Opinion: The turning point for Atlanta’s spiral into violence

It is no small thing to send government troops into a capital city that hasn't asked for them. One executive's act of necessity is another executive's breach of trust.

Bridges will have to be rebuilt. We will all have to figure out how and why we came to be here.

For Gov. Brian Kemp, the turning point in the city of Atlanta came last weekend.

The governor’s Monday order cited the shooting death of an 8-year-old girl, the ransacking of Georgia State Patrol headquarters by a midnight army of vandals, and the failure or unwillingness of city officials to take control of a plot of land where a police officer had shot a fleeing, inebriated man in the back last month, killing him.

On Tuesday morning, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was asked if she agreed with Kemp’s decision to send in as many as 1,000 members of the National Guard to protect state property and relieve state troopers so that they could conduct more patrols.

“No. An irony of that is that I asked Governor Kemp to allow us to mandate masks in Atlanta and he said no,” Bottoms told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “But he has called in the National Guard without asking if we needed the National Guard.”

When asked why Atlanta had erupted, Bottoms also made mention of the coronavirus.

“I think that people are obviously anxious and even angry about COVID-19. Loved ones are dying, people are losing their jobs. I think there’s a lot of frustration, a lot of angst, and I think that the rhetoric that comes out of the White House doesn’t help it at all,” she said.

But the pandemic was something of a deflection — albeit an understandable one, given that the mayor was diagnosed with the virus only a few hours before.

We know this because over the weekend, Mayor Bottoms all but declared that the turning point for her city’s current troubles actually arrived on June 17, with a rash decision by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.

On June 12, Rayshard Brooks, who had fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru line, resisted arrest by two white Atlanta police officers and attempted to flee. Brooks, who was Black, was shot in the back while running away with an officer’s Taser.

The two officers were quickly fired by Mayor Bottoms. “I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do,” she said the next day, at the same time accepting the resignation of police Chief Erika Shields.

Perhaps the most important element of success for any mayor of Atlanta is a good working relationship with the city’s police force. Business leaders, shop owners and those on the Buckhead side of town emphasize the need for safety and security.

That demand has always had to be weighed against Atlanta neighborhoods who also want that safety and security, but don’t always see the police as a force for good. Witness the 2006 death of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Vine City resident shot in her own home by undercover cops serving a no-knock warrant.

Fourteen years later, the relationship between a mayor and the police she oversees was already on far shakier ground. And then Paul Howard happened.

Only five days after the shooting, the Fulton County district attorney brought 11 criminal charges, including one for felony murder, against former police officer Garrett Rolfe for firing the shots that lead to Brooks’ death.

The second officer, Devin Brosnan, was charged with aggravated assault and violating his oath of office. Howard didn’t wait for the GBI report, which is still unfinished.

Sick-outs within the Atlanta Police Department began that night. Then came weeks of indecision over the Wendy’s restaurant where Brooks died, which first became a protest site and then was occupied by armed figures who accosted those who walked or drove by, whether Black or white.

Eight-year-old Secoriea Turner, riding in the back seat of a car, was shot and killed as her mother tried to turn near the restaurant and was stopped by a group of protesters.

At the subsequent press conference on Sunday, family members begged for information that would lead police to the perpetrators. But Mayor Bottoms spoke directly to Atlanta police officers — thanking them for their work the night before.

“Nobody pulled back. Everybody showed up last night, and I appreciate it. Because even in the midst of how our officers are feeling right now, they are still showing up,” Bottoms said.

But the mayor also defended herself before those same officers, eventually pointing a finger at the Fulton County district attorney.

She mentioned the pay raises officers received in 2018. “That commitment stands,” Bottoms said — then turned a corner. “But the reality is that as mayor, I have the authority to hire and fire every single employee that we have. That is the reality of my being the mayor…

“So, I said it and I’ll say it again. I made the decision to fire the officers which, as mayor and the CEO of the city and in charge of 8,000-plus employees, was my prerogative.”

And then it was on to the district attorney. And the fact that Howard, who served in the post since the 1990s, finished second to former chief deputy Fani Willis in the June 9 Democratic primary. Four external factors not mentioned by Bottoms: Three sexual harassment lawsuits and a GBI investigation into his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city of Atlanta funds to supplement his salary.

The runoff is Aug 11.

“Paul Howard made the decision to charge the officers. Paul Howard did not consult with me. He made that decision, and people can go to the polls and express how they feel about that decision in a few weeks,” Bottoms said.

She didn’t stop there. The mayor pointed to 17 other use-of-force cases on Howard’s desk, which for some reason haven’t received the same speedy attention as the killing of Rayshard Brooks.

Without citing Fani [pronounced “fawn-nee] Willis by name, Bottoms essentially endorsed Howard’s opponent — a decision that blurs more than a few political lines. Willis has been endorsed by former Atlanta city council member Mary Norwood, who ran against Bottoms in 2017.

This spring, Willis also received a $1,000 campaign contribution from the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623. Whose members are now among Bottoms’ harshest critics.

In other words, to see a sitting Atlanta mayor speak out against an incumbent district attorney is almost as rare as a governor sending unwanted National Guard troops into a capital city.