Activist Gary Chambers on His Vision for Baton Rouge and Fighting for a 'New Black South'
|Donney Rose||Oct 23, 2020|
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I met Gary Chambers in 2016 in our hometown of Baton Rouge during the height of civil unrest after the police shooting of Alton Sterling. I had been following Gary’s work through The Rouge Collection, the media outlet he co-founded, but upon actually meeting him, I knew that I had come across a kindred spirit in the world of activism in Baton Rouge.
He became a household name in the advocacy world in June when a video of him calling out East Baton Rouge School Board Member, Connie Bernard, went viral and shared by the likes of LeBron James, Madonna and millions of others. That moment at the school board meeting was only one of the several instances when Gary used his voice and his media platform to speak truth to power.
Sowing Seeds into his City
Gary’s vision of an ideal Baton Rouge is one where children can see themselves living out their entire existence in the Louisiana capital they wanted to, and it is a vision of Baton Rouge he has tirelessly advocated on behalf of for the past five years.
“An equitable and just Baton Rouge has to include fair contracting with [the]city parish government, a livable wage for all people within the community, equitable wage, good public schools, not being terrorized by police,” Gary told me when I asked him about what’s necessary to level the playing field in the city that raised us.
Like many notable present-day activists, Gary was propelled into the work of social justice advocacy in the early stages of the Black Lives Matter movement. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown struck a chord with him, prompting him to take the platform being curated by his developing media company beyond the cultural happenings in Baton Rouge and into a space where Black stories in the city would be lifted.
“I think many of us got kinda pulled into this work, nobody set out when you’re a kid like ‘I wanna be an activist.’ When Trayvon Martin happened and Mike Brown happened those were things that really impacted me as a Black male,” Gary said.
It was a local injustice that predated the fatal shooting of Sterling that would immerse him fully into the world of social justice.
Finding His Voice and Using His Platform
The story of Lamar Johnson, a Baton Rouge man who died in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison allegedly by asphyxiation in 2015, was one of the earliest advocacy pieces Gary wrote for The Rouge Collection. Johnson’s death, which eerily happened weeks before Sandra Bland would endure a similar fate in Waller County, Texas, was shrouded in inconsistencies that Johnson’s could not take at face value.
Local, white-run publications primarily stuck to the police report account of what happened to Johnson. Gary opted to dig deeper in an effort to uncover a less convenient truth. The Rouge Collection’s brand became a powerful medium for Black issues in Baton Rouge from that moment on.
Following his coverage of the Johnson incident, Gary had a huge editorial breakthrough when a piece he wrote in objection to the opening of a misdemeanor jail in East Baton Rouge Parish City Court would be read by 40,000 people. The writing of the piece coincided with his first time attending a metro council meeting to voice his concerns about communal inequities.
He quickly became a fixture at those metro council meetings, much to the chagrin of the powers-that-be who often grimace when he takes to the podium to speak his peace.
The Ashes from Summer 2016
The police killing of Sterling on July 5, 2016, by Baton Rouge officer Blane Salamoni thrusted the city into turmoil. It wasn’t that Baton Rouge was unaccustomed to police violence or that the region was unfamiliar with a highly questionable case of police violence enacted on a south Louisiana citizen, but the Sterling case was different because it placed Baton Rouge in the epicenter of worldwide news. When paired with the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota a mere 48 hours later, it created a boiling point unseen in Louisiana’s capital city since the Civil Rights era.
Gary was one of the many advocates on the frontlines of demonstrations in the aftermath of the Sterling shooting and used his growing platform on The Rouge Collection to keep his audience updated with to-the-minute information told from a perspective that differed from local news. The Sterling shooting would only be the tip of the iceberg of a tumultuous summer in Baton Rouge that would see three police officers killed by a lone gunman avenging Sterling’s death and then experience a once-a-century flood.
In reflecting on lessons, the summer of 2016 taught Baton Rouge’s activism community. Gary was candid about what he and his fellow advocates were not versed in with regard to systemic change.
“I think we learned that change takes time. It’s important to have the right people in power, at that time we had a different mayor, and that mayor was less amenable to change in the police department,” he explained.
Then Baton Rouge mayor, Melvin ‘Kip’ Holden infamously left town the weekend after the Sterling shooting and kept an unusually low profile for weeks following the incident and subsequent demonstrations. After Holden’s term limit ended in 2016, Gary played an instrumental role in mobilizing the activist community to elect Baton Rouge’s first Black woman mayor, Sharon Weston Broome, who took office in January 2017.
Fighting the Powers-That-Be
The 2019 death of Louisiana motorist, Ronald Greene, resurfaced in September to a great deal of suspicion as to the actual role Louisiana State Police (LSP) played in the incident. Initial reports from LSP said that Greene died in an automobile accident, but uncovered bodycam footage from the incident paints a story of Greene being the victim of a savage beating at the hands of law enforcement leading to his death.
I asked Gary, who recently called Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards out for essentially covering LSP with silence on the Greene case, what it meant for Edwards to be complicit in a case involving a Black man after so many Black Louisianans assured his re-election last year. He emphasized the importance of holding those in the highest offices accountable to the constituency that empowers them.
“I think you gotta be very direct and dogmatic, I think petitions work whether people realize it or not,” Gary offered about the impact of constituents speaking out.“The other aspect of that is our legislators, our state senators and state representatives, the Black folks that we elect have the ability to go have conversations with these elected leaders and we gotta call them to task to say ‘Hey, what are you doing to move the governor on this?’”
It has not always been the most beneficial move for Gary to challenge higher-ups with the kind of political sway that Bel Edwards has with the Black community. But, it has never stopped him from raising his voice.
“When those who are perceived in leadership are in public disagreement with each other the people don’t know what to believe,” Gary said about some of his biggest adversaries being other Black advocates/influencers who have attempted to silence or discredit him.
“Sometimes Black folks have been burned so much they don’t know when somebody is fighting for them,” he continued.
Trouble by the River
There is nothing easy about being hyper-visible in the modern age of activism, especially not as a vocal Black man in the Deep South. Gary is no stranger to the risks that follow his advocacy. He is also not deterred by them.
“I’ve got some letters at home, threats and things like that. I never really talk about those things publicly. I won’t say fearful is the word as much as they concern me,” Gary said.
He recognizes that in this era of American violence often perpetuated by the American president, threats can leave the internet and result in real life tragedies.
He is motivated, however, by a righteous cause.
“The reassurance I have is that I’m on the right side of history.”
Though Gary prides himself in growing in his intersectionality, he unapologetically fights and advocates on behalf of Black people and chooses not to lump the plight of Black liberation into a general “people of color” pile.
“I define liberation as being able to live and be our full self without the judgment of America,” he explained.
Gary is steadfast in his commitment to Black people, often pontificating around the idea of a “New Black South,” where Black folks from around the nation would migrate back below the Mason Dixon line to maximize socio-political and economic power. He understands that his efforts may not come to complete fruition in his lifetime, but is always willing to take up the fight for the betterment of generations to come.
“I do believe that there will be some change that happens in our lifetime, but I also recognize in this moment in history that even when you fight and create change that the evil forces that seek to pull back the progress that we create will always be there, and so our work will always be necessary,” he said.
“One way or another, I’m gon’ be fighting until I become an ancestor.”
About the Author
Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.
ZIP CODES is The North Star's feature series highlighting change agents around the nation. The series will feature activists and organizers on the successes, struggles, lessons and experiences gained in their journeys to make impact and progress in their respective communities.