Amid protests across the US over police brutality and racism, the killing of Rayshard Brooks focused a fierce national spotlight on Atlanta. That harsh glare also fell on two candidates to be Joe Biden’s running mate against Donald Trump in November.
Brooks was shot after an arrest became a struggle and the 27-year-old African American took an officer’s Taser.
On Saturday, Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia House minority leader and candidate for governor, expressed her thoughts on Twitter. Brooks’s death, she wrote, “demands we severely restrict the use of deadly force” by police.
“Yes, investigations must be called for – but so too should accountability. Sleeping in a drive-thru must not end in death.”
Later, Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, fired the officer who shot Brooks and accepted the resignation of the city’s police chief.
“While we have a police force full of men and women who work alongside our communities with honor, respect and dignity,” she said, “there has been a disconnect with what our expectations are and should be as it relates to interactions with our officers and the communities in which they are entrusted to protect”.
With her city already the focus of protests and disorder fueled by the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, Bottoms has faced weeks of such tough decisions. How she and Abrams negotiate the next few days, however, may count for a lot when Biden makes his final choice.
Biden has promised to choose a woman. Many say he should choose an African American, given black voters’ role in his primary victory and the push for policing reform.
This week, the Associated Press reported that “several black women” were on the campaign’s long list, among them Bottoms, California senator Kamala Harris, former national security adviser Susan Rice and Florida representative Val Demings.
Demings has expressed interest and this week the New York Post quoted an anonymous Biden adviser as saying “she’s fresh and new [and] seems better on TV than Kamala”. As a former Orlando police chief, however, she is not universally popular with activists and protesters.
Abrams was not named in the AP report but she remains part of the Democratic conversation. On Sunday, she spoke to ABC’s This Week.
“The virulence of anger remains,” she said, about police killings of African Americans.
“Activists are necessarily calling into question what’s actually being done … There’s a legitimacy to this anger, there’s a legitimacy to this outrage. [Brooks] was murdered because he was asleep in a drive-thru and we know that this is not an isolated occurrence. We also know that a man taking a Taser from a police officer in Pennsylvania resulted in his arrest, but because this person [in Atlanta] was black, it resulted in his death.
“Those are conversations that have to be had, not only through speeches but through the decisions made by budget allocations, and I think that’s the next conversation we have to have in Atlanta.”
That was a reference to a push from activists and reformers to “defund the police”, a slogan chanted on the streets but seized by Trump and other Republicans to suggest votes for Democrats in November will result in lawless abandon.
Biden has said he does not support defunding, favouring reform instead. Abrams followed such careful steps, saying the issue was “being drawn into this false choice idea”.
“The reality is, we need … reformation of how police officers do their jobs, how law enforcement does its job, because what happened to Rayshard Brooks was a function of excessive force and … the fact that [the officers] were either embarrassed or, you know, panicked led them to murder a man who they knew only had a Taser in his hand.”
Abrams continued: “We know that the murder of Breonna Taylor [in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky] means we have to reform no-knock warrants. We know that in the state of Georgia, we also have to look at the larger judicial issue of the fact that people can use citizen arrest laws to murder men like Ahmaud Arbery in the streets. So, reformation is absolutely important.
“We’ll use different language to describe it,” she said. “But, fundamentally, we must have reformation and transformation.”
Vice-presidential contenders usually say little about their hopes to be picked, but Abrams has said she will serve if asked. On Sunday, she was asked if she was being vetted by the campaign.
“I will say the vetting conversation needs to be had with the Biden team,” she said.
Earlier this week, elections in Georgia descended into chaos amid precautions against the coronavirus and efforts by Republican officials to suppress the Democratic vote. Abrams told ABC her focus, through her voting rights group Fair Fight, was on “making sure that we have elections that can happen in November”.
“There will be no vice-president,” she said, “there will be no president if our democracy crumbles under the inefficiencies and the inequities that we see happening. And we want to have an administration, led by Joe Biden, that transforms America and makes us a stronger and safer nation.”