Leadership from Atlanta

Remarks by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Killer Mike, Atlanta, GA, May 30, 2020.

Political eulogies rethicken and refasten community ties frayed by the untimely deaths of its people. 

We have no eulogies yet for the victims of COVID19. The socially distanced funeral for George Floyd awaits us later this week.

Meantime, a splendid eulogy was delivered Friday night at a news conference in Atlanta by hiphop star and activist Michael Santiago Render, better known as Killer Mike. Four factors lifted his brief speech out of the ordinary.

First, Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms convened the event and told those thronging the streets of her city to stop damaging property and go home. Her first rationale was personal:

Above everything else, I am a mother. I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old. 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. 

So you’re not going to out-concern me and out-care me about where we are in America….

Then she drew the essential distinction between protest and violence by reminding Atlantans who they are:

A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. So if you love this city—this city that has had a legacy of black mayors and black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50 percent of the business owners in metro Atlanta are minority business owners—if you care about this city, then go home. 

Killer Mike took the mic. He wore a black shirt or sweatshirt with the white letters “Kill Your Masters.” So he looked the part of a gangsta, and several of his verb choices derived from the genre. He was graphic, saying that Floyd “died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw.” But he did not sound menacing. At times he wiped away tears.

The second outstanding feature of his eulogy was its evocation of history. Like Mayor Bottoms, he referenced the racial legacy of the police: 

I’m the son of an Atlanta City Police Officer. My cousin is an Atlanta City Police Officer…I got a lot of love and respect for police officers down to the original eight police officers in Atlanta that, even after becoming police, had to dress in a YMCA because white officers didn’t want to get dressed with niggers.

Later he talked about Alexander Stephens, the Georgian secessionist and defender of slavery who served in both the Confederate and U.S. governments. He cited the work of Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and US Ambassador to the United Nations, who told a local corporate giant “Coca-Cola, we love you, but if you don’t pull out of South Africa, we’re going to leave. We’re not going to drink Coca-Cola anymore.” History was adduced to situate today’s politics in both sordid and noble traditions.

Third, Killer Mike laid out an action agenda. He repeatedly told the assembled to “plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.” He insisted that they fill out their Census forms. He asked that the Atlanta police department restore the community review board “because we need to get ahead of it before an officer does some stupid shit.”

Fourth, Killer Mike’s remarks stood out in contrast to the president’s. He pointed that out. “We don’t need a dumb ass president repeating what segregationists said.”

Let us hope President Trump rises to the exigency in the days to come.

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