‘America, we cannot breathe’: Locals rally for unity in the black community

Published 8:26 am Wednesday, June 3, 2020

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“I tire so of hearing people say, Let things take their course. Tomorrow is another day. I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” — Langston Hughes

LAPLACE — When Pastor Forell Bering learned of the brutal, unjust murder of George Floyd by now fired ex-police officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota, it made his heart bleed.

Bering has served as pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church and New Pilgrim Baptist Church for more than 30 years. Even though Floyd’s death happened 1,200 miles away, he felt a shockwave ripple through St. John the Baptist Parish. His heart and the hearts of many others in the community have been pierced time and time again with each killing of unarmed black or brown people across the country.

Last Saturday, dozens gathered near the St. John Government Complex in LaPlace in a show of solidarity for unity in the black community. Through prayer, scripture reading and powerful speeches, they urged political leaders from the White House to the Edgard Courthouse to stand with them against the hatred and inequity that has perpetuated pain, death, fear and violence throughout American history.

“We feel the pain, not only that George Floyd’s family feels, but we feel the pain of that type of brutal activity that is happening toward human beings,” Bering said. “It’s not just about him being black. It’s not about any other race. It’s about the human race and what we do to ourselves.”

Bering called the murders a “wake-up call” to the community, reminding everyone to stay vigilant. Holding up a hand, he told the crowd to count their five fingers and recite the words, “Vote and remove all doubt.” He presented a call to action, not only for black residents to flock to the polls this November, but to remember the importance of the family unit.

At the 12 o’clock hour on Father’s Day, June 21, Bering challenges black fathers to sit together with their families in a show of unity.

Educator Derron Cook makes a statement in front of the St. John Parish Government Complex.

“I think to the people of St. John Parish, particularly myself, this reminds us to keep our foundation in place,” Bering said. “We need to keep our morals, our integrity. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to do that. We need to get back to what our grandparents taught us – manners, respect, honor – all of us. We’re better than this. I think if we would look through that lens to see the good in people, regardless of skin color, that stuff that went on in Minnesota wouldn’t happen.”

Speakers at the unity in the black community reminded law enforcement officers that they are held to higher standards because to whom much responsibility is given, much is expected. The community demands that law enforcement create an atmosphere of equity, where minorities don’t have to fear being gunned down while jogging through the neighborhood (like Ahmaud Arbery) or simply sleeping in their own bed (like Breonna Taylor).

Derron Cook, an educator at East St. John High School, stands outside the government complex daily, holding signs to send a message. One of the signs says, “A man was lynched yesterday” on one side and “America, I can’t breathe” on the other.

“America, we cannot breathe,” Cook repeated during Saturday’s rally for unity. “There is a conversation being held before you in real time. It’s a conversation that is long overdue. We are seeing young black, brown, white men and women yelling that there is a need for change within our communities and in our laws.”

He said the conversation playing live on television is a response to years of failed conversations, prejudice and social injustices.

“From our arrival to this land, we bore the responsibility of building and shaping the nation, the responsibility of feeding and nursing its dreams on promises without payment,” Cook said, adding so many Americans have failed to see this country’s promise of greatness.

He spoke on how textbooks have glossed over the biggest, most painful parts of history. He said youth are suffering as they leave school without skills or knowledge of the greatness they possess.

According to Cook, the St. John community is responsible for building its young men and women into responsible citizens through effective and efficient youth programming. Quoting Frederick Douglass, he said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

“If you are scared of the youth in our community, consider your role in affecting positive change in their lives,” Cook said. “To my community, you are valued. You are strong, bold, beautiful and resilient.”

St. John Parish leaders have spoken up in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Parish President Jaclyn Hotard said silence is comfortable and convenient, but injustice is neither.

“My thoughts and prayers are with George Floyd and his family. The death of Mr. Floyd was senseless and unacceptable. The soul of St. John, and the heart of our entire country, is beyond saddened by this horrific tragedy,” Hotard said. “Injustice against any human being cannot be tolerated in our democracy, and we must relentlessly advocate for change and equality of justice for all of our citizens.

Pictured are many of the individuals whose deaths have inspired a call for change across the nation, reaching the St. John the Baptist Parish community.

We stand united with Mr. Floyd’s family and lift our voice against this horrible injustice.”

St. John Sheriff Mike Tregre called Floyd’s death “appalling, scary and unacceptable.” He said the majority of law enforcement officers want nothing more than to protect and serve.

“This tragedy affects us all! My prayers are that George Floyd and his family get the justice they deserve!” he said in a social media post. “The four guys, not officers, that did this must be held accountable for their actions and lack of actions. Moving forward I hope all good police officers never get categorized in the same group as these guys. Overall…I am praying for peace!”