Keisha Lance Bottoms wasn’t one of the 28 Democratic candidates who ran for the presidential nomination this year. But in the last week, she has become the party’s most important voice.
Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, has emerged more so than any other Democratic politician – including the party’s presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden – as the sort of leader the party (and the country) needs amid ongoing protests and violence across the country following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police last week.
When violence raged in Atlanta on Friday night, Bottoms delivered remarks that were breathtaking in their candor and ferocity. Here’s the key piece (it’s long, but very much worth your time):
“If you want change in America, go and register to vote. Show up at the polls on June 9. Do it in November. That is the change we need in this country. You are disgracing our city; you are disgracing the life of George Floyd and every other person who has been killed in this country. We are better than this. We’re better than this as a city. We are better than this as a country. Go home. Go home.
“And the same way I couldn’t protect my son on yesterday, I cannot protect you out on those streets. You’re throwing knives at our police officers. You are burning cars. You have defaced the CNN building. Ted Turner started CNN in Atlanta 40 years ago because he believed in who we are as a city. 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.
“This is not the legacy of civil rights in America. This is chaos and we’re buying into it. This won’t change anything. We’re 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. Go home.”
That those words came from an African American woman with four children made them all the more powerful – juxtaposed as they were against fires, looting and general chaos on the streets of America’ major cities.
“I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old,” Bottoms said. “And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. 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.’”
Her words said what so many black Americans were feeling at that moment: Angry at the injustice, fearful of the aftermath, deeply frustrated at the co-opting of peaceful protests by opportunists and chaos-seekers.
Politics is about moments. And timing. Political careers are made and lost in these moments. When history turns its eye to you, how do you react? Do you shrink? Or do you soar?
While there’s no doubt that Bottoms would give up that heightened national profile in exchange for George Floyd to be alive and her city to be peaceful, the truth of the matter is that she is now one of the highest-profile voices in the country on issues of police brutality and race. And she seems to grasp that role – and welcome it. Here’s what Bottoms told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta on his podcast over the weekend:
“I just know it’s something extraordinary that we’re witnessing. And I’ve said it in my remarks a couple of days ago: What we’ve seen happening across Atlanta, we didn’t see when Dr. King was assassinated. And so we know that this is something different. And not only is it happening across America, we’re now seeing it happen across the globe. And the question will be: what will be the difference on the other side of this moment? Will we continue to see the disruption and all that we’ve been seeing over the past few days? Or will this truly be a revolutionary moment? And I’d think about the words of Audre Lorde quite, quite a bit, ‘revolution is not a one-time event.’ So, I don’t know what this is, that we’re in the midst of, but I know that it is something extraordinary that I’ve not experienced or seen in my lifetime.”
Even before the last five days, Bottoms was widely regarded as a potential vice presidential pick for Biden – a longtime surrogate and supporter of the former vice president’s 2020 campaign, not to mention the mayor of a major southern city in an emerging swing state.
Now, she has to be considered – along with California Sen. Kamala Harris and Florida Rep. Val Demings – as one of the clear front-runners to be Biden’s pick. (One concern for Biden, as noted by Politico’s John Harris on Tuesday morning, is how much he has struggled to ensure his voice breaks through amid these protests and unrest.)
And even if Biden picks someone other than Bottoms as his VP, her words and actions over these past days have put her in an entirely new place in terms of the national Democratic Party. She has stepped up at a time when the party and the country needed someone to do just that. There’s no stepping back now.
CNN’s Allison Gordon contributed to this report.