In her June 15 press conference, Mayor Bottoms speaks to her city in well-dressed rhetoric yet fails to deliver in a crucial moment, illustrating a much greater issue at hand in local and national politics
This piece was co-authored by Aja Arnold & Miles Jenson.
On Mon., June 15, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms delivered a press conference with intentions to announce the city’s new police reforms. Many would say this is too little too late, as yet another Black man, 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks, was fatally shot in the back and killed by officers of the Atlanta Police Department on Fri., June 12. Brooks’ altercation with officers Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan began after a Wendy’s employee called the police on Brooks for being asleep in the fast food restaurant’s drive-thru line. Brooks initially complied with Rolfe, who manipulated Brooks into taking a field sobriety test as Brooks pleaded with the officers to allow him to walk home safely, as seen in the dash-cam footage released by the GBI on Sun., June 14. This escalated to an on-the-ground struggle in which the two officers tried to tase Brooks and pin him to the ground. In what many read as an act of self-defense, Brooks managed to wrestle a Taser gun from Rolfe’s hands and began to run away from the officers. He was shot twice in the back as he was attempting to flee.
It’s since been revealed, during Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s news conference on Wed., June 17, that Rolfe excitedly uttered “got him” after shooting Brooks, the officers denied Brooks medical attention for over two minutes as Brosnan stood on Brooks after he was shot, and that Rolfe was actually well aware that the Taser gun in Brooks’ possession had been fired enough times to be inoperable, thus not placing Rolfe or anyone else in danger. Howard announced the officers would be facing an array of charges, including felony murder to Rolfe, along with 10 other charges, for which he could face life without parole or the death penalty.
On Sat., June 13, the community gathered swiftly in Brooks’ name, collectively grieving in an organized demonstration in the Wendy’s parking lot early that afternoon and demonstrations carried on into the evening. The city’s communities, especially those in Zone 3, were mourning; they were angry, and they needed to be heard.
A brief recap of that night’s events, according to our monitoring that evening and reports from sources on the ground: hundreds of protestors gathered at University and Pryor in south Atlanta, eventually moving en masse to block the I-75 interstate, outnumbering Georgia State Patrol and APD. At one point during the night, the APD’s jail bus got stuck in traffic (ain’t that some Atlanta shit), impeding the mass arrests officers tried to coordinate. They also somehow “lost” the MARTA bus (but haven’t we all?) that was transporting more officers to the scene. Tear gas was deployed on protestors multiple times, and events below the highway’s on-ramp escalated when the Wendy’s was set on fire. The image of the burning fast-food chain in the historically Black neighborhood garnered the media’s attention and playback nearly all night, as another protest at Atlanta precinct Zone 3 commenced in Grant Park, for which no media was present. Comparatively, according to our sources on site, the protest at Zone 3 consisted of more cops than protestors, and tear gas and rubber bullets were unnecessarily used against them. It was later revealed that the Wendy’s fire was instigated by a white woman, or a group of white women, who do not appear to be linked to the Black Lives Matter movement or its demonstrators. Nonetheless, the media and Mayor Bottoms’ attention and the many conversations regarding the movement were once again pulled away from the slaying of an unarmed Black man and the city’s mistreatment of protesters, and towards the destruction of property.
In this current time of great unrest and healthy distrust towards our government and police force, Atlanta is clamoring for superior leadership and authentic messaging that leads to concise plans of action and swift resolution. There is a collective disconnect between our expectations and the communications amongst local leaders, politicians, and their respective populaces. We oftentimes await for these bodies to act in conscientious public service and instead we receive inflated musings of “reforms” and political buzzwords, all in the guise of progressive leadership. This stark dissonance between our expectations of our leaders and their actions only furthers the fragmented relationship between an elected official and the public they serve; and it’s happening on both sides of the aisle, in that partisan politics consistently demonstrates its inability to roll up its sleeves and get knee deep in empathy. There is an even greater disconnect between our leaders’ words and their actions.
The press conference delivered by Mayor Bottoms on Monday was later described by Fox 5 News as an announcement of new police reforms in response to Brooks’ death. However, after listening several times, we walked away feeling the heavy mist of all the hot air Bottoms’ spewed in the name of action — when there was, in fact, little to no action being set forth. At least none that we could fully and concretely grasp.
Ahh, the echoes of neoliberalism. There it is.
