Shelby McKnight, 22, held a sign in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart on Foster Drive in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photograph by William Widmer/Redux)
Barack Obama’s broken legacy
On the streets of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a search for the impact of the President’s words and deeds
By Allen Abel
A sign in the parking lot of Triple S Food Mart, where Alton Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge police officers earlier in the year. (Photograph by William Widmer/Redux)
“I am John Milton, like the poet,” the quiet man offers as his introduction, apologizing for not having shaved, settling into the booth at a bustling Appleby’s on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge, La., ordering a mug of tea and a ramekin of honey. He is 50, short-haired and square-shouldered, wearing a white T-shirt and a Polo windbreaker against a coolish Dixie day.
“I am somewhat a minister,” he smiles, and he quotes from Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is in the Lord’s hand as the rivers of waters. He turns it any way he pleases.
“Honestly,” Milton says, “I think God showed me favour.”
It is mid-December 2016, the final hours of the presidency of Barack Obama; the last days before the inauguration of the Donald Trump. On Jan. 20, a sudden sovereign of unknown competence, ballistic tendencies, and as-yet-unrevealed compassion will move into the White House. “We need to pray for him,” Milton says, stirring his tea.
Six months ago, John “Boo” Milton III—once the gold-toothed, Porsche-driving cocaine commissar of southern Louisiana—was a guest of the United States government at the medium-security correctional institution in Talladega, Ala. He had been confined there, and before that at a facility in Leavenworth, Kansas, for 20 years. All he missed were Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Y2K, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, hurricane Katrina, the iPhone, ISIS, and the first 11 seasons of The Apprentice.
Charged with no act of violence, never before convicted of a felony, the electrician’s son had been sent up the river for half a century by an unimpressed judge who thought Milton was less a minister than a monster. And there he stayed—studying for his master’s degree, filing his petitions, leafing his Bible, teaching other inmates to read, until Barack Hussein Obama delivered him home.
“I am Obama’s legacy,” the ex-con says.
Citizens and scholars will seek to understand the presidency of the 43rd man, and the first African-American man, to hold the world’s most important elected office. Come Jan. 20, millions of words will have been written about his domestic and foreign policies, his temperament, his times of testing. But there is another ledger to be examined as well —the altered lives of individuals whom Obama touched with his words and his deeds and his ideals.
So a reporter comes to the Deep South, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital city and centre of learning, seeking Obama’s achievements and failures in the broken streets of black America, in the wedding vows of women and women and of men and men, in the ferocity of white despair that cleaved to a mad Manhattanite. All of this is here, and plenty more; even a Biblical flood.
We begin with Boo Milton, who is the living evidence that, even if Obama was unable to remake this fractured country or this evil, bloody world, the President still owned a king’s heart, and that with it he could set a caged man free.
Milton once had been the importer and distributor of hundreds of pounds of powdered cocaine that his interns would cook in microwave ovens and courier across the bayous, wrapped in bricks layered with peanut butter and fabric softener to confuse the cops and their nosy dogs.
“It was like I was living a dream,” he said at his trial, weeping. “Then I woke up and saw all the things I had done. It seemed like every time I’d make a dollar, Satan would take it and keep me working, like a yo-yo.”
Now he is out, living in a halfway house, striving to become certified as a counsellor for children and adolescents, and professing that, “after 20 years, I was ready for society. I was a changed person. Nobody wants to sell drugs; I didn’t want to sell drugs. But when your needs outweigh the consequences, you’ll deal with the consequences later.”
When Obama was elected in 2008, Milton remembers celebrations at Talladega: “It was amazing to see that he had won. It wasn’t just blacks who put him in there. He’s President of the United States—he’s fair all the way around. Look at his record. He brought this country out of a depression.”
It did not take long after Obama’s inauguration for rumours to spread that the new President would pry apart the prison bars and let his people go. And this did happen, though only for a tiny, fortunate percentage of America’s incarcerated millions—men like Milton who had never been convicted of killing anyone and who had relatives to come home to, including a 23-year-old son whom he had left fatherless when the boy was three.
“These long Draconian sentences, they break up families,” Boo Milton says now, echoing Obama’s logic for commuting the terms of more offenders than the previous 11 presidents combined. “You look at the incarceration rate—all you see is black men in prison. Most of these guys read on a third-grade level. You’re not going to make it on a McDonald’s job.
“A lot of them would take six months in Afghanistan if it got them out of prison,” he says. Now, he wants to help these men get their high school diplomas. He says, “You’ve got to stir the ground to plant the seed.”
“Why did you come back to Baton Rouge?” he is asked. “You could start over somewhere new.”
“I’d miss the food,” Boo smiles.
On June 26, 2015, when the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the matter of Obergefell v. Hodges and three related cases, declaring, in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion, that “the past alone does not rule the present,” Amy Scott and her roommate, Stephanie Pitre, were getting ready to drive across the Mississippi River bridge in West Baton Rouge to their jobs as stylists at the INDē hair and beauty salon on Jefferson Highway.
Amy (“Her multi-dimensional and seamless colours are just absolutely amazing!” gushes the INDē website) and Stephanie (“Her schedule is in full demand!”) had not merely been sharing a home for the previous five years—they were, in their own minds and hearts at least, affianced. However, their mutual affection did not rouse the jurisdictional sympathies of the Pelican State, whose then-governor (and dead-duck Republican presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal, was writing in the New York Times that “marriage is between one man and one woman … [and] has been the consensus in our country for over two centuries.”
“There were not very many lawmakers or people in Louisiana willing to accept marriage equality,” says Amy.
“To me it seemed that the whole reason was Biblical,” says Stephanie.
One-man-one-woman also had been the profession of Barack Obama, even after he entered the White House, but now the President was in the Rose Garden, congratulating himself for his “evolution”—“When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free. My administration has been guided by that idea”—and Amy and Stephanie were in the car on the big bridge over the Father of Waters, crying and crying and crying, and soon their clients and friends at the INDē Salon were showering them with roses, and by the following Monday they officially were woman and wife.
“I wanted it to be legal in my own state,” Amy says. “I wanted my grandmother to attend.”
“We don’t have a choice,” sighed Jindal.
(Amy’s mother was with the governor. “My mother has been married six times, but marriage is very sacred to her, even the sixth time around,” the daughter says. They didn’t speak for a year. But Mom adores Stephanie.)
“I love Obama,” says Amy. “I think that he showed the evolution of a person whose ideas change over time.”
“At first, he was against it,” Stephanie observes. “But I think that the more you hang around different people, the more you start to see people instead of just their circumstances.”
Amy Scott (left) and her wife Stephanie Pitre in the salon where they both work in Baton Rouge. (Photograph by William Widmer/Redux)
Alton Sterling, born on June 14, 1979—Donald Trump’s birthday—was the African-American man who was shot six times in the back and torso by two Caucasian police officers while being pinned to the ground in front of the Triple S Food Mart on North Foster Drive in Baton Rouge on the afternoon on July 5, 2016.
Sterling worked in freelance retail, which in his case meant spending so much time standing outside the Triple S, trying to inveigle customers to choose from his selection of compact discs, that regulars on North Foster had taken to calling him “CD Man.” It has been reported that CD Man had begun to carry a handgun after being shaken down by rival entrepreneurs. He may or may not have been reaching for that pistol when he died.
The Sterling killing made the state capital —already one of the most dangerous cities in the country—the latest debutante in a macabre cotillion of contentious police-related killings. And so, instantly, predictably, almost formulaically, the cries of pain and protest began outside the Triple S.
Leading these demonstrations, which rapidly turned into noisy confrontations between aggrieved (and mostly black) citizens and aggressive (and mostly white) constables, was an ex-gangbanger named Arthur Reed, who himself had been shot 12 times when he was younger, who still carried four bullets in his body, who had served 15 years in prison starting at the age of 14, who had been the leader of Baton Rouge’s notorious Southside Wrecking Crew, and who is known by everyone in town by his street name of “Silky Slim,” which he adopted as a child from a character in the 1974 blaxploitation comedy Uptown Saturday Night, starring Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby.
Silky Slim was hardly new to the front lines of community-police relations, or to the cause of trying to reduce the carnage of America’s “inner cities”—a euphemism for black neighbourhoods. His organization, Stop The Killing Inc., raises funds to help keep young people out of harm’s way. He has met Barack Obama twice as part of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
On YouTube, you can find Silky Slim bellowing into the microphones outside the Triple S after Alton Sterling’s death, giving the (African-American) mayor of Baton Rouge 72 hours to resign (he didn’t), and threatening to unloose unspecified vehemence on the city. Days of protests followed, with thousands involved but a minimum of violence—one police officer lost some teeth to a flung object —a spate of anguish that culminated in an attempt by some marchers to shut down an interstate highway that was blocked by a phalanx of riot-equipped police.
Now, at an uptown Starbucks, the former chieftain of the Southside Wrecking Crew is wearing a brown cardigan with a tan dress shirt and matching tie that makes him look about as menacing as Ward Cleaver, and ordering a frappuccino.
“Alton Sterling had problems, like everybody else,” says Silky Slim, who is somewhat less svelte than his cinematic moniker would suggest. “But what I respected about Alton was that he was willing to get up and go to work every day. Selling CDs is better than selling drugs. He’s providing for his family, and he’s not breaking the law. It’s legal to have a gun in Louisiana. Law enforcement is saying ‘he was a convicted felon with a gun,’ but they didn’t know that until they killed him.”
“Are all these shootings happening because of Obama?” Silky Slim is asked. (This is the insinuation that was implicit in Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July: “Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities . . . I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on Jan. 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”)
“No,” he answers. “I don’t believe that. There is a portion of people in society of the white race who are continuing the legacy of the Confederates. They fear America becoming a brown country. It’s news, but it’s not new.
“Everyone has the right to be afraid. When a police officer pulls me over, he’s afraid of me, and I’m afraid of him. The police and the community have to learn to respect each other. I don’t think burning the city down is going to solve anything.”
“What do you see in Obama after eight years in office?” the former gang leader is asked.
“I look at Obama probably differently from a lot of other people,” he replies. “When he took the oath, I looked at it as a great accomplishment to say that someone of colour made it that far. But I think that he was se-lected, by the powers that be, before he was e-lected. Having a black quarterback on a team of white separatists has nothingin it for me. If the system of institutionalized racism didn’t change, then one man had no chance of changing it himself.”
“The black race was in deplorable condition when he took the White House. There is no one man who can rise higher than his people. The Messiah has to come from within you. I wasn’t disappointed in him because I didn’t expect anything from him. Yes, there have been some monumental accomplishments—the health care, and releasing so many non-violent offenders.
“I don’t think he let black people down. I think black people let themselves down by not putting an agenda in front of him. Eighty per cent of black kids are born out of wedlock and that’s a major problem. I think in the Wrecking Crew we had one kid who had a father at home, and that was because his mother died in childbirth. Yes, black lives matter, but they have to matter to black people first. Of course Obama should have said that, but he never did.”
This isn’t just pontification by the old Pope of the ’hood. Reed has skin in this game—a 19-year-old son, currently in jail. He is the same son who, when he was five years old, stopped Silky from committing suicide when he saw him with a gun to his head and asked, “Daddy, what are you doing?” But that was long ago.
“Instead of looking at what I have been doing for the past 16 years,” the father says, “now he only wants to look at who I was when I was his age. I am here on this Earth to save his life from getting killed on the street. I went to the drug house he was at with a bouncer and put the cuffs on him myself and took him to the cops.
“For these kids, the gravitational force makes it impossible to see what can be achieved through education. When materialistic rewards can be gained so quick, how do you sell a boy on a job for $15 an hour when he can make $1,500 or $2,000 a night selling drugs?
“You should hear these young rappers we have here,” he says. “They’re doing songs with lyrics like ‘I be Silky Slim before he change.’”
Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed stands in front of his childhood home. A former gang leader, Reed now works as a community activist. (Photograph by William Widmer/Redux)
Twelve days after Alton Sterling was shot dead by the Baton Rouge police in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart, an ex-U.S. Marine named Gavin Eugene Long drove down from Kansas City, via Texas, in a stolen rental car, turned onto Airline Highway, parked beside the B-Quik convenience store and Benny’s Car Wash and Hair Crown Beauty Supply, pulled on a black mask, and began murdering, in the coldest imaginable blood, every uniformed officer that responded.
“‘Where do you want this killing done?’ ‘Out on Highway 61,’” Bob Dylan once quoted the Lord God. And now this was coming true.
Three men—one of them an African-American member of the Baton Rouge Police Department named Montrell Jackson—died instantly before a SWAT-team sniper took Long out from a range of 90 m. A fourth officer still is in grave condition in a trauma centre in Houston.
“I swear to God I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me,” Officer Jackson had posted on Facebook, just after Alton Sterling was killed, as his city seethed. “In uniform I get nasty hateful looks, and out of uniform some people consider me a threat.”
On the Internet, and in self-published screeds, Gavin Long had identified himself as a sovereignist and separatist and settler of historic wrongs. “One hundred percent of revolutions,” he once wrote, “have been successful through fighting back through bloodshed.”
A fifth officer named Bruce Simmons was blasted through the elbow by one of Gavin Long’s bullets. He got out of hospital just in time to watch his house inundated by four feet of water in the Great Flood of 2016.
This, too, was part of Baton Rouge’s apocalyptic summer of 2016—76 cm of rain in the middle of August that overwhelmed the Amite and Comite Rivers and left Simmons’s little suburb of Central with 9,000 of its 10,500 homes partially or permanently destroyed. It was Louisiana’s “Little Katrina”—this country’s most expensive natural calamity since hurricane Sandy shredded the Jersey Shore and flooded the New York subway in 2012. And for a moment, it made a difference in the soul of Baton Rouge.
“This is a friendly city,” says Amy Scott, the stylist. “You would know that by the flood.”
“Nobody knew who you were, and nobody knew who you loved,” agrees her wife, Stephanie. “Nobody was allergic to anyone.”
“So sad. Innocent lives. You can’t fight evil with evil,” says Silky Slim, motoring around in his venerable Crown Victoria. “Six officers shot, three of them dead—it broke all the momentum we had. It hung a black cloud over us.”
His destination is the Baton Rouge home of a woman named Sandra “Bootsy” Augustus, whose tidy, single-level brick ranch house is announced by a sign at the curb that says “Be Str8 Out Bail Bonds—I’ll Bail You Out.”
December is the busy season for people in the get-out-of-jail-but-not-free business, Augustus, who also drives a school bus, notes on greeting: “People want their loved ones home for the holidays.”
Augustus was Alton Sterling’s aunt; perhaps his favourite aunt of all the women who helped to raise him. “I died with him,” she says. “What I am hoping,” she continues, “is that these guys are held accountable for their actions. I expect them to be charged with at least manslaughter, be terminated from their jobs, and do jail time.”
“I voted for President Barack Obama because I thought that because he was like us, he would understand us,” she says. “He did a great job. He did everything that was expected of him. When my Alton died, he came here and I talked to him. He brought a calm. He gave his sympathy. We prayed.”
Now Bootsy Augustus—and black Baton Rouge—are waiting on the Department of Justice.
“If the law don’t,” Alton Sterling’s aunt prophesies, “the Lord will.”
The Great Flood of 2016 stopped at the house next door. Bootsy didn’t get a drop of water.
“To me it’s like the Book of Revelation is revealing itself,” she says. “The old people say we’re living in our last days. I think it’s happening now.
“You go to a gun shop, and it’s all the whites buying guns and getting concealed-weapon permits. We all have guns now. Or we all should.”
Jordan Nurenberg—21, on truck—and Shelby McKnight, 22, hold signs in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart on Foster Drive. (Photograph by William Widmer/Redux)
A pair of prominent educational institutions bookend downtown Baton Rouge: Southern University, which officially is designated as “Historically Black,” and Louisiana State, which was historically and defiantly white for more than a century, until integration was forced on it by the federal courts in the 1960s.
Dr. Albert Samuels is chair and professor in the Mandela School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Southern. “Think about how hopeful the country was after the 2008 election,” he says. The fall semester is over; nothing drifts across the campus but leaves. “We went through this whole process—could this really have happened? Is America really ‘ready’ for an African-American president? You had this supposedly ‘post-racial’ moment, when people went to his inauguration like they were going to Mecca.
“You go from that to the issues we had this summer, here in Baton Rouge—the Sterling shooting, the shooting of the cops, the rhetoric of the campaign. ‘Post-racial?’ I always thought that was nonsense, given our history. The perpetual American impulse is to exonerate us from our history: ‘See? It’s over!’
“If anything, Obama’s election, rather than being a break from American history, was a continuation of American history. There’s always been ‘the exceptional black,’ that idea of saying, when a black person achieves, ‘You are a credit to your race.’ Quite possibly, white America looked at Barack Obama and thought, ‘He’s smart. He went to Harvard. He has a beautiful wife.’ In some ways, the Obama presidency is a reaffirmation of our racial duality.”
“Obama and Mandela,” a visitor wonders. There is no doubt that someday, many schools in many lands will build towers of ivory in the 44th president’s name, just as Southern University has done in the name of the South African titan.
“They are both going to be really powerful symbols,” Samuels says. “Mandela—in terms of his personal courage, the 27 years in prison —when he came out, he could have said anything. The fact that he engaged in dialogue, that was truly remarkable, and so was the dignity that he carried in the face of apartheid. Obama is going to be significant in terms of what he represented. He captured the imagination of the American people and people all over the world. He did change the world’s perception of America, and that was real. The Republicans will try to undo everything they can, but they can’t undo that he was elected.”
Across town, professor Alecia Long, director of graduate studies in the history department of LSU, is dubious about Obama’s lasting impact on the fabric of the nation he led.
“He did step in and save the financial system from very typical conservative manipulation via deregulation and allegedly letting the hidden hand of the market work things out. What a canard,” Long says. “The sad fact is, whether he had to do that or not at the beginning of his presidency, it reified that trend of privatizing profits and socializing losses that has become a hallmark at all levels of government in the United States.
“In the historical long-term his presidency does and will matter for what it represented as a break from the past, but it’s hard to know, as of now, what it really meant in terms of meaningful liberal social change—though for LGBT people things certainly got better in demonstrable and important ways. As a liberal I just have to hope those things are not taken away—but I’m not optimistic about that.”
“I felt confident and secure when he was in the White House, speaking to the global community” says William Arp, professor of history at Southern. “He was that steady hand that kept our enemies at bay. He was not going to say things off the top of his head, and we’ve lost that for the next four years. He had integrity. And this is coming from someone who has not always voted Democrat.”
“Is Obama to blame for the shootings in Baton Rouge?” Arp is asked.
“No,” he replies, “but the shootings explain a culture that hasn’t changed with Obama’s election. The Southern culture remains where it was entrenched; its essence sort of oozes up from the conditions of poverty. We rank last in almost anything that is good. It would take a lifetime of Obamas to make a difference in Louisiana.”
John “Boo” Milton stands in the back yard of his sister’s house. (Photograph by William Widmer/Redux)
Vectoring through the cloudless sky toward the Baton Rouge airport is Obama’s legacy—or at least his legatee.
Thousands of white “deplorables”—and considerably more African-Americans than usually attend these things—are packing the Dow Chemical Company’s corporate hangar for the latest episode of president-elect Donald J. Trump’s thank-you tour. The Donald has reason to be grateful to the Sportsman’s Paradise: he got 58 per cent of the vote in Louisiana, a state that went for Bill Clinton twice but abjured his spouse. Obama’s belittlement of the reality showman as unqualified for the presidency carried no weight here.
At the airport, the Pledge of Allegiance is led by the father of one of the police officers whom Gavin Eugene Long killed at the B-Quik on Highway 61. The benediction is proclaimed by a fellow who is introduced as “the former pastor of the New Orleans Saints.” This holy man heralds the coming hour “when the White House is once again God’s house … when men know who men are, and women know who women are, and the mighty, powerful name above all names is Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
There is a Trump supporter in the crowd with a cap that says OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM and the wearer turns out to be Maj. Tom McCormick of Plaquemine, La., United States Air Force (retired), formerly a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, and now a prosecutor of welfare, insurance, and worker’s compensation fraud for the State of Louisiana.
McCormick is asked his views on Obama’s legacy, and his answer is: “I’m not too sure he has one. When you talk about him eroding our country with all these illegal immigrants and giving the cities money to be sanctuaries for them; well, we won’t be giving them no money anymore!
“Everything Obama stood for, Donald Trump is going to undo in his first hundred days. I don’t think [Obama is] even going to have a legacy left.”
McCormick allows that, “Of course, he’s the only elected black president. I actually voted for him the first time because I thought he’d bring good change to America. But instead of bringing us all together, he’s divided it down more than anything I can remember in my 42 years of living. Just because I’m a middle-aged white male, I’m a racist—that’s what Barack Obama’s party thinks of me. So I can’t say anything nice about him.” Trump Force One is late. There is time for more.
“All these shootings, he’s been saying that they’re all the police’s fault, telling the American people that all law enforcement is bad, and then turning around and commuting and pardoning all those offenders and saying ‘they were non-violent because they were just selling drugs.’ Well, they all had guns. And think of all the violent crimes they committed when they didn’t get caught!”
Also in the audience, not exactly incognito in a white sash and a crown of rhinestones, is a 23-year-old woman who hopes to be the next Miss America—Colleen Seeley, the reigning Miss Slidell, La., which is a city of 27,000 on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. “What is Obama’s legacy?” the young woman is asked.
“Barack Obama woke up America,” says Seeley, who is a senior at Louisiana State University, majoring in sports administration, general business, and mass communications. “He showed that people of any colour can achieve great things, even in the South. All these shootings, they’re not Obama’s fault. What about all the other violent crimes that have nothing to do with policing—are they Obama’s fault too?
“I wouldn’t say there were failures,” Miss Slidell is saying, but this is drowned out by the arrival of the president-elect and the roar of 5,000 other people chanting “Build! The!! Wall!!!”
John “Boo” Milton served 20 years in a federal prison; it kept him off the streets. If not for Obama, it would have been 50 years. Granted clemency by a sovereign he never saw, he came home to Baton Rouge in 2016 in the full flush of a Southern spring, and he went to help an old friend on his lot, selling cars.
That’s where Boo Milton got shot, on the same street (North Foster Drive) where Alton Sterling would be killed a month later.
“I turn around and I see this man running, holding a gun,” Milton says, still at that busy Appleby’s on that accursed Highway 61, across from the B-Quik where those police officers were ambushed and destroyed, in the city where the floodwaters rose and where yet another man was killed by the police, all of this happening right under the eyes of so many millions of people of good faith and understanding in Obama’s America.
“I put out my arm and he fired once and the bullet went right through the bone on my left wrist and grazed my right arm,” Milton says, “and it kept right on going and killed the man he was aiming for behind me.”
He holds up his left hand, which is swollen and which he can barely move.
“How are you paying for the treatment?” he is asked.
“I have Obamacare,” he says. “One day I’d sure like to meet him and tell how much I appreciate what he did for me. I think he did a good job. How about you?”
Reporter: Allen Abel
Editor: Colin Campbell
Art director: Stephen Gregory
Director of Photography: Liz Sullivan
Assistant editor, digital: Nick Taylor-Vaisey
Published: January 10, 2017