Cities were already grappling with the health and economic impact of COVID-19 when protests uncovered what one mayor Thursday called the “second pandemic” – a fractured police relationship with minority communities.

The comments came in a virtual roundtable discussion with mayors from across the country, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who were asked to talk about “national unrest amid COVID-19 pandemic.”

Gallego was joined by mayors of Atlanta, Stockton, California, and Newark, New Jersey, who split the hour-long conversation evenly between cops and the coronavirus. While the discussion was wide-ranging, the mayors agreed on one thing: It’s a challenging time.

“It has been quite a few two weeks in Phoenix, Arizona,” Gallego said during the event, which was sponsored by the Center for American
Progress. “We have been having robust conversations with the police department and our community.”

Cities across the country were rocked in recent weeks by protests over George Floyd’s May 25 killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, one of whom knelt one Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes despite pleas that he could not breathe.

A number of those protests erupted into clashes with police, with some protesters taking up “defund the police” as a rallying cry.

“First all the inequality was unearthed because of COVID and then, bam, George Floyd is murdered almost on national TV,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “This is not the first time a police officer killed a black man.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said the reaction to Floyd’s death was not surprising.

“If we are over-policing our communities, then we are going to have a heightened response from our communities,” said Bottoms.

Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests have been a wake-up call for some, Gallego said.

“Now I have folks, the leaders of the business community reaching out to me and saying, ‘What can we do to fight racism?’” Gallego said. “Those were conversations that we didn’t have as often as we needed to before.”

Gallego pointed to the Phoenix Police Department’s decision Tuesday to prohibit the carotid control technique, an aggressive chokehold used to subdue suspects, and is committed to continue to do so.

Bottoms said her police department is far from perfect, but that there are good things happening in terms of police-community interactions, like a youth center where police recruits work with kids.

Baraka said cities have been left “basically on our own trying to keep our people safe and alive without any real direction or support.”

“So we have to be creative as possible to make sure folks are actually doing what they can to protect their families, particularly since COVID has affected our lives a lot more than it’s affected other people’s lives,” he said of African Americans.

The mayors’ roundtable came the same day that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey rejected calls to tighten restrictions on business and social interactions, even though the state has seen a sharp uptick in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths in the last week.

Ducey said Thursday the state had a sufficient number of hospital beds available, that testing is available and that the state would continue its phased reopening for now.

Gallego, who spoke before Ducey’s announcement, said that the state has rushed into reopening, which is why the situation is only getting worse in Arizona.

“These conversations happen as we recover from – well, we are not recovering from COVID-19.” she said. “We opened too much too early and so our hospitals are really struggling.”

While many worry that the protests might lead to further increases in COVID-19 infections, Gallego was careful to note research from Arizona State University that found the current increase in positive tests are not a result of the protests.

In Atlanta, Bottoms said the mass gatherings led city officials to take COVID-19 testing directly to the communities to encourage people to get tested.

Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs said COVID-19 restrictions are not an easy sell, noting that his public health officer “is scared to say you have to wear a mask in public because of death threats and threats to her safety and security.” But it needs to be done, he said.

“When you’re protesting, wear masks. The virus will continue to spread. It doesn’t care the feelings, the weather, it doesn’t care about how tired we are,” Tubbs said. “It’s a virus and real and we have to mitigate it and move into this new normal.

Gallego, who criticized the state’s response, said mayors have led the fight to rein in the virus in Arizona.

That’s what mayors do, Bottoms said, even when the challenges are as daunting as a pandemic and police brutality demonstrations.

“There has been no playbook, at least that was left for me, on as mayor how you deal with a pandemic and certainly not one on how you deal with a transitional movement like we are seeing in this country,” she said.


Story by Blake Freas, Cronkite News