I was one of the first to arrive at Alton Sterling’s funeral. Thousands were expected on that Friday, so Southern University, my alma mater, had hosted the funeral at the F.G. Clark Activity Center. Walking towards the door, all the memories I had of wild undergraduate times—sneaking away from dorms past curfew, caught up in some silly drinking game—came flooding back. They gave me comfort, even at this sorrowful time. It was walking upon another woman that brought me out of my reverie, an older woman dressed in all black with a fancy, wide-brimmed church hat.
“Good morning, how you doin’?” I said, in the necessary cadence of the south.
“I’m hanging in there.” she replied. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Luna Malbroux.”
“I’m Veda Sterling.”
Alton’s aunt. Immediately my heart pounded. All I could muster was “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“My loss is your gain,” she told me. “This was ordained by God. This happened for a reason.”
Veda turned to head towards the mini-dome. I stood there reeling from the interaction between me and Veda, one of the women responsible for raising Alton as a child, when she gestured toward me:
“Come on in. I told them you were family. You can come in this way.”
It had been a rough few days for me in Baton Rouge as I tried make sense of the palpable hurt in a city that had given me so much. What I felt could only mirror a fraction of what Baton Rouge must feel after nearly two weeks of unrest and protest that culminated in a frightening police shooting on Sunday. I held in my tears knowing that what I was going through was nothing compared to Veda Sterling.
It was during a panicked phone call on July 5 when I got some scary news.
“Something bad has happened here,” one of my closest friends called to tell me. “One of my neighbors was murdered today. In my neighborhood.”
It wasn’t until a few hours later that I truly grasped what had happened. Like many across the country, I watched the video of Alton Sterling, perplexed at what would ever warrant cops to shoot someone who was pinned down with their hands behind their back. Another name became a hashtag. Baton Rouge became a hashtag.
The double whammy of #PhilandoCastile the very next day felt physically crippling. The voice of viral sensation Evelyn from the Internets was the only one that made sense: “You ever wish you could call in black to work?” I was doing my best managing my emotions while checking in with friends and family in Baton Rouge. Everyone seemed to be hanging in there.
Until Dallas happened. As the shock of an attack on police officers rippled throughout the nation, the messages from my folks back home became more dire.
“It’s like a war zone here.”
“It’s like everyone has pulled off their mask and is showing their full racism.”
I watched news reports of militarized police arresting hundreds of protesters, but knew that these reports only scratched the surface. If we actually dig beyond the acute violence in Baton Rouge, then we have to start at the beginning. The story behind Alton Sterling’s death and its ugly aftermath began years earlier than July 5, 2016.
The state capital of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, spans almost 80 miles with a population of about 228,000. It’s home to Southern University, the largest historically black college in the nation and the birthplace of the first organized bus boycott. Here is where the longest-running school desegregation lawsuit happened, a 47-year fight to improve public education funding that just ended in 2003. When I look back on the five years I lived there, two starkly different images come to mind: a picturesque and lush green city constantly opening new businesses—and a barren, gray, industrial stretch of land that occasionally rains ash from refineries.
I’ve experienced two different cities, sometimes in the same day depending on my location. Florida Boulevard, a street that spans the entire city, cuts Baton Rouge in half into North Baton Rouge, with its rundown developments and closed hospitals, and South Baton Rouge, a bustling, thriving metropolis.
“Baton Rouge is just a racially divided city,” said Maxine Crump, CEO and founder of Dialogue on Race, who spoke to me the day before Sterling’s funeral. Dialogue on Race is a six-week program based in Baton Rouge that provides community members a safe space to talk openly and honestly about race. “People say that’s just the way it is here, but there is subtle quietness to [racism] here.”
Crump, a former news reporter, began developing Dialogue on Race in the ‘90s to challenge the status quo of acceptance of racism in Baton Rouge—the ingrained idea that white Americans are assumed to get more privileges than everyone else. “As long as the system is that way, resources are distributed less proportionally,” Crump said.
There are feelings of hurt that have bubbled up to the surface in Baton Rouge, she added, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to violence towards police.
“You don’t have to be pro-police or pro-black,” she said. “You can definitely be both.”
I heard Crump’s sentiment echoed across the city—including back in North Baton Rouge, Alton Sterling’s neighborhood.
“I cut cops’ hair all the time. They are part of the community. They are welcome here,” Cedric Dent, a barber at O’Neils barber shop, told me. Dent had known Alton Sterling, too; he often cut his hair and his son’s hair. He said that even though he has been stopped by the police 14 times, he felt no animosity towards them. “At the end of the day, we are all trying to get home to our families.”
Crump said we all need to look beyond police brutality to the systemic issues that cause it. “The police department are not a bunch of vigilantes killing black people,” Crump said. “They are policing to protect the city. The police department cannot be held accountable for race in any city by themselves. All institutions are accountable.”
Crump's statement made a lot of sense to me, especially after my years in Baton Rouge. While I was a student, I worked at community centers serving the North Baton Rouge community, including the Belfair Free Dreams Teen Center, where teenagers would go after school to socialize, learn poetry, dance, and just be young. Again and again, the other mentors and I would try to navigate the frustrations we heard about racist and apathetic teachers who would be quick to penalize black students. Despite the fact that our students were hard working, ambitious, and talented, they often faced harsh consequences for being “loud” and “disruptive to the class,” even when these weren't traits they showed in the after school program.
