Alton Sterling's death sparks widespread outrage, protest

Michael Walsh
·Reporter

Protesters in Louisiana have taken to the streets to speak out against the police-involved shooting death of an African-American man during an attempted arrest that they consider symptomatic of a deeper problem related to law enforcement practices in black communities.

Baton Rouge residents started gathering around the Triple S Food Mart convenience store Tuesday morning after Alton Sterling was shot and killed in an altercation with police in the store’s parking lot. Some men and women came with signs bearing slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement — such as “No Justice, No Peace,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” — along with signs that read “Justice for Alton.” Others held up black-power fists.

The 37-year-old’s death sparked immediate outrage when a bystander’s cellphone video of the struggle leading up to the gunshots was posted online. Many viewers remarked that the scenario was similar the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island, N.Y., two years ago.

Quinyetta McMillan, the mother of Sterling’s oldest child, 15-year-old Cameron Sterling, said during a press conference outside Baton Rouge City Hall Wednesday morning that Sterling was a much better person than his portrayal in the news would suggest. He was a man, she said, who was “simply trying to earn a living to take care of his children.”

McMillan said that Sterling did nothing wrong and even had the storeowner’s permission to sell CDs outside the building.

People protest the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5, 2016. (Photo: Bryn Stole/Reuters)
People protest the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., on July 5, 2016. (Photo: Bryn Stole/Reuters)

Slideshow: Alton Sterling killed by police in Baton Rouge, La. >>>

She said Cameron was forced to watch his father die because the video had been plastered across many news outlets.

“The individuals involved in his murder took away a man with children, who depended upon their daddy on a daily basis,” she said, as their son broke into tears.

Other family members embraced Cameron as he cried “I want my daddy” repeatedly.

“As a mother,” McMillan continued. “I have now been forced to raise a son who is going to remember what happened to his father. That I can’t take away from him. He’s at an age of understanding. I hurt more for him and his loss.”

One of the greatest fears of a parent, she said, is to see one’s child hurting and know there’s nothing that can be done to change that.

People protest after Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed during an altercation with two Baton Rouge police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. on July 5, 2016. (Photo: Bryn Stole/Reuters)
People protest after Alton Sterling, 37, was shot and killed during an altercation with two police officers in Baton Rouge, La., on July 5, 2016. (Photo: Bryn Stole/Reuters)

The anger over Sterling’s death was widespread. His name was trending on social media, and celebrities like actor Jesse Williams, who recently made headlines for a speech at the BET Awards, weighed in.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said Sterling’s death is “what lynchings look like in 2016.”

Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. identified the officers involved in the incident as Blaine Salamoni and Howie Lake, with four and three years of experience, respectively, with the department. Both men have been placed on administrative leave, pending an ongoing investigation.

“At this point, like you, I am demanding answers. Like you, all my prayers are with this community and especially with the family and loved ones of Mr. Sterling,” he said during a press conference at police headquarters in Baton Rouge early Wednesday afternoon, choking up a bit. “And all of the members of the Baton Rouge Police Department who are working hard every single day.”

Baton Rouge police chief Carl Dabadie, Jr. center, bows his head in prayer with other officials at the start of a news conference at police headquarters in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)
police chief Carl Dabadie Jr., center, bows his head in prayer with other officials at the start of a news conference at police headquarters in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)

He said the department turned the case over to the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI because of its commitment to a thorough, just, transparent and independent investigation.

“Today I speak to you as chief of police, but more importantly as a fellow member of our Baton Rouge community,” Dabadie said. “We ask for your voluntary compliance to our laws of peaceful assembly with any gatherings that may be planned.”

Dabadie’s voice was just one of many at police headquarters urging demonstrators to remain calm.

Rev. Gerard A. Robinson Sr. of the McKowen Missionary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, for instance, said it is right to protest for the best interests of their community but that it should be done as peacefully as possible and that people should allow the “arms of justice to do what it is supposed to do.”

Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden lamented that everyone wants to make a political statement and took issue with the fact that some people are “calling for a full investigation” when that is already underway.

“It’s not like we need to be hand-held and spoon-fed when it comes down to doing what’s right,” he said. “And so when we tell you these things and what’s going on, it’s very, very important that you understand we are doing our best to make sure we get all the answers.”

Michael McClanahan, head of the NAACP in Baton Rouge, speaks to reporters outside City Hall in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (Photo: Mike Kunzelman/AP)
Michael McClanahan, head of the NAACP in Baton Rouge, La., speaks to reporters outside City Hall, July 6, 2016. (Photo: Mike Kunzelman/AP)

In an impassioned speech earlier that day, Michael McClanahan, the president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge branch, called for the Baton Rouge Police Department to be thoroughly investigated and for Dabadie to be fired.

“What we’re going to do is root out the 1 percent of bad police officers that go around being the judge, the jury and executioner of innocent people, period, but more specifically, innocent black lives,” McClanahan said during the City Hall press conference.

“Let them hire lawyers! Let them try to weasel themselves out! But thank God for YouTube. Thank God for the iPhone, because without the iPhone, they might’ve gotten away,” he said.

Local activist Gary Chambers said it should not take national attention for his community to get answers about a man “being murdered by police officers.”

Abdul Rashid Muhammad, a local representative for the Nation of Islam, called for an economic boycott of the Louisiana Mall “until we get justice.”

“Let’s withhold our money starting this Friday,” Muhammad said. “Don’t spend anything.”

Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric asked Edmond Jordan, the Sterling family’s attorney, on Wednesday to address a report in the Baton Rouge-based Advocate newspaper of Sterling’s criminal record dating back to 1996, which reportedly includes arrests for drug and assault charges.

“Frankly, Katie, that’s irrelevant to what happened last night. Mr. Sterling’s past has no bearing on that and I don’t think we need to be sidetracked by that,” Jordan said. “Unless you can tell me that his criminal record played some role in his death last night, then it’s totally irrelevant.”

He criticized the Baton Rouge Police Department for “confiscating” Triple S Food Mart’s surveillance video, which he believes captured the entire incident. Like McClanahan, he expressed gratitude for the technology that helped spread the cellphone video of Sterling’s final moments.

Nishka Johnson touches a makeshift memorial for Alton Sterling, outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La., Wednesday, July 6, 2016. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)
Nishka Johnson touches a makeshift memorial for Alton Sterling outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La., July 6, 2016. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)

“Thank God for Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. Whoever came up with the idea for a smartphone, we’re certainly appreciative because … if not for that cellphone video … this story might be taking a totally different angle right now,” he said.

Jordan said he was pleased when he heard Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announce that the Baton Rouge Police Department would be turning over the investigation to the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division. Earlier, Jordan had called for a separate law enforcement agency to handle the investigation to ensure impartiality.

“The video is disturbing to say the least,” Edwards said at a press conference Wednesday, “and at this time I’m asking for leaders in the faith-based community, elected officials and other leaders here in Baton Rouge to work with all of us to remain calm and peaceful as the details continue to unfold.”

Edwards repeatedly implored protesters to remain calm and peaceful, saying that another violent act or the destruction of property would not be the answer. When asked if he had seen any surveillance footage, the governor said he had only seen the cellphone video that’s been playing in the news.

“In Louisiana, we’re known for our ability to come together in difficult circumstances, and certainly this is one of those times,” he said.

According to the Baton Rouge Police Department, two uniformed officers were responding to a disturbance call about a black man selling CDs who was making threats with a gun. This led to the altercation that resulted in Sterling’s death when the officers arrived on scene, the department said.