CLEVELAND, OHIO — The opening night of the Republican National Convention, “Make America Safe Again,” focused on law and order, depicting the country as a dangerous place beset by criminals. Speakers invoked the recent attack on police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and slammed President Obama for not protecting law enforcement. Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke walked out proclaiming, “Blue Lives Matter!” to raucous applause.
The message resonated with the group of people representing Louisiana in the arena.
One delegate, a police officer from the Baton Rouge area, wore a pin reading: “Blue Lives Matter.” Another, a retired teacher also from Baton Rouge, pointed to his “All Lives Matter” button.
“It means exactly what it says. All lives matter. Black lives matter, white lives matter, yellow lives matter, all lives matter,” said Leslie Tassin, the 70-year-old retired teacher. “If someone can’t wear that, they’re prejudiced. I don’t care who it is.”
“I’m a police officer. My life matters,” Greg Neff told ThinkProgress.
I’m a police officer. My life matters
Baton Rouge has become an epicenter of the national dialogue about the broken relationship between law enforcement and the community. Sunday’s ambush of three police officers inflamed a narrative depicting that relationship as a war.
“These are evil people doing these things — the people who do the shootings, killing the policemen,” Tassin said. A few weeks earlier, Alton Sterling, a black father of five, was shot and killed by officers while they had him pinned to the ground. When cell phone videos of the shooting were circulated on social media, protesters took to the streets in droves. And following in the footsteps of cops in Ferguson and Baltimore, Baton Rouge officers clad in riot gear responded to the demonstrations with tanks, tear gas, and military-grade firearms, making 200 arrests in 72 hours.
Neff, who said he has trained with the Baton Rouge Police Department, said that while any loss of life is tragic, Sterling’s death was justified.
“If you go through any police training — you can go over every movement, every word — everything they did is SOP, standard operating procedure,” he said.
Tassin spoke openly about Sunday’s tragedy, but he was not eager to talk about Sterling’s death or the history of police violence in his hometown.
“The first incident happened because — well I don’t want to talk about that,” he said, repeatedly changing the subject. “The second incident, outside agitators came into town since the first incident and they tried to stir up the people.”
Sterling’s death shed light on systemic issues within the Baton Rouge police department, which has a history of resorting to unnecessary violence and illegal searches, particularly after Hurricane Katrina.
According to a Governing Magazine study, Baton Rouge has one of the largest racial disparities between law enforcement officers and civilians for a city of its size. In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, white officers made up close to 70 percent of the city’s police force, serving a population that’s 54.8 percent black. Out of 658 officers, only 194, or 29.6 percent, were black.
The military-style response to the protests captured the attention of national media and the ACLU, which recently filed a lawsuit against the department for using “excessive force, physical and verbal abuse, and wrongful arrests” to quell the protests.
While Sterling’s killing led to unrest in the city, racial tension coupled with the history of police brutality made Baton Rouge a powder keg waiting to explode.
Neff insisted that race is not a factor in how he does his job. “Most of the people we’re helping are in the minority communities. They’re the ones who call for help most often. Unfortunately because they have more crime in the area,” he said. “We’re going over there helping the kids in those schools, we’re going over there solving their robberies. We’re taking the drug dealers off their corners. And then you’re going to turn this stuff against us?”
“The communities that I go through, most of them — no matter what race they are — they’re appreciative,” he continued. “They understand we’re there to help. When you go over there and return a bike to a six year old, they don’t care what race you are.”
Bo Staples, a 33-year-old delegate also from Baton Rouge, told ThinkProgress he blames the Black Lives Matter movement for much of the violence in his city.
“Their heart’s in the right place, but I don’t know if it’s carried out in the best manner because yes, you need to raise awareness, but if you raise hatred and violence against officers, it’s hard to get people to come to your cause,” he said.
Tassin, who worked in two all-black schools in the Louisiana area and helped to integrate schools in one Louisiana parish before retiring, blamed President Obama for allowing “radical organizations” to spread violence.
“I think they’re worse now than seven and a half years ago when Obama became president — the race relations have gone down instead of improved because of his rhetoric,” he said.