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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told Yahoo News on Wednesday that President Trump lacks the credibility on race relations needed to unite the country following the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Bottoms, whose impassioned response to the rioting that broke out in her city on Friday following protests over Floyd’s death went viral, said in an exclusive interview that Trump should look for a surrogate to represent his administration on the ongoing crisis.
“My best advice, if anyone were to ask me from the Trump administration, the same way that you allow Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx to speak with credibility on COVID-19, search this nation for someone who can speak with credibility on race relations on behalf of this administration,” Bottoms said. “At least be able to articulate that people are being heard.”
A passionate advocate for criminal justice reform, Bottoms has herself emerged as a leading Democratic voice on the protests gripping the nation. In April, she said she “would be honored” to be considered as Joe Biden’s running mate, and her forceful addresses to her citizens over the protests are believed to have elevated her chances. But Atlanta has also seen its share of violence between police and protesters over the course of the last week, leading Bottoms to impose a nighttime curfew.
On Tuesday, six Atlanta police officers were charged with assaulting two African-American college students. Video of the violent arrest of the students, who were tased by the officers before being dragged from their car, sparked outrage, including from Bottoms herself. On Saturday, she announced that two of the officers, both of whom are African-American, had been fired.
In the following extended telephone interview with Yahoo News (which has been edited for clarity), the mayor opened up about the challenges she faces in restoring order to her city, what she sees as Trump’s failure of leadership and the bigger challenge of reforming policing across America.
David Knowles: You’ve been very critical of President Trump’s response to this crisis. What specifically do you see as his mistakes?
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms: There have been so many I can’t even begin to count. And I think what has settled upon me is that I’m spending too much time on him. This is a 70-something-year-old man who is likely not going to change. He has more years behind him than he has ahead of him. I think it is incumbent upon all of us and me personally to channel that energy away from him to the future. My best advice, if anyone were to ask me from the Trump administration, the same way that you allow Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx to speak with credibility on COVID-19, search this nation for someone who can speak with credibility on race relations on behalf of this administration. At least be able to articulate that people are being heard. In his very unstable way I truly believe that he is likely enjoying the instability. To the extent that we can’t look to him and expect for him to offer us any more than he already has, I think we’ve got to turn in a different direction.
"This is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated we didn't do this to our city," Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said. "If you want change in America, go and register to vote." https://t.co/fenfgQPZqO pic.twitter.com/DLFf4DhHXw
— CNN (@CNN) May 30, 2020
Your passionate speech on Friday after protests in Atlanta turned destructive is being held up as a response from someone who can speak with credibility on race relations. I’m curious if you faced any criticism from members of the community in Atlanta who felt like your advice to “go home” was not what they wanted to hear at that moment.
Yeah, I mean, there are always going to be people who disagree, but just in the same way that people were taking to the streets to express their feelings and their frustrations. I just did it in a different place and space. Above everything else, before I was mayor, I’m a mother of four children, and that’s what you heard from me on Friday. There were peaceful protesters out there who started out with good intentions, and there were clearly people who came to wreak havoc on our streets. What I was attempting to convey in that moment was: If you love the legacy of this city, then please go home. We can deal with the disruptors, but when you have such a large crowd, it’s difficult to separate the good from the bad. Even over the past few days that’s what we’re seeing in the city. People who respect peaceful and powerful protests are doing it during the day, before curfew, and the people who want to wreak havoc, the cowards who want to wreak havoc, are coming out under the cover of darkness.
You’ve spoken about the plan for reforming police departments that the Obama administration laid out after the protests in Ferguson, including his executive order to ban the transfer of military surplus to police. Why do you think President Trump turned away from those reforms?
I can’t begin to understand the thinking of a madman. In the same way, he disregarded the pandemic playbook that was left for him. Who knows? I can only assume it’s in keeping with whatever macho image he wants to convey to America, but this was a well-thought-out plan that came from the Obama-Biden administration, and I think to the extent that we’ve had any grace in Atlanta is that we’ve still been following that handbook. We’re trying to build and legitimize relationships with our police and our communities long before there’s a problem. Having our police recruits volunteer at our youth center, having meaningful engagement and dialogue, having our police officers attend community meetings so that our community can call upon them for the good and the bad — it’s working in Atlanta, and it’s unfortunate that Donald Trump would disregard something that’s working well. That’s not leadership.
