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National

Multi-Racial Organization Aims To Bring Baton Rouge Together

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Hundreds of people attended a rally last night in Baton Rouge as a show of support for the city's police officers. The gathering at police headquarters was about a mile from where three officers were ambushed and shot to death, with three more wounded. That event was also marked at a church yesterday, where a multiracial organization called Together Baton Rouge offered some specific ideas on how to bring the grieving city together. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's not a scene one sees very often in this country - hundreds of community leaders - black white and Hispanic - standing tightly packed on the altar of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Baton Rouge. Above their heads, each one holds a sign that says, we refuse to be divided.

LEE WEST: May I have your attention, please?

GOODWYN: A tall, thin black man in his late 60s steps to the lectern. Lee West (ph) is the pastor of a large African-American church, Community Bible Baptist. And because he's also a leader of a mixed-race organization in a Southern city that has just witnessed a vicious ambush on its police department by a black attacker, the first thing he says is this.

WEST: We want to make it clear that, as people of faith, as an organization that crosses racial lines denomination lines, geographical lines, economic lines, we want to make it clear that we categorically, unequivocally, passionately condemn the killing of police officers.

(APPLAUSE)

GOODWYN: The 7-year-old organization called Together Baton Rouge is made up of 40 interdenominational churches, representing some 40,000 members. As a result, they're well known by local politicians and city officials as reformers who agitate around specific issues, like Medicaid reform or the lack of hospitals in north Baton Rouge. But following the killing of Alton Sterling two weeks ago, the group began campaigning around police reform.

PATTI SNYDER: There is a serious risk that our city will fall backwards into racism, economic division, divisions that we can no longer tolerate.

GOODWYN: Patti Snyder is the minister at University Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge.

SNYDER: It is going to take courage to speak the truth to one another.

GOODWYN: One truth the group wants to speak to concerns the lack of community policing. In other words, Baton Rouge police tend to be reluctant to get out of their cars in the city's black neighborhoods. This was a major critique following the death of Alton Sterling - that the officers who shot him should have known the guy known as the seedy man. He was renowned in the neighborhood and had been for years. With the Justice Department's help, they're going to try to spur Baton Rouge PD to enter into a dialogue. Here's Reverend Lee West again.

WEST: So our goal is to get people on the streets, on the corner, those who are hurting - to make them a part of this discussion.

JOE CONNELLY: But the time for talking is over. We need to move into action.

GOODWYN: But there are also plenty of black leaders who are weary of talk, and Reverend Joe Connelly of Wesley United Methodist is one of them.

CONNELLY: We've had rhetoric from politicians. We've had rhetoric from clergy. We've had rhetoric from businesses and community organizations for decades. And so our talking must lead to concrete steps.

GOODWYN: But Gavin Long, murderer of police, did Baton Rouge no favors. The city is raw with anxiety, suspicion and fear. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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