Alton Sterling’s death has inspired nationwide protests backed by thousands of Americans who want to end police brutality and the unremitting laws that seem to protect those who are employed to serve and protect citizens.
Sterling’s name is being called by people all over the world who are partaking in public demonstrations, rallies, and protests seeking justice for his death and that of Philando Castile, Dylan Noble, and others who were killed by police officers. With the continued efforts being taken to protest, many people are optimistic about the possibility of justice being served this time around, but what happens if the verdict isn’t in favor of the victims? How will supporters feel? Will the public outcry lead to a volatile response from protesters? In Baton Rouge, leaders are extending a strong message to citizens currently fighting for justice and against police brutality. They are saying, with microphones in hand and in casual conversations, “Rioting and looting aren’t effective forms of retaliation. We will not destroy Baton Rouge.”
In the past, America has seen the devastating aftermath and retaliation from outraged protesters and residents following seemingly “unjust” verdicts. Many of the most highly publicized officer-involved shootings have resulted in non-indictments, non-guilty verdicts, and dropped charges.
Despite facing incriminating evidence and unedited videos of their attacks, overly aggressive—and often violent—police officers have managed to walk away from cases with judges ruling in their favor. Instead of serving time, these officers end up getting a slap on the wrist or a severance package to move on with their lives. Only to be met with violent uproar within the communities left on the other side of justice.
Local community leaders and elected officials have stepped into what could’ve been riotous moments during the protests following Sterling’s killing and deescalated situations in an effort to keep peace. With emotions and tensions at it peak, these leaders say they aren’t personally concerned about the possibility of local looting, but some residents are.“I don’t have a concern about looting, but I’m a business owner and a property owner so, I do know other business and property owners may be worried about those possibilities because they aren’t as close to the situation as I am,” said businessman Cleve Dunn Jr.
“(Baton Rouge has) done things differently from a lot of other places around the country because we’ve had the opportunity to learn from the lessons and previous mistakes other communities have made and observed that if you tear your community up, once national media leave and professional protesters leave, we’re left to deal with the aftermath.”
To that, Black leaders throughout the city stress the importance of refraining from destroying the community, saying the aftermath would be detrimental to the advancement of the community.
“Destructive protests do not accomplish anything because generally our people are the ones who hurt the most from it,” said Doris Gaymon, 64, a lifelong resident of North Baton Rouge. “We tend to destroy our own areas and properties and it defeats the purpose of the message we hope to send. In many cases, the areas destroyed are not insured and total destruction on those locations have made owners apprehensive about rebuilding in the impacted areas due to fears of repeated destruction.”
For Gaymon, Sterling’s death is quite disheartening and many of the strikingly intense photos from recent protests mirror those from Civil Rights era demonstrations. The images and emotions signify the fight for equality and the ongoing battle against police brutality.
“It appears we haven’t gotten beyond destruction,” she said.
Gaymon remembers the 1972 rally at Southern University where Denver Smith and Leonard Brown were fatally shot by white deputies while protesting on campus. Although their protests weren’t centered around police brutality, they were fighting for a number of on-campus changes and the resignation of certain administrators.
“The death of Alton Sterling has only culminated a deep-rooted problem that has been festering for many years. Hopefully, we, as a people, can understand that destruction does not resolve anything,” Gaymon said.
In spite of all the horrific events Baton Rouge has experienced—including the shooting death of Sterling, attacks on peaceful protestors, and the deaths of three uniform officers—most residents agree emphatically that retaliation in the form of rioting and looting won’t relay the message of justice the community is hoping to send.
“At every opportunity, you will hear leaders and residents all over saying, ‘We will not destroy or burn down our community!’,” said Dunn. “And we will not. This is ours.”
By Meaghan Ellis
Special to The Drum
Originally published July 2016 in the print edition of The Drum