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A Racial Divide

In Baton Rouge, Tragedies and Old Wounds

BATON ROUGE, La.--Asha Bennie, a lifelong resident of this Deep South city, said she was horrified by the ambush-style shooting here on Sunday of six law enforcement officers by an African-American man.

But Ms. Bennie’s sense of fear and disquiet does not stop with the trauma of that moment.

Her Indian-Trinidadian family runs Bennie’s Rental Properties, a store-front business just down the street from the convenience store where, on July 5, two white Baton Rouge police officers shot and killed a Black man, Alton Sterling. Ms. Bennie knew Mr. Sterling, who had been staying in the shelter the company operates. And as much as she grieves for the officers, she worries if anyone will still care about police reform, and about justice for Mr. Sterling’s family, now that so much of the city’s, and the nation’s, attention is focused on the fallen officers.

“All on the news people are talking about what happened with the police,” she said Tuesday. “But we still have the tragedy of what happened down the street, and we have to deal with it.”

Calls for unity reverberated across Baton Rouge soon after the massacre of its law enforcement officers Sunday, much as they did in Dallas after the July 7 slaying of five officers there. But unlike Dallas, Baton Rouge was still struggling with the raw and churning emotions set off by the shooting of Mr. Sterling. While many Blacks participated in the subsequent protests against the police here, many whites did not.

And while there are people of all races in this city of about 230,000 who have condemned violence in any form, there is also a concern that the racial fissures that have long defined Baton Rouge--and that some residents have been working to mend--may now grow even wider.

“We were trying to move to a time of healing,” said Tara Wicker, a member of the City Council, who is Black. “It sort of ripped the scab back off of it.”

But Ms. Wicker also said that she believed that people in Baton Rouge were scrambling to seize a “window of opportunity” for debate about issues that have rarely drawn sustained attention here.

Residents of the Louisiana capital often describe it as two separate cities that are neatly, if tragically, divided by a thoroughfare called Florida Boulevard, with the north side of the city mostly Black and poor, and the south side white and wealthy. “It’s not the only segregated place in the country, but the segregation is very stark and geographical,” said Broderick Bagert, the lead organizer for Together Baton Rouge, a multicultural group that formed in 2010 in an effort to bridge the racial divide. “I met a woman who didn’t know there was an airport in Baton Rouge because it’s north of Florida Boulevard.”

The economic divide is just as drastic. A 2009 report commissioned by Oxfam America and the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation found that the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish, of which the city is a part, and suburban West Baton Rouge Parish had the state’s highest median earnings and second highest life expectancy.

The northern and central parts of East Baton Rouge Parish had the lowest median earnings and the third lowest life expectancy.

Some of Baton Rouge’s tensions have spilled into public view in recent years, especially after a group of residents mounted an effort to incorporate a new city called St. George. The city, which would have been Louisiana’s fifth largest, would have been wealthy and mostly white.

During the debate, supporters of St. George argued that their pocket of East Baton Rouge Parish provided much of the local tax revenue, but had little to show for it. (The parish is about 46 percent Black.) Their effort, which would have created a city of 107,000 people and a separate school district, stalled after a court battle.

The Baton Rouge Police Department, meanwhile, has struggled to reflect the region’s demographics. The city is 55 percent Black, and its 657-officer police force is 67 percent white.

The department has for more than three decades been under a federal consent decree meant to diversify the force. According to a Brookings Institution analysis of 2013 data from Governing magazine, the disparity is one of the worst among big cities in the United States.

Charges that the department has a history of abusing and mistreating Black residents were rampant in the protests that followed Mr. Sterling’s death. But those charges are not new, and they were echoed after Hurricane Katrina by out-of-state troopers who came to town to help the city deal with an influx of New Orleans residents displaced by the 2005 storm and subsequent flooding.

According to The Advocate, the local newspaper, the state troopers, from Michigan and New Mexico, witnessed so much racism and mistreatment from the local police that they rescinded their offer of help and went home. The two agencies filed 12 reports of misconduct that alleged, the paper said, that the local police “repeatedly hassled Black people, kicked down doors without warrants, roughed up people who posed no risk, and in one case offered to let a visiting trooper beat an inmate as a thank-you gift.”

There was little punishment of the accused officers. The paper spent years fighting for documents related to the case, and on Sunday, it cited civic leaders questioning the pace of reform.

But in an interview Monday, a spokesman for the police department, Lt. Jonny Dunnam, said that diversifying the department had been a priority for chief Carl Dabadie Jr. since the chief took the position in 2013.

In 2012, Lieutenant Dunnam noted, 110 of the 187 people who took the Civil Service test were white. A year later, 67 of the 157 people who took it were white, a trend he said had continued. He cited several new programs aimed at diversifying the force, including a seminar that teaches Black clergy members about the police force and encourages them to suggest community members who would be good police officers.

The Advocate published its extensive front-page article on these issues on Sunday--the day that Gavin Long, an African-American man from Kansas City, Mo., fatally shot three officers on a commercial thoroughfare here and wounded three others. The report was quickly subsumed by the unfolding crisis.

And so on Tuesday, the city was left to navigate even trickier crosscurrents of emotion and circumstance. On Monday evening, at three vigils for the fallen police officers, the vast majority of participants were white.

One of the officers killed Sunday, Montrell L. Jackson, was Black. He left a wife and small child behind. Mr. Bagert said that the officer had attended Istrouma High School--“there is no more classic north Baton Rouge school”--and predicted that his loss would reverberate strongly on the north side of town.

On North Foster Drive, the street where Mr. Sterling was shot, a number of Black residents said they grieved for all of the officers. Some also echoed Ms. Bennie’s concerns that Mr. Sterling’s death has been pushed out of the spotlight. Reginald Warren, 42, a construction worker, said the shooting of police officers was “horrible,” but said it seemed to have eclipsed the discussion of Mr. Sterling’s case. “There ain’t nothing said about that no more,” he said.

Dena Gray, 44, said that she understood why the police had to be aggressive in north Baton Rouge, Ms. Gray, who is Black, lived in this part of town, she said, until her house was broken into. The police, she said, “are afraid.” She added: “Can you expect a criminal to be fair? You can’t.”

In interviews at an upscale shopping center south of Florida Boulevard, at the Mall of Louisiana, opinions were divided over whether recent police protests had created an anti-police environment. A few said that they believed that fringe groups that sometimes marched with Black Lives Matter demonstrators may have stoked violence, but were careful not to knock the movement as a whole.

Maggie Moore, 75, a white retiree in a flower-print blouse and pink lipstick, was more critical of protesters who have taken to the streets in Baton Rouge to rally against police violence.

“I think our police have not done anything wrong,” she said. “The protests, I don’t think that people ought to be out there in the streets, or even on the sidewalks, protesting. They ought to pray.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the Together Baton Rouge group held a planning meeting at a suburban Roman Catholic church. The members, mostly Black and white religious and community leaders, talked about complex policy issues they hoped to tackle that might make a lasting difference--about scaling back a statewide industrial tax exemption that they say saps police and school budgets, and about proposing a requirement that would force police officers to live in the city, or at least the parish, that they protect.

For the time being, they knew that it was most important to present a unified front. At the news conference, they stood together behind a lectern, hoisting signs that read, “We refuse to be divided.”

Members of the group Together Baton Rouge organized a meeting on Tuesday to help devise a plan to ease racial tension in the city.

Asha Bennie, top, of Baton Rouge, La., says she grieves for the police officers shot in the city on Sunday, but also for Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot by officers. Law enforcement officers on Monday at a vigil in Hammond, La., for the officers who were shot. A mural outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, La., pays tribute to Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot July 5 by officers.

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