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Baton Rouge Civil Rights Leaders Fashion A Model Response To Police Shootings

Louisiana state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith speaks during a rally at City Hall on Friday in Baton Rouge, La. The local NAACP is calling for a boycott of Walmart and two local shopping malls.
Mark Wallheiser
Getty Images
Louisiana state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith speaks during a rally at City Hall on Friday in Baton Rouge, La. The local NAACP is calling for a boycott of Walmart and two local shopping malls.

The killing of Alton Sterling, 37, by police earlier this week touched off protests across the country – but in Sterling's home city of Baton Rouge, La., demonstrators' outrage has rarely exceeded a parboil. And that's by design.

This afternoon, civil rights leaders gathered on the steps of City Hall, and called Baton Rouge a "model city" for dealing with such tragedies — drawing a comparison to the sometimes violent chaos that overtook Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, and Baltimore, Md., after Freddie Grey died in police custody.

Nearly all of those who spoke at the event harkened back to the Civil Rights Movement and urged Baton Rouge residents to channel their frustrations into non-violent civil disobedience, including an economic boycott of local stores planned for this weekend.

"What we're aiming for is the true power, the Chamber of Commerce, to feel the pain that we've been feeling. And that that pain be so intense that it will force the district attorney to do what he needs to do — that is, arrest those two police officers [who were involved in the altercation that killed Sterling], charge them with murder, and put them on trial," Reverend Reginald Pitcher, who is president of the Louisiana Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told a cheering crowd.

Baton Rouge played a significant if uncelebrated role in the Civil Rights Movement. It was home to the first bus boycott — a history that speakers called on young people to study.

"If we know our history, we realize that every great movement didn't start with government," said Sharon Weston Broome, a former state senator. "But every great movement started with the people."

Sakinah Abdul-Aziz, 21, said she was raised to think about her civil rights by her mother and grandmother, who are both politically active, but speculated that put her in the minority among her peers.

"It's like the people in my generation don't understand the severity of what's going on," she told NPR.

Ky Thomas, also 21, said she avoided previous demonstrations following police shootings — but not for a lack of understanding.

"I was never really the type to be out here," she said, "because when the Trayvon Martin case happened I was really upset — like it hurts me, it makes me want to cry."

Thomas couldn't hide from her pain any longer after watching the video of Alton Sterling's killing in her home city, and she wished more of her peers felt the same. Thomas noted that earlier in the week many of them showed up at nighttime gatherings, playing loud music and dancing on top of cars.

But now that meetings are focusing on developing a political agenda they are mostly absent.

"Where are you now? This is where your voice needs to be heard, and no one's here."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlin Dickerson is an NPR News Investigative Reporter. She tackles long-term reporting projects that reveal hidden truths about the world, and contributes to breaking news coverage on NPR's flagship programs. Her work has been honored with some of the highest awards in broadcast journalism, including a George Foster Peabody Award and an Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2015, Dickerson was also a finalist for the Livingston Award.