ago today that Freddie Gray was arrested in Baltimore. He was fatally injured in police custody, and he died a week later. After violent protests following his death, the current mayor said that she would not run again, and now crime and criminal justice are top concerns in the city's crowded mayoral primary this month.

The winner of the Democratic run run-off is almost certain to be the next mayor, and there are more than a dozen Democrats running, including a prominent activist with Black Lives Matter. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Now, the race's highest profile candidate is among its lowest polling. I find 30-year-old DeRay McKesson working out of a trendy coffee shop in his signature blue vest, taking a selfie with former colleagues.


DERAY MCKESSON: That's great. Snapchat me.


MCKESSON: Reunions (laughter).

LUDDEN: Nearly two years ago, McKesson left a six-figure job in education to protest police brutality full-time. That brought him back to his hometown where McKesson says he now wants to focus on concrete change.

MCKESSON: We can change the way that we police and think of our safety today, and the local level is where most often those changes have the most impact.

LUDDEN: McKesson's activism has drawn national attention - a meeting with President Obama, an appearance on Stephen Colbert's show, smartphone in hand. He has as many Twitter followers as there are registered voters in Baltimore.

MCKESSON: You know, when I Periscope house parties and I do Facebook live, we average a few thousand people who look at all of that every time.

ROGER HARTLEY: Can he take all of that social media and fame nationally and turn it into a ground game?

LUDDEN: So far, no, says Roger Hartley of the University of Baltimore. McKesson registers barely 1 percent in polls. Hartley says he entered the race late, and his rivals are also talking about policing and inequality.

HARTLEY: And they have served. They have a record. They have won elections in those districts.

LUDDEN: The front-runner is State Senator Catherine Pugh. In a debate on local CBS affiliate WJZ, she touted her role on state and national police reform commissions.


CATHERINE PUGH: Working with the state is really important in terms of how we reform the police department, how we create opportunities and how we lift some of the issues that are painful in this city.

LUDDEN: Behind her in the latest poll - former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, whose experience cuts both ways. Dixon's faced jabs over a 2009 embezzlement conviction. But in the WJZ debate, she said that doesn't define her.


SHEILA DIXON: I know how to roll up my sleeves. I know how to work with communities and bring people together. My plans are very clear that I can hit the ground running the first day in office.

LUDDEN: In a gentrifying midtown neighborhood, 23-year-old Becca McKenny is excited to vote. She protested after Freddie Gray's arrest and death last April and is frustrated that not much has changed. Just recently, she says...

BECCA MCKENNY: I got pulled over by the police coming home from school 10 at night with my - you see my neon pink backpack. And why?

LUDDEN: A short drive away near Freddie Gray's neighborhood, Brian McAlily wants a new mayor to change the way police treat people.

BRIAN MCALILY: Do like we used to do in the old days. The police need to come out here and shake hands with everybody, get to know the neighborhood.

LUDDEN: Political analyst Roger Hartley says there's widespread frustration. With a lame-duck mayor and at least a third of the city council also set to change, Hartley says it's all left a vacuum.

HARTLEY: Not a lot has been done, and it's almost like there's been a hold button placed (laughter) right now to see who's going to be the next leadership.

LUDDEN: The likely next mayor will face a leadership test soon. The trials of the six police officers charged in Freddie Gray's death have also been on hold. They're set the start again next month. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Baltimore.

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