By Keem O. Muhammad
The price of substantial social and civil change is too often the sacrifice of life and limb. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and countless others have lost their lives to wake the public from its slumber and shine light on the excessive, brutal tactics used far too often by law enforcement in policing communities of color.
This past week, we reached critical mass in the debate over policing. The slayings of Castile and Sterling sparked protests and demonstrations across the country. In my second home of Baton Rouge, the city where I spent six years as a student, local law enforcement met nonviolent protestors with more brutality. I was one of the 120+ peaceful demonstrators, beaten, arrested and tossed into jail for reasonably exercising my First Amendment rights.
On Sunday, July 10, 2016, I was with 20 black, white and Latino men, between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, locked up in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. I sat on an old, wooden bench wearing an orange jumpsuit. We were all arrested for the same reason: allegedly obstructing a public passageway and resisting an officer. As I rubbed the bruises on my wrists, a young man stood on the other side of the tank begging the Sheriff’s deputies on duty to summon a nurse to bring pain medication. He had been violently arrested during the peaceful protests earlier that day. Law enforcement officers slammed his body to the concrete, splitting his head open. His stitches could not stop the bleeding. Another young man lay on the floor with his foot propped up. His ankle was busted up after cops aggressively took down him and his wife, a scene later broadcast on national television.
“Why are we here?” I asked the group. The look in their eyes collectively communicated the same question. As a young American, it’s a question I also have for everyone reading this.
Just hours before we were issued inmate numbers, hundreds of people gathered peacefully in downtown Baton Rouge to protest the death of Alton Sterling. The march was organized by several community groups and led by local youth. Baton Rouge residents, students from the area’s colleges and universities white, black, femme, LGBTQIA+ activists from New York Houston, Dallas and San Francisco had converged on the southern state capital.
I was a Legal Observer (LO) during the entirety of the march. I handed out water and documented the actions of law enforcement in the event they engaged protesters in foul play.
Following the demonstration through downtown Baton Rouge, I returned to the church where the march had begun. The ranks of the protestors doubled in size, but the gathering remained peaceful. People laughed, talked about community activism, organizing and sang. The chant of “Black Lives Matter” echoed through the streets.
With the march winding down, protesters discussed plans to join other nonviolent demonstrations across the city. Many wanted to continue marching elsewhere in Baton Rouge.
However, before a solid plan could form, I was approached by an LO supervisor who said:
“The police have told me they’re giving everyone 10 minutes to clear the street or else they’ll [BRPD] start arresting people.”
I shook his hand and took to the top of an inclined yard on the northwest corner of East Boulevard and France Street. Clearly it was going to take longer than ten minutes for everyone to clear the street.
I yelled to the crowd:
“Everyone, I know we aren’t all sure what to do next, but we have to get out of the street! The police are giving us 10 minutes!”
Many in the crowd began to move out of the street and to the sidewalks. However, by the time the crowd was back on the same page, the Baton Rouge Police Department’s Special Forces unit arrived. Their riot gear–gas masks, assault rifles, helmets and armored vehicles– screamed they were prepared for confrontation.
As documented in the video I filmed, these cops were not the conciliatory officers present during the march, like the cops in Dallas, who hugged, shook hands and took pictures with demonstrators eager to do the same. These cops were ready to pick a fight, to turn a peaceful demonstration into a display of wanton force and intimidation. Sound familiar?
There was no traffic being held up on East Boulevard, France or Government streets and the demonstration had been free of violence and theft. BRPD stated they wanted us gone from the area. The protesters collectively refused, seeing the demands of the police as an overreaction to what was still a peaceful demonstration.
For the next 30–45 minutes, protesters at a distance the width of East Blvd (two lanes and a neutral ground). They chanted “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” “Put the Guns Down,” “Black Lives Matter” and of course, “Alton Sterling”.
We made people clear the streets as instructed. We helped those who were tempted to escalate the situation remain calm and exercise restraint over their outrage. We gave information to those who refused to leave so they knew what to do in the event of an arrest. Lisa Batiste, the tenant of the house on the adjacent corner of East Boulevard and French Street, invited the remaining protesters to come into her home and consented to our soliciting on her front yard.
Activists plead with the officers to join the protesters in solidarity, as was done in Thailand. We called for this multiple times with our hands up as a group. The protesters did not initiate violence to provoke the BRPD’s aggression. Some people prayed. There were children in the crowd closely. None of this mattered. Law enforcement made no effort to actively de-escalate the situation without militaristic tactics.
Just when tensions from the standoff seemed to plateau, we chanted “the world is watching.” This seemed to enrage them. Many officers pointed and laughed. Two additional riot squadrons marched in, flanking us on three sides and transforming Batiste’s home into the fourth barrier, preventing most people from dispersing as repeatedly instructed.
It was like a scene from Ferguson or Baltimore.
People fled en masse upon law enforcement grabbing non-resisting protestors by the neck and violently forcing people to the ground with unwarranted aggression. The police yanked on and chased after nonviolent protestors in armored vehicles. The Americans they swore to protect and serve feared for their lives.
Three or four officers approached me, grabbing my arms and shoulders, slamming me on the ground with their knees in my neck and back, their boots centimeters away from trampling my face. To call the experience traumatic would be an understatement but there were others who suffered far worse the night before.
“There he is. Yeah, that’s the one we want, the big mouth,” a white officer boasted. “Inciting a riot and carrying on.”
The officers put the zip ties on my wrists as tight as they possibly could. As we were walking down the street, I guess I was walking too fast for one of the officers gripping either of my arms. “Slow down,” they said. “This is our show now.”
While I was hauled off in a van with 12 other people, the squadrons of riot gear-clad cops continued their hostile campaign.
Law enforcement officials wasted no time creating a media narrative which painted peaceful protesters as violent troublemakers to discredit them and gaslight the public waiting to find out what happened. The Louisiana Superintendent of Police claimed cement projectiles were thrown by protestors at officers and used the instance as a justification for their behavior. The problem with this accusation, though, is that the National Lawyers Guild has proof that the object was thrown by plain clothes officers. Other attempts to explain their violent actions have since been proven moot by a lack of evidence, sloppily handled misinformation, and arguable conflicts of interest within the BRPD.
What is most interesting to me, though, is on the day before I was arrested, I spoke with Baton Rouge residents who were at the Triple S Mart peacefully protesting Alton Sterling’s death. There were hundreds of people at one point, filling the parking lot, streets and sidewalks on Foster. We were there for several hours, but we showed up toward the latter half of the gathering. We passed out water and helped clean up.
I reminded the audience that after black Baton Rouge residents successfully desegregated local pools in the 1960’s, it was Martin Luther King and the SCLC who sought out their organizing wisdom, not the other way around. I encouraged them to abandon the idea of waiting for a savior to swoop in and solve their problems. I encouraged them to continue fighting hard for justice in the name of their children and future generations.
The two differences between Saturday and Sunday? Saturday’s protest was not in a white neighborhood and zero officers were present. Many of the people at the Triple S Mart Saturday were the same people at Sunday’s march and trapped in the BRPD’s chaos after. The differences were striking. They still are.
If you want freedom in America, unfortunately in 2016, this is the price of the ticket.
Photo by Nicholas Martino.