NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Hundreds gathered in peaceful protests Friday night in New Orleans, hoping to curb the deadly toll of police-related shooting across the United States by calling for understanding, unity and peace.
The protest, which was sponsored by the local Black Lives Matter chapter, drew both black and white, and was attended by as many men as women.
It would also prove to be a marked contrast to the rowdy protests held across Baton Rouge, Louisiana at the same time; protests that led to dozens of arrests.
Where fits and angry epithets flew shortly before midnight in the state capital, the message espoused in the Big Easy early Friday evening was one of love and peace.
People came together, holding hands and hugging and sang hymns.
“We are not afraid today,” a crowd of several hundred sang at the start of a Black Lives Matter gathering at a traffic circle known as “Lee Circle,” on St. Charles Avenue, to protest the fatal police shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge earlier in the week.
Sterling was shot by police officers as he sold homemade CDs and DVDs outside the Triple S Food Mart.
Hundreds of those who joined the peaceful protest in the circle had marched there from a site in Central City. It was in Central City, last February, that 22-year-old Eric Harris was shot to death by police after running his car into a traffic pole.
At the time, deputies said shooting 19 bullets at Harris’s car was justified because they saw the taillights light up and thought he was putting the car into reverse, according to an account from the New Orleans Advocate. Harris’s girlfriend, Tyshara Blouin, who was riding in the passenger seat at the time of the shooting, told the newspaper Harris was too disorientated after crashing into the pole to reverse the car.
Neighbors reported excessive gunfire that night, according to the Advocate. “They shot 10 times and then 10 more times … It was like they didn’t stop shooting,” one witness said at the time.
Despite the outrage the shooting inspired, Jefferson Parish Deputies Henry Dejean and Kenneth Bonura were not reassigned. Instead, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office released a statement that said “We believe that the shooting was the direct result of the officers feeling that their lives were in danger … We don’t reassign our officers who are involved in officer-involved shootings unless we suspect improprieties or policy violations.”
Fear was much on peoples’ minds in the circle following the deaths Thursday evening of five police officers during a protest march in Dallas.
Despite their concerns, hundreds of people, some bringing their babies and small children, turned up for the rally.
Silhouettes of police officers could be seen across the tops of the hotels and buildings across the street, prepared to act should someone try to repeat the violence of Dallas.
“We must have love and trust for one another” the crowd gathered in Lee Circle chanted, call and response style. “We have nothing to lose but our chains! It is our duty to fight for freedom! It is our duty to win!”
In cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge, stories of cops killing someone during a routine stop are all too common.
“One time I got pulled over for a broken taillight. I was not afraid I would be killed. #whitepriviledge,” read a sign held by a 34-year-old white man at the gathering.
“I don’t want to be shot,” said Xander Waites, who identified himself as an urban minister at a local church.
He’d been asked if the shootings in Dallas the night before made him nervous about coming out.
“I’m more likely to be shot here than in my living room,” he conceded, “but the violence won’t end if those who are able to stay safe and comfortable always choose to.”
“Lee Circle” is known as such because of the monument to Confederate hero Robert E. Lee in its center.
The monument is slated for removal by the city which has deemed it an unwanted symbol of the Confederacy.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the monument removal last summer. after Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old self-identified white-supremacist, shot six women and three black men to death at a Bible study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Earlier on Friday, protesters gathered outside New Orleans Police headquarters to participate in a “die-in,” but the even had a decidedly tentative air to it. It was clear the policies, protestors and even civilian passers-by were feeling jumpy and stressed in the wake of Dallas.
One of the symbolic acts that was to occur at the very start of the “die-in” was a shot that was to be followed by people falling to the ground.
Organizers, reading the mood of those gathered outside police headquarters, wisely scrapped the shot.
But the rally went on, beginning with a potluck and followed by 50-or-so demonstrators lying on the ground, as if dead, for a period of silence.
The group that organized the event is called “the 505” for Alton Sterling being the 505th victim of a police shooting in 2016.
Yamil Rodriguez, a 33-year-old art teacher founded 505 as a “peaceful performative protest.”
Rodriguez told Courthouse News Friday that he planned the die-in because he had felt so emotional about the killings of Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and wanted to create an outlet for everyone to come together and feel peace in community.
“We’re all dealing with this on some level,” Rodriguez said.
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