On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was murdered by police in Baton Rouge while pinned down on the ground. He had been selling CDs outside of a Triple S Food Mart. It has been reported that after the shooting police tampered with surveillance video from the store, but two cell phone videos captured by store owner Abdullah Muflahi and a member of a local community group, Stop the Violence, Inc., quickly came out and went viral on social media. It smashed the blatant lie that Sterling had pulled a gun on officers, as the police claimed. The murder of Sterling and the police violence in response to the subsequent protests should come as no surprise given Louisiana’s deep roots of exploitation of black labor, the state’s reliance on policing and incarceration to maintain this exploitation, and the legal measures used to insulate police from criticism or prosecution.

After the shooting, there were large gatherings of community members at the food mart, holding vigil and remembering Alton Sterling, while also airing frustrations and anger about the continued epidemic of police murders. The following Sunday, July 10th, saw a large mobilization with confrontations between heavily armed police in riot gear and protesters. This is an eyewitness account of the clashes that followed, as experienced by two comrades of AWWP on the ground.

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Protester holds a sign in front of a police line in Baton Rouge. July 11, 2016

The first march was organized by youth and was pretty well managed beginning to end. There were 1000+ people and it was hard to get a read on the energy. Somehow, the organizers and cops got all 1000 people onto the sidewalk or into a parking lot afterwards, but some woman got on a megaphone and started screaming about disruption, etc and got a crowd of at least 700 people back into the streets and marching toward the highway. Cops blocked the way and the march came to a halt for five minutes as people chanted.

Police in riot gear line up alongside LRAD equipment being used on protesters. (Photo courtesy of Twitter @kidnoble, July 10, 2016)

The march shuffled to the side into a residential neighborhood and a bunch of different people address the crowd/debate each other about disruption, standing up against the cops, etc. The dynamic seemed mostly to be people trying to convince the crowd that they should do things the “right” way, with others debating them, having the stage and getting a lot of support from the crowd. At least 100 cops/sheriffs in riot gear had gathered down the block in the direction of the highway, making that feel pretty impossible. Unfortunately, the only other proposal was to march to LSU but no one was really feeling that either. Then, several hours of standoff, snatch n’ grabs, retreat, and reconvene complete with 2 LRADs (Long-Range Acoustic Device).

After one dispersal warning, a neighbor told everyone they could be on her property, which a lot of people did. There was a the final police charge, where they stormed the yard and house, making arrests, and chased people in two directions. Some ended up holed up at a McDonald’s, others were just milling about on Government St, where the break-off march started. Eventually, the crowd was dispersed enough that the cops withdrew most of their numbers and the remaining people headed out. Before we left, we were told that people were meeting up later for a march at the Triple S.

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Artist Jo Hines painted this mural outside the Triple S Food Mart where Alton Sterling was shot and killed.

The Triple S is the corner store at which Alton Sterling was murdered. He was well loved by the people in the neighborhood and would regularly hang out there, selling CDs, DVD, etc. The Triple S had been an uncontested spot for gathering, sharing feelings, speaking out, and holding space. Until Sunday, everyone was able to gather without conflict from the police, since they hadn’t been going to the neighborhood. The store itself seemed pretty supportive of the demonstrations: the day after the killing, the building was already covered with a mural of Alton and a memorial was standing in front. We weren’t there when it happened, but after the stand-off on Government St, people had decided to gather and march from the Triple S. We heard later that they were quickly ejected by the cops.

Later that night, many showed up to the Circle K. The Circle K sits right on Airline Highway, a major road that runs to New Orleans and right across from the Baton Rouge Police Headquarters. Hundreds had been gathering there each night, filling the large parking lot (and some of the grass area directly next to the intersection) with cars, taunting the police, and every now and then blocking the highway. The cops were meeting this with a ton of force, picking off people they were identifying as “instigators”, in some cases chasing them hundreds of feet through the crowd and tackling them down to the ground. The cops would then retreat, the crowd would gather again, and the whole thing would repeat.

The cops’ strategy hinged on mass arrests, watching from a distance, taking video of the crowd looking for anyone trying to escalate the situation (i.e. yelling).[1] Perhaps when they had a critical mass of targets, they’d march over to the crowd with full riot gear, snatch the people they wanted (and anyone trying to defend them), hold their line, retreat, and repeat until the crowd runs out of steam.

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People block police vehicles during the July 10th demonstrations. (Photo courtesy of Twitter @tjonesreporter, July 10, 2016)

While the cops were at bay, the crowd was chanting, partying, debating, or talking to one of the many reporters on the scene. At points, an individual or group of people would rush into the street and block traffic for a little while. This was controversial, and each time debates ensued about disruption, antagonizing the police, being peaceful, and so on. It was striking that all of these discussions were just taking place between people who had shown up and seemed to be trying to figure out what they wanted out of the situation. Positions were all over the map, ranging from total war against the police to non-disruptive communication of the cause to passing traffic. There was a total absence of movement politicians and ideologues managing the discourse. Because the debates were so diffuse, it was unclear how one would throw their support in any corner in particular.

On the arrests: the police were specifically targeting people who were loud or trying to escalate things. This often just meant whoever was yelling, riling people up, or proposing some particular action, even if they hadn’t done anything else besides try to instigate things. During the arrests, the cops were especially brutal. They would launch out in small packs, smash their target into the floor, a nearby wall, or both, and drag them back behind the police line.The cops were also really brutal. They were definitely wound the fuck up and taking it out on demonstrators.

At both the unpermitted march on Government St. and the gatherings at Circle K, the snatch and grabs would cause huge panics. Perhaps because of a general lack of experience, because of how heavy handed the police were, or because of the AR-15s, LRADs, and full riot gear, people would turn and bolt. Each time the cops lunged forward, nearly everyone present would full-sprint away from the cops. Only a few people were yelling at everyone trying to get people to either walk (the possibility of someone getting trampled was super real) or stop and turn around, which most everyone would eventually do. The crowd would dwindle each time this happened, however.

AWWP will keep an eye on developments in Louisiana. We encourage readers to submit your own accounts and reflections on the protests there or lessons from the struggle for justice for Alton Sterling.

[1] Shortly after, the Baton Rouge Police Department and state law enforcement officials were sued in federal court for violating the First Amendment rights of dozens of protesters detained at demonstrations that weekend. See Robert Mackey, “Baton Rouge Police Sued Over Arrest of Peaceful Protesters.The Intercept, 7/14/2016.