This is as ordinary a stretch of road as one might ever find in a mid-sized American city. It is now also the scene of a massacre.
Baton Rouge isn’t a large city, though it has a large footprint: No two buildings are within walking distance. The city largely lacks sidewalks or pedestrian crossings; to walk, here, is to place your life in the hands of texting motorists driving oversized cars and extended-cab pickup trucks. There are no bike lanes and no public transit systems, save a bus network that is unreliable, mired in scandal, and seemingly on the brink of collapse. If you live in Baton Rouge, you drive. Live here for a full year and you will spend just shy of two days—47 hours—sitting in traffic. If you can’t afford a car, you can’t go anywhere. This locks the poor into poverty: No job, no car; no car, no job. Perhaps more significantly, it locks them into certain geographic areas, nearby and yet far out of view.
Because the city is so spread out—even a city as small as this—when something significant happens a scant two miles away, it may seem to some to have happened in another country. The killing of Alton Sterling sparked a series of protests—documented in video footage—but in Baton Rouge, they didn’t make much of a mark, despite a week of round-the-clock national coverage. The protests were largely limited to predominantly black, poor areas, which means their message was likely lost on the locals who most needed to hear it. I heard only one person bring the protests up at a coffee shop this weekend: “Are protests still going on?” she asked. “I might go to the library on Goodwood if not.”
All of this has made me acknowledge how little I really understand about the lives of people in this city, even though I’ve lived here for most of my life. What do I know about the life of a law-enforcement officer? That week of images of Baton Rouge police in full body armor—it was so needless, the armor, so obviously wrong, and yet, I didn’t really fault the police for the gear they wore. Five police officers in Dallas had been gunned down within days of Alton Sterling’s death. If I were a police officer with a family at home, I would have begged for protection. And anyway, Baton Rouge isn’t experienced in dealing with riots or heated protests; it isn’t important enough to stoke such flames of passion on any topic. It often seems that nobody would notice if residents burned Baton Rouge to the ground.
The police didn’t know what they were doing, and they were frightened. As we now know, they had a right to be. The next cop-killing bullets did, after all, have their names on them.
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Before the death of Sterling and the protests that followed, there were signs that something was building in Baton Rouge. It felt as though tectonic plates were sliding against one another beneath our feet, and not smoothly. Journalists at The Advocate, the city newspaper, have reported diligently on issues of gross inequality. Consider the lack of emergency-room facilities in north Baton Rouge, a poorer part of town with a heavy black population. As a cost-saving measure in 2013, the Louisiana government closed the Earl K. Long Medical Center in that part of town. The state hospital had been treating the uninsured and the poor since 1968, often providing emergency care. The closure happened, but beyond selected press coverage, it didn’t seem to get much notice.