Atlanta mayor’s speech praised by many; critics say city must do more

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses the city Friday night after protests became violent.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addresses the city Friday night after protests became violent.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ emotional plea late Friday night to end the looting surrounding the protests over another black man killed by a white police officer resonated across racial and political boundaries.

The heartfelt and moving speech also may have highlighted a generational disconnect between the city's leadership and those young people in the streets seeking justice.

In addition, how Bottoms handles the protests here will no doubt be a marker as to how well this mayor, just in her first term, leads the city through another crisis.

She has to skillfully balance the need to protect Atlanta residents and property, but also allow the city’s tradition of peaceful protests to continue.

Her words and actions have won praise by most elected officials and residents, but some say this is a moment that should inspire Bottoms and city leaders to aggressively address the social, economic, and political issues that led to this weekend’s violence.

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In her speech, Bottoms spoke of her experience as the mother of four black children - three of them males; the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King; and Atlanta’s national reputation for being the cradle of the civil rights movement and for fostering significant financial opportunities for minorities.

“I pray over my children each and every day,” Bottoms said. “So 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. This is chaos.”

Bottoms said burning objects and smashing of windows did nothing to honor the memory of George Floyd, whose death was captured on a disturbing video of him gasping for help as a white Minneapolis policeman kneed his neck to the street on May 25.

Her words have been repeatedly played on cable news outlets.

“I’ve heard from so many people who said I didn’t vote for her, but …” said Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook, whose Buckhead district businesses sustained severe damage Friday night.

The speech also elevated the national profile Bottoms has built over the past year — and will almost certainly stir further discussion about her chances of becoming presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick.

Biden's spokesman said he was "in awe" of her response.

Politicians, commentators and activists praised Bottoms’ forceful denunciation of the wave of violence as a peaceful protest descended into chaos.

At one point Bottoms exclaimed: “Go home! Go home!”

But they did not, and the looting continued well into the morning hours.

Some say it was evidence that Bottoms message failed to reach its intended targets and that police brutality is only one of the problems driving the anger.

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‘I don’t see that Atlanta at all’

Around 4:30 a.m. Saturday, Councilman Antonio Brown watched around 100 young people attempting to break into a Target from the balcony of his Atlanta Station condo. As police swarmed the area, he ran downstairs to de-escalate the confrontation, he said.

He asked a group of African American teenagers about their actions. They told him that Atlanta had black leadership for years yet they still lived in poverty.

“I didn’t even know how to respond to that,” Brown said. “Because it’s true.”

Brown said that the teenagers told him that destruction was the only way their frustration could be heard.

In many neighborhoods in Browns’ westside district, the average household income is $19,000 per year.

“I don’t see they city everybody talks about,” Brown said. “I don’t see that Atlanta at all.”

Atlanta consistently ranks among the worst cities in the nation in economic equality and mobility, and critics have said Bottoms has spent more energy helping developers than the poor.

“They had an opportunity to make decisions to alter the political landscape that would have created a different experience,” said Avery Jackson, 25, who got involved in the Black Lives Matter movement when he attended Morehouse College. Jackson now lives in Des Moines, Iowa, but watched Friday’s unrest in Atlanta.

Still, Bottoms has encountered more crises than perhaps any other mayor in recent memory during her first two years in office.

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She inherited on ongoing federal corruption investigation with no end in sight. After less than three months on the job, a cyber attack crippled the city. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. And this weekend, her city became one of several across the nation hit by unrest resulting in significant property damage.

“That was a really tough moment,” said House Speaker David Ralston of Bottoms’ Friday night speech. “It’s been a while since I’ve been that proud to be a Georgian. She was a strong leader yet you knew she was speaking from the heart as a mom.”

“She was speaking to moms across the state. I can tell you she resonated with them. These are not blue voters,” he said, referring to Democrats, “but sometimes being a mom transcends blue and red.”

Her message also struck a chord with Yvanna Pantner, an Atlanta resident who was cleaning graffiti near Centennial Olympic Park on Saturday.

“I really appreciated that the mayor started by describing that she’s a mother,” said Pantner, who is set to soon start a social work program. “And that she said you ‘can’t out-worry her.’ ”

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