I should point out here that the image most people see when they hear the phrase “Sunday School” would lead to an inaccurate representation of my ragtag group of friends. We are a collection of people from vastly different walks of life who meet on a weekly basis to talk, learn, seek truth, and trade quotes from Seinfeld, Fletch, Airplane, and other vaguely sacrilegious pop culture references. We laugh more than we sing any hymn, yet there’s a substance to our friendship that keeps us coming back every week.
That morning, one of the group left early to get her young children from the nursery because our group had chatted beyond the allotted time, as per usual. She came back to our classroom a moment later with a stern look on her face, urgently calling for her husband.
“Jeff, you need to come here now.”
We immediately began busting Jeff’s chops. He was in t-r-o-u-b-l-e!
But he wasn’t. The whole town was in trouble.
Baton Rouge had already been simmering. Less than two weeks earlier, two white Baton Rouge police officers shot and killed a local black man, Alton Sterling, positioning the Louisiana capitol city to be the latest site of racially charged protests. Local and out-of-state activists gathered, and tensions were high. Yet a tentative peace was beginning to emerge in this generally laid-back Southern river city.
Until this steamy July morning. Several Baton Rouge police officers responded to a 911 call reporting shots fired in a busy retail and commercial area. When officers arrived, they were ambushed by an unidentified gunman. Multiple officers were injured, and three were killed: Brad Garafola, Montrell Jackson, and Matt Gerald. As with any emergency event, early details were scarce and unconfirmed. Some reports stated that the attacker had been killed in the initial exchange, while others reported that additional gunmen may still be at large. Still other information suggested that one of the gunmen had barricaded himself in a nearby warehouse, holding hostages at gunpoint.
A lockdown order was given for the area immediately around the shooting, ordering everyone to shelter in place until the danger had passed. The area included the church where our Sunday School was being held. Jeff’s wife had gotten the call when she went to get the kids because Jeff was a highly skilled member of law enforcement. One of his areas of expertise was in hostage negotiation. If a shooter was holding hostages, Jeff would be called in.
For now, he was the voice of authority at our church. Over a thousand frightened parishioners were panicked and didn’t know what to do. Jeff and I sprung into action; he with the authority of his role, me with the knowledge of how to ensure buildings and people were secure. We established a communication flow, knowing from experience that information is the cure for panic. We set up volunteers to be gatekeepers and watchers at every point of entry, doubling up in the children’s building to protect our most vulnerable. We then set up a coordinated roving patrol around the church campus to ensure early detection if trouble did come our way. Our class had always snickered at the way Jeff, always-on-duty, wore an ankle holster even to Sunday School. Today, it was a source of comfort.
After the campus had been secured, Jeff got the call. He was being summoned to the Emergency Command Post that had been set up in a strip mall parking lot near the shooting. Jeff’s dilemma was that he had driven to church with his family. He wanted to leave their family vehicle with his wife and daughters so they could go home when the lockdown had been lifted. But that left him without means to travel to the command post.
I volunteered to take him. I’d never seen the roads so empty, with one notable exception. Police cars were everywhere, representing every local, parish, and state agency imaginable. Helicopters were buzzing overhead as we approached the first outer perimeter of the crime scene. Here, we were met by a city constable and a volunteer reserve deputy in their personal vehicles and in civilian clothes. Only the flashing lights and their vehicles parked across the roadway marked them as official. I drove up slowly, and we both kept our hands visible at all times. Jeff leaned out the window of my truck to show his credentials and explain his presence. The officers exchanged dubious glances, but waved us through.
The second ring of security was more rigorous. Uniformed Sheriff’s deputies were about half a mile beyond the first checkpoint. They watched us during our entire approach, hands resting on the butts of their handguns. Even slower than before, I drove the truck to their vehicles. Jeff showed his credentials, but this time had to answer specific questions. So far, nobody asked for my ID, which was good, because I had no official capacity except as Jeff’s unofficially deputized driver. After a time, they waved us through to the next checkpoint.
An additional quarter mile in, we faced the biggest cordon of all. BRPD officers in tactical gear raised rifles at us. Jeff had kept his ID out the window, and this time we didn’t move toward them; we waited for them to move toward us. As they examined Jeff’s credentials, I scanned the area. I could see the crime scene from where we sat. Ambulances were there, and I could see technicians snapping photographs and measuring distances with a measuring wheel. My heart sank when I noticed a van from the Coroner’s office positioned nearby.
The officers radioed ahead and received confirmation of Jeff’s identity and the need for his presence. We were waved through, and I drove Jeff to a custom outfitted RV. Antennas of every variety jutted from the roof, though I could see nothing from the tinted and likely armored glass in the windows. Jeff rushed away amid representatives from an alphabet soup of Federal agencies, and I departed the area. I was unchallenged on my way out. Either once inside the perimeter I was presumed to be legit, or they didn’t care as much about people leaving the area as who was coming in.
The lockdown lasted several harrowing hours. Eventually, it was determined that a single gunman acted alone, and he had been killed by return fire in the initial ambush. But fear remained. For a town already on edge, more fear was not a good thing.
But then, a tragedy of different sort struck. Beginning on August 11, an unprecedented rainfall began. In a matter of days, a total of 7.1 trillion – TRILLION – gallons of water were dumped on the city of Baton Rouge and surrounding areas. More than 40,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. In some towns, more than 75% of all structures were flooded. Thirteen people died. This was being called the kind of flood you one see once every thousand years.
It was a disaster. Tens of thousands of people were displaced. Cries went out about families with infants stuck on the roofs of their homes in the blistering August heat. Emergency services were overwhelmed, and we down here are no strangers to insufficient government response to natural disasters.
Which brings me to the point of this entire blog. What happened next was something beautiful. The people of my beloved Louisiana are not perfect, but how they responded to this catastrophe only validated why I love them. The “Cajun Navy” arose. Anyone with a fishing boat, canoe, kayak, or party barge in a hundred mile radius converged. Coordinated by social media, this volunteer armada swept the area. They rescued stranded families, delivered food and medical supplies, and scouted out dangers to help triage where government responders were needed most. In the wake of the most turbulent racial tensions in decades, color no longer mattered. Black people rescued white people, and vice versa. And police officers were not viewed with suspicion but welcomed as rescuers. Louisiana being Louisiana, the end of every day broke into a party. Everywhere you looked, some encampment of evacuees and/or rescuers were stirring a big pot of jambalaya and cracking open an ice chest of cold beer. All were welcome, regardless of color.
I was in a position to observe all of this. And as I sit here months later, reflecting on this sacred season, I think about why I want to write the stories I want to write. Sure, I just want to tell an entertaining story. But I care about things like justice. Like good prevailing over evil. I care about showing the world the often overlooked spirit embodied by the people of the Gulf Coast. 2016 showed us a lot about people in our country. It showed us about unwarranted violence on both sides of the law, and it showed us deep divides among our people that will continue to reverberate in the coming years.
But when you’re sitting down here on the bayou, seeing your neighbors of every color and creed turn the worst of times into the best of humanity, it’s a little easier to relax a bit, pop open a cool one of your own, and think to yourself, “you know, everything is going to be okay.”