Chaos erupted in Baton Rouge over the weekend as protesters gathered to demonstrate against the police-shooting death of a 37-year-old black man, Alton Sterling, there last week.
The Black Lives Matter protests there and across the country — from New York City and Rochester, New York, to Washington, DC, and St. Paul, Minnesota — have at times been violent.
Prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, who was arrested on Saturday night in Baton Rouge while protesting Sterling’s death, tweeted beforehand that “if anything happens tonight, it was caused by the police. Everybody has been peaceful tonight but them. #BatonRouge.”
In response to outcry over his arrest, a major with the Louisiana State Police told a reporter with The Advocate that McKesson and the other protesters had “clearly” been blocking the roadway.
“We respond to their actions,” the major told Advocate reporter Maya Lau in a video later posted on her Twitter account.
Sgt. Don Coppola, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge police department, said that police were responding to the increasingly aggressive behaviour of out-of-town protesters who had begun protesting outside the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters on Sunday.
“It appears the protest at Baton Rouge Police Headquarters have become more violent as out of town protesters are arriving,” he told the Associated Press, adding that one officer’s teeth had been knocked out by a projectile thrown into the police station.
A confrontation also apparently erupted between riot police and Black Panther activists on Saturday night — several of the activists were carrying shotguns, which is permitted under Louisana’s open-carry laws, according to Reuters. A police spokesman said several arrests were made and two weapons recovered.
Still, many protesters have contested claims that they provoked the Baton Rouge PD, which has evidently become militarised and tense in recent days.
This isn’t Baghdad. It’s #BatonRouge.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said he was “very proud” of the Louisiana law enforcement response.
“The police tactics in response have been very moderate. I’m very proud of that,” he said in a statement.
Still, many took to social media to condemn the police’s response during the protest. More than one protester described being confronted by police officers weilding assault rifles as they were demonstrating, unarmed.
At least two journalists were reportedly arrested at some point Saturday night, along with over 100 others.
“The sheer number of arrests last night raises serious questions about proportionate response to peaceful protests,” Jamira Burley, Amnesty International’s campaign manager for gun violence and criminal justice reform, said in a statement from Baton Rouge.
“Law enforcement officers cannot selectively decide which laws to enforce during demonstrations — be it against journalists, legal observers or protestors.”
In particularly disturbing footage, a protester in Baton Rouge filmed police storming a private home and tackling apparently unarmed protesters to the ground.
In the video, the police — wearing full riot gear and carrying assault rifles — approach a crowd of protesters that has formed on someone’s private property.
Multiple people can be heard yelling “This is private property! You cannot do this!” as the police approach the home where protesters are standing, many with their hands raised.
“Clear the streets and leave the area!” one officer shouted through a bullhorn. “This is an unlawful assembly!”
At around 1:22 into the video, the police can be seen tackling protesters to the ground and placing them under arrest. It’s unclear what, if anything, the protesters did to provoke the use of force.
In an interview with CBS, the homeowner said she “kept telling them: ‘This is my property, please do not do that, I live here. They just looked at me and ignored the things I was saying.'”
“I’m very upset,” she said. “I’m stunned.”
Sterling’s death, which was captured on video, has sparked outrage across the country for the officer’s apparently excessive use of force — Sterling was pinned to the ground by police when one officer took out his gun and shot him point-blank in the chest.
Sterling’s death came two days before another black man, Philando Castile, was fatally shot during a traffic stop outside St. Paul, Minnesota. His girlfriend filmed the aftermath of the shooting, and has insisted that Castile complied with the police officer who pulled them over before he was shot four times.
During one demonstration in Dallas on Thursday night, a lone gunman killed five police officers and wounded seven others in what was the deadliest day for US police officers since 9/11. At least 21 officers were injured in protests in St. Paul on Saturday, ABC reported, and over 100 protesters were arrested.
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