Thousands gathered Friday to mourn the death of Alton Sterling, a black man whose death at the hands of white police officers sparked renewed protests across the country demanding an end to police violence.
In a funeral that was part home-going celebration and part political declaration, Sterling’s family and a slew of speakers said sweet, sorrowful goodbyes while calling for justice. Poems were read. Sermons were spun. Calls to action were pronounced.
“America needed to see who God was using as a sacrifice,” Elvin Sterling Jr., a relative of the dead man, said during the service at Southern University in Baton Rouge. “To open the eyes of America.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. led a call and response with mourners: “Stop the violence, save the children. Stop the violence, save the nation.”
“For those of you who are listening here and around the world, our strongest weapons are not guns and violence, it’s the righteousness of our cause,” Jackson said. “Unearned suffering is redemptive. There is power in innocent blood. If the killing of Alton Sterling would have been in a shootout or a drug bust or robbery, we would not be here today.”
Sterling was one of two black men killed by police on back-to-back days last week, including Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. In death, the two become tent poles for the Black Lives Matter movement and people across the country fighting for broad systemic change to the way African-Americans are policed in America.
That fight, re-energized by the deaths of Sterling and Castile, has been complicated by the revenge killing of five mostly white police officers in Dallas by a black Army veteran who lay in wait during a peaceful Black Lives Matter march just days later.
This week included a sad dirge of funerals, including those for four of the dead officers, Castile and Sterling.
Castile was laid to rest on Thursday. The funeral for Sgt. Michael Krol was held about the same time as Sterling’s on Friday in Plano, Texas. Krol was honored in a private ceremony with a 21-gun salute.
The final funeral for the dead men will take place on Saturday for Officer Patrick Zamarippa.
“Nobody condones killing cops. Nobody stands for what happened in Dallas, but I want to see some of you stand up in Louisiana and say we think that it’s wrong when cops do wrong,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, during Sterling’s service. “We want healing. But you’ve got to have one standard of healing.”
Sharpton, who hosts a show on MSNBC, recalled the city of Baton Rouge’s rich history in the civil rights movement and the 1953 bus boycott that preceded the Montgomery bus boycott by two years and which the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. studied.
“This is the birthplace where it started and this is the birthplace we come back to today,” Sharpton said.
Shortly after Sterling’s death, local authorities handed over the investigation to the FBI. The Department of Justice has also opened a civil rights investigation into the killing. Police say the night Sterling was killed someone called 911 reporting that Sterling threatened him with a gun outside of the Triple S convenience store, where Sterling routinely sold CDs. A pair of officers — Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni — responded. At some point the officers and Sterling got into a physical altercation. Cell phone video captured by witnesses as well as surveillance video from the store captured the last minutes of Sterling’s life, as the officers wrestled him to the ground and shot him in the chest and back.
The owner of the store, Abdullah Muflahi's, witnessed the shooting and said he believes the cops “murdered” Sterling.
During Sterling’s funeral, Muflahi recalled Sterling, 37 and the father of five, as a good friend and constant presence outside of the Triple S.
“He showed me a lot of love. He looked out for me,” Muflahi said, at times stammering with emotion. “I’m pretty sure everyone already knows the type of person he was. Big-hearted, sweet, kind, selfless person. He made himself a place in everyone’s heart… I know this because he made a place in mine. It’s sad to know we’re going to have an empty place in front of the store.”
As the preacher finished his eulogy for Sterling, the choir sang, "Ain’t No Need to Worry," imploring mourners with the lyrics “ain’t no need in worrying, what the night is gonna bring, it’ll be all over in the morning."