Trayford Pellerin’s slow and fatal walk up Evangeline Thruway didn’t cause the social and political fractures that have seemingly widened in Lafayette since that hot August evening. But it sure revealed them.
Pellerin, 31, may have suffered from mental health issues, according to his family, which could have made the threat he posed to others seem larger. Some observers saw him carrying a knife on the Thruway around 8 p.m. Aug. 21, ignoring police commands to drop his weapon. If his mental state was a reason he would not — perhaps could not — heed authorities’ commands, they might have also made him impervious to the tasers police fired at him to no avail.
An independent autopsy commissioned by Pellerin's family and released Thursday suggests Pellerin was shot 10 times and was handcuffed after the shooting, according to a news release from the family's lawyer. The statement also said there was no evidence of tasing on Pellerin's body.
Former Lafayette Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux said police might have used other means than that final one — at least 11 gunshots, as heard on a bystander video — to slow or halt the danger an armed Pellerin might have posed to the public. Boudreaux said police had pepper spray, police dogs and batons but did not use them. Video not yet released by State Police, whose troopers are investigating Pellerin’s death, might explain more to the public, which has been denied much information about that night, Boudreaux noted.
“The sole resource they used was ineffective with the person in the state he was in,” he said. “Other things that might have been effective might have been minimized.”
Whatever police did or whatever they failed to do — the State Police probe may eventually reveal much more about what happened that night — the murky circumstances surrounding that tragic situation have spun new conjecture about what happened. These theories seem to have taken Trayford Pellerin’s story in new directions.
That’s what happens when facts in a controversial case are slow to emerge: People, sometimes from the political or social fringes, provide their own narratives.
“Citizens are understandably concerned, regardless of which side of the issue you find yourself on,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Some people want to inflame the situation to make points or to gain an advantage. Some people can’t see a fire without looking for lighter fluid.”
The lighter fluid has been applied liberally. Mayor-President Josh Guillory angered residents when his early statements about the shooting failed to mention the victim by name or express empathy for what his family might be feeling.
In early protests, police were quick to meet demonstrators in riot gear and with chemical dispersants, a tactic that has been shown to escalate tensions.
On Saturday, some three dozen police and public safety units descended on Acadiana Mall in south Lafayette as employees scurried out and the mall closed for the day. Sgt. Paul Mouton, a police spokesman, told a reporter from this newspaper that not only did he not know why officers were at the mall, he did not even know they were there.
That same Saturday, a north Lafayette protester, apparently frustrated that Guillory would not publicly discuss the Pellerin case, set up a one-grill barbecue in front of his home to cook a meal and invite him to talk. Instead, police were summoned; the woman was arrested. When this newspaper’s photographer tried to shoot a photo of the protest site, police stationed on the mayor’s public street told him the street had been closed to the public.
Two days later, an internal memo leaked at City Hall suggested that local agencies charged with helping others in need should not offer help here to out-of-towners who evacuated for Hurricane Laura. The stated reason: Protesters had left the city vulnerable to outsiders.
Guillory also issued an executive order that appeared to shut down protests downtown, threatening hefty fines and jail time. The ACLU of Louisiana charged that Guillory’s action represented violation of people’s right to protest, that the government was seeking to make criminals of people who felt that Pellerin’s death was unjust.
Could it get any more contentious? On Tuesday night, outside Lafayette City Hall, Black Lives Matter activists occupied one corner of a parking lot, chanting and waving placards near a live barbecue grill. Less than a hundred yards away, some 50 members of a group that identified itself as the Louisiana Cajun Militia, heavily armed, stood at the ready, saying they were there to tamp down violence.
And U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Lafayette, excited some emotions when he suggested this week that if armed protesters arrived in the area they would be met with "lethal force." A Houston man had suggested a Black militant group might join the Lafayette protests, and Higgins' Facebook post included a photo of armed Black men.
Cross suggested that local leadership has been overreacting to public protests, worsening an apparent, escalating public discord. By offering few facts about the Pellerin shooting, by seeking to subdue or prevent protests, by failing to engage the public about the shooting and perceived threats from outsiders, Guillory has seemed to only fan the flames.
“Something needs to happen,” Cross said. “Ignoring the issue is not the answer, nor is being heavy-handed.”
Cross suggested that while the barbecue protest fell into “political theater,” the unyielding response “just raises the ante.” Boudreaux said it’s the type of stunt protesters organize when the public feels ignored.
Kevin Blanchard, a longtime community leader and former Lafayette official, suggested that the foundation of unrest here has been forming for a long time, perhaps since the collapse of the oil and gas industry in Acadiana. Once Lafayette was the center of the energy service industry, but low prices and overproduction have led to layoffs and government cutbacks. Lafayette, he said, needs to focus on its economic future, but it also must recognize the need for building a livable community that includes attractive public parks and amenities — Guillory has attempted to unilaterally close four recreation centers in the mostly Black area of North Lafayette — and community attractions like the endangered science museum.
“To attract different manufacturing jobs, we must still have good schools that provide for high quality of life,” he said. To high-tech companies from out of state, having a science museum is not a luxury — it’s a must for their families.
Blanchard said that for White Lafayette residents, the pushback over Pellerin's death might be surprising.
“But for a lot of Black folks, it’s something that has been a frustration forever. I try to remember that I don’t have those same lived experiences as Black people do. We have to double down on being empathetic, double down on being careful listeners,” he said.
Blanchard also perceives a generational shift that might permit more open and honest community discussions. For example, he said, several generations have attended integrated schools. This might be the time to intensify our listening skills, to engage in public discussions and “figure how to get from the initial recognition of the conflict to some level of social cohesion.”
The frustration, he said, comes from the lack of openness from Lafayette’s elected leaders.
“The more people feel they are being ignored, the more frustrated they get,” he said. “That’s not just Black people. That’s everyone.”
It’s time to end that silence, Boudreaux said. He said the most strident public outcry in the police killing of George Floyd in May began to die down after information was released and other officers began to question the use of force in that case.
If neither State Police nor the police department are providing answers, Boudreaux said, people come up with their own conclusions by viewing social media. Public leaders, he said, have to recognize that “none of that happens if answers are provided and information is put out.” Publicize the available video, he said, and people will find the investigation more credible.
“If you put the video out, you are going to calm a lot of people,” he said. “’No comment’ is not an option. It’s not as if it will never be made available. Let’s put this behind us.
“Let’s go and press ‘play.’”