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Louisiana capital city struggles with 2 weeks of violence

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    Tre Patton looked at a makeshift memorial at the scene of the shooting of police officers, in Baton Rouge, La., on Monday.

BATON ROUGE, La. >> The Louisiana capital is marked by memorials — flowers, balloons and stuffed animals with notes of condolences.

In the past two weeks, Baton Rouge has seen a black man shot to death by white police and night after night of protests, followed by a fatal attack on three officers by a gunman who seemed to target the badge.

The city of 229,000 is better known for its championship college football team and its political scene. But this broiling summer, it has been churning through tension and grief and taking a leading role in the national debate about race and law enforcement.

Sterling Pierce, a 32-year-old black appliance store worker, was shaken up as he paid his respects Tuesday outside the convenience store near where the officers were killed. A sign posted at a memorial read: “God … please help us heal!”

Shaking his head, Pierce struggled to make sense of recent events and to foresee an end to the violence. He showed bullet marks on his car and said the city’s problems run deep.

The killing “is not going to stop down here,” he said. “It’s never going to change.”

Pierce said he was friends with Alton Sterling, the black man shot by white officers two weeks ago. He also knew one of the officers killed this week, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola, a repeat customer at the store where Pierce works.

“This just messed me up,” he said. “I don’t know how to feel.”

As he spoke, Pierce was approached by a white woman, Deirdre Breau, who hugged him.

“We’re all the same on the inside. We’re just a veneer on the outside,” said the 49-year-old antiques collector from nearby Central.

She was more hopeful, praising the tone and actions of city, state and federal officials.

“I see them lining up. They want to see progress, change,” Breau said. “What we don’t need are outsiders bringing their propaganda and upsetting what we’re trying to heal.”

In the aftermath of Sterling’s July 5 death, thousands of people turned out at several locations around Baton Rouge for protests. The 37-year-old was killed as the officers pinned him to the pavement outside a convenience store where he sold CDs.

The killing was captured on cellphone video and widely circulated online. The footage drew attention to strained race relations and longstanding inequities in a city with a 55 percent black population that is informally segregated. Northern neighborhoods are predominantly black, southern ones white.

The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the death.

The next weekend, police in riot gear arrested nearly 200 protesters. The clashes grew increasingly intense after a deadly police shooting in Minnesota and the killing of five officers in Dallas.

Civil rights groups and activists sued Baton Rouge law enforcement agencies over their treatment of protesters. The police chief defended the response, saying authorities discovered a plot against police that weekend.

Tensions continued to simmer, but the protests largely dissipated as Sterling’s family laid him to rest Friday at a memorial service that drew thousands.

Just as the city appeared to take a breath, the next blow hit Sunday, when a masked former Marine ambushed law enforcement along a busy highway, killing three officers and wounding three more before he was shot and killed.

Police said they don’t know if Gavin Long’s attack came in response to Sterling’s death, but Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said it’s clear officers were “intentionally targeted and assassinated” by the 29-year-old black gunman.

Slain was 45-year-old Garafola and two officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department: 32-year-old Montrell Jackson and 41-year-old Matthew Gerald.

Sterling’s family decried the officers’ deaths. Even Louisiana State University’s football coach, Les Miles, weighed in, saying in a statement that his heart “hurts for Baton Rouge.”

Cleve Dunn Jr., a local businessman and leader in the black community who has been involved in the protests, denounced the bloodshed.

“If your heart cries out for Alton Sterling and his family, your heart should cry out for the officers,” he said. “And if your heart cries out for only one side, then you need to check yourself. And you need to look in the mirror because you’re part of the problem.”

Sterling’s death had started discussions about how to improve relations between minority communities and law enforcement. Then, Dunn said, the attack on officers damaged those efforts.

Now police are “going to be on high alert,” he said. Protesters “have already been in that place. That’s a dangerous spot for everybody to be on the front lines, with that type of anger and that type of heartbreak being felt.”

The protests have ceased for now, but Dunn expects them to resume after the funerals for the slain officers.

“We still want to move forward with our demands for justice and protest, but let’s stand down a minute and pay respects to these officers and their families so the message isn’t taken out of context,” he said.

Outside the store where Sterling was killed, Charlene Alex, a 37-year-old janitor at LSU, predicted that if the officers who killed Sterling are not indicted, “there’s going to be trouble.”

She said she didn’t sleep for four nights after Sterling died because she felt so awful about his death. She bought CDs from him.

She drove off in a car with its windows covered in messages: “R.I.P Alton S” and “Peace” and “Unity.”

Faith and community leaders, black and white, gathered at a church Tuesday to talk about ways to improve race relations.

The Rev. Lee Wesley, who is black, said the group called on citizens to show respect for police officers.

“We also call on our officers to show respect for our citizens,” he said.

Rev. Patti Snyder, who is white, said the city “can no longer tolerate” deep divisions.

The people of Baton Rouge, she said, “will need to practice listening to one another. We will need to practice speaking to one another.”

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