Courts & Crime

Baton Rouge parade openly mocked the deaths of black men months before Alton Sterling shooting

In this Tuesday, July 5, 2016 photo made from video, Alton Sterling is held by two Baton Rouge police officers, with one holding a hand gun, outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. Moments later, one of the officers shot and killed Sterling, a black man who had been selling CDs outside the store, while he was on the ground.
In this Tuesday, July 5, 2016 photo made from video, Alton Sterling is held by two Baton Rouge police officers, with one holding a hand gun, outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. Moments later, one of the officers shot and killed Sterling, a black man who had been selling CDs outside the store, while he was on the ground. AP

A bystander video shows Alton Sterling restrained by two police officers on the ground when one pulls out a gun and points it at his chest. The video turns away when the police officer starts shooting Sterling, but you can hear the gunshots as a woman screams and sobs.

Sterling died from the gunshot wounds to his chest and back, according to the coroner, spurring protests in the city of Baton Rouge and a federal investigation into his death.

Police said they were called to the scene on an anonymous tip that Sterling had threatened someone with a gun. Sterling did have a gun on him, police said, but witnesses said he wasn’t reaching for it when he was shot. Police removed it from his pocket after shooting him, one witness said. Sterling was reportedly selling CDs outside a convenience store when the police confrontation began.

Racial issues are not uncommon in Baton Rouge, a Louisiana city near New Orleans. In February, when Baton Rouge hosted its annual Spanish Town Parade celebrating Mardi Gras, a prominent theme was mocking the Black Lives Matter movement.

A float declared “Pink Lives Matter” and showed a flamingo getting beaten with police batons with a sign around its neck saying “I can’t breathe.” The flamingo is the mascot of the Spanish Town Parade, which is known for its inappropriate humor. The flamingo was an obvious reference to Eric Garner, who told police that he couldn’t breathe just before he was killed in that encounter.

Another float joked about “Freddie Gray Goose” — Freddie Gray was another black man killed by police, which sparked large riots in Baltimore — and some attendees waved Confederate flags, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported.

Doug Cossman, a board member for the group that oversees the parade, told the Baton Rouge Advocate he’s sorry if anyone was offended but “we’re not about to start censoring anybody’s free speech rights.”

Gary Chambers, the publisher of a local magazine who wrote about the float, told Fusion he thought the floats went too far — especially since it happened in February, during Black History Month.

“They make fun of everybody, but when you go to the point of mocking an unarmed African-American man who lost his life in the streets of this nation, I just don’t find that funny,” Chambers told Fusion. “Every year they do this … and we’re supposed to be OK with it.”

It’s unclear who was responsible for the floats.

And that’s not the only racial divide in the city. Many southern residents signed what became known as the St. George petition in 2015, which wanted to break the southern portion of the city from the northern portion. Supporters of the petition said they wanted to see their tax dollars better spent — they claimed two-thirds of the parish’s tax dollars were generated in the St. George area, but only one-third was invested back into that community — and wanted a better school system for their area, but opponents painted the issue as racially motivated.

“Though the campaign doesn’t talk about it in these terms, a predominantly white and middle-class area of south Baton Rouge is attempting to secede from a school system and a city that is majority African-American, and includes the poorest residents of the parish,” The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.

That petition eventually failed by only 71 signatures after an opposition group called Better Together convinced at least 810 people to withdraw their signatures from the petition. Louisiana state law says if an incorporation petition fails then proponents have to wait two years before reintroducing it.

Organizers have said they plan to reintroduce the petition next year.

Only five miles away, many black people complain bars around Louisiana State University have dress codes that discriminate against them, the Daily Reveille reported. Paris Tate, a 21-year-old black and gay man, said he tried to get into the popular bar Tigerland one night and was turned away because he was wearing white shoes and earrings, but then he saw a white man wearing white shoes get in without a problem.

Another bar in the area, Reggie’s, has a list of 13 pieces of banned clothing that includes “overly” baggy clothing, long T-shirts, all-white tennis shoes, hoodies, jean shorts and visible tattoos. Tate told the Reveille that he felt the prohibited items targeted black stereotypes.

“If you don’t wear a plaid shirt and tight khaki shorts and boat shoes then you can’t get in,” Tate said.

There have been 558 people killed by police so far in 2016 in the United States, according to a database by the Guardian. Of those, 135 (24.2 percent) have been black and 267 (47.8 percent) were white.

Black people make up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, according to census data for 2015. White people make up 77.1 percent.

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