Baton Rouge — It has become fashionable on the left to mock the offering of “thoughts and prayers,” the usual banality seen on social media after a natural disaster or a terrorist massacre, shared by people unconnected to the event but compelled, by self-importance or political interests or both, to connect themselves to it. Comedienne Samantha Bee threw a profanity-laced fit over “thoughts and prayers” after the Orlando massacre, and Corey Ciorciari, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s gun-policy guy, mocked such goodwill expressions after the police ambush in Baton Rouge: “Thoughts and prayers didn’t seem to stop the last 193 mass shootings this year,” he wrote. “Maybe we should try something different?” Never mind that Mrs. Clinton is herself a big thoughts-and-prayerser, having sent them out to the victims in Charleston and Nepal, Eid al-Adha celebrants in Mecca, the French, etc. It’s the ultimate exercise in 2016-style political discourse: a shallow and mean-hearted shiv of a shallow and good-hearted sentiment.
Here in Baton Rouge, thoughts and prayers are the main things holding the city together.
On July 17, Gavin Long of Kansas City, Mo., was in troubled Baton Rouge for the purpose of hunting white police officers, an act of retribution for the police shooting of Alton Sterling, a low-level criminal with prior convictions on weapons charges who was shot at point-blank range while pinned down by police. Ten days before, five police officers had been massacred in an ambush in Dallas. Long got his scalps, though in the end he ended up not distinguishing between them on racial grounds.
The dead included 41-year-old officer Matthew Gerald, who was white. Canadian Mounties in cardinal-red tunics stood guard at his funeral as his widow, Dechia Badeaux Gerald, planted a kiss on her late husband’s coffin. Sheriff’s deputy Brad Garafola was white. His widow and four children collapsed together into a pyramid of grief at his funeral as Sheriff Sid Gautreaux eulogized him before a crowd of more than 1,000 mourners. Officer Montrell Jackson was black, but he was slaughtered anyway. He left behind a wife and an infant son, along with a Facebook post about the tense times in Baton Rouge following the Sterling shooting:
This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets, so any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer, I got you. . . . I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. . . . I personally want to send prayers out to everyone directly affected by this tragedy. These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart.
Why Baton Rouge? Nearly everyone here agrees that the city has worse racial problems, and deeper social divides, than do other cities in the South. They wonder aloud why they cannot be more like Atlanta or Houston. There are not very many obvious answers to that. Baton Rouge is a southern state capital and home to a large public university — Louisiana State, with its 32,000 students and 6,500 staff, has a big socioeconomic footprint; historically black Southern University nearby is about a fifth that size — and it is segregated on north–south lines. As Nate Silver runs the numbers, only Atlanta is more segregated among southern cities, but Baton Rouge is poorer and less educated. It has the usual mix one sees in similar cities: The Whole Foods and the wine bars in the part of town that is indistinguishable from Austin or Athens, Ga., and the methed-out hookers working morning shifts on Florida Boulevard, trotting woozily toward cars as they pull over near the Pelican Pawn Shop (which is advertising a sale on air conditioners — the heat here in July is tropical) under the stern gaze of Alex Jones, whose Infowars billboards loom over the worst parts of the city.
If you drive from the state capitol to the police headquarters out on Airline Highway, you’ll pass some pretty rough spots, and you may see Thomas, who exemplifies one of the great southern habits: Whereas Yankees often grow preemptively aggressive during moments of social tension, southerners tend to become pointedly polite, formal to the point of iciness. And a big white guy with a shaved head getting out of a Jeep with out-of-state plates on a desolate corner of a not-very-nice part of Baton Rouge while the city is convulsed by a racially motivated atrocity to approach a black man in a suit and bow tie hawking copies of The Final Call is pretty tense. We both get very polite. But we’re at opposite ends of approximately the same business, Thomas and I, and I tell him I admire his dedication, wearing a suit and tie and hustling psychotic Nation of Islam propaganda (I don’t put it exactly like that) out in this horrifying heat and humidity. He smiles.
My experience with the bow-tie set (I interviewed Louis Farrakhan ages ago) suggests a high baseline level of bark-at-the-moon craziness, but Thomas turns out to be pretty much a just-the-facts guy. He concurs that Baton Rouge seems to have made significantly less racial progress than many other comparable cities, but its problems are common enough: “We live separately. We work separately. We worship separately,” he says. “There’s little economic opportunity and advancement for blacks. And whites are lying to themselves about the reality of racism.” He has lived in Baton Rouge his whole life. “It isn’t getting better,” he says. “We’re nervous, upset, angry, disillusioned, dissatisfied. Especially with our leadership — there’s no real leadership. It’s the blind following the blind.”
