Baton Rouge residents on Tuesday, both black and white, came together to pray for their city — one that has become almost unrecognizable to them over the course of the past week.
Louisiana's sleepy capital city has been rocked by both the death of Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police last week, and the subsequent protests that have drawn thousands of demonstrators and resulted in military-style policing.
Together Baton Rouge, an advocacy organization grounded in churches and other faith-based organizations, called a meeting on Tuesday to begin the healing while calling residents to action. More than 300 residents who live and pray all across the parish showed up at the North Baton Rouge Catholic Church to talk about the tragedy unfolding in their backyards.
"I come from a real place of despair," said Danielle Cunningham, a black mother of an 11-year-old boy. Cunningham was one of several Baton Rouge parents who said they were emotional about raising black children in a community where they felt unsafe from the police. "How do I tell my son about proper procedures when dealing with the police, when that doesn't always work?"
She said the Sterling shooting has only further widened the racial chasm in her community.
"I feel like we're still separated, and there's an ever great divide now," she said.
Together Baton Rouge, which involves community members in policy-based advocacy by reaching them at their churches, announced that it would be forming a coalition that would propose concrete solutions targeting systemic change. They will address both policing reforms and racial divides, something that Together Baton Rouge leader Edgar Cage described as the "big elephant in the room."
Candidates for the East Baton Rouge Parish mayor-president's election, scheduled for this fall, will also be involved in the plan — with opportunities for those running to pitch their plans to address ways to bridge the racial gaps.
At least twice, people addressing the room expressed disappointment that Mayor-President Kip Holden was not stepping up to the challenge of unifying the parish amid a national controversy. Holden, who left town for a pre-scheduled appointment in Washington, D.C., shortly after the shooting, has said he is purposefully taking a back seat because he doesn't want to appear as though he's politicizing the incident.
Holden was not at the Together Baton Rouge meeting. But Together Baton Rouge organizer Broderick Bagert said Holden was only invited at the last minute because organizers originally thought the meeting would be for members only.
A group of some 40 people chanted in front of City Hall on Monday morning in a protest that …
Leaders of the gathering said their focus was on healing and moving forward. But they also said the past week has shed a light on institutional problems that have long affected the city.
"It is not our goal to return to where we were before Alton Sterling was shot," said the Rev. Lee Wesley to the room. "It is not our goal to get back to business as usual. It is our goal to move forward."
At one point during the crowded meeting, people were broken up into large groups to talk about their emotional state following the events in the past week. The exercise was a variation of the group's hallmark "house meetings," which it used to bring together people from different backgrounds to learn about one another.
East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who is black, told her group that after she learned about Sterling's death she immediately called out for her son and panicked when she couldn't find him. She said he shortly emerged from another room and she frantically told him to always follow police orders.
"If you encounter a police officer, if they tell you to put your hands up, put them up. If they tell you to lay down, then lay down," she said. "I feel changed. I have changed the way I talk to my children. I have changed the way I looked at my children."
Renae Friedley, a white Baton Rouge resident who's lived here for the past six years, said she was appalled by the violence she's seen between police and demonstrators.
Update, 6:15 a.m. Monday, July 11, 2016A total of 50 people were arrested at a heated protes…
"I grew up in the '60s and '70s with Martin Luther King (Jr.), and I'm just sad that we're still dealing with the same issues and worse," Friedley said. "I"m just depressed about the whole thing."
But many people expressed hope that Baton Rouge could turn itself around and use this moment as a catalyst to bring about better change.
The Rev. Jonathon Morrison, a minister from a Dallas church, attended the gathering to touch on the similarities of crisis both his city and Baton Rouge are facing. Following the killings of Sterling and another black man in Minnesota by police, five police officers were killed by a man in Dallas who expressed frustration about the shootings.
"Our walls have been torn down, but we believe we can come together to rebuild them," Morrison said.