Police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana used armored vehicles and other forceful tactics while making arrests and dispersing hundreds of demonstrators who gathered on Sunday evening to protest the death of Alton Sterling, a black man who was fatally shot by white police officers last week.
Footage of Sterling's death on Tuesday was widely shared online, and the next day the aftermath of another controversial shooting of black man Philando Castile by police in Minnesota was streamed for an audience of millions on Facebook Live. The two incidents prompted protests nationwide.
Sarah Hollows, who traveled from New Orleans to attend Sunday's event in Baton Rouge, told VICE News the demonstration was largely calm until police cracked down. She said the event began as "a peaceful rally" led by young, black organizers from the city, who stood on the steps of the state Capitol building and read poetry and statements.
"It was uplifting and beautiful," Hollows said. "There were brass bands, and singing, and people chanting 'no justice, no peace.'"
The situation became tense when protesters gathered at the Wesley United Methodist Church. There were so many people that not everyone could fit in the church's parking lot.
"People began splintering, breaking off," Hollows said. A group of protesters began marching down the street toward a busy intersection, in the direction of Louisiana State University (LSU). Cops started to block the street. A police officer told the crowd through a megaphone that they needed to disperse.
Tensions high in Baton Rouge as police clash with protesters wearing riot gear and gas masks pic.twitter.com/3KRN9NMKHa
— wynton yates (@WyntonYates) July 11, 2016
"People were looking around confused, and on alert. There was no confrontation but it started to feel more and more tense," Hollows said. "All of the sudden, out of nowhere, a woman — an organizer from LSU — started yelling 'they're pulling out tear gas and gas masks, we gotta move.'"
WashPo--Fears grow that Baton Rouge—with its militarized police force—could be next Ferguson https://t.co/ZNMNMWFYw4 pic.twitter.com/H05x2PXZz5
— Steven Greenhouse (@greenhousenyt) July 11, 2016
The crowd began to panic, with some protesters attempting to leave and others staying behind. Suddenly, Hollows said, they were confronted by "a wall of riot police."
A woman in the neighborhood gave protesters permission to stand on her front lawn, leading to a tense and chaotic three-hour long standoff. More than 100 officers in gas masks and body armor encircled the site. Many officers were wielding assault rifles, and police used an LRAD — a military device that emits a deafening high-pitched siren — to disperse the crowd.
At least 48 people were arrested. It was the second incident of mass arrests over the weekend, following the detentions of at least 101 people on Friday, including Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson.
The scene on Sunday was reminiscent of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014, when riot cops clashed with demonstrators protesting the death of Michael Brown, a black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer. The photos and videos of cops using military-grade vehicles and weapons during encounters with protesters sparked criticism of police militarization in the US.
An NPR investigation found that since 2006, the Pentagon has given local police departments around $1.9 billion worth of equipment. That includes 79,288 assault rifles, 205 grenade launchers, 11,959 bayonets, 479 bomb robots — like the one Dallas police used to kill a gunman during a standoff last week — and $124 million worth of night-vision equipment.
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