Baton Rouge staggered into a new week of violence as a black separatist killed three police officers, including a black officer who recently pleaded with friends online: “Don’t let hate infect your heart.”
The blow landed in Louisiana, but it stunned a nation already reeling from conflict between police and citizens, calling for both peace and protest.
By Monday, key details started to emerge about both the shooter, 29-year-old Gavin Long of Missouri, and his victims.
Col Mike Edmonson of the Louisiana state police said on Monday morning that Long “certainly was seeking out police officers” and that he had ambushed his victims. “His movements, his direction, his attention was on police officers,” Edmonson told the Associated Press.
Long’s personal history is marked by radical twists: he was a military veteran who took a series of ideological turns, and eventually joined a fringe group called the Washitaw Nation of Mu’urs.
He grew up in Kansas City and served as a US marine from 2005 to 2010, including about seven months in Iraq. More recently he spent time in Africa, traveling throughout the east of the continent.
Back home he posted rambling online diatribes about race and power, shot through with language like “alpha-preneur” and “bitch-assness”, and took the pseudonym “Cosmo Setepenra”. He wore an ankh pendant, and the name appears to have been a reference to Pharaoh Ramses II, whose royal names included “Setep-en-Ra”.
In May 2015, Long filed court papers in Jackson County, Missouri, declaring himself a member of the United Washitaw de Dugdahmoundyah Mu’ur Nation – a radical “Moorish” splinter group of the so-called sovereign citizens movement.
The Washitaw formed in the 1990s in Louisiana around “Emperess” Verdiacee Turner, who died in 2014. They claim that in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States bought land that wasn’t France’s to sell – land that now constitutes a 30-million acre empire.
Long’s videos grew darker after the first week of July, when police in Baton Rouge shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling and police in suburban St Paul, Minnesota, shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile.
After Micah Johnson – a veteran, like Long – shot and killed five police officers in Dallas on 7 July, Long posted a video claiming to be in Dallas. In the video, he criticized protesters in Baton Rouge for being too peaceful. Veda Washington, Sterling’s aunt, had told protesters in Baton Rouge: “I’m mad. I’m so mad. I’m angry. But I’m not so angry that I will cuss out the police.”
According to Long, women had no place at protests.
US attorney general Loretta Lynch on Monday described the Baton Rouge shootings as “yet another instance of violence tearing at the fabric of our nation”.
Addressing a conference of senior black law enforcement officials in Washington, Lynch paid particular tribute to the work of officer Montrell Jackson, who was black and was killed on Sunday. Quoting the comments that Jackson had recently posted online, which have since been widely shared, she said: “We must not let hatred infect our hearts.”
Long stood in stark contrast to Jackson. The 32-year-old officer wrote in a recent Facebook post that he felt enormous pressure in Baton Rouge. In his uniform he felt hated, and outside it he felt suspect.
“I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me,” he wrote after the deaths of Sterling, Castile and his fellow officers in Dallas. His final line read: “If you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer, I got you.”
Long’s final word was a YouTube video, since taken down, that served as something of a suicide manifesto. He referred to himself in past tense and said: “I thought my own thoughts, I made my own decisions.”
‘Then came the return fire’
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On Sunday about 8.30am Jackson and the other officers who died – Brad Garafola, 45, and Matthew Gerald, 41 – received a call about a man wearing all black and carrying “a tote and an assault rife” near the Hammond Aire Plaza shopping center.
The area is unremarkable in every way, at first glance. The shopping center sits at the intersection of Airline and Old Hammond highways, a commercial district of strip malls and fast-food joints. It is surrounded in every direction by residential neighborhoods, largely made of modest mid-century homes, churches and schools.
That intersection, though, is one of the busiest within sight of the Baton Rouge city police department, a glass-and-cement structure rising just to the north.
When Karla Mitchell showed up for work at Albertson’s grocery store, she stood outside for a few minutes, taking a smoke break before her shift as manager.
About 8.45am she noticed something odd: a policeman across the street, standing with his back against the wall of a beauty supply store. He leaned her direction, peeked around the corner, raised his pistol and fired up the street.
“It was just ‘pop,’” she said. “Then, ‘pop, pop.’”
She stared at the officer, assuming someone had broken into the beauty supply place.
“Then came the return fire,” she said. “BRRRRRAAPPPP. Fast firing and a big clip.”
It jolted her to action. “I knew it was time to go because clearly the officer, the one who is supposed to protect us, was not going to be able to protect himself,” she said.
She fled inside the store, where other employees and customers started to understand a gunfight had erupted outside. They disabled the store’s automatic door and retreated deeper inside.
Mitchell has a degree in political science and is saving up for law school. As she hid with her colleagues, her mind raced through what was happening outside and everything that had come before. The real trouble in Baton Rouge started, she said, when outside political groups arrived to take advantage of a city laid low.
“Our protests were peaceful until the Black Panthers came,” said Mitchell, who is black. “We have problems here. There is real racial division. But there wasn’t the violence.”
Outside police were locked in a running battle with a suspect they couldn’t see. “Shots fired, officer down! We’ve got a city officer down!” one officer cried into his radio. “Unknown where the subject is shooting from!”
Other patrol units came on the radio, accompanied by sirens:
The first note to distinguish the disaster from a fatal robbery or drug deal came when an officer on the scene warned the shooter was “possibly a sniper”.
Chaos followed as pedestrians, police, rush-hour traffic and the perpetrator all collided. Multiple calls came for officers down, and their colleagues called for a Bearcat – an armored personnel vehicle – to evacuate the injured.
Long shot six officers, including the three who died. Overnight one, an East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy, remained in critical condition.
After a nightmarish half-hour, police shot and killed Long, then used a robot to search him for explosives.
Commanding officers closed off the Hammond Aire Plaza center, then continued expanding the cordon until it included everything within about a mile of the scene.
“This is going to take a long time,” an officer told his subordinates on the radio. “Nobody in or out.”
Service had just started at Cedarcrest Baptist church when the shooting started. “The police locked us in, and we just carried on,” said Martha Ann Caver, who plays piano there. She chose a hymn, Holy Spirit Thou Art Welcome, and started playing.
“We just kept singing,” she said, “even though we were afraid.”
Numerous aircraft – both helicopters and airplanes – circled overhead as she talked on Sunday afternoon. “People are frightened,” she said. “It’s a difficult time for the city.”
The degree of difficulty, according to Mitchell, the grocery manager, depends which side of Florida Street someone lives on. Baton Rouge’s population is more or less evenly divided, racially. Florida Street bisects the city, north and south. Poor and monied. Black and white.
As Mitchell rode home at the end of a day holed up in her store, she pointed to the south side.
“That way, people probably don’t feel like things are too bad with police,” she said.
“But in that direction–” here she pointed north “–people are poorer. And they might say the situation with police is not going so well, in Baton Rouge.”
Jon Swaine contributed reporting from New York