Into a microphone, Alton Sterling’s aunt told a crowd outside the Triple S Food Mart how their family found out the news the Baton Rouge officers involved the fatal shooting of her nephew would not face federal charges.
“We haven’t heard anything. The (state or federal prosecutors) have not called us and told us anything. The lawyers called and said they have not made a decision. Ain’t that something? But the Washington Post called us here at 225,” Veda Washington-Abusaleh said, referring to Baton Rouge’s area code.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, published a story saying that the two officers wouldn’t face federal charges. The U.S. Department of Justice has not commented on the report, and the Louisiana Attorney General, whose office has the opportunity to examine the evidence to consider a criminal investigation, said in a tweet he would have no comment until the justice department does.
Washington-Absuleh said her family had been assured by local and state officials they would be notified about the results of the investigation before they were made public. During nearly 10 months of waiting for the investigation to finish, she said, they haven’t been able to properly grieve.
“We’ve never grieved,” she yelled to the crowd gathered near the parking lot where Sterling was killed on July 5. “We need closure, we need a conviction. We need justice.”
A lawyer for Sandra Sterling, the aunt who helped raised Alton Sterling, said his client was, “frankly, distraught,” upon hearing the report that federal charges will not be filed against officers Blane Salamoni or Howie Lake II. The attorney, Rep. Edmond Jordan, who is also a Democratic state representatives from Baton Rouge, came to the convenience store gathering after a day at the Louisiana State Capitol.
“I think that’s unfair for Ms. Sterling and the Sterling family and for the citizens of Baton Rouge to have to relive this moment as if it were yesterday, based on rumors and leaks and innuendo,” Jordan said.
“What we’re asking is for the Department of Justice to release their official statement… whatever the decision is, so that this family can move on, but move on based on facts,” he added.
News sparks calls to action, controlled gathering
Washington-Absuleh was one of several speakers at a vigil for Alton Sterling on Tuesday who talked not only about Alton Sterling’s case but about what can be done to hold police accountable and build up the black community in North Baton Rouge.
Community Coalition BR, a group of both adult organizers and high-school aged youth organizers, had made plans for the 6 p.m. vigil prior to national media reports on the justice department’s findings.
The crowd chanted back phrases like, “No Justice No Peace,” when asked to, but was mostly quiet during the speeches. After the vigil ended and the crowd dispersed, someone played a song from a D.J. booth near the storefront and people of all ages began talking among themselves.
State Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, who was at the convenience store much of Tuesday evening, called on Baton Rouge protesters to assemble peacefully, as they did after Sterling was shot last July, she noted.
“Although they are hurt and they’re despondent, I want them to remain calm, I want them nonviolent, and I want to see no bloodshed, and certainly don’t want to see them tear up our city,” Marcelle said.
Washington-Absuleh was among the voices calling for nonviolence amid her call for action.
“We got to fight, not a physical fight like they think,” she said. “We’re too intelligent for that. We’re way too intelligent for that.”
One speaker, North Baton Rouge Matters organizer Crystal Williams, 29, told the crowd she was “enraged.” A vigil attendee, Johnny Mitchell, 29, questioned why white officers who shot Sterling were not being prosecuted while the black officers charged in a police shooting in Marksville were convicted of manslaughter.
“This is an unjust situation!” another speaker yelled into the microphone. “Alton Sterling did not have to die!”
But at the scene Tuesday night outside the convenience store where Sterling last year was killed, no threats were heard, no property appeared to be destroyed and police – if hidden nearby – were not visible and apparently not needed.
Instead, Williams and Baton Rouge High Schoolers Myra Richardson and Raheejah Flowers urged those gathered to contact Attorney General Jeff Landry and tell them they want an independent criminal investigation into Sterling’s death. Community organizer Geno McLaughlin asked those who want justice to actively support certain state legislative bills.
By asserting more control in the economic development of North Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was killed, said another speaker, “we can bring the neighbor back to the hood.”
— Emily Lane (@emilymlane) May 3, 2017
By 8:30 p.m., the crowd at Triple S Food Mart, the site of protests last year, remained thick but conversations appeared casual. By 10 p.m., about two dozen people had gathered near the Baton Rouge Police Department on Airline Highway, where contentious protests occurred last year.
Alton Sterling’s 11-year-old son, Naquincy Pierson, was in the crowd at the Triple S Food Mart Tuesday night, accompanied by his mentor, Darin Fontenette.
Fontenette said he came to mentor Pierson through community organizations, the Gardere Initiative and Gardere Youth Alliance. After Pierson lost his father, Fontenette said, others in Baton Rouge have stepped up to guide him.
Pierson leaned on Fontenette as he looked at the storefront painted with a mural of his father’s face.
“He has his moments,” Fontenette said, of Pierson. “But we’re there for him every day… He’s got a great support team.”
— Emily Lane (@emilymlane) May 3, 2017