I lived in the affluent community of South Baton Rouge, but I wasn’t immune to that same racism. I remember being called a nigger by a fellow diner at Louie's cafe, a popular dining spot near LSU's campus. I told the manager, and he shrugged: "Oh, he's just being drunk. Don't worry about it." When out with friends, I had plenty of run-ins with racist frat boys in South Baton Rouge who weren't shy about not wanting “our kind” in their establishments. Even my encounters with Baton Rouge police were mired with the ugly brush stroke of racism. When someone had broken into my car, the cops just met me with disbelief and skepticism.
I followed Crump to her Dialogue on Race program later on Thursday, where I met concerned black and white Baton Rougeans who gathered to talk about the unrest of their city. One of them was Christopher Tyson, a black Louisiana State University law professor who recently called Florida Boulevard “a line by which you can gauge which lives matter more” in a New York Times op-ed.
“I understand the impulse to rush to healing, but there has been hurting for a long time, not evenly distributed and not together,” Tyson said. “ Maybe it’s time to step outside of ourselves as a way to begin the long process of healing… My thought is maybe we need to hurt together.”
Jared Loftus, one of the Dialogue on Race participants, recounted a meaningful conversation he’d had with Tyson earlier that day. “I said [to Tyson], ‘What can I do as a white male?’ I know better and I can be better. But my default is action. What do I do? What do I say, where do I go?” Tyson replied that “the best thing I can do is just be in it, and just be uncomfortable.”
Loftus and Tyson became friends years ago through Dialogue on Race.“We’ve bonded over both losing our fathers.” Loftus added. “And it’s a similar thing here. There’s not a whole lot to say, there’s not a whole lot you can do. I can show up and I can be there.”
Tyson was in mourning on Thursday, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t hopeful. A cofounder of Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, Tyson proudly told me about the peaceful youth-led protest with more than 1,000 attendees just days earlier on July 10.
“It was beautiful,” said Myra, a high school student and one of the organizers of the youth-led protest. “We talked about how we didn’t want to be second class citizens. We wanted to be treated as human beings.”
Although the protest was emotional, it was not without clear demands.
“We wanted sentencing equality and a police registry for transparency and anyone who committed police brutality would be indicted, convicted and sentenced,” she said.
I couldn’t help but be inspired by Myra’s tenacity and the success of that protest. The youth of Baton Rouge were determined to create something positive out of this mess. If only we could listen to them.
I left Baton Rouge on Saturday evening, feeling like the city was in good hands with Myra, Chris Tyson, Maxine Crump, and Jared Loftus. Even the funeral, in all its sadness, had been a celebration of Atlon Sterling’s life and a call for more love, justice, and peace as a community of thousands came together to begin the process of healing. I slept well Saturday night, feeling like I could finally rest easy.
It was another text from a friend on Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m. that woke me up. There were no words, just a link to a headline: “3 Baton Rouge cops shot dead.” Immediately, my heart sank. This had to be a really bad joke. Hearing about the slaying of three cops felt like a knockout after a series of blows.
I called Tyson on Sunday evening to see how he was doing in the aftermath of the police shooting.
“The community is exhausted from the last few weeks,” he said. “So to wake up and find out in church about the shootings of the police officers—you just saw people in disbelief over what this might mean for the city and the community…I think there was some relief in knowing the killer was not from the city.”
I was doubly shocked by the police shooting after witnessing peace and generosity from the people who had lost the most: Alton Sterling’s family. After Veda’s warm welcome at the funeral, I found myself among the Sterlings—a very large family that greeted everyone, even strangers like me, with hugs and “hang in there”s. After about 30 minutes of standing around, it was clear they were overwhelmed. There were so many people expected to view the casket that more hands on deck were needed to help with the flow of foot traffic. Impulsively, I volunteered to be an usher, feeling like more of a community member than a reporter at a funeral.
In my hours of greeting folks, seating family, and moving folks through the funeral, the resiliency of this community couldn’t be denied. They were all there to “hurt together,” the first step in Tyson’s healing process. High-profile speakers like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton took the stage to speak. But it was Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the Triple S store where Alton Sterling was shot, that brought the building to their feet after Muflahi’s vivid description of a friendship that crossed racial barriers.
“He showed me a lot of love,” he said with tears in his eyes. “[Alton Sterling] was friendly, welcoming. He was truly the meaning of Southern hospitality…He was my friend.”
On Sunday afternoon, I watched Veda on CNN, reacting to the police shooting in Baton Rouge. At a moment when the media was chattering about a race war, she was begging for peace. “We don’t call for no bloodshed,” she said. “That’s how this all started, with bloodshed.”
Luna is a comic, writer, and activist who is the host of comedy talk show, Live Sex SF and the creator of the comedic app, EquiTable. Get all the Luna you can handle at LunaIsFunny.com and follow her on Twitter @LunaisAmerica.