Opinion: Understanding the Roots of Baton Rouge Unrest

Protesters in Boston respond to Alton Sterling's death. Photo by Torrance Latham.
Written by Torrance Latham

By Torrance Latham
BU News Service

Coming up as a black male in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I am quite familiar with the corner of North Foster Drive and Fairfields Avenue, where Alton Sterling was controversially shot multiple times by two police officers..

It was part of my daily route on the school bus to Baton Rouge High and less than five minutes away from the church I attended.

Though I no longer live in Louisiana, I’ve keenly observed events that have unfolded. I’ve seen the image of Baton Rouge become forever connected to a black man being tasered, pinned down, and killed by two police officers. It wasn’t enough that they shot a civilian unprovoked, but he was callously left to bleed to death while having his pockets rummaged through for a firearm. But as the world watched the grainy footage of what certain police deem appropriate “protecting and serving” tactics when apprehending black people, another image has swiftly emerged: Violence meeting violence.

Marching and protesting is great, but it can only take you so far.

After a highly emotional week in which several black men were unjustifiably killed by police officers combined with the senseless killings of police officers in Dallas, and now in Baton Rouge, people became more committed than ever to doing the essential work needed in order to turn their community around.

Keeping up largely via Periscope and Facebook Live, it warmed my heart to see teenagers from the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, a college-prep mentoring organization, lead a peaceful Wave March for Justice to the Capitol with thousands of protesters joining.

This was in spite of hundreds of arrests made over the previous weekend following several other protests in Baton Rouge, including a well-known Black Lives Matters activist and local journalists.

Those who were previously unaware of Baton Rouge, besides it being home to Louisiana State University or within an hour away from New Orleans, are learning about us daily through pictures that will one day be remembered as key moments in the modern history of race relations in America.

Though I never anticipated the day that Baton Rouge would resemble a war-zone, upon further reflection, it should have been expected. The truth always comes to light.

I am immensely proud to have been born and raised in Baton Rouge. Family, food, and football reign supreme in southeast Louisiana. In the fall, you can drive over the hump at Southern University toward the heavenly smell of BBQ and potato salad, with the blaring sounds of Frankie Beverly and Maze “Before I Let Go” in what those familiar refer to as tailgating. Or you can head over to south Baton Rouge for one of the most deafening, but electrifying experiences in college football, a Saturday night at Tiger Stadium.

But despite beautiful qualities that emanate from our southern hospitality, we are a community with a deeply rooted and troubled racial history. Baton Rouge, as we know it today, is a result of that past.

Fighting against racial injustice is nothing new for Louisiana’s capital city. The first organized bus boycott of the civil rights movement took place in Baton Rouge in 1953.

Louisiana also has a notoriously poor school system. The East Baton Rouge Parish School System, the largest student population in Louisiana, includes the distinction of having had one of the longest running school desegregation cases in America. Louisiana’s spending on prisons far outpaces what it spends on schools.

This is a significance that continues to shape my hometown in many ways.

Baton Rouge, like most other places in America, is a tale of two cities. There is south Baton Rouge, a financially booming, predominantly white and middle-class enclave featuring swank shopping centers and affluent neighborhoods. The other is north Baton Rouge, an ostracized assembly of the town’s older quarters and an abandoned infrastructure. It is primarily underprivileged and black. It is a world that is so unfamiliar to some Baton Rouge residents, they would need a GPS to find it. It is also where Alton Sterling’s life came to a catastrophic, preventable end.

A mural memorializing Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA. Photo courtesy of John-Pierre LaFleur

A mural memorializing Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA. Photo courtesy of John-Pierre LaFleur

Those who are committed to their own privilege insufferably view the lives of people in north Baton Rouge as a collective outcome of poor values, bad decisions, and government dependency.

That is a mischaracterization of most American inner-city areas and blatantly eradicates any of the necessary historical context required to evaluate impoverished conditions. North Baton Rouge is a byproduct of systemic racism. Those bigoted policy choices have had a domino effect on neighborhoods, families, and social patterns.

These are not antiquated notions based upon the darker days of America’s past. As recently as 2015, there was an organized effort to form a new city within the original city limits of Baton Rouge called the City of St. George. If that goal was effectively implemented, the upper-middle-class suburb would have broken away from an already segregated city. City of St. George supporters claimed it was a move that needed to be made in order to have more control over poorly performing schools. When in actuality, it was a racially motivated decision that would have been potentially catastrophic to the city’s finances. The effort ultimately failed, but residents now know they live in a city where more than a few of their neighbors want nothing to do with them.

