BATON ROUGE, La. (The Daily Advertiser) – Cherri Foytlin, a first-person journalist and activist from Rayne, remembers the moment she decided to enter the fray Sunday during a standoff between police and protesters in Baton Rouge.
Foytlin missed a peaceful youth-led march to the state capitol Sunday because she was stuck in traffic. When she arrived, a group of marchers had continued down Government Street toward Interstate 110, but police cut them off, diverting them onto East Boulevard at France Street, where a standoff took place for several hours.
She stood on East Boulevard with journalists documenting the event live on social media for Bridge the Gulf project, a community media project that works for justice and sustainability along the Gulf coast. When police in riot gear arrived, Foytlin joined protesters across the street on private property where renter Lisa Batiste had given them permission to gather.
“I remember making the decision” to cross the street, she said, “because that’s where people would need the most documentation.”
As a result, Foytlin experienced firsthand what the protesters experienced when police moved in. She was arrested and spent the night in the East Baton Rouge Parish Jail.
“I was there to cover it,” Foytlin said. “I had no intention of getting arrested.”
More than 200 people have been arrested in Baton Rouge since July 5, when two police officers, responding to a report of a man pointing a gun at someone, shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling. Part of the arrest was captured on cell phones by bystanders. The police officers said Sterling tried to pull his gun on them.
The Baton Rouge shooting followed by another police shooting death in Minnesota last week sparked protests across the nation. In Dallas, as a peaceful protest was ending Thursday, a lone sniper killed five police officers and wounded several others.
When the protesters took to the streets Sunday in Baton Rouge, police responded by donning gas masks and carrying military-style weapons, with armored vehicles on the scene.
Police were criticized for responding to protests with such a show of force. On Tuesday, at a news conference, they disclosed it was in response to a “viable threat” to harm Baton Rouge area police officers.
“Look at what happened in Dallas,” East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said Tuesday. ” We can’t take anything for granted anymore.”
Louisiana State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said some protesters Sunday threw items, including chunks of concrete, at police, and refused to remain off city streets. The police “used incredible restraint,” in their response, he said.
Foytlin sees it differently.
“Unless people were there, they can’t even imagine the terror people felt in that moment,” she said. “People were turning and running. I was afraid people would get hurt running over each other.”
The first line of protesters arrested were mostly white people trying to protect black protesters from the police, she said.
Police went onto Batiste’s porch to arrest protesters. People “were terrified,” she said. “I saw a lot of people trying to protect each other.”
Foytlin’s friend, a journalist wearing press credentials, was arrested. Foytlin was shooting photos when police grabbed a person next to her, pushing her into a fence.
When Foytlin stepped onto the sidewalk, “I heard someone say, ‘Cat, grab her,'” she recalled.
Foytlin recognized one of the officers, a woman in civilian clothes wearing a SWAT vest who was photographed by her friend Saturday pointing an assault weapon at civilians.
“She made a beeline to me and said, ‘I’ll take this one,'” Foytlin said.
Police officers grabbed Foytlin on either side and dragged her into the street, placing her under arrest. One officer kept telling her to stop resisting. Foytlin said she wasn’t resisting. She was looking for her cell phone that she had dropped. Another officer picked up her phone and left with it.
They applied zip ties tightly around her wrists and sat her on the ground with others who were arrested until a van arrived to take them to jail.
Foytlin was charged with obstructing a highway and resisting arrest, according to her appearance bond document.
The black police officer who took her cell phone returned it to her, Foytlin said.
“I thanked him. I looked him straight in the face and said, ‘I want you to know I don’t hate you,'” she said. “It was a very human moment.”
Those arrested were treated inhumanely in the jail, Foytlin said.
At one point, as those arrested the day before were released, the other protesters still in cells sang a civil rights era song.
“They maced us in the cell,” she said. “We had trouble breathing.”
One woman had a concussion and police wouldn’t get her help. There wasn’t any toilet paper or blankets and Foytlin was strip searched twice.
Foytlin was released from jail around 4:30 p.m. Monday.
She wants people to understand those speaking out at gatherings are “humans, mothers and fathers and aunties and cousins.”
“These are not protesters or agitators. These are people who are only calling for dignity and human rights. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Foytlin said.