Monday will be Nov. 16, a day I have had marked on my mental calendar since 1972. If you have followed me over the years, you’ll know what’s coming next.
Even as the nation deals with a presidential election challenge and the ever-rising number of people infected with and dying from the coronavirus, I still am compelled to note a heartbreaking anniversary.
Forty-eight years after the fact, I continue to reflect on that chilly, gray day on Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus when two unarmed, nonthreatening students were shot to death by local law enforcement officers.
Some of the faces, sounds and smells of that day are fading, but what is still abundantly clear is no one has been named, let alone brought to justice for the deaths of Leonard Brown and Denver Smith. Both were shot in the head.
Black lives may matter now, but back then, Smith’s and Brown’s lives apparently didn’t matter to Louisiana government nor law enforcement.
Essentially, Brown and Smith were two subjects in a human shooting gallery. By today’s terminology, they were at a “peaceful protest while Black.”
Not in the days and years after has anyone had the courage to say who killed them. The general contention has been that it was an EBR sheriff’s deputy.
I wonder what it was like among the deputies and others who were there that day when they left the campus. Did they and other outside agencies truly investigate what happened? Somebody in that group knew. But it apparently was like the old warning among criminals, “Snitches get stitches.”
If a true investigation had been undertaken, the law enforcement apparatus could have said the shooting was an accident, although that’s kind of hard to explain after you’ve shot two people in the head.
For those unaware, during the fall semester of 1972, my first on the campus, students were protesting for better funding and educational opportunities. The demonstrations were peaceful.
But, during the early hours of Nov. 16, law enforcement secretly arrested several demonstration leaders. A group of students came into the administration building demanding action. University President G. Leon Netterville, who was in his office, was allowed to leave as he allegedly promised to get the student leaders out of jail.
Later sheriff’s deputies, some in an armored personnel carrier, and other law enforcement officers, gathered in front of the administration building supposedly to rescue Netterville and other staffers who already had left.
Law enforcement stood their ground while across the way some students yelled. A tear-gas canister was tossed toward the students and was then tossed back. Then the shooting started. In a couple minutes, it was clear two students were dead or dying on the ground. No shots, threats or rocks were ever sent toward the officers.
Students, including me and other observers, were horrified.
My annual outpouring is not a blanket indictment of law enforcement officers. For sure, far more officers on campus didn’t shoot anyone. They were able to control themselves among unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.
Somewhere among those law enforcement officers, though, one — maybe two — are still alive and know what happened.
Some people believe then-Gov. Edwin Edwards could have solved the whole stand-off by calling the office where students were and promising to meet about their grievances. He didn’t, instead justifying the outcome by saying the students should not have taken over the building. Essentially, bricks and mortar are more valuable than lives.
Imagine if Smith and Brown had been killed in today’s climate. Good Lord, the unrest that would have followed. Also, there would have been far more news coverage. Imagine the cellphone videos.
So when will I stop talking about this incident? Even I have to wonder about that. My answer right now is: never. Who knows? Someone of courage and faith might step forward.
As the quote goes: “The dead cannot cry out for justice; it’s a duty of the living to do so for them.”
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman, at email@example.com.