By Quinn Welsch
Demonstrators gathered in front of the Louisiana State Capitol Building in a rally against growing perceptions of racial injustice in the United States’ legal system on Dec. 7, just four days after a grand jury in New York decided not to indict a police officer in the killing of an unarmed Black man.
The victim was Staten Island’s Eric Garner, who died as a result of a chokehold from a police officer during a dispute this summer. Dubbed the “I Can’t Breathe Rally,” the demonstration was a mournful tribute to Garner’s last words, which he repeated 11 times after being taken down via chokehold by police officers. The grand jury decision came just a little more than a week after a federal grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case.
The demonstration brought more than a hundred people to the steps of the Capitol building, including lawyers, religious leaders and Louisianans who have personally been impacted by police violence. The demonstration was coordinated by Baton Rouge Organizing, a social equality group which helped create a candlelight vigil after a similar decision was made by a grand jury in the Michael Brown case less than two weeks prior.
“Something is going to happen and something is going to change.”
But Sunday’s events also examined incidents closer to home, such as the recent deaths of Victor White III, of New Iberia, who killed himself while in police custody, according to police, and Houma’s 14-year-old Cameron Tillman, who was shot by a Terrebonne Sheriff’s deputy. The parents of both were present at the demonstration.
Though demonstrators expressed their frustration about these deaths and at the grand jury decisions, much of the conversation focused on what to do next.
“We get comfortable; we settle,” said Kirklan Boutte of Effumlife Body Works. “This can’t happen anymore. I’m not going to wait until the next hashtag to do something.”
Much of the dialogue surrounding both Eric Garner and Michael Brown has circulated on sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Arguably, much of the demonstration’s presence evolved from a Facebook event that sprouted up shortly after the grand jury’s decision on Dec. 3 and gained hundreds of followers.
While the online support benefits these movements, it does not have the same effect as a physical demonstration, said Baton Rouge Organizing member Kristen White.
“The community knows there are many injustices and many problems, but they just complain and remain stagnant,” White said. “There is never any movement.”
That is something she hopes to change with the help of her fellow organizers.
Similar words were echoed by NAACP Baton Rouge President Mike McClanahan. Though Baton Rouge’s rally was smaller, relative to those in New York or California, the turnout was much bigger and more diverse than anything McClanahan has ever seen in the city. Often, locals take an apathetic look at these types of issues, he said. When they do respond, they tend to be white, he added.
The recent grand jury decisions, serve as a “disillusion” to Americans who have no experience with police violence and a “re-wounding” to those who do, said Blair Brown, who created the Facebook event. But while they are disheartening to many, they serve as a call to action, she said.
“It’s an unfortunate system and a scary system but it’s a system that we are organizing around and aiming to fix with very real results,” she said. “Something is going to happen and something is going to change.”