Neoliberalism, in short, is another manifestation of liberalism, which regards the autonomy of the individual and their choices as preeminent, as opposed to radical approaches which prioritize change on a larger institutional scale that calls for a reordering of oppressive systems. Further, neoliberalism places emphasis on the market (i.e., the free market) to “correct” societal issues. Essentially, neoliberalism upholds the individual as distinct and freely choosing (as opposed to part of a group whose choices are circumscribed by material conditions), heavily invests in capitalism as ideology and structure, and advocates for policies that divest responsibility from federal institutions and move them to the private sector. All of this keeps the machine of oppression in place.
Mayor Bottoms’ press conference, which we will outline below, did exactly what the nomenclature of its intent suggests: it conferred with the press, it managed to fan praise for the police establishment while attempting to pander to reformists (but not abolitionists), and it was lip service. It was public relations crisis management 101; in the eyes of our appointed administrations, it appears that the “work ahead” lies more in reputation damage control, rather than doing what needs to be done now to prevent further devastation to their communities. And in our world of expeditious call and response, that’s just not good enough.
Bottoms’ speech is one small example of the multifaceted prism that is neoliberalism. She is one cog in the vast machine of American politics, especially now as she is being considered for Biden’s vice presidential pick in this year’s presidential election. Her “announcing of reforms” was completely inundated by modern neoliberal, moderate politics: ultimately offering band-aids that don’t get to the heart of the problem.
We choose to analyze this closely, because it’s not so much about Bottoms; it is the system that she is in. Just like with our police force, we could attempt over and over again to give them new tools, new training, new programs, but if the apparatus is forever tainted and flawed, then the current actors in that system can’t produce real change. Because as long as we try to work within the fucked up system, we will continue to receive fucked up results.
Bottoms’ public address on Monday could be likened to when someone who has clearly fucked up says, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It has the primer of an apology, but the woodwork of deflection. Static responses such as these certainly aren’t likened to Bottoms exclusively. We heard it from Biden when he said police officers should be trained to shoot protestors in the leg rather than the heart, as well as in Sen. Kamala Harris’ record on criminal justice, just to name a couple examples. Meanwhile, Trump’s defiance of lukewarm correspondence is in part what helped him get elected in 2016. People identified more with his incoherent butthole rambling, despite how egregiously evil it was, than they did with buttoned-up leftist gobbledygook. He was unhinged, but people recognized passion. Even if his bigotry pronounced itself unabashedly, he managed to capture swing voters simply on the merit that he was “authentic.”
This vague, inconsequential media-trained glaze and middle-of-the-road messaging punctuated Bottoms’ address throughout her press conference, rearing its head in a multitude of head-scratching moments that sounded great but lacked substance. Pieces from Bottoms’ speech can be categorized in one or more of the following ways:
THINGS WE’VE HEARD BEFORE.
“This is a beginning.”
We’ve heard a lot of things before that may sound profound, but really aren’t. The implication with this phrase is that Bottoms recognizes there’s a long road ahead, and is willing to do the hard work. What this actually discounts is that brutality in the APD is far from a new horror and that training has proven dangerously inadequate much in advance of Brooks’ murder. Jimmy Atchinson and Oscar Cain’s deaths currently sit on the mantle of the slaying of Black men at the hands of our city’s police, along with countless others across the nation. This is not a burgeoning phenomenon, yet justice remains to be served. It adds insult to injury as innumerable families and members of the Black community continue to grieve throughout what has already been a tiring and never-ending road with no light at the end of the tunnel.
Bottoms again offered condolences to Brooks’ family members while drawing from her own personal experience of enduring a sudden loss of a family member. Biden offers the same thing time and time again, reckoning a murder at the hands of police brutality to the loss of his wife and daughter in a tragic car accident and the loss of his son to brain cancer. While the immense weight of grief escapes no one, it’s unfair to draw parallels between the circumstances. Losing a loved one at the hands of police officers, who are supposedly there to protect and serve, isn’t quite the same as losing a loved one to cancer. Further, these condolences arrive flat when there is little to no resolve in the wake of these losses.
“Nothing I can do will change what happened”; “none of this will bring them back.”
Okay. The point isn’t to resurrect anyone from the dead; we know that’s not possible. The point is to ensure this doesn’t happen again (insert the precious Martin Luther King, Jr., “the fierce urgency of now” quote here). The weight of this appears to be lost in our current systems that have become riddled and encumbered with moderate-to-centrist politics. As long as there are police officers on the streets that have come from the same systems that further breed toxicity and racist ideologies in our officers, there is no guarantee that Black people will be safe.
