The nightly clashes over the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling have grown more tense, with police tackling protesters, arresting scores and using an armored vehicle to block demonstrators — prompting many to claim they’re being thrown in jail for simply exercising their rights.
But officials on Sunday said the more muscular response has prevented key roadways from being blocked. Authorities are drawing a hard line at maintaining traffic on the critical arteries that protesters have tried to claim, including Airline Highway, Government Street and Interstate 12.
“If you step out into the road, that is cause for arrest. Period,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a news conference Sunday. He called actions by officers “moderate.”
Edwards said he is proud of law enforcement’s response to demonstrations over the death of Alton Sterling — who was shot dead on North Foster Drive by a Baton Rouge police officer early Tuesday — and thanked community members who remained peaceful during the majority of the protests.
Yet some demonstrators said police were the aggressors and wondered why officials couldn’t simply close the highway to allow them to peacefully occupy it.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said authorities have to draw the line somewhere.
“I think we have shown that we will shut down roadways for protesters,” Dabadie said, referring to a peaceful march from City Hall to the Capitol downtown on Saturday. “We can’t let an interstate be shut down. It’s just too dangerous.”
The clashes intensified at an emotional time for both residents and officers after a sniper killed five officers in Dallas, shattering a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally Thursday. And Saturday night in Minnesota, at least five officers were injured after confrontations with protesters, who blocked portions of an interstate for several hours, throwing bottles, bricks and other debris. Police fired tear gas and arrested dozens, according to news reports.
“We have to remember, my officers are human. And they’re tired. They’re scared,” said Dabadie.
Baton Rouge police said an officer had his teeth knocked out Saturday by an object thrown by protesters.
Officials here struck an us-versus-them tone, claiming the more confrontational protests were started by out-of-towners. Police officials even called the divide between peaceful and violent rallies, “A Tale of Two Protests.”
Booking records that of the 132 people arrested Friday and Saturday nights, 19 weren’t from Louisiana.
Sunday night, police once again confronted a group of protesters along Government Street — donning gas masks, using an armored vehicle to nudge people down the road and arresting at least a dozen by mid-evening. A police spokesman said authorities believed protesters were heading toward Interstate 110 to try to block it.
Of the scores of people arrested, most were accused of obstructing a highway.
Officials said they confiscated three rifles, three shotguns and two pistols from people they arrested Saturday around police headquarters on Airline Highway, but East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said he did not know whether the weapons were part of any plan for attack. Casey Rayborn Hicks, the agency’s spokeswoman, said those with weapons were arrested on non-firearms related charges or for carrying the weapons illegally.
The clashes along Airline Highway and Goodwood Avenue Friday and Saturday — as well as arrests during a march on Government Street on Sunday — stood in stark contrast with the police response to protests at the Triple S Food Mart on North Foster Drive, where Sterling had been selling CDs before being fatally shot by an officer.
There, police have been notably absent from the area, even as hundreds gathered beginning Tuesday night to wave posters, chant and demand the criminal prosecution of the two officers involved in Sterling’s death. Dabadie said Friday the decision to pull back officers from the area was an intentional strategy to avoid provoking protesters.
As crowds swelled along Airline Highway on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, hundreds of police officers, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies who had gathered at Baton Rouge Police Headquarters came out in force to keep demonstrators off the roads.
The first significant clashes came Friday when protesters, after spending hours facing off with police in riot gear on Goodwood Avenue, sat down across the southbound lanes of Airline Highway, blocking traffic. Police arrested 30 people during the ensuing efforts to clear the road.
Confrontations escalated Saturday evening as the demonstrations swelled to more than 1,500 people. The law enforcement presence also grew, as deputies and state troopers from as far away as Shreveport streamed into the city to reinforce local forces. As a column of about 500 protesters on Airline headed toward Interstate 12, two busloads of police in riot gear and at least six armored vehicles raced ahead to cut them off.
Many protesters blamed escalating clashes on law enforcement, calling the heavy police presence — including lines of officers in riot gear, others in flak jackets carrying rifles and armored military style vehicles — a provocation. At least twice, a line of officers carrying shields and batons charged into the crowd, scattering people and making arrests. In both cases, protesters said it didn’t appear anyone had entered the street or attacked police.
Several activists claimed people were arrested even while complying with police orders to remain out of the road. They pointed to an incident captured on video during which a Baton Rouge policewoman aimed an assault-style rifle at a group of protesters.
As officers in riot gear pushed demonstrators away from Interstate 12 Saturday evening, several protesters who appeared to be following orders to retreat and stay off of Airline Highway were arrested — and in at least one was shocked with a Taser — as the police line rapidly advanced.
“They intentionally provoked peaceful people, pushing them from lawful spaces with riot shields and pointing guns in faces,” said Brittany Packnett, an activist from the St. Louis area who rose to national prominence during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and joined the protests in Baton Rouge on Friday. “Youth organizers and members of the Baton Rouge community have been peaceful, organized and determined.”
State Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat who’s been present at many of the protests across the city since Sterling’s death and spent time on Airline Highway trying to calm down demonstrators, said most actions taken by law enforcement during the protests seemed appropriate.
James said a small group of protesters seemed set on provoking police, and the actions of a few officers seemed to escalate tensions. He pointed to marches and demonstrations elsewhere in the city over the weekend that went without incident as proof clashes aren’t inevitable.
But he questioned whether heavy military style gear and advancing riot police were necessary.
“Officers in riot gear is already threatening and intimidating enough, but when you have officers with shields tapping their batons two feet away from protesters: that’s agitating,” James said. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”