Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stepped into the national spotlight on Friday night, denouncing vandalism in her city as “chaos” after demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, who was pinned down by a Minneapolis police officer now charged with his murder, turned violent and destructive.
“What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” an impassioned Bottoms said at a news conference. “This is chaos.”
As thousands of protesters gathered in more than thirty cities, the Atlanta mayor, whose name has been floated as a possible vice presidential pick for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is facing a high stakes test of her leadership at home. Bottoms was joined at the news conference by local hip hop artists, civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Bernice King, and law enforcement officials, as she mixed empathy with anger and pleaded with protesters to “go home.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said he issued a state of emergency overnight at Bottoms’ request that could send as many as 500 National Guard troops to Fulton County.
Rising star in the Democratic Party
Bottoms, a former judge and city council member, was sworn in as mayor in 2018 and has quickly emerged as one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars. On Friday night, amid a swirl of increasingly tense and occasionally violent scenes, she faced the cameras, her constituents – and the country.
“I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old. And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt,” Bottoms said. “And yesterday when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do, I called my son and I said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I cannot protect you and black boys shouldn’t be out today.’”
She stopped for a moment, pursed her lips, and then delivered a frank and personal message.
“So, you’re not going to out-concern me and out-care about where we are in America,” Bottoms said. “I wear this each and every day, and I pray over my children, each and every day.”
The daughter of 1960s R&B star Major Lance, Keisha Lance Bottoms, a self-described “daughter of Atlanta” and its public schools, attended Florida A&M, a historically black university in Tallahassee, as an undergrad before returning home to obtain her law degree from Georgia State University. By the time she was elected the city’s 60th mayor – and second woman to hold the office – in a run-off following a race that initially featured more than a dozen candidates, Bottoms’ name was on the mind of party operatives and pundits well outside Atlanta.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday about Trump’s threat to use the military against protesters, an exasperated Bottoms said she wished Trump would simply stay silent.
“He should just stop talking. This is like Charlottesville all over again,” Bottoms said on “State of the Union.” “He speaks and he makes it worse. There are times when you should just be quiet and I wish that he would just be quiet. Or if he can’t be silent, if there is somebody of good sense and good conscience in the White House, put him in front of a teleprompter and pray he reads it and at least says the right things, because he is making it worse.”
CNN reached out to the White House for response to Bottoms’ comments on Sunday.
Bottoms told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta in an interview available Tuesday on his podcast, “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction,” that she is trying to strike the right balance between recognizing the movement that is happening while also trying to maintain law and order in her city amid the unrest.
“This has been a really tough balance because I feel helpless. I feel angry. I feel frustrated,” the mayor explained. “But the balance to that, I know that there are men and women who put on a uniform every day who love and care about our community. And they do it for all the right reasons.”
She continued: “And that’s the vast majority of our police officers in our city – at least think they do it with a good heart and with good intentions.”
In early July of 2019, Bottoms spoke out forcefully against planned Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Atlanta, and other cities, telling CNN at the time that her city was “not complicit in what’s happening.”
She dismissed the federal targeting of migrants as a means of reducing crime, as the Trump administration has often framed it, and said her office would provide legal assistance to immigrant families, in English and Spanish, and warned those communities to be vigilant ahead of the scheduled sweeps.
“Our officers don’t enforce immigration borders,” Bottoms said. “We’ve closed our city detention centers to ICE because we don’t want to be complicit in family separation.”
A few weeks earlier, in late June, Bottoms made a memorable appearance in Miami, where she attended Biden’s first Democratic presidential primary debate as a guest of the candidate’s wife, Jill. In the aftermath, as the political world calculated the damage Sen. Kamala Harris had done to Biden with her attack on his past position on busing, another piece of news crossed mostly unnoticed: Bottoms had officially endorsed Biden.
From there on, she became one of his strongest surrogates, attending other debates and standing by his side even as the polls showed Biden slipping ahead of the first round of voting this year.
“He is a strong candidate and there have been some bumps along the way, but I think that’s to be expected. Nobody ever said it would be easy,” Bottoms told Atlanta’s 11Alive news in November 2019, touting Biden’s strong standing in the state. “When you look at the legacy that the Obama-Biden administration has in Georgia, people remember that and especially when you look at large groups of people of color as a demographic in our state then, by and large, especially our seasoned African American voters, are solidly behind Joe Biden.”
Bottoms’ assessment of a campaign still in flux would be proven out over the coming months, as African American voters, especially older members of the community in states like South Carolina, helped revive Biden’s campaign and vault him to the front of the primary pack. By April, he had consolidated the field and emerged as the party’s presumptive nominee.
In a statement Saturday, Biden campaign national spokesman TJ Ducklo applauded Bottoms’ grace under fire.
“Vice President Biden has been grateful for Mayor Bottoms’ support and counsel since the earliest days of our campaign,” Ducklo said. “Her passion, her empathy and her strong and steady leadership are shining through during this difficult moment, and the city of Atlanta is lucky to have her leading the way.”
Bottoms ‘spoke to us from the heart’
Sarah Riggs Amico, who ran alongside Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018 as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, praised Bottoms on Saturday morning for her message and moral authority.
“Mayor Bottoms spoke to us from the heart not just as a leader, but as a mother of four black children, reminding us that the safety and freedom of our families and our community must remain our primary collective focus,” said Amico, who is running in Georgia’s Democratic Senate primary on June 9.
The protests in Atlanta had started peacefully Friday afternoon, when crowds gathered in the city’s famed Centennial Park. But by 6 p.m. ET, demonstrators began moving toward the front of the CNN Center, where police had gathered. Over the next few hours, the gathering swelled as SWAT officers were called in to confront the crowds.
Later, protesters could be seen damaging the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta, which is sandwiched between State Farm Arena and Centennial Park.
In response, Bottoms referenced CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, who earlier Friday had been arrested – and then released about an hour later – while covering protests over Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.
“There was a black reporter who was arrested on camera this morning, who works for CNN. They are telling our stories, and you are disgracing their building,” she said. “We are no longer talking about the murder of an innocent man. We’re talking about how you’re burning police cars on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia.”
Demonstrators funneled their anguish in cities like New York and Washington into chants, signs and occasional outbreaks of disorder, smashing windows and setting vehicles ablaze. Police in New York were also captured on video posted to social media lashing out violently at protesters in Brooklyn.
“A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city,” Bottoms said in Atlanta. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote … That is the change we need in this country.”
This story has been updated Sunday with additional developments.
CNN’s Chandelis Duster and Devan Cole contributed to this report.