DALLAS (AP) — Loved ones of a black man fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and two law enforcement officers — one black and one white — who were ambushed and killed in the city 12 days later took part in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day discussion.
Omar Jahwar, CEO of the Dallas-based nonprofit Urban Specialists that stresses bridging the gap between the community and police among other things, said the event was “a healing conversation.”
“At some point the human agenda has to supersede your personal agenda,” said Jahwar, a pastor who guided the discussion billed as a dialogue about the violence as well as racial issues in America.
The participants included Trenisha Jackson, whose husband Montrell Jackson, a Baton Rouge officer, was among those killed in the 2016 ambush. Tonja Garafola, the widow of East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola, also took part along with Andricka Williams, the mother of three children of Alton Sterling, the man killed by officers in Baton Rouge.
“I just feel like love is the key. If we just go about this loving one another and not judging one another, I feel as if things will be better,” Trenisha Jackson told The Associated Press prior to the event. Her husband described the difficulties of being both a black man and a police officer in a Facebook post days before his death.
“I just have the same goal that everybody wants: which is to do better to bridge the gap, to try to come together, regardless of age, race, situation,” Tonja Garafola told the AP ahead of Monday’s discussion, which drew hundreds of people.
Texas lawmakers U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat, attended along with Houston rap artist Scarface, NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and other celebrities.
“I have come to a conclusion that the only way you get to know anyone and to know their thoughts is to communicate with them. You cannot assume anything,” Johnson said from the stage. “If everybody in this room were all the same color, you’d probably get that many different opinions. And so you can’t just assume that everyone is alike. You can’t assume everyone has had the same experiences.”
King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, addressed the crowd via video.
“We’ve got to find a way to learn how to live together or we’re going to destroy ourselves. That’s just the bottom line,” King said. “And for the sake of the next generation, we cannot afford to do that. … We’ve got to find and learn how to listen to each other.”
John Carlos also took part in the event. Carlos and Tommie Smith staged one of the most iconic protests in sports history, when they raised their fists during the medals ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.
“I’ll never take my fist down. Why? Because the injustices have not stopped,” Carlos said when it was his turn to speak Monday.
The fatal shooting of Alton Sterling occurred on July 5, 2016, as two white police officers pinned him to the pavement outside a convenience store where he was selling homemade CDs. The killing of the 37-year-old Sterling was captured on cellphone video and circulated widely online, sparking demonstrations across Baton Rouge.
Trenisha Jackson said the protests were “very, very hard” for her husband. “It’s like everybody was putting police officers in the same category instead of pointing out which officers were doing wrong,” she told the AP.
The national debate about race and policing became especially heated that summer. The day after Sterling’s death, black motorist Philando Castile was shot and killed by a Latino police officer in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota.
Then the day after Castile’s death, five law enforcement officers were killed in Dallas when a black man opened fire at a protest against police brutality. Authorities have said the black Army veteran was seeking revenge for police shootings that killed or wounded black men and that he told negotiators he wanted to kill as many white police officers as he could. Police killed him after a standoff.
On July 17, 2016, a black military veteran killed Montrell Jackson and fellow Baton Rouge officer Matthew Gerald and Deputy Brad Garafola before he was shot dead. The gunman wounded three others who survived.