Baton Rouge’s Racial Divide and the Double Standard of Political Language

  Developments stemming from the July 26th Metro Council meeting once again highlight Baton Rouge’s large racial divide.  At the meeting, longtime anti-violence activist Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed expressed his outrage at the slow pace of the Alton Sterling investigation.  In addressing the Council’s earlier interruption of a Bible reading by another speaker, Reed invoked the Biblical verse “eye for an eye” and remarked that Gavin Long brought justice to Baton Rouge in the wake of Alton Sterling’s killing. Gavin Long is the killer who took the lives of police officers Brad Garafolo, Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald a week after Sterling’s killing.  The comments were a shock to many – myself included – familiar with Reed’s anti-violence work.  Reed maintains that his words were taken out of context and references his long history of working with law enforcement to curb gang activity.  Mayor Broome quickly issued a public condemnation and canceled a contract that Reed was to receive through the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination program, also known as B.R.A.V.E. Sparked by Mayor Broome’s announcement on the Reed contract, former Council member and Baton Rouge police union liaison John Delgado filed a public records request for a list of B.R.A.V.E. contractors.   Working with the far-right blog The Hayride, Delgado and others proceeded to attack B.R.A.V.E. grant recipients who have also been vocal in the post-Sterling protests.  In a series of July 29th Facebook posts, Delgado called out local artist and activist Donney Rose and others for receiving B.R.A.V.E. funding for youth programming in targeted neighborhoods.  Delgado quipped that Rose was getting paid to “[teach] a poetry course to young gang-bangers.” Reed’s comments understandably offended and disappointed many across the city’s various divides.  But Delgado’s “young gang-bangers” slur has received less attention and outrage.  His comments reflect deeply racist thinking about black youth and approaches to education in black communities.  “Gang-bangers” and the more common “thug” are racist pejoratives for black men, part of an attempt to deem them unworthy of Constitutional protections, human decency, or justice.  These terms are invoked frequently to demean those advocating for accountability and transparency in policing.  As a voice for the city’s Union of Police, Delgado’s cavalier deployment of this language is especially disturbing as the city attempts to rebuild trust between black communities and the police. Delgado’s comments embody more than just racial slurs, and in this regard history is instructive. When black communities protested police brutality and Jim Crow in the 1960s, their resistance was recast as crime and disorder.  President Johnson pursued a relatively modest attempt to invest in black communities through his Great Society effort, and his Community Action grants directed federal resources down to the neighborhood level.  Through Community Action, the same community activists organizing protests gained access to resources to remedy the discrimination they fought against.  But opponents viewed Community Action as rewarding activists who – in their view – had no right or justification to protest in the first place. On the contrary – they wanted them punished. Community Action quickly became a target during the rise of Nixon-era conservatism and the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.  Those forces dismissed the programs as futile and the grant recipients as undeserving.  Nixon instead called for a “law and order” approach to black communities, igniting the “tough-on-crime” politics that dominated the rest of the twentieth century.  Law enforcement became the dominant state response to the issues faced by black communities.  Black neighborhoods became places to be contained and quarantined.  Racialized mass imprisonment followed.  The next several decades would see the destruction of black and brown lives, destabilized communities, and the exacerbation of historic racial inequities. The backlash to black protest continues today.  Around the country, calls for better policing have been derided as attacks on the police.  The implication is that the police are above reproach.  Moreover, the backlash casts black activists’ calls for accountability as lacking in moral or political legitimacy, despite the tortured history of policing in black communities.  This has been trumpeted from as high as the White House, where last week President Trump openly encouraged police brutality before an audience of police officers, some of whom applauded approvingly.  While law enforcement leaders around the country have condemned the remarks – though none here in Baton Rouge —the broader context should concern those committed to democracy and anti-racism. There is an unbroken line from anti-Civil Rights conservatism to our current moment. And all indications suggest this downward spiral against racial justice will continue.  Councilman Buddy Amoroso is joining Delgado’s blacklisting effort.  Amoroso is calling for a legislative audit of B.R.A.V.E. contracts to determine if any were given to “political friends” of Broome.  Given the racial divide in Broome’s support, Amoroso’s broad and unspecific inquiry belies any sincere concern for good governance.  Both Amoroso and Delgado know that, by design, B.R.A.V.E. has always incorporated community programming.  That means engaging black community organizers who deserve to be compensated for their labor.  And in our city’s relatively close-knit community, those black organizers might be friends with our black Mayor. While Amoroso’s actions are transparent as glass, Delgado’s amount to an abuse of power.  As a spokesperson for the Union of Police, his actions carry the imprimatur of law enforcement.  Therefore they can only be read as a cheap attempt to intimidate and bully.  That can’t be the city we’re trying to build.  We deserve better.   Christopher J. Tyson is the Newman Trowbridge Distinguished Associate Professor of Law at LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, where he teaches property and local government law. He is a graduate of Howard University, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and Georgetown Law. In 2015, Tyson was a candidate for Louisiana Secretary of State, earning more than 500,000 votes. Tyson’s commentary is an expression of his personal opinions and are not made on behalf of LSU or the Paul Hebert Law Center.