Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
While Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has been front and center regarding the Dallas shootings, Baton Rouge mayor Kip Holden has been noticeably absent.
In the city of Dallas, where an African-American former U.S.-military soldier gunned down 12 police officers, leaving five of them dead, you have a mayor who’s been upfront with the public about why it happened.
"Our police officers died for Black Lives Matter movement," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said Tuesday on CBS This Morning. "We were protecting those individuals. That is not a racist organization. They're trying to do better, but I ask everybody to start at the level playing ground that the police are there to serve them, and to serve everyone."
In the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where two white police officers last week shot and killed Alton Sterling, an African American man, you have a mayor who’s not been exactly upfront with his residents.
Probed by reporters as to why he wasn’t meeting with protesters and other black leaders in Baton Rouge, Mayor Kip Holden dismissively said, “Why should I put my hand in a hornet’s nest?”
The Greater Baton Rouge Business Report reports that, as of July 11, Holden had not yet spoken with the family of Sterling—five days after Sterling was killed.
Between the two mayors, the one who’s been the most vocal about racism is Dallas’s Mayor Rawlings, who is white. Holden is black. And while the Dallas case seems like it could be a ripe occasion for white authorities to chastise black activists, as one Fort Worth, Texas police group has, Rawlings is the one who has come to the defense of black activists.
In Baton Rouge, black activists and their multiracial allies have not enjoyed the same support. In fact, activists there have been subjected to militarized police forces and hundreds of arrests, while Mayor Holden seems to be in hiding. An editorial headline from the Baton Rouge news outlet The Advocate on July 10 read, “After Alton Sterling shooting, Baton Rouge needs Mayor Kip Holden to be more visible.”
Holden participated in a press conference the day after the video of Sterling’s killing went viral, where he sounded defensive while still dropping the word “accountability” a lot. Said Holden at that press conference:
When citizens are out there—they are our taxpayers. With taxpayers comes the word “accountability.” With accountability comes the burden of making sure—really the responsibility that’s delegated to you that must be carried out, in a thoughtful manner, and in a manner that satisfies those who pay our wages and our salaries. But in a manner that also assures them that we’re not here to hide anything at all and we believe justice will be served.
Since then, Holden’s been missing in action. There was a citywide gathering called “Together Baton Rouge” that brought hundreds of local leaders out to forge a positive way forward for the city. But Business Report reporter Stephanie Riegel, who covered the event, tells Citylab that the mayor was not in attendance. The Advocate‘s editorial board wrote, calling out the mayor for his general absence the past few days:
After that news conference, the mayor traveled to Washington, D.C., to seek federal funding for a proposed LSU-downtown tram. Since coming home, he’s been largely absent from the public stage at a time of high anxiety in his city, with an international lens focused on the community he was elected to serve. Late last week, he said he had not yet contacted Sterling’s family about the shooting. …
If he adopts a bunker mentality during a difficult time for his city, what example does that set for residents?
To be fair, Holden was in D.C. for a few days seeking federal funding for a transportation project. But while he’s been gone, the city has edged toward bedlam a few times. And City Hall doesn’t sound like it’s been all that responsive to angry citizens while Holden’s been away: Most of City Hall’s doors were literally locked Tuesday. Meanwhile, protesters in the city have been calling for Holden to resign.
One might argue that a black mayor like Holden in a Deep South city simply does not have the leeway to speak as candidly as a white mayor can about racism, not without facing some political repercussions. Holden could have at least reached out to Sterling’s family, though—which is something President Obama has done. But black politicians walk a difficult line in addressing racism in situations that seem to beg for it; even Obama has faced this fact.
Still, merely being present—walking the streets, meeting with neighbors, holding forums with black leaders—seems like the bare minimum for a mayor to do in these situations. Instead, Holden has sounded more beholden to protecting the police than protecting the public. He told the Baton Rouge Business Report: “I’ve got a chief of police and police department under my jurisdiction. I don’t want to set off a reverse firestorm by bashing police officers just because we had an incident with two.”
It doesn’t seem anyone has asked him to bash police, just to help comfort a torn city. At the press conference following Sterling’s death, Holden thanked Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for reaching out to him. He might want to reach out to that other Mayor Rawlings, though, in Dallas. If nothing else, the Dallas mayor could help give Holden cover so he can say the things that need to be said during a time like this.