Baton Rouge Struggles Through Anxiety and Grief as Church Vigils Are Held for Slain Officers

A vigil on Monday for Matthew Gerald, a 41-year-old military veteran who was killed less than a year after joining the Baton Rouge Police Department. (Bryan Tarnowski for The New York Times)
A vigil on Monday for Matthew Gerald, a 41-year-old military veteran who was killed less than a year after joining the Baton Rouge Police Department. (Bryan Tarnowski for The New York Times)

The emotionally battered residents of Baton Rouge settled into church pews across the region on Monday for an evening of vigils filled with anxiety, grief and questions.

Had an extraordinary period of national violence come to an end? Or was this just a break in the chaos?

“I was up most of last night,” said Christal Washington, the wife of a Louisiana state police officer, “looking at Facebook, making sure nobody has posted that there is another attack. Watching the news. You try not to intensely focus on it. But I would go and I would do something. And then I would check my phone.”

The gatherings came a little more than day after a 29-year-old Missouri man, Gavin Long, opened fire outside a beauty supply store here, killing three officers in what the police say was a crime targeting law enforcement. The act seemed to mirror an earlier shooting that killed five officers in Dallas, which had been tipped off by the death of two black men at the hands of the police, one of them here in Baton Rouge, the other in Falcon Heights, Minn.

Taken together, the events have reflected and heightened racial tension across the country.

At the Rock Church in the suburb of Zachary, Ms. Washington, who is white, stood next to her husband, Officer Patrick Washington, who is black. They were joined by a mixed-race congregation that included about a dozen other officers, as well as their two children.

Under a canopy of gold lights, police officers lined up for handshakes and hugs. An assistant pastor named George Rodriguez offered words of encouragement. “Spiritually, we have your back,” he told the officers. “We’re praying for you.”

Afterward, tears spilled down the cheeks of Payton Washington, 16, who said she missed the days when she was not afraid her father would be targeted for his uniform. “Before, I didn’t have to worry that somebody was just going to see my dad and just hate him without knowing him,” she said. “People don’t think about that whenever they say, ‘Let’s start killing cops.’ But it’s not all bad cops.”

Thirty-five miles to the south, hundreds of people gathered outside Healing Place Church, a big, modern house of worship for an intense, impromptu service to honor Matthew Gerald, a 41-year-old military veteran who died in the shooting, less than a year after joining the Baton Rouge Police Department.

Mourners held candles aloft in cups under a fading pastel sky. They prayed not only for Mr. Gerald, but for Montrell L. Jackson, 32, whose child turned 4 months old on Monday, and for Brad Garafola, 45, a sheriff’s deputy and father of four.

The mourners listened to a succession of pastors tell them to trust in Jesus, and they stood silently as a man with a guitar sang about the perils of police work.

Dexter Havens, 39, said that he always took his son to the same center to play laser tag, where they would see Mr. Jackson in the parking lot. Mr. Havens’s son, who is 6, wants to be a police officer, and he was thrilled when Mr. Jackson would roll down the window of his squad car and say hello.

He said his son had recognized Mr. Jackson while watching a news report of the tragedy on television. Mr. Havens did not know how to respond. “I just told him he’s in heaven, and that he’s in a better place,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I just came here.”

Most of those who attended the service were white. But not all. Darin Fontenette, the president of a youth sports group who is African-American, said he was as pained by the officers’ deaths as he was by the earlier police killing here of a black man, Alton B. Sterling, on July 5.

“I’m protesting on both sides,” Mr. Fontenette said. “I’m here because all lives matter.”

At St. Thomas More Catholic Church, roughly 80 people came for a scriptural rosary dedicated to the dead officers. Outside, on the pristinely manicured church lawn, Garrett Doucet, a parishioner and organizer of the vigil, welcomed people inside.

“It’s deeply saddening,” he said of the shootings. “We’re at a place where we worked for years not to be.”

The New York Times

Julie Bloom and Richard Fausset contributed reporting.

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