New Orleans-style brass bands are a part of life in Louisiana – from celebrating holidays and marriages to mourning deaths and injustice, you can find brass bands rolling strong at the biggest and smallest of gatherings. Alton Sterling’s vigil was no exception.
Hundreds gathered to celebrate the life of a man taken too soon – 37-year-old father of five Alton Sterling was pinned down, shot repeatedly at point-blank range, and left without immediate medical assistance by two Baton Rouge police officers, resulting in his death and an outcry for an end to the mass killing of black lives at the hands of public servants. Sterling’s killing, which circulated across social media in the form of multiple witness videos, made him the 186th black person killed by police in 2016. While protests continued in Baton Rouge last night, news of yet another name added to that list came – 32-year-old Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop over a broken tail light in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
For many, there is no time to process. Yes, police violence against citizens, particularly African Americans, isn’t new, but these killings didn’t come with violent, graphic videos pervasive across the Internet, haunting us at every possible click. In one way, it’s important that the truth be seen, as these murders have gone without consequence to the officers committing them in the past. On the other hand, though, we are subjecting ourselves to trauma every time we watch another black American die on YouTube, every time theirs names are turned into hashtags.
So, we gather in the streets to mourn and protest. I joined the Baton Rouge vigil for Alton Sterling last night at the Triple S Food Mart convenience store, where he was killed. The streets were filled in every direction for as long as the eye could see. Traffic came to a stop – cars honked and drivers chanted along with those gathered on the streets with signs and shirts that read of justice and resilience: “We shall overcome.” “Stop killing us.” “Fight power.” “We want justice.” “Black Lives Matter.” “Fly high, CD Man.”
As the vigil came to an end, and word of unity and strength carried on throughout the crowd, the distant sound of a brass band approaching filled the air. A cracked white fiberglass tuba ascended upon the grounds, followed by a trombone, a mellophone, a trumpet, a bass drum. Louisiana was coming in full force, in a way that only Louisiana can.
The band led hundreds of protesters through the surrounding neighborhood, with chants, including “No Justice, No Peace,” greeting residents as they spilled out of their homes to show support and solidarity. Lapping back around and rallying in the parking lot of the convenience store where Sterling was killed, supporters sang to the tune of New Orlean brass band The Soul Rebels’ signature song “Let Your Mind Be Free,” written and recorded on cassette in 1992 and released on the band’s 1994 CD album of the same name. Posters flew high, voices sang clear, firsts rose strongly, and four lines that spoke of revolution of thought rang through the streets, a clear call for equality and an end to injustice:
“Free your mind with education.
Help to build a better nation.
Stop killing for recreation.
Let your mind be free.”
I have never seen such resolve towards peace and healing as I saw in last night’s gathering for Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. A call for justice for Sterling is a call for justice for every black American who has faced unfair treatment in our country. For the more than 100 black Americans who have been killed by police officers this year. For the black men and women who are refused job interviews and paid lower wages based on race. For the many black American who experience microaggressions on a daily basis, whether it be about how they look, act, or react. Blackness is not a crime.
Written in the ‘90s, The Soul Rebels’ classic song “Let Your Mind Be Free” was likely written to spark a positive, uplifting movement towards social justice and equality in New Orleans, a city divided by race, like many of America’s communities. The song begins with a spoken introduction about racial discrimination and the need for world peace. The lyrics are both heavy in substance and light in delivery. I believe that if we could all rally around this message, as the gatherers did last night, we could be in a much better place today.
Education. Enlightenment. Responsibility. Togetherness. Change. So much is said in just four lines of this song.
If you are reading this now, think about how those lines could apply to you. Let’s education ourselves, join forces to improve this nation, ban state-sponsored killings of our neighbors, and bring true justice to the families who have been abandoned by the system that made their pain possible. Let’s stop leniency for police officers who murder our people. Let’s demand uniform de-escalation procedures and training for all officers across America. Let’s make sure that all who live in our country are honored by our law enforcement’s promise to protect and serve.
I, for one, will not sit back and let the tenants on which our country was founded be ignored.
Let’s not accept inaction. Let’s end police brutality. And let’s do it now.