Whether it was a gathering of 300 in front of the Triple S convenience store, small groups of 50 meeting at area churches, nearly 400 at city hall, dozens painting signs at LSU, or a thousand marching through downtown, Baton Rouge residents and visitors are protesting the death of 37-year-old Alton Sterling, who was shot by Baton Rouge police officers on July 5.
The shooting immediately drew public attention and protesters began taking their cries for justice to the streets, starting on North Foster. Demonstrations for Alton Sterling followed in major cities across the nation.
Protests have been largely peaceful, however local, city, and state officers’ use of force when arresting protesters have resulted in injuries. Reports have serviced of police attacking, beating, and illegally arresting protesters.
This treatment has been publicized in national media. Following closed meetings between Black elected officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, East Baton Rouge metro councilman Lamont Cole said the group has “some serious concerns” about how protesters have been handled by police.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana agrees. On July 13, the group filed a lawsuit against the Baton Rouge Police Department (BRPD), the Louisiana Department of Public Safety, EBRP Sheriff’s Department, and state police for using excessive force and “violating the First Amendment rights of demonstrators who were protesting peacefully against the killing of Alton Sterling.” The ACLU has requested a restraining order that would put restrictions on how protesters can be scattered and detained during future demonstrations. Under the order, officers would not be able to use chemical agents—such as tear gas— without clear warning and authorization from the governor. Officers that worked protests would also be required to clearly display their names, agency and identifying number.
“These protests are and will continue to be one of the strategies our citizens use to bring attention to the issue of police brutality and demand justice in the death of Alton Sterling,” said Michael McClanahan, president of the NAACP Baton Rouge Chapter.
On July 5, BRPD officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II were responding to a 911 call about a “man with a gun” at the Triple S on North Foster Drive at Fairfields Avenue. There they met Sterling who was selling CDs outside the store with the owner’s permission. Two videos of the shooting surfaced online via Facebook within hours, raising doubts about whether the police officers were justified in the shooting. Defenders of the police say other video exists that will exonerate the officers.
At the request of Gov. John Bel Edwards, the U.S. Department of Justice took over the investigation and the officers were placed on paid, administrative leave. District Attorney Hillar Moore III recused himself due to personal ties to Salamoni’s parents, who are also police officers. The State’s Attorney General will be in charge of prosecuting any state charges.
Groups from across the nation have traveled to Baton Rouge to join protestors, train observers, and organize activists for the long-term work of demanding justice. Organizers of rallies have said the work for justice will continue. Across nearly every part of the city, citizens—Black and white, elected officials, and police—are working to find solutions in closed meetings, criminal hearings, at policy meetings, during city council and legislative sessions, at mass, on the stage of poetry slams, and in safety briefings. “But the work began in the streets,” said McClanahan.