I buy a copy of The Final Call, and there’s a long article about the police shootings. It’s heavy on quotes from Cornel West and Avis Jones-DeWeever, with excerpts from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most recent speech to the NAACP. It’s pretty hard on President Barack Obama.
Just past the police headquarters on Airline Highway, there’s another very polite man, explaining to reporters that they may not park their cars in the parking lot of his B-Quik convenience store, where Long gunned down Officers Gerald and Jackson and Deputy Garafola. He smiles and gives a three-minute explanation that concludes: “This is our busiest location.” It certainly is today. A makeshift memorial with the usual flowers and notes has been constructed on the sidewalk. A few people come to pay their respects, but the ratio of press to normal human beings is about six to one. Police chaplain Bob Ossler of New Jersey is here, too. He has traveled to many such scenes and was still in Dallas when news of the Baton Rouge massacre reached him. He isn’t the only clergyman on the go: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association maintains a “rapid-response team” whose vehicles already are on the scene at the police station down the street. A middle-aged woman lays flowers at the sidewalk sanctorium and is convulsed with weeping. When she recovers, I ask her about her connection to the events. She doesn’t have one.
“Police officers just want to go home to their families, like everyone else,” Chaplain Ossler says. He says that in the wake of these horrifying killings, police rededicate themselves to their mission: “The officers I spoke to, they said they just wanted the public to know that they have their back.”
But does the public have their back? Not everywhere. A young woman coming out of the Cash Cow Payday Loans proffers the ritual preamble — “I’m not saying they deserved to get shot” — before insisting that “they had to expect something.” She continues: “They keep killing us. What do they think is going to happen?” There’s a lot of stupidity and ugliness on both sides. Talk radio in Baton Rouge is painful to listen to, and 81 percent of listeners tell a WWL poll that they expect violence in the wake of the officers’ shootings. A radio host insists that the problem here is that men such as Alton Sterling won’t follow orders. “You can’t fight authority,” he says. “What did he think was going to happen?” Strange, really, how a culture that defines itself largely in terms of its rebel past — even the local amusement park is called “Dixie Landin’” — goes suddenly strait-laced at certain moments. The guys with the Confederate-flag stickers on their pickup trucks and the clips of their lock-back knives sticking up out of the pockets of their jeans — who tells them to knuckle under to authority if they know what’s good for them?
The mood is a lot less eye-for-an-eye at the Healing Place Church, where a very large crowd gathers for a candlelight vigil, where the daughter of Officer Gerald clutches a teddy bear wearing a blue police uniform. It’s the usual 21st-century Evangelical arena-church gathering, bearded hipster Christians in spitfire caps hugging each other manfully, men in “Got Freedom?” T-shirts and a biker in a leather vest emblazed patriot guard, treacly praise-rock, badly aging tattoos. It is sunset, and so a hematophagous swarm — Louisiana is home to 68 species of mosquito — comes buzzing in over the low grass and standing water. There have been monsoon-level rains, enough to stop traffic, and Aedes vexans, the “floodwater mosquito,” is out in force and vexing for all it is worth. The crowd is almost entirely white, and exactly 50 percent of the African Americans present are media. (“We worship separately,” Thomas said.) Police officers stride in, three at a time, with black bars of mourning over their shields. A church warden with a Secret Service–style earpiece and a pig’s-tail cord running down into his golf shirt scans the perimeter. There have been whisperings of protests aimed at dishonoring the dead. But no such threat materializes.
Pastor Ryan Frith sounds a penitent note. “It seems that our community has been in disarray for the past few weeks. If we’re being honest, it’s been in disarray for years.” His message is based on John 16:33: “I have overcome the world.” Maybe not quite yet, but they are trying. A series of pastors and speakers exhort the crowd to sympathy, charity, and forgiveness. “Anger, frustration — take it and discard it,” says one speaker who doesn’t bother to introduce himself to the congregation. “We are here to love our neighbors as ourselves.” One must consider that these mosquito-feeding true believers know something that eludes the likes of Samantha Bee and Corey Ciorciari and the rest of us urban sophisticates: In the end, thoughts and prayers do matter. They matter more than most other things. And they are, for the moment, what’s keeping the peace in Baton Rouge and many other communities like it.