Alton Sterling shooting reveals strained relations between police and African American community

Alton Sterling shooting reveals strained relations between police and African American community

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The death of Alton Sterling has revealed the strained relationship between law enforcement and members of the African American community in Baton Rouge.

"A lot of what we do, at first glance to them, since they don't understand our culture, may appear thuggish or roguish. But that's the culture of the youth," said Michael Harris, Jr., a 19-year-old who participated in the rallies over the weekend.

Harris said relations were strained even before Sterling's death at the hands of two Baton Rouge police officers early last Tuesday morning. That incident, which was caught on cell phone camera, sparked protests in the city and across the country.

RELATED: Alton Sterling shooting: A week later

At a press conference Sunday, Gov. John Bel Edwards indicated his intention to help improve relations between the two communities.

"We're going to have re-evaluate where we are with how we recruit and train officers," he said.

However, some LSU professors who study how different groups communicate and interact said that retraining the police, while an important step, does not fully fix the larger problem. They said biases are built into the Baton Rouge and, to a larger extent, the American culture. Those social norms have deep roots.

"In many respects, our modern criminal justice system replaced slavery in the United States as a way of controlling black labor and reckoning with a lot of white fears and anxieties," said Bryan McCann, an LSU professor of communications studies.

"Already before police arrive on the scene, there are subconscious biases that are coming into play, that are assuming a kind of criminality, assuming that that person is somehow dangerous," said David Terry, who also teaches studies at LSU.

Since the Sterling case began, many protests have focused on police brutality. However, tactics utilized by the police during those protests, including the extensive use of riot gear, may do very little to improve those icy relationships.

"When protestors are putting their foot on the street and then are grabbed pinned down or thrown around by police officers, then those folks are engaging in the very conduct people are protesting. So that's going to create a situation where people will want to double down," Terry said.

McCann and Terry both said those relations will not improve overnight. The socioeconomic divides of Baton Rouge, including the poverty in the northern part of the city, will make change slow.

They said that to help fix the problem, an open dialogue about race and inequality is needed, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be. That is something that Harris agrees with.

"What we need from law enforcement is to understand our communities and our cultures better and maybe we'll be able to coexist more peacefully," Harris said.

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