'Atlanta's Got a Mayor Named Keisha' Lance Bottoms: What Exactly Does That Mean For Black People?
IT IS CRITICAL THAT WE UNPACK THE SUBSTANCE BENEATH THE SENSATION. BOTTOMS IS BLACK; HER NAME IS BLACK; BUT ARE HER POLITICS IN THE BEST INTEREST OF BLACK PEOPLE—AND, IF SO, WHICH ONES?
There are not many people, let alone elected officials, whose names become a movement onto themselves. Keisha Lance Bottoms, 49, mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, fits the bill.
“My mayor’s name is Keisha,” or “Atlanta’s got a mayor named Keisha” became a catchphrase, a hashtag, and a mantra splashed across t-shirts. It was shouted and sang with equal parts reverence, excitement, disbelief, and joy—but, in some circles, it was said with skepticism and caution. All skinfolk aren’t kinfolk, so Black people around the nation waited to see how Bottoms would navigate her power.
On its face, the excitement around Bottoms’ win could be viewed as identity politics in overdrive, but, in truth, it was so much more. A Black woman, in arguably the Blackest city in the nation—if not by the numbers, then definitely for the culture—with a name that has been mocked and denigrated by white people and so-called respectable Black folks as too “ghetto,” a Black woman with the kind of name that sends resumes to the bottom of the stack, became the HNIC and it was glorious.
And while Bottoms rode that wave like a true Atlien—even throwing in a “yeek” to show it’s real—she quickly got down to the business of running the city, reminding the nation that while there is poetic justice in her name, her qualifications and leadership skills are the reasons she’s sitting in her seat.
Still, it is critical that we unpack the substance beneath the sensation. Bottoms is Black; her name is Black; but are her politics in the best interest of Black people—and, if so, which ones?
Bottoms, a graduate of Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School, received her undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University and her Juris Doctorate from Georgia State University College of Law. She served eight terms on Atlanta City Council before defeating businesswoman and former Atlanta City Council member Mary Norwood.
During Bottoms’ time as mayor, she has eliminated Atlanta’s cash bail bond system, a draconian money-bail scheme that places a price tag on freedom for the most occupied and economically exploited communities, leaving them caged in modern day debtor’s prisons. Bottoms’ has also joined the Mayors Against Discrimination Coalition to expands rights and protections for the LGBTQIA+ community, and signed an executive order closing the Atlanta Detention Center to ICE detainees.
“I, like many others, have been horrified watching the impact of President Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy on children and families, Bottoms said in a statement. “My personal angst has been compounded by the City of Atlanta’s long-standing agreement with the U.S. Marshal’s Office to house ICE detainees in our City jail…but the inhumane action of family separation demands that Atlanta act now.”
While these executive decisions place Bottoms on solid progressive footing in some circles, she has also faced intense criticism for her staunch support of the Atlanta Police Department. One of her first moves once being sworn into office was to approve a massive $10 million raise for APD.
“Each day, the women and men of the Atlanta Police Department serve our communities selflessly – some making the ultimate sacrifice to keep our city safe,” Bottoms said in a statement. “It is time for the City of Atlanta to take care of those who take care of us, which is why our Administration will immediately get to work to provide Atlanta’s officers with the compensation they deserve.”
Bottoms, who shares four children—Lance, Langston, Lennox and Lincoln—with her husband, Home Depot executive Derek Bottoms, is well aware of the potentially fatal harm that is too often the end result of Black children’s interaction with police officers. In 2015, in her capacity as a city councilwoman, she was not hesitant to voice her concern about a billboard erected in the city warning children not to run from the cops.
“One of the things I will always teach my children is that they have the right to run,” Bottoms said during a council meeting. “It may be ill advised but the issue is not with them exercising their rights but the response to them exercising their rights.”
Bottoms also called upon her experience as a Black mother to draw a clear distinction between herself and then opponent Norwood, saying during a campaign radio ad, “My husband and I repeatedly have the painful conversation with our teenage son about being stopped by police. It’s a life-or-death conversation too many parents have to have. Mary [Norwood] can’t change something that she doesn’t even know exists.”
While Bottoms has called APD a “world class police force,” social justice organizations have called on the mayor to address police violence in the city in the wake of the deaths of Jimmy Atchison, 21, who was reportedly unarmed when he was shot and killed by Officer Sung Kim during an FBI raid in January; and D’Ettrick Griffin, 18, who was also shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer during an alleged car robbery.
“We are calling on a Keisha Lance Bottoms. We are calling on chief Erika Shields of the Atlanta Police Department,” Tanya Miller, attorney for Atchison’s family attorney, said. “We are calling on all law enforcement agencies in this community that are responsible to this community and are responsible for making sure that law enforcement uphold the law when they go into our communities.”
Bottoms has also faced wide-spread backlash for her failure to curtail marijuana-related arrests, though as a councilwoman and mayoral candidate, she supported the deprioritization of marijuana possession.
In the face of rampant police brutality, a public education crisis, and persistent and rising housing and income inequity in Atlanta, Bottoms knows she has a tough job; she also knows she has a responsibility to the community from whence she came. She is a Black woman attempting to make executive decisions for her city with the weight of the (Black) world on her shoulders, but also the spirits of Black ancestors guiding her steps, even when she stumbles.
“Only in Atlanta could a girl named Keisha, who attended Frederick Douglass High School on the west side, grow up to become the 60th mayor of the great city of Atlanta,” Bottoms said during her inauguration speech. “I know I stand here on the prayers of generations.”
Indeed, she does. And there is a new generation of activists and organizers who will both cheer her on and hold her accountable every step of the way.