Alton Sterling and Police Impunity in Louisiana
The Baton Rouge police killing of Alton Sterling has sent ripple effects across the US. Shot while pinned to the ground outside a north Baton Rouge convenience store, Sterling was the 505th person killed by a police officer this year. Only a day later, the murder of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Minnesota further amplified the #BlackLivesMatter calls for an end to police brutality and the everyday violence of broken windows policing.
As has been the case in other locales, protests surrounding the murder of Sterling have named his death not as an aberration but as another link in the long chain of police violence in Louisiana. Activists and organizers in Louisiana have connected the shooting of Sterling to the recent killing of Black 22-year-old Eric Harris in New Orleans. Last February, deputies from the neighboring Jefferson Parish Sheriffs Office (JPSO) chased Harris and his girlfriend Tyshara Bloustine into New Orleans from a Jefferson Parish mall. Following Harris and Bloustine crashing their car into a pole, the deputies shot up their car killing Harris. Once again, law enforcement justified this murder by claiming that officers’ lives were in danger, despite conflicting reports from Bloustine. While Jefferson Parish officials were quick to arrest Bloustine as an accessory, the investigation into the deputies that killed Harris continues to be slow.
While law enforcement authorities maintain that the slowness of their investigation is due to the multiple jurisdictions involved because JPSO deputies crossed parish lines, the dragging out of their investigation is also reminiscent of the failure of authorities to at first indict New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers involved in the shooting of Black men on the Danzinger Bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Initially cleared by internal NOPD investigations, the NOPD officers involved in the Danzinger shootings and subsequent cover ups were only indicted on federal charges in 2008 after community activists and independent investigative reporting compelled the Department of Justice to seriously examine the case. However, the win of the officers being found guilty in 2011 has been displaced by the widespread disappointment of the subsequent turns of their case. In 2013, five of the NOPD officers were given a new trial on appeal that concluded just a few months ago in April with a substantial reduction of the officers’ sentences. The trajectory of the Danzinger case has demonstrated not only the disposability of Black life but the difficulty of attaining anything that resembles justice for state-sanctioned violence at the local, state, and federal levels.
In addition, the Louisiana legislature’s passage of the already notorious “Blue Lives Matter” law in May, which makes the killing of a cop a designated hate crime, has communicated, once again, the state government’s investment in punitive power over the needs and lives of Black Louisianians. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the passage of this law occurred during a legislative session that was primarily tasked with figuring out solutions to the state’s current budgetary crisis that is the product of eight years of austerity measures under former Governor Jindal. Yet, instead of working to find ways to raise revenue to stem the budget cuts that have particularly hit Black working class residents of Louisiana, legislators crafted backlash legislation. Not only is the “Blue Lives Matter” law anchored in the debunked, yet still powerful, myth of the “Ferguson Effect,” it is a reminder of how the expansion of criminalizing legal mechanisms such as hate crimes legislation serves not to extend safety but to entrench the power of the prison industrial complex.
In spite of these challenges, people of Louisiana are continuing to mobilize and organize for an end to the racist state-sanctioned violence of police brutality. In the last week, organizers with #JusticeforEricHarris have been linking up with the loved ones of Alton Sterling; one of the largest protests in recent New Orleans history was staged under the still-standing Robert E. Lee monument in solidary with Baton Rouge on Friday July 8th; Baton Rouge youth organized a powerful march on capital on Sunday that thousands from across the state and elsewhere participated in; #NorthBatonRougeMatters with support from BYP100-New Orleans held a moving vigil on the Mississippi River on Sunday at dusk; and the people of Baton Rouge continue to rally at the convenience store where Alton Sterling was gunned down. These actions have been punctuated by the continual arrest of protesters in Baton Rouge which escalated Sunday to Baton Rouge police officers and state troopers in riot gear and armored vehicles indiscriminately arresting legal observes, journalists, and protesters alike.
The arrests of over 200 people thus far in Baton Rouge is not a call to retreat but a reminder that it is the very power of the police to repress, control, and contain that we are struggling against. Defunding the cops and the other punitive arms of the state and resourcing institutions that allow communities to survive and thrive is critical to ending state-sanctioned violence and materializing collective freedom.
Lydia Pelot-Hobbs is a New Orleans-based activist-scholar and facilitator. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Geography at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her dissertation tracks the dialectical relationship between the formation and contestation of the Louisiana carceral state from the 1970s to the present. Her writing has appeared in a number of academic and activist venues including Monthly Review Online, Left Turn Magazine, The Abolitionist, Southern Spaces, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, and in the anthology Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (University of California Press). She is also a co-founder of the Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance (AORTA).