Civil rights activist DeRay McKesson neither wants nor needs my sympathy. In fact, given the accusations being hurled at him, sympathy from an old white man is probably the last thing he needs right now. Nevertheless, I sympathized with him for the abuse heaped upon him after he announced his support for J.D. Merrill in the state senate race in the 41st legislative district in Baltimore.
Maybe I recognized some of the shaming of Mr. McKesson that is now going on. More on that later.
Mr. Merrill, a former teacher and administrator with the Baltimore City Public Schools, is the son-in-law of former mayor and governor Martin O’Malley. He is running against the incumbent, Senator Jill Carter, appointed by Governor Larry Hogan to fill the rest of the term of Nathaniel Oaks, who is scheduled to be sentenced next month after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. Ms. Carter is a civil rights icon in the city who served 14 years in the House of Delegates before becoming the Director of the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement in January 2007.
Growing up in the Wyndhurst neighborhood of the city and attending Roland Park Elementary, Gilman School, City College and Davidson College, Mr. Merrill fairly reeks of white privilege. Ms. Carter is the daughter of one of Baltimore’s greatest civil rights leaders, Walter P. Carter. It’s an interesting match-up to say the least and, at least in Baltimore, it was bound to get ugly.
Ms. Carter’s supporters began to get nervous when Mr. Merrill gained a significant upper hand in fundraising. Mr. Merrill did his part to stir the pot by attacking Ms. Carter for her attendance record while in the General Assembly.
Things really deteriorated, however, after Mr. McKesson, who gained national prominence as a member of the Black Lives Matter movement, announced his endorsement of Mr. Merrill. Mr. McKesson explained his endorsement by stating:
“J.D. won’t just talk about civil rights and social justice, he’ll build the coalitions necessary to deliver real results for our communities.”
The response on social media was immediate and nasty, full of ad hominem attacks on Mr. McKesson from supporters of Ms. Carter.
Mr. McKesson certainly has reason to be less than impressed with Ms. Carter’s style, or with her coalition-building skills. When he ran for mayor in 2016, Ms. Carter got personal in her attacks on him.
Then-Delegate Carter told The Guardian that Mr. McKesson’s run for mayor was “ridiculous.” She added:
“He has no authenticity and no base other than Twitter followers,” she said. “I’m a little worried that his decision is another self-serving scheme that will further divide our justice movement.”
In other words, Ms. Carter went right for the jugular, not satisfied with simply criticizing Mr. McKesson’s decision to run and choosing also to attack his character, basically calling him a self-serving poseur. There probably is no greater slur against an activist for any cause, especially civil rights, than calling that activist a phony.
Why was the personal attack necessary? Did she see him as a competitor for leadership of what she described as “our justice movement” that she wanted to squash?
If Ms. Carter really was concerned about dividing that movement, would she have lashed out at someone with 330,000 followers on Twitter, pitting her supporters against Mr. McKesson’s? I doubt it. In any event, I am sure that her insulting remarks did little to endear her to Mr. McKesson.
As an aside, I recommend that you read the story by Greg Howard of the New York Times if you want a more balanced account of Mr. McKesson and his quixotic run for mayor in 2016. Small world that it is, Mr. Howard, like Ms. Carter, is a graduate of Loyola University in Baltimore. A native of Bowie, Mr. Howard went to work out of state after he graduated from Loyola, so he may get dismissed as just another “outsider.” Nevertheless, his description of Mr. McKesson suggests that there is much more to Mr. McKesson than the inauthentic, self-serving schemer described by Ms. Carter in 2016.
Mr. McKesson’s intimation that Ms. Carter’s accomplishments do not match her rhetoric hit a raw nerve with Ms. Carter and her supporters. For me, however, it had a ring of truth. In my opinion, the nature of her rhetoric often does more harm than good by getting in the way of results.
I am not discounting the fact that Ms. Carter has been a tireless advocate for civil rights; that is to her credit. There is no denying that she is smart, skilled and capable. I believe that it is fair, however, to question whether her occasional scorched-earth approach – like the language she employed against Mr. McKesson two years ago – has interfered with her ability to build a consensus behind her ideas.
Ironically, it was her attacks on Mr. Merrill’s father-in-law, former mayor and governor Martin O’Malley, that first drew my attention to Ms. Carter’s aggressive rhetoric. When she was in the House of Delegates, Ms. Carter was an outspoken and vehement critic of the “zero tolerance” policing strategy that Mr. O’Malley instituted when he was Baltimore’s mayor. She stated that the policy led to mass arrests of young black men and later described the policy as not only wrong but “savagely wrong.” As with Mr. McKesson, things became personal between Mr. O’Malley and Ms. Carter.
Mr. O’Malley believed that draconian measures were necessary to save the city from the wave of violent crime that was gripping the city when he took office as mayor in 2000. Whether he was right or wrong, he understandably bristled at suggestions that the policies that he advocated were racist or had an adverse effect on minority neighborhoods.
The thin-skinned O’Malley did not forgive Ms. Carter when he became governor in 2007. That year, Ms. Carter called for Mr. O’Malley to convene a special session of the General Assembly to address a 50% rate hike proposed by BGE. “I don’t support anything that Delegate Carter is for,” Mr. O’Malley remarked at a meeting.
The problem for Ms. Carter was that Mr. Malley wasn’t kidding. He was governor for eight years. Even Ms. Carter admitted that she felt “marginalized” during her time in the House of Delegates and accomplished less than she had hoped to.
