An open letter to the citizens of Baton Rouge
During the early morning hours of July 5, 2016, we were placed on a journey to determine how we would understand and respond to the tragic death of Mr. Alton Sterling. There have been moments along the way where we have been confronted by the truth of this journey and reminded it’s not just going to go away. The decision by state and local authorities to look to the United States Department of Justice, the announcement of findings by the DOJ, the passing of the issue to the State Attorney General, the announcement of his decision, the press conference by Police Chief Murphy Paul to share his decision, and then the release of the video footage from that senseless and horrible moment, have all served to remind us that we must all decide how we understand and respond to what happened in the parking lot of a convenience store in North Baton Rouge.
I believe that any understanding and response must begin with Mr. Sterling’s family. They have endured loss and pain beyond imagination. And they have had to do so under the glaring lights of news cameras and public scrutiny. This family deserves our respect and compassion. We cannot just “co-opt” their loved one to suit our agenda, whatever it is. Alton Sterling is not a hashtag or a character in a horrific video. He was a member of our community with family and friends who cared about him greatly. Any effort to process all of this that does not begin with this reality if fatally flawed in my opinion.
We must then be willing to be honest with each other about the perceptions and experiences of Black men in Baton Rouge wrapped up in the most difficult 90 seconds I have ever seen. In the last moments of Mr. Sterling’s life we are brought face to face with some harsh realities about our city. There are some people in Baton Rouge who must create ways to make money to live and provide for their families. Opportunity is not readily accessible for all. Those who are sworn to protect and serve are not always professional and respectful of every citizen. Black men are thought to be angry and violent and as a result must be treated differently. For 20 months I have said healing requires the acknowledgement of a wound. As a community we must speak the truth about these perceptions and experiences or all of this pain and strife will be for nothing. Until we do, any effort to understand and respond will be doomed to failure.
My final belief is that we must move beyond responding to moments and begin to build movements. Moments last through the news cycle or until the next moment happens. Movements challenge what we think and demand that we do something. Movements bring about change, moments don’t. Political science professor Ron Walters, Ph.D, is quoted as saying the difference between a moment and a movement is sacrifice. This is certainly true in our situation. The only way Baton Rouge will learn, grow and change is if there are enough people who are willing to sacrifice and work to make it happen. We can all do something and we don’t all have to do the same thing. Find a place where you can connect with people who are serious about making this city better and get busy doing so. Don’t be distracted by the negative voices screaming for attention. That’s all they know and all they will ever speak. But we are better than their hatred and small minds.
Most of my life has been lived in Baton Rouge. I have seen and experienced the good, the bad and the ugly in these years. It is my sincere desire to be a part of leaving a better Baton Rouge to the next generation. A Baton Rouge where Black men are seen as assets and vital members of our community. A Baton Rouge where we are all productive, connected, healthy and safe. A Baton Rouge where my neighborhood and zip code don’t determine my access to opportunity and resources. This is the movement I am determined to be a part of building. In April of 2016, I, along with a number of partners, convened the Urban Congress on African American Males in Baton Rouge for the first time. We did so because we could no longer ignore the realities associated with being a Black male in the community we love. Since that time we have continued to build a movement that matters. A movement that makes a difference. Today, I am more committed to the work of the Urban Congress than ever. And you are welcome to join us in this work. But if not the Congress, find something that allows you to get busy doing something that changes Baton Rouge for the better. My prayer is that these painful moments will motivate people us beyond the place of emotions and to a place of ongoing action. This city needs it.
Raymond A. Jetson
Chief Executive Catalyst