A plan to create a whole new city opened up old debates that are split along cultural, financial and racial lines.

It’s time for certain lines to be crossed. Racism cannot be viewed as a micro problem left for a marginalized sector of the population to combat. It must be acknowledged as a macro issue.

Baton Rouge was ranked first in the nation in 2013 for estimated H.I.V. and AIDS case rates per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. East Baton Rouge Parish ranks #23 in murder per 100k people. The level of poverty is also exceedingly high, with nearly 25% of the city’s population below the poverty line. A significant concentration of those residents dwell in north Baton Rouge. It is in these conditions that undoubtedly influences a man’s decision to sell CDs at late hours in order to provide for his family.

Combine that with years of a lack of accountability from both law enforcement and duplicitous politicians has led to the fury, frustration and fatigue that appears to have finally reached its boiling point. Let’s be clear: Taking lives of police officers is the wrong way to address these ills. But if we continue to marginalize communities of color without understanding how systemic racism leads them to this point, we will continue to fail these communities. Systemic racism has held black people in America captive like non-domesticated animals for so long that we are now seeing the fruits of its labor.

Over the past few years, many hard-working residents have labored to bring attention to the challenges facing north Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, they are fighting without the support of their own government. If anything, the government has actively worked against any progress. Most people blame former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

He inexplicably turned down Medicaid expansion dollars which led to the closings of two emergency rooms, leaving north Baton Rouge without a health care facility that can handle emergencies. Sick patients are forced to travel from one side of town to the other in critical conditions.

The problem isn’t just lack of access to quality health care, though. Dependable public transportation and even access to wholesome food are among the many problems that plague the area.

Meanwhile, Mayor-President Kip Holden has done all but be an actual mayor. Besides going several days without addressing the public regarding Alton Sterling, he was also out of town when his constituents rallied amidst the city’s turmoil. It’s difficult to view him as anything other than another self-serving politician who will leave office with mostly unfulfilled promises.

The current divisive line running through the middle of Baton Rouge is far from an anomaly, it is actually a microcosm of many towns across America. It’s a line that crosses color and class, and deliberately shows which lives are more valued.

It’s a line so overt and dangerous that it makes the indifference of many silent Americans unacceptable.

Because many people who were dead silent during the two days following the deaths of Sterling and Castile, suddenly found their voices concerning violence when it pertained to Dallas and now Baton Rouge.

If you weren’t outraged when a father was murdered in front of his daughter, but you were when police in Dallas and Baton Rouge were killed, ask yourself why.

Media have influenced bias with stories that detail how victims behaved inappropriately in the past, as if that justifies treating them in unjustifiable ways in the present. The narrative implies that the victims are thugs who perpetuate black-on-black crime, or they should have complied, or the “best” one of all: We’re just playing the race card.

There is no way to stop these extrajudicial killings if there is no accountability held. An institution that doesn’t arrest police responsible for killing people, but arrests those protesting the lack of arrest, should not be acceptable.  Yet, cops taking the lives of innocent civilians has become surmised with the cost of doing business. Which raises the question, how can you protect me if you’re afraid of me?

This is not an question that should be left for a certain segment of the American population to answer alone.

Protesters in Boston respond to the death of Alton Sterling. Photo by Torrance Latham

Protesters in Boston respond to the death of Alton Sterling. Photo by Torrance Latham

Here’s my advice to white people who are struggling to figure out how to be effective allies.

The answers come from within. By now, you should fully understand the extent to which our criminal justice system treats black people differently than yourselves.

And if you don’t, now would be a great time to do some independent research in order to educate yourself. This would make for more effective conversations with black people.

But also talk to your white friends about it. Of course these conversations won’t be easy. But you are in a unique position to influence the perspectives of other white people. You may even sway opinions, especially among family members.

It is time for the citizens of America to have a real conversation about the country in which we live. This country has more than just a troubled racial history. It was built off of racial oppression and has shamelessly continued to thrive from it.

If there is not a concerted effort made by everyone, especially those with the power and resources to influence change, to understand how/why we’ve gotten to this point, these unfortunate events will inevitably get worse as the anger/resentment builds.

Standing against the injustices around you isn’t about being black or an American, it is being a human being.

As a new chapter in the history book is being written, what side will you be on?

Torrance Latham, a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is a graduate student in journalism at Boston University.

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