Dominique Ricks was preparing the first lesson plan of his young teaching career when he heard news that police had fatally shot an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.
“It unfortunately didn’t surprise me,” the East Iberville High School teacher said Sunday at a forum on police, race and safety in Baton Rouge. “But it drove home the need for dialogue.”
On the heels of ongoing civil unrest in Ferguson, more than 120 people, mostly high school and college students, filed into the LSU Student Union ballroom to talk about racial profiling and ways to promote equality in Baton Rouge.
Awaiting a grand jury decision on whether to indict the officer responsible for the killing, students, professors and members of the public split into groups of 10 or fewer to unwrap societal woes they believe the Ferguson protests reflect.
With 90 minutes to discuss, they addressed three points: what triggered the reaction in Ferguson, corollaries they see in Baton Rouge and what they can do to prevent a similar series of events.
“The purpose of this event was to give people a safe space to talk about their reaction to what happened in Ferguson,” said Maxine Crump, president of Dialogue on Race Louisiana.
Crump planned the forum after getting emails from several youth groups looking to host a public discussion on race relations post-Ferguson.
“There’s a sense of numbness from the Ferguson case because it’s happened so many times,” said Sage Garret, 26. “And yet, there’s also frustration because you feel like something needs to be done.”
Participants nodded, shook their heads, scribbled notes and periodically looked over their shoulders to check the time left for their group discussion on a 15-foot stopwatch projected on the stage.
At Bobby Thompson’s table, the conversation ranged from racial profiling, to police militarization, to limited resources in low-income schools.
“It’s underestimated how difficult it is for black kids just to move around town,” said Thompson, a trained facilitator for Dialogue on Race Louisiana.
Thompson said he remembers first warning his three sons, now ages 31 to 43, on the perils of racial profiling when teaching them to drive.
“As if it wasn’t already hard enough to send them out into the world,” he said. “Racial profiling was a reality in my father’s lifetime, in my lifetime and in my sons’ lifetime, too.”
Several public officials attended the event, including Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie and East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore.
“In law enforcement, we depend on communication,” Dabadie said. “There needs to be more dialogue like that.”
While Dabadie said the Police Department works hard to enforce laws without profiling, the conversation was awash with tales of racial targeting by police.
Ricks, 22, recalled the time in high school police questioned him and a friend after someone had thrown a brick through the window of a local business.
“It was pouring down rain and we had literally just gotten off the bus, and they were talking to us as if we were the culprits,” the Baton Rouge native said.
It’s moments like those, he said, that push him to empower his students, many of whom might also be the target of racial profiling.
“I’m determined to leave this world a better place than I found it,” he said. “And that starts with conversations like this.”
Follow Matt McKinney on Twitter, @Mmckinne17.