In a large crowd along the Mississippi River levee and in a somber gathering beneath the State Capitol rotunda Monday, Baton Rouge area residents and state officials remembered the scores of people gunned down in a crowded Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub early Sunday morning.
At a large memorial gathering organized by capital area LGBT organizations on the levee in downtown Baton Rouge, hundreds held candles and listened to the names of victims slain in the massacre. People wept and leaned on each other on the concrete steps in the early evening sun along the river as clergy members, LGBT activists and East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden spoke about the tragedy that’s stunned the nation.
Several of those addressing the crowd spoke about their shock and horror when they learned about the mass slayings at Pulse, a well-known Orlando LGBT nightclub, only hours after a record crowd of about 10,000 gathered at the Baton Rouge River Center to celebrate this city’s Pride Festival.
“This is not at all the same spirit we were having on Saturday at Pride Fest when we were celebrating,” said the Rev. Keith Mozingo, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Baton Rouge, a church founded to cater primarily to the LGBT community.
Mozingo offered prayers for the “hundreds, thousands or even millions of people around the world” whose lives were deeply affected by the deadly rampage. He then appealed for a spirit of love and greater acceptance.
A tugboat on the Mississippi River sounded its horn twice in salute as it headed upstream past the gathered crowd. A large group carrying brightly colored balloons released them after the ceremony.
“It was healing for me to see so many people,” Mozingo said as he mingled with friends and church members after the event. “I needed it personally.”
As the crowd began to disperse, a number of people spontaneously began singing “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” lyrics recited earlier by Holden, who suggested those gathered shouldn’t let the violence be a form of intimidation.
“I’m proud to be here, and I love you,” Holden said.
Mixed between tears, prayers and offerings of hope at the memorial on the levee Monday evening, activists also leveled occasionally pointed words over violence and discrimination LGBT people face.
Joseph Coco, a graduate student at LSU and an organizer with Equality Louisiana, an LGBT advocacy group, noted that the vast majority of those gunned down in Orlando were Hispanic and said LGBT people of color face additional risks.
Earlier in the day, about 100 people, including Louisiana political leaders, gathered at the State Capitol to pray for the nightclub victims.
Gov. John Bel Edwards; Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego; House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia; and other state legislators gathered in the Capitol’s Memorial Hall for what was described as a “moment of unity.”
“Goodness will always prevail over hatred and fear,” Edwards said. “All of these victims were our brothers and sisters.”
Several of the speakers denounced terrorism and urged people to pray for the victims and their families. The suspected gunman reportedly told a 911 dispatcher Sunday he was attacking Pulse on behalf of the Islamic State goup.
None of the officials at the State Capitol, however, directly acknowledged that the attack was aimed at the LGBT community.
Barras, who noted last year’s deadly shooting at a movie theater in Lafayette near his hometown, called on people to focus on ways to help.
“All these folks lost their lives as they gathered to celebrate life,” he said.
Before ending the ceremony, the group joined in an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” that rang out through the Capitol’s Memorial Hall.
Edwards, a Democrat who took office Jan. 11, on Friday declared June as “LGBT Pride Month” in Louisiana — the state’s first such proclamation.
Edwards signed an executive order earlier this year that prohibits discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
There currently is no state law protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people from discrimination in Louisiana, so Edwards’ anti-discrimination order applies exclusively to state services and government contractors.
Some legislators have been skeptical of Edwards’ order, calling on the Louisiana attorney general to provide an opinion on whether or not it is legal.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, ultimately said the order is nonbinding and “merely aspirational.”