Pictured above are scenes from Thursday’s Black Lives Matter march and rally held in Ville Platte. The march began at the Evangeline Parish School Board Media Center behind Ville Platte High School and processed to the Evangeline Parish Courthouse where the rally was held. Among those participating were Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine, Ville Platte City Councilman Lionel Anderson, and Pastor of St. John Baptist Church Freddie Jack. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
Strolling for justice
A hot and humid June day greeted protesters Thursday as they marched for justice. Before the march, protesters gathered at the media center behind Ville Platte High. A reworked version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” blared from a speaker. Cooke originally wrote the Civil Rights anthem after an event in which he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana.
Thursday, the tune and some lyrics stayed the same: “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.” The new recording, reworked by gospel singer George Powell, incorporated references to George Floyd, who died by the hands of police in Minneapolis: “I can hear him call his mother, saying ‘mother, help me, please.’ ‘Cause he knew every time he called his mother, mother would immediately get down on her knees. He said ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t last for long.’ Now he’s resting in peace.”
Event organizer Gabrielle “Gabby” Robertson waited with family and friends for 6 p.m. when the march would start. She wore a T-shirt with her brother, Keenan Ardoin’s, face on it with the caption: “A sister’s cry.”
Robertson alleges her brother died at the hands of Ville Platte police six years ago. When asked what she hoped to accomplish with the march and rally, Robertson said, “Justice for not only our community, but for around the state with everything that’s going on. Justice to get served with all the police brutality that’s going on everywhere. It’s been going on since before I was living. Just for everything to get better and for peace.”
Before the march, Mayor Jennifer Vidrine was asked what she hoped would be accomplished. “Some illumination and visibility of all of the inequalities, injustices, and disparities within law enforcement,” she said. “To stop the killing, to stop the murdering of citizens in unnecessary situations. I hope today this march and all the other protests that are going on all over the nation can put a spotlight on correcting the wrongs that have been done, not only now, but going forward that these things stop. Also going forward that all lives can be treated equally under the law. Yes, all lives matter, but now you see a disproportionate of black lives being murdered. What we want here is for all lives to be treated equally as far as law enforcement is concerned.”
Vidrine said she is pro-law enforcement, saying the city has some “great, devoted, responsible cops, but there are always one or two who do something wrong and make the whole department look bad. We want to be able to weed out the bad ones and let the good ones go forth.” She said the city has hired a police trainer who will start training officers in the proper techniques starting July 1.
Vidrine continued, “With the George Floyd situation, you can actually see for yourself those 8:46 on his neck. It’s like an ordinary man is used to do extraordinary things. He is bringing the nation together, bringing the nation to look at a problem that exists, and hopefully we can do something about it. I applaud everyone out here, standing for that injustice, and I stand with them.”
Ville Platte Police Chief Neil Lartigue was asked if he feels, within the community, if it is Black Lives Matter versus the police. “I think everybody should work together. It’s not about a race. It’s the human race that it’s about. It’s not about black or white or any nationality. It’s about human beings.” He said he is not getting a push-back from the community about police practices. “We do investigate complaints on police officers and we deal with them accordingly.” He said he hopes it’s peaceful march and hopes “people open their eyes and let it be a lesson to all.”
The march was indeed peaceful with protesters carrying signs from the Media Center to the Courthouse. Chants of “No justice, no peace!,” “Black lives matter!,” “All lives matter!,” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” rang out into the community. They also marched in silence for 8:46, the amount of time a police office kneeled on George Floyd’s neck.
At the rally at the Courthouse, concerned citizen Arthur Sampson asked everyone to take a knee. Protesters kneeled for a minute in silence before the rally resumed with a prayer from Rev. Freddie Jack. “We pray for the many families who have suffered the loss of loved ones at the hands of those who have been hired to protect and to serve us,” prayed Jack. He asked for blessings for everyone in attendance and asked for their gathering to not be in vain.
An emotional Robertson spoke, saying she is looking forward to many more peaceful marches. “This is just the beginning. I’m not going to stop until we get justice in this community. Every day I hurt. It’s six years, and I still hurt on a daily basis. I cry every day. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last with what’s going on with police brutality. If I can stop and make a difference in my community, I will keep on pushing to better everything in this community.”
