On May 25, 2020, a COVID-19 captive American television audience witnessed in real time the murder of George Floyd by law enforcement officers in Minneapolis, MN.
Mayors of hundreds of cities across the country confronted angry, concerned, hopeful and at times violent demonstrators over the next weeks.
They shared the triple challenge of respecting protesters’ rights, safeguarding life and property, and acknowledging the reality of police brutality – sometimes within their own departments.
Eight of the mayors of cities with populations over 100,000, confronted these challenges as Black women.
- Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta GA.
- Sharon Weston Broome, Baton Rouge LA.
- Vi Lyles, Charlotte NC.
- Lori Lightfoot, Chicago IL.
- LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans LA
- Lovely Warren, Rochester NY.
- London Breed, San Francisco CA.
- Muriel Bowser, Washington, D.C.
On June 2, the LA Times and other media praised these women as “thoughtful leaders at a time of political tumult.” I saw exemplary leadership behaviors in crisis situations. They showed that if you want to lead effectively…
#1 Show Up
As protests that began in Minneapolis on May 26 spread over the next weeks, these women interacted with and sometimes joined demonstrators.
This is not something that we are going to run away from, said Mayor Warren. I will be here with you, as I stand with you now. Not at home, watching from a TV station, not hiding, but standing alongside you – hurt, angry, frustrated, disappointed and, yes, even afraid. But I still take responsibility for the change that is necessary to ensure that everyone – black, brown, and white can live in a more just community and society.[i]
In Charlotte and Atlanta, Mayors Bottoms and Lyles walked in solidarity with protestors with their chiefs of police at their side.
#2 Speak Authentically and With Authority
As Mayor Breed addressed a crowd of protesters for a peaceful “kneel-in” in front of City Hall on June 1, she said.
Black Lives Matter is nobody’s joke. I’m tired of people treating it that way. I’m tired of people masking their racism in black lives matter. It is not a joke. It is born out of pain. It is born out of racism that we are going to fight against. It is born out of our struggle, our blood, sweat and tears, for all that we have struggled through in this country. Don’t get it twisted — it is not a joke.
So for those of you who are genuine in this struggle, we thank you and we welcome you. But for those of you who are using this movement as a way to push violence to go after other black people, to tear us down, we will not tolerate that. Don’t get it twisted. I am the mayor but I’m a black woman first. I am angry. I am hurt. I am frustrated. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. I don’t want to see one more black man die at the hands of law enforcement. That’s what this movement is about. Not one more. Not one more.”[ii]
When Mayor Bottoms learned of street violence and looting, she said this:
“… 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. I wear this each and every day, and I pray over my children each and every day. What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos. 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.”[iii]
#3 Manage Flexibly
The size and degree of protests and violence varied among cities. Each of the mayors, all of whom appeared along with their chiefs of police, underscored the need for change but through peaceful means. Each then acted according to local circumstances.
Mayor Lyles declared a state of emergency on May 30 but chose not to impose a curfew.
I believe deeply that people should be allowed to protest,” Lyles said in a news press conference at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. “They should be able to protest within the law, and a curfew lifts that right.”[iv]
All of the other mayors chose differently. In San Francisco, Mayor Breed did so on May 31 with these words:
“We are implementing a curfew that will start tomorrow at 8 pm. People are hurting right now. They’re angry. I’m angry. The City and the police will support peaceful protests, as we did all day today. We can’t tolerate violence and vandalism. Now is the time to go home.”[v]
#4 Support Your People
New Orleans protests, with one exception attributed to outside groups, remained peaceful. Mayor Cantrell gave much of the credit to Police Chief Shaun Ferguson who helped to create safe space.
As it relates to our traffic division you saw them stopping cars, you saw them making a way and that’s what we want to do, continue to make a way for our residents to be safe but also create the environment so that they can use their voices to stand against any injustice that they see fit.” [vi]
Mayor Broome reported meeting with a group of peaceful protestors:
They have a genuine concern that you see among many of the peaceful protesters. And that is certainly the hunger and thirst for justice and wanting to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to close the gap between law enforcement and the citizens of this community.”
She also noted the positive change from violent clashes in the past, “I certainly think that the response from the police has changed since 2016. We’ve had in the Baton Rouge Police Department a number of trainings that have taken place.”[vii][viii]
#5 Also Held Them Accountable
The number of people arrested varied from less than a hundred in Baton Rouge, Rochester and New Orleans to hundreds in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. and thousands in Chicago. Protesters were not the only ones held to account.
In response to outrage over the use of tear gas by local police, Mayor Lyles invited the public on June 4 to relay their concerns about police relations and called for internal investigations into police use of chemical agents.[ix]
Mayor Bottoms fired two police officers and placed three others on desk duty over excessive use of force.[x]
#6 Push Back When Necessary
On May 29, 2020 President Trump responded to reports of violence among demonstrators in Minneapolis by called the protesters “thugs” and said that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The next day, Mayor Lightfoot had this to say: It’s impossible for me as a black woman who has been the target of blatant racism over the course of my life not to take the killing of George Floyd personally. Being black in America should not be a death sentence. And I will code what I really want to say to Donald Trump. It’s two words, it begins with ‘f’ and it ends with ‘you.’[xi]
On June 1, Mayor Bowser faced the additional challenge of federal government interference. Without knowledge or consent of D.C. authorities, federal police agents violently chased off peaceful demonstrators so President Trump could walk from the White House to pose for a photo in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Three days later, she officially requested the removal of federal police agents from the city.
The deployment of federal law enforcement personnel and equipment are inflaming demonstrators and adding to the grievances of those who, by and large, are peacefully protesting for change and for reforms to the racist and broken systems that are killing Black Americans.
On June 5, she authorized Black Lives Matter Plaza on the site of the violence and commissioned a mural on the street leading to the White House with the words Black Lives Matter. The next day, she joined 6,000 peaceful protesters.[xii][xiii]
#7 Face Reality with Resilience
On June 6, tropical storm Cristobal hit New Orleans and Baton Rouge with torrential rain and high wind. Mayors Cantrell and Broome had already prepared their communities.
Mayor Breed announced on June 11 the beginning of reforms: trained, unarmed professionals will replace police to answer calls of non-criminal activities, including disputes between neighbors, reports about homeless people and school discipline interventions.
On June 12, Mayor Bottoms accepted the resignation of her Chief of Police after law enforcement officers killed Rayshard Brooks, provoking new rounds of protests.
Also, on June 12, Mayor Lightfoot learned that Chicago police officers, without invitation, used a congressional campaign office as a lounging place while looting went on around them on June 1. An investigation is in the works.
On June 14, Mayor Bowser saw protestors gather in front of her home in Washington, D.C. to demand swift action on defunding police and decriminalizing sex work.
That day, Mayor Broome wrote in the Charlotte Observer that “quick police reforms and hastily appointed task forces are not enough this time. We need to have uncomfortable discussions about race and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Lost amid daily media reports of further protests, political scandals and the spreading pandemic is a discussion of effective leadership or acknowledgement of women’s contributions.
Black women have always been leading and we have been the defenders of our homes, our communities and our nation, said Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights, a political action committee dedicated to electing more progressive Black women. Our leadership was built for this moment and their unique experiences as Black women, not only as Americans, has provided the type of trusted leadership that can help move this country forward.[xiv]
For more articles about African American women mayors, see the following.
- What examples of effective leadership have you seen among your local officials?
- Which aspects of leadership demonstrated by these women mayors are most relevant to you today?
- What leadership behaviors you currently use would you highlight for others?