Social justice activists and concerned citizens have taken to Lafayette’s streets repeatedly since the fatal police shooting of Trayford Pellerin on Aug. 21, but Thursday they sat down for a passionate conversation and moment of reflection.

Around 40 people gathered at Imani Temple 49 for a round table discussion and community forum hosted by The Village, a new youth-led social justice and protest collective that has organized demonstrations in the aftermath of Pellerin’s death.

The discussion was a pivot from previous efforts to gain visibility in the streets and a direct contrast to warnings from local government and law enforcement officials about feared violence and “out-of-town” agitators overshadowing peaceful protest efforts.

Imani Temple 49’s Bishop John Milton, Pamela Thibeaux, Clyde Simien with The Village, activist Jamal Taylor, Lafayette NAACP young adult committee chairman Devon Norman, Unity 7 member Tara Fogleman and Unity 7 founder Christopher Bernard reflected on comments from Rep. Clay Higgins, demands of law enforcement and local government following Pellerin’s death and the desire for better government representation.

The panelists, all of whom have been visible organizers, encouraged community members to approach protests from a place of love and commitment to improving the community, rejecting the idea of violence and destruction.

“We must be our better selves. Each of us in this community must be our better selves in the face of behaviors that inflame passion in a way that do not move our community forward,” Taylor said.

Taylor was referencing Facebook posts from Higgins, R-Lafayette, in which he wrote Tuesday that armed demonstrators at Louisiana protests should be met with deadly force. The post featured a picture of Black men carrying assault-style weapons and other tactical gear, and Higgins said that anyone arriving in the state "aggressively natured and armed" would have a "one way ticket."

“I’d drop any 10 of you where you stand. … That’s not a challenge, fellas. It’s a promise. We don’t want to see your worthless ass nor do we want to make your Mothers cry,” Higgins wrote on his Captain Clay Higgins Facebook page.

Facebook removed the post for breaking the company's "Violence and Incitement" policies, a company spokesperson confirmed late Tuesday. Consecutive posts from Higgins doubling down on his position were also removed.

Thibeaux, a mother, said she was struck by Higgins’ reference to mournful mothers because of the loss Pellerin’s mother is grappling with. She said it felt like Higgins was making a mockery of the tragedy of Pellerin’s death.

The panelists pointed out the hypocrisy of Higgins posting a photo of a Black militia when he did not comment on the White members of the Louisiana Cajun Militia group who attended protests outside Lafayette Consolidated Government committee meetings Tuesday to, as they claimed, protect protesters’ ability to gather and keep the peace.

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“I wasn’t even that surprised by Clay Higgins’ comments. As a general question: Was that the first racist thing everybody’s heard Clay Higgins say before? Not at all,” Simien said.

The speakers called on Congress to censure Higgins for his posts. They also noted with Higgins’ seat challenged in the Nov. 3 primary election, voting and civic engagement will be important to remove Higgins from office and capture more forward-thinking political representation.

Norman encouraged every attendee and outside listener to register to vote and to help friends, family members and neighbors plan to get to the polls this fall. The group also went a step further, challenging the community not to rely on candidates to step forward in the future but to actively encourage desired representatives to run for office.

“What kind of community do we live in, in this third Congressional district of Louisiana? Is that the best that we have to send to Washington D.C. to represent us? Because if it is, then Clay Higgins is only a symbol of something that exists that is bigger than Clay Higgins,” Milton said.

The group also reiterated demands previously made at a demonstration. They asked for the names of the officers who shot and killed Pellerin to be made public, for the involved officers to be arrested and charged, and for Lafayette Parish Mayor-President Josh Guillory to issue an apology to Pellerin’s family for his delayed condolences.

Guillory has been under fire in the two weeks since Pellerin’s death for his handling of the shooting and his responses to protesters. Bernard said activists’ backlash against Guillory stems from the mayor-president putting himself in the middle of the situation when he released an initial statement sympathetic to law enforcement that snubbed Pellerin’s family.

Attendees spoke at an open mic and added to the requests, seeking improved de-escalation training for police officers, demographic information about the number of Lafayette police officers who live within the city limits, the establishment of a police community oversight board, department reform and more frequent psychological evaluations of police officers.

Milton and Thibeaux said they felt hopeful seeing the diverse crowd stand together. The pastor said his belief that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream can be achieved has been waning, but seeing The Village and others step forward to take up the social justice mantle has been reinvigorating.

“This for me is history. Everybody — White, Black, color purple, blue — coming together as one,” Thibeaux said.


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com