By Candace J. Semien (The Drum, NNPA Member)
Leaving the city of Baker, Louisiana, I turned left onto the interstate faster than I normally would. I needed to get home before the Matadors arrived. I was the third car to merge onto the empty bridge; the third to veer into the center lane. Instinctively, I looked to my left, across the Interstate that was empty, too. I saw a large SUV on the side of the highway. The red and blue lights of a state police cruiser flashed behind it. Man, I got my first ticket in that same spot. The speed limit changed and I bet he missed the sign just like I had.
The driver was a heavy Black man, wearing a pink-colored shirt with a huge, Polo logo. I slowed down. We all did. We all were watching.
It was post-Alton Sterling Baton Rouge, and we were all watching out for our brothers. The ones in pink and the ones in blue. I was still driving the third car. We were down to 30mph, watching across six lanes of highway. At the top of the interstate was another car about 100 yards behind the officer. Maybe she was watching, too. My son asked, “Mom, what’s that?” I had no answer for him nor for the ember of fear peaking inside of me.
Then, there were three cars in the row and four more. A woman stood at the front of her truck a few steps on to the empty northbound lane. She pointed south. Driving 20 mph now, it was still just the three of us in a row. Slowly. Pensive. Heading south.
As the interstate curved away from the airport, there were more police cars. Between the fifth and sixth cruiser, a father stood in a yellow shirt. The toddler on his shoulders balanced his chubby cheek at the top of Dad’s head. They were looking south, waiting. We drove slowly past three cruisers to my right. Their lights flashing, but their eyes and bodies watched the bend of the Highway awaiting something. It was ominous. My heart got heavier. Something’s not right. This isn’t good. I felt the ember grow.
I unconsciously counted 30 cars across the highway and a dozen on my side. Just at the bottom of the hill through the larger curve nearest Southern University, the line of cars stretched for miles the length of the side rails. Drivers and passengers stood with cameras. A few held flags. I slowed and put on my blinkers.
Someone was coming. Was it the president? No, my gut ached. You know it’s not him, I said to myself.
This is post-Gavin Long Baton Rouge.
Then, I remembered that the Louisiana National Cemetery was 25 miles north, and this was the procession for Baton Rouge Police Officer Matthew Gerald, who’d been killed on duty. I glided over to the median and watched about a hundred police motorcycles zoom past. A hundred. Bikers with American flags and police union flags roared by. There were hundreds of cars on the side of the road in front of me now.
The heavy ember of anxiety was now grief. More police followed. More bikers and more bystanders. Young and old. One man leaned against his cane and watched the cars. I saw the bystanders, four or so of them, sprinkled up the sideline of I-10 with their hands raised in salute. One lady held her hands to her mouth holding the tears in her throat.
My sentiments exactly, lady.
Each face — including my own — bore a contortion of mourning and pride.
The enormity of the supporters who were there to see him off was breathtaking. Cars lined the streets beneath the interstate. Those drivers and passengers also stood outside their cars and watched. The 72nd St. Bridge crossed over I-10 and a crowd lined the bridge.
Car after car, police cruiser after cruiser rolled by. I sat there for four minutes with the mourning ember pulsing within. Violent death became real — even surreal — in that moment. Like it did when Sterling’s 15-year-old son, Cameron, wailed on television, begging for his father.
This is post-friendly Baton Rouge.
Although there were no “Blue Lives Matter” signs; no “Justice for Alton” signs, the weight of the city’s invisible fighting was thick in the atmosphere. Yes, we can comfort in times like this, but can we love enough — love Officer Matthew Gerald enough or love Alton Sterling enough or even love Gavin Long enough — to do the hard work of breaking the hold hate has over this city?
So many of us are hurting, carrying our own ambers of grief that are fueled by constant wrongdoings by angry, violent men. And, a scene like this stirs the flame. But there are so many of us like the little girl on the side standing with her mother, waving her hands frantically at the superstar in the black limo hearse. She’s glad to see all the activity, but oblivious to the ripples of its effect.
She’d been told, I’m sure, that the superhero died trying to protect “us.” That the reasons for their deaths were for a purpose larger than her young intellect could process. That things will change, because the person in the black car died. And that’s true. Things will change because they died…because all of them died.
I could hear my blinker reminding me it was time to get home.
I turned to go home, but not before I prayed for citywide comfort and special love for Sterling, Gerald, and Long.
The Drum is a member publication of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Learn more about becoming a member at www.nnpa.org.
PHOTO CAPTION: Mourners leave stuffed animals and flowers outside of the Triple S convenience store where Alton Sterling was a shot and killed by Baton Rouge police officers. (The Drum)