One woman came because her son was shot to death by a Baton Rouge police officer in 2013. A teenager from Gonzales came to hold a sign that asked, “Am I next?” And two men who live down the street came to hand out hamburgers, chicken breasts and hot dogs.
For nearly a week, hundreds of people — young and old, black and white, quiet and loud — have made a pilgrimage to an unlikely shrine, a convenience store painted gaudy yellow in one of Baton Rouge’s poorest neighborhoods.
Like the Ferguson street where Michael Brown died in 2014, the Triple S Food Mart where Alton Sterling was killed by a Baton Rouge police officer on Tuesday has already attained a magnetic power. The scene there has alternated between wake, political rally and raucous block party. But even as many on Sunday afternoon spoke of the joy they found in the sudden show of unity on display outside the store, their sorrow and anger over Sterling’s death were never far behind.
“As far as all of us getting together, the scenery is beautiful,” said La’Dre Roberts, a 24-year-old from Cecilia. “But the fact of why we’re here is heartbreaking.”
Many who came on Sunday laid teddy bears or flowers at the foot of an overflowing memorial. Several groups posed for photographs with Abdullah Muflahi, the 28-year-old Yemeni-American storekeeper who owns the Triple S, in front of a mural featuring Sterling surrounded by a halo.
There were moments of levity, such as when one young man whirled about the parking lot on his hoverboard. There were moments of commerce, as men hustled T-shirts from the backs of cars. And there were moments of gravity, like when a group of men and women wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts shouted “No justice, no peace!”
On the edges, away from those public moments, the individual stories motivating people to come to the store were never hard to find. Drivers whipped past, leaning on their horns in support for Sterling, as Sharon Wilkerson recounted her own son’s death at the hands of a Baton Rouge police officer.
Wilkerson’s son Tyris was killed in a hail of bullets after a police pursuit in Baton Rouge’s Garden District in 2013. One year later, a grand jury cleared the officer who shot him.
In the three years since her son was killed, Sharon Wilkerson said, she has rarely left her house. When she does, she carries with her a file folder containing the program from her son’s funeral service and a one-paragraph police report, which she said is the only official explanation she has ever received for why he died.
“I’ve been undone since all of that. Undone,” Wilkerson said, tears streaming down from beneath her sunglasses. “Ever since it happened, I’ve been bitter.”
On Saturday night, Wilkerson decided she was going to go to the Triple S to tell other people about what happened to her. Her heart was beating so fast she feared she would have a heart attack, and she only got two hours of sleep. But she came anyway.
“The system just ain’t right. That’s why I’ve come out here. For justice,” Wilkerson said.
Others who travel to the Triple S are too young to have had many experiences with the police themselves, but they have still been moved to fear by Sterling’s death.
Asa Newell, 17, convinced her father to drive her and her sister to the store from Gonzales so that she could hold that sign asking, “Am I next?”
Newell said she was only dimly aware, “at the back of my head,” that being black could present her with problems from the police. Since Sterling’s death, she said, she has been facing that possibility.
“There’s so many young black lives that have been taken,” she said.
The same fear was shared by Loumonth Jack Sr., 58, for his son, a junior at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Jack, an Army veteran from Vacherie, said police killings of black men have forced him to re-evaluate his sense of risk in the world. Adding to his worries is the fact that his son sometimes sells CDs on the side for a little extra income.
“I’m not too fearful of him being killed by (the Islamic State group), but I am fearful of police officers,” Jack said.
Jack said he has heard dark rumblings among some of the men at his Veterans Affairs hospital about retaliation.
“People are really angry. I’ve never seen it like this before,” Jack said. “They feel like they’re killing us anyways.”
Although many drove to the store for hours, both Leroy Goins, 55, and his close friend Derrick “Buck” Mason, 36, said they only had to cart their barbecue smokers from a few blocks away to dish out plates to protesters.
“Go get the bucket!” Mason shouted as savory smells wafted through the air. He wanted to show a reporter how a small group of friends had pooled money into the bucket to pay for free food for protesters.
The men said they usually bring their smokers out for Saints games. But both were moved by the death of a man from their own neighborhood, one whom Mason said they knew as a “good dude.”
“We wanted to do something. Spur of the moment,” said Mason.
“It happened too close to us,” said Goins.