Vice President of the Lafayette chapter of the Louisiana NAACP, Marja Broussard, had the crowd repeat after her: “I understand that this is a movement, and sometimes movements take awhile. I promise today that I am in it for the long haul. I promise today that I will stand against all injustices, all racist acts, all hate acts. I believe every American is valuable. Today I am committed to vote in every election. Today, I will keep my elected officials accountable. Today is a new day. Today I decide I will no longer stand on the sidelines. Today I activate myself to do what it takes, whatever it takes, to seek justice. Amen. I declare it today.” She added, “The work starts when the marches stop.” She reminded the crowd their votes count and urged them to go to the polls.
Gospel Radio announcer Porsha Evans also spoke. “Get your knee off my neck!” she said. “That means give me a job. Give me public housing that I can afford. Louisiana has the second highest incarceration rate in this country. Get your knee off my neck! Now after I get out of jail, are you going to give me a decent paying job so I can take care of myself? Are you going to let me rent an apartment if I just got out of jail? Get your knee off my neck! Police brutality ... I lost my only child. He was shot in the back, not by a policeman, but he was shot in the back. We’ve got to stop all this gun violence. I want y’all to know there’s racism on all sides. There’s white people racists, and there’s black people racists.” She asked the crowd to continue in the struggle and said it was good to see young people participating.
Concerned citizen Rufus Searile said, “We can’t just blame everything on the police department because we got the district attorney, you got your judges, you got the jury. Half the time you got these people on the jury who don’t know what’s going on. How somebody who’s 65 years old going to sit on a jury and tell me if this person is guilty or not?” He spoke of corruption and said the police, judges, and attorneys work together, thus, he alleges, working against the people. He said if anyone is arrested, they should ask for a lawyer and not answer any questions. He also said the police should have their bodycams on every time they stop someone.
Mayor Vidrine asked white people to sit with their black friends and ask them what kinds of struggles they go through with law enforcement to get a different perspective. She stressed the city has good police officers, but there is “always one or two who makes the whole gang look bad.” She said it is time for justice for all. “All lives matter, equally! We just want to be treated the way a life is supposed to be treated.” She spoke of Michael Arvie who was severely beaten in Evangeline Parish several weeks ago when he allegedly committed theft. “We can’t stand for vigilante justice. That’s wrong no matter how you look at it. You don’t put a piece of property in front of a man’s life, no matter what the situation is. That’s why we have law enforcement.” She continued, “We all make mistakes, but we do not need to die for them.” She said the city council will do everything they can to support law enforcement to do the right things when they arrest people.
Michael Toussaint, another representative the NAACP’s Lafayette branch, said he cried watching the video of George Floyd calling out for his mother as he was dying with the officer’s knee on his neck. He said it made him angry, too. Toussaint also said his son is a sheriff’s deputy in Lafayette Parish. He grew up in Lake Charles and did not know racism in his youth. “When I see what’s going on today, I’m baffled. The other thing that baffles me is our own killing our own,” he said, talking about black-on-black violence.
Toussaint also said he freezes up when he sees police lights because he does not know what situation is going to happen with the police. He referenced Philando Castile who was killed by a police officer in 2016 after he was pulled over. “We’ve got a problem in this country. It is black and white.” He said 99% of police in the country are good officers, but there are 1% who are bad. “My son is one of the 99% because I raised him. I taught him how to treat everybody right.” “We’ve got to take care of each other. We’ve got to help each other.”
Black Panther president Joe Lawrence asked everyone to go vote. He said certain people did not want the Black Panthers in town, but he sees the need for it. He expressed concern for the youth in the community and wants changes made to give them a future.
Rev. Melvin Jackson delivered the closing prayer, but before that, he said, “The pain Gabby is feeling is the pain in our nation. The pain is being felt all over the world, but what makes it so real is that all what we see in our nation and all over the world is not about riots, not about looting, not about vandalism, destroying your own community, but it’s about peace. Peace will bridge any gap, even if that gap is that of hatred. Peace may seem to be weak, but for those who will use it, Jesus says, ‘I will give you a peace that will surpass all understanding.’” He asked everyone to stay positive and patient. He also said to get an education, respect their parents, get out and vote, and turn from their wicked ways to find time for God.
Jackson reminded the crowd about the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman. Till’s mother opted for an open-casket funeral to show everyone what a group of white men had done to him. “The death of Emmett Till woke up the nation, touched the fabric of our nation’s heart and conscience. From that, change began to take place. Did we get it all then? No, but we got change. Isn’t it amazing as we come today, George Floyd, before his death, was only known by his familiar circle. Ain’t it amazing how God will use a common, ordinary somebody who, even in his death will become the ultimate sacrifice, who would be the voice of so many who are here?” He said their deaths mean it is owed to them to march and protest peacefully and then “change is gonna come.”