Thousands of people surrounded Lee Circle as the sun set on New Orleans July 9, nearing the end of a tragic week in the U.S. — the killing of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police, the killing of Philando Castile by Minnesota police during a traffic stop, and a violent night in Dallas ending in the deaths of five officers during a rally calling for an end to police violence in the wake of the two men's deaths. Spanning the base of the Robert E. Lee monument, a banner read "Black Lives Matter."
The message was spread on posters, placards and T-shirts and in call-and-response, fist-in-the-air chants among a peaceful, emotional crowd holding hands, hugging and wiping tears from friends' faces. As the crowd circled the monument, Angela Kinlaw, addressing the crowd with a megaphone, said, "This is what democracy looks like."
Kinlaw, longtime New Orleans activist Malcom Suber and other speakers relayed messages of empowerment and action, how poverty and the school-to-prison pipelines cripple and silence communities, the fight to recognize and eliminate oppression and racism, and demands for police to join in the fight against police brutality. Kinlaw also urged the crowd to get involved with community groups, to contact legislators, and to show up at New Orleans City Council meetings.
"Don't leave here tonight and not be connected to someone," she said. "Leave with people sharing common values, a common purpose, and get to work. ... We're not here to criticize your level of involvement, but we are here to say you can't get away with just doing nothing. We're not here to criticize your level of consciousness, but we are here to say if you don't know, find out. We're not here to criticize who you know or who you're connected to, but we are here to say get connected."
Kinlaw and others criticized the backlash against Black Lives Matter and the refrains of "what about black on black crime?" as vigils, protests and marches against police violence followed high-profile killings. "We're not out here ignoring violence in communities," she said. "We're not comparing them to say one's better than the other. We're just saying, 'Get the whole picture.'
Suber urged the crowd to "keep those cameras going" on police activity, as the deaths of Sterling and Castile reached millions of people on social media.
"We need more freedom fighters," he said. "People to say we can make a change, and change the way this country is run."
The irony of Lee's towering statue above the rally was not lost on the crowd — speakers pointed to the monument as a symbol of oppression, a relic of the Lost Cause of the Civil War still haunting black communities with the echoes of slavery and violence.
The rally followed a die-in protest at New Orleans Police Department headquarters and a march for Eric Harris, the 22-year-old killed by Jefferson Parish Sheriff's officers in February. Following the rally, groups marched down St. Charles Avenue, chanting "no justice, no peace" — New Orleans Police Department cruisers blocked traffic around Lee Circle and at Claiborne Avenue, holding back cars as crowds marched by.
Before the crowd dispersed as the sun dipped below the city and revealed a pink skyline, the crowd sang and clapped: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."