Pandemic, protests keep Atlanta’s mayor in national spotlight

May 30, 2020 - Atlanta - Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a 9pm curfew as protests continued for a second day. Protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody spread around the United States on Saturday, as his case renewed anger about others involving African Americans, police and race relations. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

May 30, 2020 - Atlanta - Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a 9pm curfew as protests continued for a second day. Protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody spread around the United States on Saturday, as his case renewed anger about others involving African Americans, police and race relations. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

The coronavirus pandemic and the protests against police brutality helped cement Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as a national figure worthy of Joe Biden’s consideration as a potential running-mate.

But now both those phenomenons are testing Bottoms’ executive leadership skills on a grand stage at a time when the stakes for the city and nation couldn’t be higher.

Weeks after she emerged as a steady and authoritative voice amid chaotic demonstrations that rocked the city, she's confronting a new spasm of violence, plummeting police morale, growing concerns among residents about unbridled criminal activity and the fraying of her relationship with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp over law and order in the city.

After some attacks on property and looting early on, protests turned more peaceful, especially after she cancelled the city’s curfew, a decision by the mayor that seemed to ease tensions between demonstrators and police.

But a recent surge in coronavirus cases threatens to strain the city’s healthcare system even as it challenges her in a deeply personal way: She disclosed this week that she tested positive for the disease, putting another face on a pandemic that’s afflicted millions.

How Bottoms handles these dilemmas will determine her political future in Georgia and on the nation’s most blinding spotlight. As her profile grows, she’s drawn a mix of praise, criticism and sympathy from locals who have watched Bottoms transform from a little-known city councilmember to a national figure just three years into her first term as mayor.

“It’s a brutal situation to be in,” said Justin Bleeker, executive director of Grove Park Renewal Inc., a community nonprofit focused on stabilizing housing costs for low-income residents in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. “I don’t envy her at all.”

Bottoms said the buzz about any White House desires, along with the frequent appearances on national TV outlets that go along with the increased fame, haven’t distracted her from her job. She insisted she’s made no conscious effort to lobby for the running-mate role.

“It’s never been my goal. To the extent my name was brought up as a contender, my name was brought up by others. It’s not because I asked for it or bargained for it or negotiated for it,” she said, adding: “I don’t spend a lot of time on this and I don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time on it.”

Consider the torrent of news from the last week.

After a spate of violence over the last weekend that included an attack on the headquarters of the Georgia State Patrol, the governor on Monday ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to deploy to government sites across the city over Bottoms’ vocal objection.

Demonstrators with the Public Defenders for Black Lives rally kneel as they take a moment of silence near the crypt of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King following their rally at Ebenezer Baptist Church during the 11th day of protests in Atlanta. The demonstrators were silent for 8 minutes, to honor the life of George Floyd. (Photo: Alyssa Pointer/AJC)

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The same day, she announced through a social media post that she had contracted the coronavirus, giving her warnings about the pandemic a personal appeal. And on Wednesday, she signed an executive order that required the citywide use of masks - breaking with Kemp’s statewide policy that simply encourages face coverings.

“I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job,” said Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, who called Bottoms’ executive order courageous. “She is absolutely looking out for the greater good.”

Also, the city's police officers have engaged in sickouts to protest a string of decisions that union leaders say undermines their public safety roles, including the resignation of Chief Erika Shields and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's decision to charge two officers in a recent fatal police shooting and six other officers allegedly involved in the illegal Tasing of two college students during the protests.

Johnny Martinez, owner of two bars on Edgewood Avenue, which has struggled with recent shootings and violence, predicted that the national attention on Bottoms would only help the city.

“Any discussion of Mayor Bottoms becoming Biden’s choice is only beneficial to anyone in the city,” he said. “This is a time when, quite frankly, she’s going to listen to us more than ever.”

But her handling of another crisis drew some of the sharpest feedback. Protesters, some of them armed, took over the site of a charred Wendy's where Rayshard Brooks was slain after a struggle with two Atlanta police officers. Over the weekend, an 8-year-old girl was shot and killed at the site, part of this wave of violent crime across the city.

Atlanta police and sanitation crews finish removing protesters and their belongings Monday from outside the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by an officer last month and near where 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was fatally shot while sitting in a car over the July Fourth weekend. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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“To have an 8-year-old girl shot down on the streets of Atlanta. My question is, where is the outrage? Seriously, this is unacceptable,” U.S. Sen. David Perdue said. “I applaud the governor for stepping up and bringing out the Guard to bring law and order back.”

