One year after Alton Sterling was killed during a struggle with two Baton Rouge police officers, a small protest driven by members of the New Black Panther Party ended Wednesday when police fired stun guns, deployed pepper spray and arrested seven people outside police headquarters.
The fatal shooting of 37-year-old Sterling has driven a year-long debate about policing in Baton Rouge’s black communities, but the anniversary of his death did not spark the large protests seen last summer in the streets of the Capital City.
Alton Sterling Jr. tells his mother he wants to be a police officer when he grows up.
About 20 to 30 protesters initially gathered outside the Triple S Food Mart, the convenience store where Sterling sold bootleg CDs and the site of the shooting. Then they moved on to Airline Highway and Goodwood Boulevard near the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters, close to where larger contingents of protesters gathered for several days and nights last July. Those 2016 protests became contentious, with police arresting as many as 200 people at various gatherings across the city.
Despite the much smaller size of the protest Wednesday, it still resulted in arrests on misdemeanor counts almost immediately after the demonstrations moved from the Triple S to police headquarters.
Police told the protesters, mostly made up of about two dozen members of the New Black Panther Party, to stay behind barricade lines set up around the police building. When a handful of protesters refused to back up, arguing that they were on public property and they pay taxes, they were shot with stun guns and Tippman PepperBall guns and then they were taken into custody.
Sgt. L'Jean McKneely, a police spokesman, said the seven will be booked into Parish Prison on misdemeanor counts of entering and remaining after being forbidden and resisting an officer. Four men and three women were arrested, though police have not yet released their names.
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Veda Washington Abusaleh and Sandra Sterling, two of Sterling’s aunts, stood at the front of the group, yelling at police that they were on public property. They were pulled away by other protesters as they continued to scream and cry.
One police officer was also shot with a stun gun when he fell to the ground during the arrests, but police said it was unclear who fired the weapon. The officer was hit in the forearm and was bleeding, McKneely said.
"When the New Black Panther members stormed the barricade, officers observed a party member with a suspected taser in hand," McKneely said. "It is unclear at this time who tased the officer."
One of the female protesters also hurt her knee during the scuffle and received medical attention during her arrest.
A European documentary company, wearing badges that identified them as crew members with Pulpa Film, accompanied members of the New Black Panther Party, McKneely said. At least one of the New Black Panther Party members arrested was wearing a microphone, he said.
McKneely said police were not trying to prohibit people from protesting. Once the group moved through the open barricades onto the headquarters property, McKneely said, it became a safety issue and an issue of disrupting business and the arrests were made.
“We didn’t hinder them when they were up underneath the tree. We didn’t hinder them when they were across the street,” McKneely said.
Two federal lawsuits were filed after last summer's protests, with attorneys for demonstrators arguing that police aggressively intervened in peaceful gatherings. The city of Baton Rouge agreed to settle one lawsuit, which could result in about 80 protesters getting payments of $500 to $1,000 if the judge agrees to the final proposal. Another is still pending.
Although there have been no charges against officers involved in the shooting of Alton Sterl…
But law enforcement officials have argued that their responses to the protests were reasonable, with arrests mostly being made when demonstrators strayed onto a busy highway or other streets.
The protesters Wednesday retreated after the scuffle toward a nearby gas station, saying that they were going to get reinforcements and file a lawsuit. Others said that the police didn’t care about them, an idea that McKneely disagreed with, saying that the officers are part of the community.
“People who want to create chaos by causing division, by stirring up and creating lies, that’s not true,” McKneely said.
New Black Panther Party National spokesman Malik Maumau said after the arrests that he thinks the police were the aggressors.
“We were not disruptive,” Maumau said. “We did not go to hurt anyone. We did not go to damage any property. We were orderly. We went in. We had seven individuals … women who were tased and shot with paintballs.”
The gathering began earlier Wednesday when about two dozen people met at the Triple S Food Mart.
"We are standing here today not only to commemorate, but to not let it be swept under the rug and not let the fire burn out and to proclaim Alton Sterling's immortality," said Katib Siddiq, the party's national chief of staff.
The group held signs, asking people to remember Sterling, waved flags, posed for photos and then marched to Baton Rouge police headquarters.
Sterling was killed after Baton Rouge police officer Blane Salamoni shot him six times outside of the Triple S on North Foster Drive. Salamoni and officer Howie Lake II had responded to reports of a man threatening another person with a gun. The officers have said that Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket when Salamoni fired.
The graphic cellphone videos of the shooting galvanized protests in Baton Rouge, as well as throughout the country. More recently, with the release of information critical of how Salamoni approached Sterling, there have been renewed calls for the firing of the officers.
In May, the U.S. Department of Justice said there was insufficient evidence to charge the two officers with civil rights violations. They remain on paid, administrative leave, pending the state attorney general’s investigation.
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On Wednesday evening, about 35 people gathered at the Ark of Safety Ministry for prayer and song. Pastor Carl Williams, who is Sterling's uncle, led the songs as Sterling's aunts Abusaleh and Sandra Sterling, along with Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle and others joined in.
Sandra Sterling said she is upset that there has not been more progress on her nephew's case and that Wednesday's protest and memorial service did not have nearly as many people as last year's.
"I believe in numbers and if we can get that number again, they'll have to start listening to us again," she said.
Williams did not want to comment on the U.S. Department of Justice decision to not charge the officers, other than saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.
"It's not about what happened," said Williams, "It's about what God is going to do here."
God will serve justice, he said.
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