GENERALITIES, VAGUENESS, AND FLOWERY LANGUAGE.
The stuff that makes you go, “BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!”
Calling things problematic.
As Cornel West once said, “We’re in denial of the catastrophic and obsessed with the problematic. Everything is reduced to a ‘problem,’ rather than a catastrophe. There’s never been such a thing as the race problem in America. There’s been a series of catastrophes visited on Black people.” Problematic is a word you use to describe your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving when he makes some off color remarks, not when you are discussing the systemic genocide of Black Americans. Next.
Words that when used together sound like it might be something, but really isn’t anything.
In the example of Bottoms’ speech on Monday: “an additional executive order that will create a framework that will allow us to step into action,” “another order to form a body that will succinctly begin to articulate grievances and what we see as our solutions,” “adopting to implement,” “advisory committee,” “task force,” “review to begin to adopt to implement, “prioritizing de-escalating especially before use of excessive force.” Um, okay. Also, when else would you prioritize de-escalating something?
Over-expanding simple things beyond comprehension through nuance.
“Categorizations of force,” “objective use of force,” and “excessive force” are all overly-elaborate ways to describe one thing: police brutality.
“Guardians, not warriors.” Flowery AF, nicely packaged, and so on-brand. This phrase in particular originates from the Obama-Biden administration’s 2015 final report of the President’s Task Force of 21st Century Policing. More on that later. For other examples of flowery language, consider “just say no,” “women’s rights are human rights,” “law and order,” and “make America great again” (which originated from a Ronald Raegan speech in the 1980s).
Half measures. “Efforts I am taking today is a continuation of criminal justice reform efforts I have taken since I’ve begun my administration as mayor,” such as the elimination of cash bail bonds in Atlanta, which had less-than-smooth execution itself and presented more issues in its passing. While this was an attempt to help poor people out, ensuring folks wouldn’t be held in jail simply because they couldn’t afford to pay bond, it did little to scratch the surface of the deeper problems of racism and racial inequality within our criminal justice systems and police departments.
Presenting celebrities as a means to calm the outrage.
Bottoms’ press conference on Fri., May 29, alongside Atlanta rappers Killer Mike and T.I. wasn’t the first time we’ve seen her enlist those with celebrity status to back her up. In 2016, she brought Usher along with her to a meeting with organizers from ATL is Ready, which was demanding for a complete overhaul of APD’s training institutions amongst other things. Usher appeared to play “peacemaker,” yelling at protesters from a balcony to “calm down” and “no, this isn’t how you do this.” The activists didn’t even receive a chance to speak. No matter how much celebrity status Bottoms lathers onto the matter at hand, she cannot appeal to the sensibilities of a demographic enough to skew the causes and conditions of their mass murder.
This is especially the case when the celebrities themselves are disconnected from their own communities as they sit in their ivory towers; all three celebrities are millionaires, with Usher literally yelling down at protestors on the ground and Killer Mike exclaiming it’s not the time to “burn your own house down.” However, anyone truly in Atlanta knows, that those struggling do not call Buckhead or downtown Atlanta home; our communities are East Atlanta, East Point, Vinings, Decatur, Bankhead, Poncey-Highlands, Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, etc. Rather than invoking a guilt trip on the communities he was there to reach, Killer Mike would have been more accurate to understand the events of Fri., May 29, as the burning of a plantation, as so rightly pointed out by journalist Devyn Springer of the Independent.
Throughout the press conference, the term “de-escalation” became a buzz word that pandered to the trending so-called reforms as initially proposed by Campaign Zero in 8 Can’t Wait. The 8 Can’t Wait project was quickly called out for not being sufficient enough to address the systemic issues within local police departments throughout the country. The campaign has since then issued a correction on the 8 Can’t Wait website, taking on more demands that are aligned with abolition and defunding police departments, freeing up funds that can be allocated to public safety and community services. Bottoms also included that her wheelhouse of de-escalation modality is ultimately dictated by the state’s governance, à la Gov. Brian Kemp.
Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Calling upon Atlanta’s momentous role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and harkening back to yesteryear’s organizing efforts as an example ultimately falls flat with the current movement at hand. It also further illustrates Bottoms’ detachment from the People, who are more often quoting Malcolm X instead of MLK. Historically, white moderates and liberals have gravitated to King’s work because it feels safe and is more palatable since he did not emphasize citizen-engaged force to the extent Malcolm X did. Moreover, while the work of our predecessors was historic, perhaps it is time for some new strategies in the ongoing cause for civil and human rights. The fact that we are in Atlanta should only serve to push us to once again be the host of revolutionary measures that will in turn change the world.
The father narrative.
Bottoms frequently mentioned that Brooks was a father who wanted to attend his daughter’s birthday the next day. Black men and women’s lives are still valuable even if they don’t have children.
Praising police officers.
Bottoms noted the police are a “valued part” of our communities who do volunteer work, pandering to a conservative base that prefers to hold the police on pedestals that they frankly don’t deserve to be on. One major part of the movement’s argument for defunding the police is that the police wear too many hats and are expected to do too much.
WORDS OF ACTION WITH NO ACTION BEHIND THEM, AKA EMPTY PROMISES.
“Task forces” and “advisory committees.”
Were these groups spurred by Atchinson and Cain’s murders? Or, were these groups formed in response to Obama’s 21st Century Police Reform Challenge? Or, were these groups in response to Brooks’ murder? What do these groups do? Who is in these groups? Who is eligible to be in these groups, and who gets to decide who is in the groups? Please do not refer us to Obama’s 21-page document. Bottoms should be communicating these things to the people, as she is the city’s liaison between the federal government and the local municipalities.
The response to the Obama challenge.
On Thurs., June 4, the day after Obama had a sit-down with local leaders via Zoom to instruct them to review their local police departments’ use of force policies, Bottoms was seen with then-chief of police Erika Shields at a demonstration in downtown Atlanta. She was behind a barricade of police officers save for a few minutes, and one citizen said tear gas and rubber bullets were used by the police on protestors that same night after Bottoms left. It was the only time Bottoms has been seen participating or engaging with protestors at a demonstration, clearly indicating a photo opp. This non-action presented as a form of action appeared shallow and random.
Something that appears to be new, but isn’t.
According to Bottoms and Captain Price, the APD will soon begin to incorporate a new sort of “if you see something, say something” policy between officers. Here, Bottoms and Price explain that moving forward, if one police officer sees a fellow officer using force that is “beyond reasonable,” they are duty-bound to intercede and stop the use of force and immediately report it to an on-duty supervisor. They must also provide lawful restrictions in cases involving suspects in moving vehicles, and they are now obligated to report any deaths immediately to their on-duty supervisors. There’s a lot to unpack here, but first, how was this not a thing before? Pretty sure we want officers who are duty-bound already as those who are working to protect and serve to act in commonsense humanity if they see a fellow officer acting “beyond reason” in any use of force.
Additionally, the phrase “beyond reason” in this case leaves too much room for subjectivity, placing pressure on police officers who have already been deemed untrustworthy to be the judges in any given situation. This notion completely circumvents a major problem at hand: the toxicity within our nation’s local police departments, as one tell-all article by a former cop so greatly detailed. If this policy was enacted before Fri., June 12, we doubt it would have done anything to save Brooks’ life.
“We don’t have another day, another hour, another minute.” Here, Bottoms uses powerful phrasing and classic rhetoric that communicates intense concern, but ultimately fails to back it up with appropriate urgency. It’s essentially a lot of build up. Imagine listening to a song without the chorus, or the power going out at Tomorrowland when Bassnectar is headlining. (For the love of God, where’s the drop, Keisha?) She then immediately severed this sentiment of urgency when she declared it would be an initial 14 days for the committee to review the use of force policies within the APD and then another 45 days for the committee to make its final recommendations. So here it appears that in the “urgency of now,” we actually have 59 days to begin even “considering to implement” such reforms — and with the caveat that these policies must align with current state ordinances, which doesn’t provide much relief, considering we live in Kemp’s Georgia.
“Follow the principles that were set forth by the Obama-Biden administration on 21st Century Policing.”
Bottoms and her constituents, such as Jennifer Ide of Atlanta City Council, District 6, have frequently referred to the 21st Century Policing and its pillars in an attempt to show how progressive APD is in its “reforms.” In one of our previous correspondences with Ide on Thurs., June 11, she stated that, “APD is one of 15 law enforcement agencies out of 18,000 in the nation to be recognized for implementing the 21st century policing methods. APD obtained a model city designation for our efforts to implement and follow the 59 recommendations.”
