Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards spent much of Wednesday promoting a message of unity and peace, while expressing “very serious concern” over the death of 37-year-old Alton Sterling at the hands of a Baton Rouge police officer.
“Violence and destruction of property is not an answer to anything we are facing today,” Edwards implored from the steps of the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion as the sun beamed down in nearly 90 degree heat, less than three miles from where Sterling was fatally gunned down early Tuesday morning. “I want to urge people to be calm, and I’m calling for unity during this very difficult time.”
Sterling’s death has rocked Baton Rouge, but it is eerily reminiscent of similar deadly shootings that have sparked activism and protests across the country. Sterling, a black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in a convenience store parking lot after officers reportedly responded to a disturbance call.
Edwards said Wednesday that he had viewed a widely-circulated video of the shooting that appears to show two Baton Rouge Police officers pinning Sterling to the ground before at least one of the officers shoots Sterling several times in the chest.
“The video is disturbing, to say the least,” Edwards told reporters on Wednesday, flanked by several state lawmakers from Baton Rouge including Sen. Regina Barrow and Reps. Pat Smith, Ted James and Denise Marcelle.
The U.S. Department of Justice and FBI are leading an investigation into Sterling’s death, which has drawn almost instant national attention — thrusting Edwards, a Democrat who took office just six months ago, into an unlikely role.
Edwards’ brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather have all served as sheriffs of his home parish of Tangipahoa. Another brother is the police chief of Independence. In May, Edwards, without hesitation, signed a controversial police-protecting hate crime statute that was dubbed the “Blue Lives Matter” bill into law.
But in the wake of Sterling’s death, Edwards’ advisers say his aim is to bring people together, support the affected community and keep Baton Rouge from becoming the next Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, Maryland, where protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, respectively, led to riots.
“Unfortunately, we have incidences to look back on and we can learn from them,” Edwards’ spokesman Richard Carbo said. “He’s cognizant of what’s gone on in other places.”
In both cases, officials were criticized for being slow to respond.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who like Edwards is a white Democrat, came under fire for waiting for five days after Brown was fatally wounded by a police officer in 2014 before he visited Ferguson. And both Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a white Republican, and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a black Democrat, have faced a backlash for what was seen as a slow response to the unrest following Gray’s death.
Edwards spent Wednesday meeting with community and faith-based leaders, he said, to try to “ensure that we remain calm and peaceful as the details unfold” surrounding Sterling’s death.
“It’s essential that we do that,” Edwards said.
In the afternoon, he met personally with Sterling’s family, and his office was assisting with plans for a vigil.
Just hours before, hundreds of protestors had taken to the streets of the north Baton Rouge neighborhood where Sterling was slain, chanting “black lives matter” and “hands up, don’t shoot” — two slogans of sorts for the growing movement that has spawned in the wake of high-profile officer-involved deaths of African Americans around the country.
The Baton Rouge shooting comes on the heels of Louisiana’s adoption of a so-called “Blue Lives Matter” law that was viewed by many as a direct pushback to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Under the new law, which takes effect Aug. 1, police officers and other first responders are protected under the state’s hate crime statute — meaning crimes targeting them, including arson and assault, can result in stiffer penalties.
Carbo said Edwards sees the issues as unrelated. The new law doesn’t specifically mention the “Blue Lives Matter” pro-police movement, though it is modeled after similar legislation that has carried such a designation.
“It’s not meant to be toward the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement,” Carbo said. “There’s a misunderstanding that getting justice for a police officer that’s targeted means denying justice to someone else.”
Both the state Democratic Party and Republican Party released statements on Wednesday in support of the federal probe into Sterling’s death.
“We are deeply saddened, and just as deeply disturbed, by the shooting death of Alton Sterling and the events surrounding his death,” Louisiana Democratic Party Chair state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson said in the statement. “The video footage that we have all seen by now depicts an extremely troubling, horrifying incident and leaves many questions unanswered. We stand with the community in sadness and in the demand for answers.”
Louisiana GOP spokesman Jason Doré called Sterling’s death “tragic.”
“We are asking all Louisiana citizens to join together in prayer for the Sterling Family and for justice and peace in our communities,” he said. “The people of Louisiana have a history of uniting in difficult times. We trust that the people of Louisiana will rise to the occasion yet again.”
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp.