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A Change is Gonna Come: Community members & elected officials gather for policy reform

LAPLACE — A crowd of more than 75 people stood in silence in front of the St. John the Baptist Parish Government Complex Saturday afternoon for exactly eight minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time George Floyd suffered before he died in police custody.

Mary Henry and Janice Bennett of Voices Against Inhumane Violence, along with the St. John Parish chapter of the NAACP, organized a Gathering of Unity to bring the community and elected officials together in the fight against injustice.

The peaceful event included a call to action to move people to the voting polls this November. Speakers encouraged the community to contact policymakers and elected officials to advocate for banning the use of chokeholds and knee holds as an acceptable uses of force.

Henry and Bennett have been friends for 50 years. As mothers of adult children, they felt called to make a change when they listened to George Floyd cry out, “Mama, I can’t breathe.” Even though her sons are 43, 41 and 39 years old with families of their own, Bennett still fears for their safety.

District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut, left, and Parish President Jaclyn Hotard, right, speak out against inequality Saturday in LaPlace.

“Let’s put the mothers at the forefront and let them know that we are there,” Bennett said. “We are letting them know our adult sons matter. We want to let our grandbabies and sons know there is hope in this world and that change is being made in a positive way.”

Bennett and Henry acknowledged that not all police officers are untrustworthy, and that there are only a few bad apples.

Henry added that great leaders should embrace conflict as an opportunity for growth.

“We want policy change. We want the good cops to call out, record and report their friends. It’s just a few bad cops. How hard could this be?” Henry said.

Henry also advocates for accountability through the dismantling of qualified immunity and mandatory minimums for violations against citizens.

St. John District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut worked as a police officer for 18 years on the local and federal levels, and she said the people she worked with were nothing like the callous officers who surrounded George Floyd as he took his dying breath. Dinvaut recalled her partner of eight years carried a flashlight instead of a gun while on the job because he never wanted to harm anybody.

She also recognizes that racism has embedded deep roots of hatred in America. Her first recollection of racism was when she was in seventh grade at Fifth Ward Junior High. Dinvaut tried to join the journalism club along with her friend, who was not black. Two days later, her friend told her that the journalism club sponsor said that she should not be friends with a black person, and that black people were not allowed in the club.

Dinvaut is thankful to her friend for speaking up and to her parents for taking action and having the journalism club sponsor removed.

Her first recollection of injustice was in 11th grade, when it was her turn to serve as captain of the Leon Godchaux Majorettes as the most senior member of the team. Suddenly, the rules changed, and Dinvaut had to try out for captain. It was later discovered her scorecards were left blank, and that she’d lost before she tried out.

Once again, her parents took action, and justice was served. Her family never taught her bitterness, but taught her to pray and love everyone.

Dinvaut said Black Lives Matter because the penalty for a traffic violation, sitting in your own home, walking down a street, trespassing and counterfeit money is not death. She said Black Lives Matter because police brutality and excessive force is illegal and must be addressed, and because the courage to speak up matters.

Community members hold signs during a call for justice June 13 in front of the St. John Parish Government Building.

“Small injustices that are ignored, tolerated or even encouraged or left unattended infects the human soul, making it toxic, and it manifests itself in a culture of hatred,” Dinvaut said. “Justice and goodness is an individual choice. It is the responsibility for everyone to call it out and stand up.”

Shondrell Perrilloux, president of the newly reinstated St. John NAACP, said people must realize that in order to make a change, there must first be change in our hearts.

“Yes, we have arrived, but we are the new, improved, revived NAACP. We will not tolerate injustices toward any person, whether you are white, black, blue or brown,” Perrilloux said. “Yes, black lives do matter but more importantly all lives matter because our creator God created all of us equal.”

Perrilloux spoke of setting an example of peace and unity by standing hand-in-hand with lawmakers and elected officials for policy reform. Several St. John Council members were present for the event.

The crowd took note of St. John Sheriff Mike Tregre’s absence, at one point chanting “Where’s Mike?” as a representative from the Sheriff’s Office spoke. Perrilloux said Tregre informed her he was attending a funeral and thus sent a representative in his place.

Tregre has spoken out about the importance of implementing training for St. John officers interacting with the public and the dangers of painting all who wear blue with one broad brush.

During Saturday’s gathering, Parish President Jaclyn Hotard said she has always stood for racial equality. She said that race and racism are topics that may be uncomfortable to discuss, but it is important that the conversations continue to be able to move forward as a community.

“My administration is inclusive and has a zero tolerance for workplace discrimination. We will not hear all or see all, but we work to promote fairness and equity, and I pray as a community that we will continue to work towards racial harmony every day,” Hotard said.

Community member Derron Cook asked the public to remember Marc Davis, a 2001 East St. John graduate who was killed in an officer-involved shooting in Petal, Mississippi. Justice has not been served since the 2017 incident, and Cook asked that the community keep his name and spirit alive.