Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had an emotional message for violent protesters who brought ‘chaos’ to her city.
WASHINGTON – Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms knows what it’s like to have the police come to your house, tear everything apart, including your box of toys, and watch your father taken away, hands cuffed behind his back.
When that happened during her childhood, police ordered 8-year-old Bottoms and her two older siblings to sit on the couch and not move. Even after the officers left, Bottoms stayed put for hours, afraid of being in trouble if she got up.
That traumatic experience, friends say, helps explain how she makes tough decisions as a mayor to address unrest over police violence and discuss the issues in an empathetic way that has resonated across the country.
Atlanta’s 60th mayor – and only the second African American woman to serve in that role – has emerged as a leading figure amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose neck was pinned to the ground under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for nearly nine minutes.
“Her life experience is a uniquely African American experience,” said friend and fellow mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., “that of a woman to whom nothing was given.”
Nearly three weeks after Floyd’s death, the anguish over a police killing repeated itself in Atlanta when Rayshard Brooks was shot Friday outside a Wendy’s after officers responded to a call about him being asleep in his car in the drive-through lane.
Bottoms, 50, moved quickly to fire the police officer who shot Brooks, and the incident led to the resignation of Police Chief Erika Shields, a Bottoms ally who will remain in the department.
“Up until Friday, I thought we were doing it right,” Bottoms said on CNN Sunday. “People are looking to us to lead, but when these things continue to happen over and over again, we’re asking ourselves the same questions. How do we lead during this time?”
Not another minute to waste
Monday, she decided not to wait for recommendations from the advisory panel she recently created on use-of-force policies and unveiled several executive orders. At a news conference carried live on cable television, Bottoms said she would require Atlanta police officers to employ “de-escalation techniques” during confrontations, report all use of deadly force to the city’s citizen review board and intervene to prevent the use of excessive force by fellow officers.
“There is a fierce urgency of now in our communities,” she said, quoting one of the city’s favorite sons, Martin Luther King Jr. “It is clear we do not have another day, another minute … to waste.”
After Floyd’s death, Bottoms unflinchingly called out looters and rioters in a powerful speech that garnered national attention and was followed by the dismissal of local officers who arrested and tased two college protesters. The prosecutor’s independent decision to charge the six officers involved in the tasing incident with using excessive force has strained relations between the city and the police officers’ union.
Even before the turmoil, Bottoms, a Democrat, made a national splash in April with her criticism of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s controversial plan to lift social distancing restrictions as COVID-19 infections were rising.
“She was immediately thrust into the spotlight to become like the spokesperson for all mayors,” said Tharon Johnson, an Atlanta-based political consultant who is a confidant to Bottoms.
When President Donald Trump pushed local officials to get tough with protesters, threatening to deploy “the unlimited power of our military” across the country and greet protesters at the White House with “vicious dogs,” Bottoms said Trump “should just stop talking.”
“He speaks and he makes it worse,” Bottoms said on one of the Sunday morning news shows where she’s now a sought-after guest.
Mentioned as Joe Biden’s running mate
She also testified last month before Congress about the pandemic and was one of four mayors who participated this month in a virtual round-table discussion with former Vice President Joe Biden about police violence. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge Trump in November, singled her out for praise.
“By the way, you’ve been incredible,” Biden told her. “I’ve watched you like millions and millions of Americans have on television of late. Your passion, your composure, your balance has been really incredible.”
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During her three years running the city, Bottoms created Atlanta’s first fully staffed Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, blocked the city jail from housing federal immigrant detainees and established a website (Atlanta’s Open Checkbook) aimed at sharing key financial information such as city budget, expenses and vendors.
She also ended cash bail bonds “meaning if you get stopped for a traffic ticket and you don’t have $200 to pay you don’t stay in jail simply because you are poor,” she said during her news conference Monday.
Essence Magazine, whose target audience is Black women, praised the decision to end cash bail bonds but noted the criticism she received for her support of the Atlanta Police Department. One of her first actions was approving a $10 million increase in pay for police officers, the largest bump for law enforcement in the city’s history.
“Bottoms is Black; her name is Black; but are her politics in the best interest of Black people?” the magazine asked.
Atlanta is often called the “capital of Black America.” The legacies of civil rights icons such as King, John Lewis and Andrew Young still reverberate in the city.
Bottoms had been an early backer of Biden, a move that generated some criticism for passing over the two African American senators seeking the nomination, California’s Kamala Harris and New Jersey’s Cory Booker.
“She was with Joe Biden before it became cool to be with Joe Biden,” Johnson said. “She was even with Joe Biden when it became unpopular to be with Joe Biden.”
So it wasn’t surprising when Bottoms, a former judge, was among those mentioned as a possible running mate after Biden pledged to pick a woman for the ticket. Her stock has risen in recent weeks both because of the increased pressure on Biden to pick a Black woman and because of how Bottoms has handled herself in the spotlight.
“She has found her voice,” said Hardie Davis Jr., mayor of Augusta, Ga. “This is Mayor Lance Bottoms’ time.”
