Divisions run deep in Baton Rouge
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A month before he was gunned down in a targeted attack, a black Baton Rouge police officer posted a quote on Facebook that underscored the divisions in Baton Rouge. 

“I swear to God I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat,” Montrell Jackson, the black police officer wrote on social media weeks before he was  gunned down in the alley of a beauty supply store. 

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The post highlights the deep racial and economic chasm in Louisiana’s state capital. The rift between black and white, poor and affluent has been glaring in the days since a black man, Alton Sterling, was tackled and shot at close quarters by Baton Rouge cops. The days of protests that followed and the targeted attack on police, which claimed the lives of three officers, has made Baton Rouge ground zero for conversations on both race and the how law enforcement agencies police communities of color. 

“We’re not used to all this in Baton Rouge,” said Kenyetta Wilson, who grew up down the street from the convenience store at which Sterling was killed. And an undercurrent of troubled race relations that activists say still exists leaves residents with lingering questions about the city’s future.

The  post, made three days after Sterling was killed, represents a nuanced issue that has only become more sensitive since the attack on police.

The vigil for the slain officers was held at Istrouma High School, where Jackson graduated in the early 2000s. The school sits not far from countless decrepit and abandoned buildings lining Plank Road, a thoroughfare that serves as a stark reminder of the area’s poverty. 

In 2012, the state took control of Istrouma High for failing to meet academic benchmarks. Two years later, the school was closed. Crumbling buildings and run-down homes line streets that have long been in need of repair. 

Ninety-three percent of those living In the 70805 zip code, which encompasses Istrouma High, are black. The poverty rate of more than one-third of the residents there is nearly double the rate of the entire city of Baton Rouge. 

The north side of the city in which residents gathered to remember Jackson is the same side that has lacked emergency room services since the state shut down its hospital--sending those in north Baton Rouge to the south side for emergency room care--and an area that many feel is neglected. It is also the same side of town where Sterling was shot. 

The south side of the city, which is more white, is the polar opposite in economic terms. 

At a vigil for Matthew Gerald at a large church complex in the wealthier southern part of the city, John Coleman, a black man who was in the police academy with the slain officer, said “we all bleed the same.”

Coleman held a candle and listened with hundreds of others to pastors urging for love and unity as the glowing red sun fell below the horizon behind them.

“The racism has to stop,” he said.

 Still, the clashes between demonstrators and police in the days since Sterling’s death underscore the frustrations felt by many of the city’s poor and black. Police tactics, which law enforcement officials say were justified following Sunday’s shooting, drew the ire of civil rights lawyers and the ACLU for what they saw as excessive force. Ada Goodly, Treasurer of the Louisiana National Lawyers Guild, took down comprehensive declarations from those who were jailed.

Goodly said those demonstrators and their cause have become “invisible” following the attack on police.

“It almost pits one tragedy against another,” she said. “That’s not what needs to happen.”

 

Karlin is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has written for Reuters as well as more than a dozen publications in Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @samkarlin 


 

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