By Robert Mann
The news from Baton Rouge last month was a city immersed in crisis and death, divided and virtually at war with itself over the death of Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old black man killed by Baton Rouge police officers in early July. Twelve days later, another tragedy engulfed the city — the shooting of six police officers, three of whom died.
What a difference a few weeks and 30-plus inches of rain have made. The news is still crisis and death. This time, however, it’s because the city and region were engulfed in deadly floodwaters.
The parish’s streets, once crowded with protestors, became watery thoroughfares for boaters searching for stranded residents. Local churches that last month convened urgent meetings to discuss race relations are collecting relief supplies and launching rebuilding efforts.
Law enforcement officers, lately the targets of some citizens’ anger and resentment, are hailed as heroes and saviors. A month ago, these officers donned riot gear as they waded into the parish’s chaotic streets. Last week, they deployed in waders and airboats.
At every turn this past week, East Baton Rouge Parish set aside animosity, grievance and resentment. There will be ample time to revisit what happened to Sterling. The community still needs answers his death and those of the three brave officers. Whatever the outcome of those investigations, the Baton Rouge Police Department’s conduct in the city’s majority-black neighborhoods also must be thoroughly examined and debated.
With a region on its knees, however, this was not the week for that discussion. Even Sterling’s aunt, Sandra Sterling, seemed to agree. She rode on a boat with firefighters, searching for neighbors who needed rescue. “This is my giving back,”she said, grateful for a community that had helped in her time of grief and need.
I pray the great flood will become something more than a devastating, tragic event that simply postpones the community’s long-overdue conversation about race relations and alleged police misconduct.
Might it be more useful to view this disaster as an opportunity for a reset – a time to turn from anger to understanding, from division to unity, from grievance to mercy? Might our collective anguish prompt us to acknowledge that Baton Rouge – every square mile of it – is populated by good people of sacred worth who deserve our care and respect?
When we resume the fraught debate over race and police-community relations, might we remember that some of those we recently vilified are the same people who were saving us from rooftops and front porches?
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