You were one of the first elected officials to endorse Joe Biden for president. What is it about him that convinces you he’ll be able to start to help bridge the divide between police and the African-American community?
What I see in Joe Biden today is what I saw when I endorsed him [on June 28, 2019]: He has a heart for our community, and he listens. I can’t stress that enough. There have been so many policies that he has rolled out during his campaign that I know he has listened to the concerns of black mayors from across this country and incorporated them into his platform. I think that’s what you have to have right now. By all accounts, during the Obama-Biden administration, there was a true respect and regard for governors and mayors across the country because there was a genuine belief that they knew their communities. That has been completely lost. It’s the reason I know Joe Biden is the right person to lead America. I watched his speech yesterday. That is what a president looks and sounds like. Those are the words that we need to hear.
On Tuesday, six officers in Atlanta — five of whom are African-American — were charged in connection with the arrest of two black college students who they dragged from their car. After seeing video of the arrest, you decided to get personally involved with that case. On an emotional level, what did you experience when you watched how that incident unfolded?
It was like watching my children being attacked. It was difficult. These were kids being kids, and the thing that kept going through my mind was a sense of gratitude that it didn’t get any worse. On one of the bodycams, you could hear one of the officers say, “Gun, gun, gun!” He thinks he sees a gun, but you know, that happens in the heat of a moment, and I’m just grateful their injuries weren’t any worse. We took some time to review the footage and reviewed additional footage yesterday after the charges were brought, so we have a bit more information than we even had on Sunday. We’ll have some additional announcements on that soon.
You’ve spoken about what you’ve called the “tough balance” between criticizing police and supporting them. How does that play when you get involved in a case like this?
I know a lot of these guys. I went to high school, elementary school with a lot of these guys who are on our police department, so I know that the vast majority of our police officers love this city. You have to look at it on an individual basis. I know the police officers who are volunteering at our Police Athletic League. Even one of the officers involved in this incident has taken homeless kids into his home and provided them some shelter and guidance, so it’s difficult to… you can’t just stereotype an entire force. You’ve got to look at it on a case-by-case, individual-by-individual basis. Now, this is unfortunate, but when I spoke Friday about not being able to protect people in our streets, this was the fear that I was speaking because I also know that our police officers are human. And I know that on Friday night they were being attacked, they were being assaulted and they’re exhausted. When people get exhausted, it’s human nature, your fuse gets short. My fear is that we would have situations just like we saw, with the fuses getting short and things going completely sideways. Again, I’m just grateful it wasn’t any worse.
Spotting institutional police misconduct against African-Americans is a lot easier than weeding it out. If you were president, what concrete steps would you take to help solve this problem that has haunted America for so long?
I think there’s immediate work, and then there’s long-term work. What we’ve seen over the last few days is that we’ve lost the luxury of time. In Atlanta, I think we did some immediate things to show the community that we’re serious about criminal justice reform. We immediately eliminated cash bail bonds in the city. I ended the relationship with ICE. Then there are these long-term things, like our transition program for men transitioning out of prison who go out each day and work a full-time job, full-time pay and benefits with the city of Atlanta, and then when they finish their sentences they have full-time work with the city. There’s the work to transition our jail into a center of equity, health and wellness — those things take time. So I think it will be incumbent upon the Biden administration to do some things that are immediately tangible, such as eliminating cash bail bonds at the federal level. But then there’s the long-term work that has to be done to, I can’t even say “restore,” but create trust with our community. “Restore” would mean we’ve had it, and I don’t know that we have.
In the immediate future, how do you see this current standoff in your city and others around the country ending?
I have no idea. In Atlanta right now we’re taking it hour by hour. I’ve been thinking a lot about the civil rights movement in America and how change really happened, and part of it is being able to articulate what the point of satisfaction was. I think in this moment it’s going to be important for us to articulate that. I looked at a letter that Ruby Doris Smith and Mary Ann Smith and the students at Atlanta University wrote in 1960, and there were very clearly delineated grievances and what they wanted in return at the local, state and federal level. I think that’s the work that we’ve got to begin doing immediately. We know the anger and frustration is there. We don’t want to see another black person killed in America. Then, beyond that, what else? I think that is the undone work that’s going to help us get past this moment.
Cover photo: WGCL via CNN