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bottoms acknowledged police had planned to clear the area earlier but didn't do so to give a city councilmember and other negotiators more time to broker a compromise with the activists.

The VP buzz 

As Biden’s advisers weigh the merits of a short-list of contenders, Bottoms’ approach to law enforcement policy, policing and the protests for racial equality will surely be tested.

Some of the city’s most influential movers-and-shakers were concerned by her decisions and said they worry they may have undermined public safety in Atlanta.

David Marvin, the founder of the Legacy Ventures development firm, said her quick decision to fire the officers involved in Brooks’ killing was a gut punch to police morale.

“She should not have thrown the police department under the bus,” said Marvin, whose company owns or manages five downtown hotels and 20 restaurants and bars. “Either she’s not being thoughtful in anticipating the consequences or she’s likely motivated for political reasons.”

May 30, 2020 -  Atlanta -  Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a 9pm curfew as protests continued for a second day.  Protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody spread around the United States on Saturday, as his case renewed anger about others involving African Americans, police and race relations.    Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

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For Bottoms, a native Atlantan, the movement has surfaced long-simmering tensions in the city over a complex series of socioeconomic factors that has fueled the protests: health disparities, unemployment, life expectancy, education and income inequality.

“From a city perspective we have to do all that we can do to facilitate this dialogue and live up to our reputation as the cradle of the civil rights movement,” she said.

Bleeker, the non-profit director, said the mayor shouldn’t just live up to the city’s reputation, but build on it. He said Bottoms foremost challenge was to craft meaningful policy that creates systemic change in a city that consistently ranks among the nation’s lowest in terms of economic mobility for Black people.

“We can’t be the city that’s ‘Too Busy to Hate,’” he said, referencing a popular Atlanta slogan. “We have to be the city that’s moving towards love.”

So far, Bottoms hasn’t been able to convince some demonstrators and activists that she’s up to the task. They have criticized her for not meeting with them and lacking authenticity. Among them is Shar Bates, a protest organizer who blamed Bottoms for the deadly shooting of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner at the Wendy’s site on July 4.

“Keisha we begged ya’ll for help,” Bates said on social media. “You said you’re schedule was so busy that you didn’t have time to meet with activists … You only got time when it’s good for you … If you would have been doing your job, if APD would have been doing their job then no one would have been killed … How is Secoriea’s blood not on your hands?”

Bottoms said told the AJC police had planned on clearing the area weeks earlier but were encouraged to wait after City Councilmember Joyce Sheperd requested more time to negotiate with activists.

“That was not the administration’s position,” Bottoms said. But ultimately, waiting to clear the site was the mayor’s decision.

Turner’s death, along with more 20 other shootings, four of them fatal, prompted Kemp to call in 1,000 National Guard soldiers to the city, a move that Bottoms criticized.

“If the governor wants to protect the buildings that belong to the state, that’s his prerogative. What I took exception to is (the notion) that you’re stepping into do this because Atlanta can’t handle its problems.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during a press conference at Atlanta police headquarters about the Saturday night shooting death of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner, on Sunday, July 5, 2020. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/SCOTTl.TRUBEY@AJC.COM

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Others said pinning the blame on Bottoms for the rash of violence is unfair.

“I’d like to think the mayor is doing everything she can, but this is bigger than her,” said Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones “Citizens and businesses also need to condemn what’s happening and start to prepare for what’s to come. The mayor needs some help.”

Perhaps where Bottoms has shined the most is in her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s publicly criticized Kemp for being irresponsible and opening the state back up for business too soon, and has lamented the resurgence of coronavirus cases that have followed.

Late Wednesday, Bottoms issued a mandate requiring people in the city to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a move that follows several other local governments that are openly defying Kemp.

So far, Kemp has encouraged the use of masks, but not required them, and has barred local municipalities from creating stronger provisions than those that are in his emergency order. His office said Thursday the mandates were “unenforceable” but stopped short of threatening legal action.

To Bottoms, however, this is personal. Her order came two days after she, her husband and one of her children, tested positive for the virus. She said it’s one more challenge she’s facing at a moment when her mind is on her current role - and not her prospects of joining Biden’s ticket.

“I don’t have the luxury to think about a lot of things,” she said, “including the job I don’t have.”