Jun 9, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms fears for her 4 black children

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks to Axios on HBO

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has an intensely personal interest in the protests over police brutality: She admitted to "Axios on HBO" that she doesn't feel she or her four black children are safe from the possibility of dying at the hands of the police.

Why it matters: In an emotional interview, she recounted her horror when she discovered that one of her sons had bought a cap gun — an act that reminded her of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African American boy who was shot to death by a Cleveland police officer in 2014 who saw him playing with a toy gun in a park.

  • And she acknowledged that she believes the same thing that happened to George Floyd — or Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old who was fatally shot by a white father and son while on a jog in his Georgia neighborhood — could just as easily happen to her because of the color of her skin.
  • "Absolutely," she said.

Driving the news: Bottoms has been interviewed many times about her role as Atlanta mayor and her professional handling of the protests. This interview was different — because she showed raw emotion as she confronted her personal fears of how police racism and brutality could threaten her own family.

  • She paused and her voice broke as she talked about her son's purchase of a cap gun — which she didn't know about until he had bought it.
  • "I just saw my 12-year-old who's running around the house with a cap gun, a black cap gun. And I thought about Tamir Rice," Bottoms said. "My son went into my Amazon account and he ordered it. And I didn't know he had ordered it."
  • "You know, in the same way I saw my son with it," she continued, "did Tamir's mother know that perhaps he had ordered a cap gun on Amazon and was outside playing with it?"

My thought bubble: In that moment, watching Bottoms try to hold back tears as she openly talked about fears of her 12-year-old son being killed by police really solidified for me that this is so much bigger than any one person. It’s difficult not to be personally affected by that kind of authentic pain. 

  • What was also remarkable was the calm in her voice as she was describing a feeling that not only could she die by police, but that her children could be killed by police for being black. When scenes of protesters, rioters, looters are filling our TV screens, the calm in her voice almost made it more sad.

The big picture: The national conversation has focused on the protests and President Trump's response to them, but Bottoms' raw account of her internal power struggle as mayor of Atlanta and as a mother of black children highlights a crucial part of the larger conversation around police brutality.

  • "I want to make something clear: We have so many men and women on our police force who go out each and every day and they do the right thing," Bottoms said.
"But there's also, in my opinion, a responsibility for us to guard ourselves, too. And so what that means is be a part of a peaceful protest. Be a part of something that's organized and has purpose. But when you are a face in a crowd of chaos, nobody knows your name. Nobody knows that you're the mayor's child. You are another face. You are another black boy in the middle of mayhem. And all that can possibly go wrong."
— Keisha Lance Bottoms to "Axios on HBO"

By the numbers: Studies have found that black men are over three times as likely to be killed by police as white men.

The backstory: When the demonstrations in Atlanta turned chaotic and destructive, the mayor made a plea to her constituents: "If you care about this city, then go home."

  • Just a few days later, Bottoms was walking in the streets with the protesters.
  • "[P]arallel to this job is this moment in time where we are. And when I have to come home every day and I have to explain to my kids what's happening, I knew that for me to be able to explain that, I had to feel it and experience it, too," Bottoms said.
  • "You know, I didn't want it to be a thing, but I needed it just as much for me personally. And just what struck me was just there's so much anger and pain," she said.

The bottom line: Bottoms said she has had to have difficult conversations with her oldest son about how to avoid trouble with the police. Normally, she tells him to "be confident and speak up for yourself, and don't ever shrink, and own who you are."

  • But if he ever encounters the police, she says she has told him: "You need to fade back. You need to not be a threat. ... You need to be compliant."
  • George Floyd, she said, "did all the things that we teach our children to do. He asked, 'What did I do wrong?' And he apologized, and he was compliant, and he did all those things, and they still killed him."
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