They are the only children in an angry crowd.
Standing quietly under a searing sun, the four youngsters, two boys and two girls, hold up hand-scribbled signs during the first day of protests in Baton Rouge over the city police killing July 5 of Alton Sterling.
The kids’ placards bear a now-familiar message: “Black Lives Matter!”
Wire service pictures of the unidentified four children will appear nationwide.
They are named here for the first time: James Wilkerson Jr., 5, and his sister Jakayla Coates, 7, both hail from Baton Rouge. James is a self-described future firefighter; Jakayla is an aspiring ballerina. Their visiting cousins are Desmond Tate Jr., 6, and his sister, Dashayla Tate, 8, both of Kansas City, Kansas. Desmond is already focused on a career as “an attorney.” Dashayla wants to be “an artist.”
Whatever your view of the Black Lives Matter slogan or the national movement to change American policing, these four kids are impressive representatives of their families, their peers and their respective communities.
Amid near-deafening chants of “No justice! No peace!” they’re quiet, disciplined and respectful of their elders – the kind of children you might want seated at the next table of your favorite restaurant.
“I brought the children to the demonstration because I wanted them to see for themselves what was going on – not just what I say is happening or what the police say is happening,” says Eshantra Coates, 28, the mother of James and Jakayla and the aunt of Desmond and Dashayla.
“I didn’t go into a lot of detail with the children about what happened in the incident because I don’t want them to be scared of the police,” Coates says of Sterling’s death. “I tell them there are good police and there are bad police.”
At the moment, we – Ms. Coates, the four children, the protestors and the news media – are all standing in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart in impoverished, majority-black north Baton Rouge.
This is the same lot where, 36 hours earlier, two white city police officers fatally shot Sterling, a 37-year-old black, formerly incarcerated father of five children and a neighborhood CD vendor, who authorities say had a gun in his pocket when he scuffled with police.
Citizen camera-phone videos captured parts of the deadly police struggle. The videos have gone viral. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards calls the images “disturbing.”
Fearing the kind of riotous reaction that followed police killings in Ferguson and Baltimore, Governor Edwards quickly – and wisely – calls for a federal investigation of Sterling’s death, several hours before the first day of protests get underway outside the Triple S Food Mart.
There is no visible police presence on this busy stretch of North Foster Drive. The demonstration is spirited but peaceful – even with temperatures in the high 90s.
The four children hold up their signs for a battery of news cameras. Jakayla and her brother James remain stoic, clutching their sign.
The crowd grows; the excitement builds. Passing motorists honk their horns to show support. The protestors chant, wave signs and clenched fists. “No justice! No peace!”
Towards dusk more teenagers appear. A few hop on the hoods of slow-moving cars. Other teens briefly block traffic; they’re obviously showing off. Kid stuff.
Ms. Coates and the four kids leave after approximately three hours at the Triple S protest. They don’t return to attend any of the later more restive demonstrations near Baton Rouge police headquarters and elsewhere in the capitol city.
“People started getting ignorant,” Coates says. “I don’t want my children around ignorance.”
The protest at the Triple S was a “positive” experience for the children, she says. “To me, ‘Black Lives’ means we’re going to stand for something. People think just because we’re black, we’re not going to stand for anything. We’re going to be strong. Black lives matter. Everybody’s lives matter.”
She says she’ll continue to raise her children to respect the law and to stay out of trouble. “I tell them, if you keep yourself out of certain situations, the police won’t be bothering you. If you obey the law, they will leave you alone.”
Like many black parents, Coates also worries her son James will be unfairly stigmatized and mistreated simply because he’s a young black male. “My son was born a statistic. By being born a black person, you’re already labelled (negatively). I try to teach him better. I don’t want my son to be a statistic.”
Too many statistics for black males are grim, despite recent well-reported gains in educational achievement:
• Black males in the U.S. today are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white males, according to an ongoing study by The Washington Post.
• The per capita homicide rate for black males in Louisiana was 27.75 residents per 100,000 black residents in 2012 – far exceeding the national average of 18 homicides per 100,000 black residents the same year, according to the Violence Policy Center at Washington, D.C.
In a previously unpublished interview, Tulane University historian Lance Hill, an expert on race relations whose research derailed David Duke political campaigns in the 1990s, offered a basic approach to the complex problems of forming racial coalitions to fight crime and racial bias: “Define your common values.”
“What is the ideal world in which we want to raise our children to become healthy, responsible and considerate adults? We all agree that we want less crime – that’s not the point. Where we disagree is on policy – what is the long-term solution? Most dialogues between whites and blacks are based on bringing together the elites of both races. Such dialogues have no effect on the rest of the population.
“The answers have to be found in the communities themselves that are besieged by violence and crime,” Hill said. “In every community that’s suffering from a set of problems, there are unique individuals who are successfully coping with those problems using their own resources. I can’t change that 60 percent of households are raised by single women, but as a social scientist I can go into that community and identify those women who are succeeding in raising academically successful children who are not falling into criminal or violent activity.” The next step is to find out what those exceptional parents are doing differently “and develop a strategy that replicates that successful behavior.”
Perhaps Baton Rouge can start with Ms. Coates and her kids.