Target closed the doors early and boarded up the windows at its Siegen Lane location Monday night as one of the region's most popular retail centers feared trouble from a crowd that gathered to protest police brutality after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement.

Other cities across the country have been rocked with violence over the past several days, with stores looted and businesses set ablaze. The protests at Baton Rouge on Monday night continued late into the evening.

An estimated 300 Baton Rouge protesters gathered Monday evening in the Target parking lot on Siegen Lane. But instead of pouring their outrage into attempted destruction, organizers emphasized over and over again the importance of maintaining peace. 

"We're not here to burn down Target," Aryanna Kelly, 22, yelled into a microphone. "We come in peace. We just want our message heard."

Baton Rouge protesters marched down Siegen Lane in response to the death of George Floyd. They explain why they picked the location.

She said that message is about police brutality but it's also about a society built on white supremacy.

The peaceful interactions between demonstrators and law enforcement officers Monday night came in contrast to the 2016 demonstrations following the police shooting of Alton Sterling outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. Baton Rouge police arrested hundreds of people and received widespread criticism for their response, which some considered overly aggressive.

On Sunday, there had been moments of tension during a smaller impromptu protest in the same location when some participants threw water bottles and rocks at sheriff's deputies, breaking the window of a law enforcement vehicle parked outside the RaceTrac gas station and convenience store on Siegen. Deputies had donned riot gear and stood shoulder to shoulder along the side of the road after some protesters had blocked traffic by laying in the street. Those incidents caused concern about whether things would escalate Monday.

Organizers said they chose Siegen Lane because it's an economic hub in Baton Rouge and because much of it falls within the limits of St. George — the new city whose residents voted last fall to secede from the parish, creating their own local government in a predominantly white area that's more affluent than its neighboring communities. The incorporation has been challenged in the courts.

Protesters took their message to that suburban thoroughfare lined with strip malls, chain retail stores and restaurants in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish, which has come to symbolize racial and economic divisions in Louisiana's capital region. Several other stores near the Target also closed early Monday.

Standing in the Target parking lot, organizers told participants that anyone who "gets rowdy" should be told to leave. Then they started marching.

Siegen Lane doesn't have sidewalks and it's illegal for protesters to obstruct roadways, so they squeezed over onto the shoulder. 

East Baton Rouge Sheriff's deputies drove slowly alongside the group, which made its way down Siegen to its intersection with Airline Highway, almost two miles away. Protesters for the most part complied with law enforcement's orders to stay out of the road, chanting while they walked and hoisting signs into the air.

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The group stopped in a grassy area near the intersection and knelt for a moment of silence for victims of police brutality.

Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer placed his knee to the handcuffed man's neck for over eight minutes. His death was caught on video, which has been shared widely on social media.

"I didn't know I'd be watching a video of a man die," said Ogechi Anyanwu, 31, of Baton Rouge. "Something in me broke."

Law enforcement leaders across the country have almost universally condemned the officer's actions.

"It was just so wrong," said Jennifer Durvin, who served eight years as a Military Police officer and joined the protest Monday with her two young children. "I wanted to show my kids that people are willing to stand up for what's right."

East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux had issued a statement hours before the protest expressing his support of the planned peaceful demonstrations.

"I share in the outrage, frustration and sadness of the treatment and tragic death of George Floyd," he said. "I was sickened and heartbroken to see such callous disregard for another human being. I have always said that if you do not have a heart for service, there is no place for you in law enforcement."

He said such instances of police brutality damage the relationship between residents and law enforcement across the country, and he thanked residents who have peacefully protested.

Local law enforcement officials also said they're using what they learned in 2016 to respond to the ongoing demonstrations. Images of the deputies standing shoulder to shoulder with helmets and shields Sunday night were reminiscent of the protests almost four years ago, which were beginning to wind down when a lone gunman traveled to Baton Rouge from Kansas City and shot and killed three officers and wounded three more.

"We learned a lot of lessons in 2016," Baton Rouge Police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr. said. "Now we have a better plan of action. We can be more proactive."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.