Just after midnight Tuesday in a convenience store parking lot, police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shot and killed a 37-year-old man named Alton Sterling while pinning him to the ground. The incident, captured on a cellphone camera video that has already spread widely across the internet, is just the latest police shooting of a black person to go viral, the latest tragedy spurring activists to demand change locally and nationally, the latest flashpoint in the ongoing national debate over policing and race in America.
In the video, the cops, who were reportedly responding to a 911 caller who said Sterling had threatened him with a gun, can be seen ordering the man to get on the ground. He doesn't comply, but also doesn't appear to make any threatening move toward the officers, both of whom are white. One of the cops tackles Sterling against the hood of the car, and they both restrain him on the ground. One of them then says, "He's got a gun!" and an officer can be seen drawing his weapon and holding it close to Sterling.
Then the shot is heard.
The person filming the video drops the phone, and a male voice says, "Oh shit!" and, "They shot him? Oh my fucking goodness" while a woman cries and shots continue to ring out.
According to the local coroner, at least two bullets from the cop's gun struck Sterling in the chest and back.
Warning: the below video is graphic
The store's owner, Abdullah Muflahi, has known Sterling for years, and claimed to see the whole thing. He told the Advocate, a local paper, that the cops were "aggressive," adding that he saw the officers initially use a Taser to little or no effect. He said cops later took a gun from Sterling's pocket, but also that the deceased wasn't holding the weapon or trying to retrieve it during the confrontation.
Beyond the cellphone video, Sterling's death was captured by multiple other cameras. Muflahi said his store's surveillance cameras would have filmed it, and the cops apparently confiscated the footage. A police spokesman told the Advocate that cop cars had dash cams and both officers were wearing body cams—though the latter apparently came loose during the incident.
The two cops were placed on administrative leave, which is standard police procedure following any shooting. Their names have not yet been released.
The Advocate reported that Sterling, a father of five, had been convicted of multiple crimes over the past two decades, including selling marijuana and domestic abuse. He was also a registered sex offender after pleading guilty to "carnal knowledge of a juvenile" in 2000.
But Sterling's friends and family members describe him as as generous and respectable man who fell on hard times and scraped together what he could by selling CDs and DVDs. "He had a hard life. He didn't have no mama, no daddy," his cousin told the Washington Post. "He wasn't stable at all. He lived day to day based on what he made."
Beyond the specifics of Sterling's life, his name immediately became associated with that of other black men, women, and children who have been killed by the police across America in the past few years: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Cedrick Chatman, Walter Scott, and many, many others.
On Tuesday night, after the video had circulated widely, protesters gathered outside the convenience store. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on its website, "Without any police presence, protesters were freely stopping traffic in the major four-lane intersection of North Foster Drive and Fairfields Avenue, hopping on the hoods of cars and lighting fireworks in the street." Chants included "Black lives matter!" and "No justice, no peace!"
On Wednesday morning, Sterling's family and community activists gathered for a press conference at city hall. Mike McClanahan, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, demanded the release of additional videos showing the shooting in more detail, as well as the firing of the police chief, Carl Dabadie Jr., and the resignation of Kip Holden, the mayor of Baton Rouge. He also called for the arrest of the officers responsible.
"I want [the officers] to know—them and their friends, because they run in packs like dogs—that their day of reckoning is upon them," he said. "We will not stop until justice is served, not only for this young man that died, but for all the others who have died and been abused by unlawful police officers."
The mother of Sterling's oldest child, a 15-year-old, broke down while addressing the media, vowing not to rest until "adequate justice is served to all parties involved."
Mayor Holden, who has announced his intention to run for Congress, promised a full investigation into the shooting. At a Wednesday press conference, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, urged leaders to make sure that further protests remain civil and calm. "Violence and the destruction of property is not the answer to anything we are facing today," he said, adding that Sterling's family was also calling for nonviolence.
Edwards also announced the US Department of Justice would be looking into the shooting. "I have very serious concerns," he told reporters. "The video is disturbing to say the least."
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