All of which leads me to this: It was fair game for Mr. McKesson to suggest that the 41st district needs a senator who focuses less on talking and more on building coalitions to get the help that the city so desperately needs. The voters of the district will decide if he is correct and, if so, which candidate best fits that description.
It is likely that Ms. Carter will defeat Mr. Merrill in the Democratic primary and remain in her seat. If so, perhaps she will take Mr. McKesson’s remarks to heart, dial back the rhetoric, and build the types of coalitions necessary to pull her district and the city back from the edge of the abyss. At the very least, maybe she will stop making enemies that she doesn’t need to make, which is exactly what she did with Mr. McKesson.
In choosing to endorse Mr. Merrill, Mr. McKesson stepped out of line with the political establishment in Baltimore. I believe that the sociological term du jour used to describe the sorry state of contemporary American politics is “neotribalism.” Maybe my sympathy for Mr. McKesson is based in part with my own recent experience in bucking tribal norms.
In my case, the tribe was the legal establishment in Anne Arundel County, where I lived and practiced law for 36 years. That tribe is overwhelmingly white. For example, there are 12 judges and six magistrates on the Circuit Court. All are lily white.
Last month I wrote a guest column in the Annapolis Capital condemning Judge Mark Crooks for attending a fundraiser in Severna Park last year for disgraced former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore. At the time, Mr. Moore was raising money for his run to represent Alabama in the United States Senate and Judge Crooks was running for election to a full 15-year term on the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.
Mr. Moore is an enemy of the rule of law. First elected chief justice in 2001, Mr. Moore was removed from office in 2003 for refusing to obey a federal court order instructing him to remove a monument to the Ten Commandants that he had installed in the state judiciary building. The people of Alabama again elected Mr. Moore chief justice in 2013.
Mr. Moore was suspended from his position as chief justice in 2016 and later resigned after instructing state probate court judges that they could refuse to apply the 2015 decision of the United States Supreme Court on same-sex marriages. Mr. Moore also has a long history of making racially and religiously bigoted remarks.
When asked about his attendance at Mr. Moore’s fundraiser, Judge Crooks stated that he was not “even remotely” aware of Mr. Moore’s background at the time of the fundraiser in September 2017. It was a claim that not everyone believed. In my opinion, Judge Crooks never adequately apologized for his mistake, if that is what it was.
In the face of the threat posed by President Donald Trump to the rule of law in this country, I have become a rule-of-law zealot. I have heeded the admonition by the conservative political analyst William Kristol that we have as much to fear from the “enablers and legitimizers” as the would-be despots. So, speaking of zero tolerance, I have zero tolerance for sitting judges who legitimize the enemies of the rule of law like Roy Moore by attending their fundraisers.
I knew I would get blowback from supporters of Judge Crooks for the guest column, and I did. There never is a shortage of practicing lawyers anxious to curry favor with a sitting judge.
I also heard from the legal and political establishment in Anne Arundel County. In the minds of some, I had turned on one of my own and deserved to be shamed and shunned. Here is an excerpt from an email that I received from a well-known lobbyist who told me that he was helping Judge Crooks with the election and had urged him to go to all political events:
“David – I could not remain silent and not respond to your despicable and just plain mean op-ed piece concerning Mark Crooks. You should be absolutely ashamed of yourself and I know from talking to people in the community, you have damaged your reputation and people have less respect for you, if any at all. . . You have completely changed my view about you from your outlandish column and as a former prosecutor and good lawyer you should be ashamed of what you wrote. I know Mark Crooks served our country honorable, and like you, a highly regarded state prosecutor. Shame shame on you.”
By stating that I can sympathize with Mr. McKesson about what happens when you take on an existing power structure I am not suggesting that our situations were comparable. I am largely retired from the practice of law and not looking for work, can withstand the loss of a few “friends” in the power structure and, most importantly, don’t expect to be in court in Anne Arundel County any time soon – I hope.
It took much more courage for Mr. McKesson to buck the establishment, especially if he hopes to remain active in Baltimore political and civic affairs. He can expect to be shamed, shunned and even punished for taking on the old guard; it is the unfortunate world we live in. I don’t subscribe to everything that Mr. McKesson says, but I admire his guts.
Finally, a word about “outsiders.” A lot of the criticism of Mr. McKesson’s decision to endorse Mr. Merrill included observations that, although Mr. McKesson is from Baltimore, he is not of Baltimore. Because he has spent much of his adult life (he is only 32) somewhere other than Baltimore, he is deemed an outsider.
You get that a lot in Baltimore. I certainly do, even though I’ve lived in the Baltimore metropolitan area for 45 years and attended law school in Baltimore for four years. I’m not a Baltimorean, and I accept that.
This parochial attitude is problematic for several reasons, however, including the fact that the city is so desperately in need of the state’s help. It is hard enough to persuade Maryland taxpayers who live outside the city that they should be willing to pay more taxes to support the city. When they hear that they are supposed to send money but keep their opinions on what to do with the money to themselves – and I have heard that sentiment expressed many times – the task just gets harder.
But the kicker, at least for me, is this: If the current “insiders” had been a bit more successful in running the city over the past decade or so, maybe there would be something to be said about not wanting outsiders coming in and messing things up. The reality, however, is that the city has been in a state of crisis for years, and the crisis is deepening. A little fresh blood and some insights from outsiders couldn’t possibly do any harm.
David A. Plymyer