Her increasing mention as a potential running mate has vaulted her past Stacey Abrams, another African American woman from Atlanta whose narrow loss to Kemp in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race had her considering a presidential bid at one time.
On Thursday, Bottoms is hosting a “Women for Biden” call with Valerie Jarrett, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama.
Still, Bottoms is considered a long shot to make the ticket given her lack of national experience. The Brooks shooting could also complicate her selection just as Floyd’s death was seen as harmful to Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s chances of being Biden’s running mate.
Takeya McCarthy, a city resident who was protesting Monday, said she’s unhappy with Bottoms’ response so far.
“As a Black woman, I want to support her but I don’t agree with how she’s handling it,” said McCarthy, who wants the police department to be dismantled and rebuilt. “I think there needs to be more said.”
‘She’s from the neighborhood. And that matters’
Born in Atlanta, Bottoms is the youngest child of Sylvia Robinson and the late Major Lance, a rhythm and blues singer. Paul McCartney carried Lance’s record “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um: The Best of Major Lance” when The Beatles arrived home after their first U.S. tour in 1964.
Before he would go on to stardom as Elton John, a young Reggie Dwight played piano in Lance’s band.
But after Lance’s record sales waned, he began dealing drugs and was arrested in 1978.
“At age 8, I learned that good people sometimes make bad decisions,” Bottoms said in a 2019 interview on the Touré Show podcast.
Bottoms watched her mother struggle to make ends meet as her father spent three years in prison. The experience “propelled” her to go to law school and informs much of her work on criminal justice issues, including what drug counseling and other services she wishes had been there for her father.
During her 2017 mayoral race, the then-city council member opened up about that painful part of her history.
“To hear her tell those stories over the course of the campaign, I think really humanized her,” Benjamin said. “That was when you heard people talking about `Black girl magic.’ She’s authentic. She’s smart. She thinks deep. She’s very thoughtful and strategic about how she handles these tough issues.”
Bottoms also described, in one of her 2017 campaign ads, how she and her husband have had to repeatedly talk with their teenage son about what to do if he’s stopped by the police. Bottoms said her white opponent for the mayor’s job couldn’t “change something that she doesn’t even know exists.”
“When you think about Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, she’s from the neighborhood. And that matters,” said Davis, the Augusta mayor who describes himself as almost a big brother to Bottoms.
‘Above everything else, I am a mother’
Bottoms, who adopted four children with her husband, frequently mentions her three sons and daughter.
In a May interview with USA TODAY, Bottoms described how she struggled with the same juggling act shared by other parents of children learning from home because of the novel coronavirus. Bottoms said she’d had to run up two flights of stairs in the middle of chairing a virtual economic development meeting that morning after realizing she’d forgotten to wake up her son for a class.
In the midst of her public disagreement with the governor over coronavirus restrictions, Bottoms shared on Twitter the text she and one of her children received in April that used a racial epithet and told her to “shut up and reopen Atlanta.”
“I know for me to show any type of fear, or anything less than remain focused and holding my head up and doing what I need to do just wouldn’t set a good example for them,” she told USA TODAY about her decision to tweet out the text in an effort to show anyone who doubted that racism is real.
Watching the video of Floyd’s death, Bottoms said at a news conference May 29, “hurt like a mother would hurt.”
She called her 18-year-old son to warn him that she couldn’t protect him and he should stay home.
“Above everything else, I am a mother,” she began in her plea to rioters and demonstrators after Floyd’s death.
Bottoms said the violence was not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. but was disgracing the city, the life of Floyd and “every other person who has been killed in this country.”
“So when you burn down this city, you’re burning down our community!” she said. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote.”
Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, said Bottoms has “been able to walk an interesting kind of line” between empathizing with protesters and forcefully addressing issues in her own police force while calling for peace and calm in a way that appeases centrists.
“She has gotten a lot of attention among mainstream audiences because the decisions that she’s making appear to be very reasoned and measured decisions,” Gillespie said. “I think that she is definitely going to be a player in public dialogue and I think she will be a player in Democratic Party politics in greater degree than she already was a result of the things that have happened this year.”
Unfazed by criticism
That Bottoms has been seriously mentioned as a running mate for Biden is not a surprise to Dave Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit partnership between private and public officials created to make the city safer. He calls her “sharp” and a natural leader.
“Anybody who heard her speak the night of those protests would have said ‘Now there’s somebody that’s in charge that certainly would be worthy of being the nominee for the vice president,’” said Wilkinson, a former U.S. Secret Service agent who once headed the division charged with protecting the president.
While Bottoms has her critics, she stands up for herself, even when it comes to defending her macaroni and cheese. After a photo she’d tweeted of her homemade dish went viral in 2018 as critics attacked it as looking dry, she reprised the dish in a later tweet, declaring “#iainteverscared.”
One of her favorite poets is Audre Lorde, a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” whom Bottoms has been quoting lately because of Lorde’s admonition that “revolution is not a one-time event.”
And in the midst of her public pushback in April of the governor’s move to reopen before she thought it safe for her city, Bottoms tweeted out a photo of her morning coffee mug emblazoned with another Lorde phrase that inspires her: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
Contributing: David Heath
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