As far as the policies that the APD has adopted, we should parrot some talking points from the book The End of Policing by sociologist Alex E. Vitale. An early section of the text pretty much refutes the usefulness of Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, comparing it to failed reforms of the late 1960s and adding this succinct breakdown of the real problem: “By conceptualizing the problem of policing as one of inadequate training and professionalization, reformers fail to directly address how the very nature of policing and the legal system served to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality.”
It should also be noted that the final report was issued in 2015, which standing from this point in 2020, feels like eons ago, and only proves the point that whatever we’ve been implementing the past five years isn’t working because Black people are still dying in altercations with police officers.
Requests that the Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard look at other use of force cases sitting on his desk if it is his “will” to bring forth charges in the officers involved in Brooks’ murder.
Rather than urging Howard to embrace the “urgency of the now” in Brooks’ case, Bottoms instead attempts to shirk any mode of responsibility or power when it comes to the maladjustments within Atlanta’s criminal justice system. While it’s true that bringing charges to officers is Howard’s job, Bottoms is still in a position to at least apply public pressure in the case of seeking justice — not just for Brooks, but for all who came before him.
The fact that this remains to be done and our D.A. essentially has an overcrowded desk of unresolved cases of police brutality is alarming in and of itself, but deflecting blame to another cog in the machine offers little solution except to shift the limelight off of her. It also further characterizes the work of seeking justice as unattainable, echoing the narrative of the “long road of work ahead,” again contradicting the true urgency of now we all face.
THINGS THAT WERE JUST WRONG.
Declaring Wendy’s an employment center and a major loss in a community that is already a food desert.
It is a sad day if our own mayor or anyone in city council truly believes that a fast food restaurant is a sturdy solution for unemployment or a food desert. No words.
Zero mention of the shooting in Edgewood on Saturday night, which resulted in two lives lost, and has since been rumored to be linked to white supremacists.
There has been little media coverage of this incident or any indication of a pending investigation for this shooting, which is disconcerting to say the least. Once again, Bottoms failed to extend the same sort of empathy for human lives that she did for destroyed property.
Asking for the public’s help in a serial killer case in Atlanta without much explanation as to why the three cases might be connected.
We’re not entirely sure if this is so much wrong as it is just weird, especially in the very beginning of a speech that’s reserved to discuss potential police reforms. Again, Bottoms seems to skirt around the issue at hand, adding a serial killer into the mix while asking for the public’s assistance when they’re already so fed up with police department’s inadequacies; this further shows Bottoms fails to understand how to deliver in such a crucial moment. Is it possible that our police force has been disproportionately deployed to man-handle peaceful protests across the city rather than tending to communities in need?
Overall, Bottoms’ tepid-ass speech did little to get the ball rolling on any sort of tangible change needed to address the catastrophic events that America has seen in just the past few weeks. Rather than looking forward and taking ownership as the city’s leader, she attempted to manage the people’s expectations and implied that their demands are unreasonable. However, we have seen other cities begin to move on new systems and structures in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In Minneapolis, the city council and legislature have begun to convene on sweeping changes to policing, taking its first steps last Friday in a process that could remove the police department from the city’s core departments. Albuquerque, in its response to its citizens’ overwhelming calls to defund the police, has begun to create a new public safety department. All of this to say that we know another world is possible, and yet for some reason, in Atlanta, a historic threshold for civil and human rights, our mayor is not willing to budge at all on the APD’s funding in next year’s fiscal budget.
Bottoms’ leadership proves that real change, at this point, can and will only come from the bottom-up, rather than the top-down. Because it is the people at the top and the systems they operate in that are themselves threatened by the change needed to fully eradicate racism and police brutality from our society. As long as the systems in place remain intact, then we will continue to see the same results. And it’s instances like Bottoms’ press conference on Monday that show just how empty the Democratic Party has become as it continues to ride the waves of neoliberalism; it is its own hollow carcass with dwindling purpose, having little impact on the communities they claim to serve.
Bottoms is one example of someone coming up face-to-face with the demands of change and doing anything possible, specifically through verbal gymnastics, to avoid meeting these demands; because with fulfilling these demands will come the extinction of the status quo. Whatever it is Bottoms is vying to protect — whether it’s her own national reputation, her being considered for Biden’s vice presidential candidate, money, status — she is clearly not ready to let it go, even for the sake of Black lives. Because at this point, if Bottoms is not willing to utter three little words, “defund the police,” and mean it, something else is going on.