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In One Louisiana City, a Police Shooting, a Pandemic and a Hurricane

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LAFAYETTE, La. — Trayford Pellerin was killed in a barrage of police gunfire outside a convenience store. Within hours, the kind of unrest sparked in other cities by fatal confrontations between African-Americans and law enforcement began bubbling up in Lafayette.

The tension might have escalated into something larger. But two major storms were churning in the Gulf of Mexico and appeared to be intensifying, with Lafayette in their projected path, and the protests were brought to a near halt.

Still, the killing on Aug. 21 tapped into a sense of fury, fueled by longstanding racial divides and disparities, that had been simmering in the city. Recently, city officials tried to close several community centers that serve mostly Black neighborhoods, a debate that played out amid a pandemic that has been especially punishing to the African-American community.

In many ways, the troubles facing Lafayette, in the heart of Louisiana’s oil patch, reflect the stresses that have afflicted America this year. Over the last several months, the city’s 126,000 residents have negotiated an exhausting catalog of hardships — a coronavirus that has infected thousands, a hobbled economy, protests over police violence and systemic racism and, over the past week, a brutal hurricane season.

“We’re hurting right now,” said Diane Touchet, who lives near the Shell convenience store where the authorities said Mr. Pellerin, 31, was shot at least 10 times. She was referring not only to the pandemic, but to the broader turbulence.

“We’re human beings just like everybody,” Ms. Touchet, 59, said. “We count, too.”

ImageA playground is flooded from Hurricane Laura in Lafayette on Thursday.
Credit…Dan Anderson/EPA, via Shutterstock

Tropical Storm Marco mostly fizzled out on Monday, and Hurricane Laura slammed the Louisiana coast but largely spared Lafayette. The outrage, though, remains — and it has deepened for many as they have seen Mr. Pellerin’s death lost in a cascade of crises, from the exacting toll of the virus to this week’s storms to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wis.

“Louisiana is used to being looked over,” said Lyle Edwards, a 61-year-old airport cargo worker, “and that’s what the residents here are feeling.”

Mr. Pellerin was shot after officers responded to a call of a person with a knife at a convenience store, according to a statement from the Louisiana State Police, which is investigating the case. The police said that Mr. Pellerin ran from officers, who failed to stop him with Tasers. The officers opened fire, the state police said, as Mr. Pellerin, who still carried the knife, tried to walk into another store.

Video of the shooting shared on social media showed the officers surrounding him as he approached the store’s door.

The next day, dozens of protesters swept into the streets. Demonstrators linked arms as they disrupted traffic and faced off with police officers, who broke up crowds with chemical dispersants and made a handful of arrests. That same weekend, residents were urged to hunker down or get out of town as Gov. John Bel Edwards warned of a potential “one-two punch” in which Marco and Laura could strike within a 48-hour span.

“We are not deterred by a little rain,” Jamal Taylor, who helped organize the protests, said. But by Wednesday, the night before Hurricane Laura made landfall as a Category 4 storm and battered the southwest corner of the state, the demonstration had fallen to roughly 30 people outside the federal courthouse.

Credit…Emily Kask for The New York Times

About 150 miles west of New Orleans, Lafayette is known as the provincial capital of a region populated by French-speaking Cajuns and Creoles. It is about one-third Black and still bears the scars of segregation, with the poorer, Black neighborhoods separated by a highway from the wealthier, mostly white neighborhoods.

As the storms loomed, Alzina Dural slid packets with hurricane information into mailboxes in her neighborhood, on the mostly Black north end of the city.

Ms. Dural, a community organizer, had spent many days recently pedaling around on her canary yellow bicycle, checking on neighbors and taking an informal count of who was sticking around and who was leaving ahead of the storm. Most told her they planned to stay put.

The threat of the storms were only the latest in a series of worries.

Since mid-March, more than 8,200 cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Lafayette Parish, which includes the city, and her street has been pummeled by it. She pointed to a house across the road from her. “The last time the ambulance came, he didn’t come back,” Ms. Dural, 56, said of her neighbor. Seven people in her family have died. Her daughter has a printing business, she said, and the demand for memorial T-shirts for people who have died of the coronavirus has kept her busy.

The disproportionate impact of the virus on Lafayette’s Black community lingered as racial tensions were inflamed when Josh Guillory, the mayor-president of Lafayette who took office this year, pushed to close four recreation centers in mostly Black neighborhoods. Mr. Guillory, who is white, later relented, but his relationship with the Black community remains strained.

And then, soon after Mr. Pellerin was shot and killed, Mr. Guillory infuriated many in the Black community with a statement in which he did not offer sympathy to Mr. Pellerin’s family and instead pivoted attention to the coming storms. Activists began calling for his resignation.

“The officers opened fire when it became apparent the armed individual was attempting to enter a convenience store,” Mr. Guillory said in the statement, “threatening the lives of the customers and workers inside.”

After the criticism, Mr. Guillory met on Monday with Black church leaders at Lafayette Police Department headquarters and emerged with words of condolence for Mr. Pellerin’s family.

Credit…Scott Clause/The Daily Advertiser, via Associated Press

“We can recognize this pain,” he said. “We can grieve for a family, and still support law enforcement. And we are.”

This summer, the nation began wrestling anew with questions of race and policing after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers in May, setting off protests and a larger debate about the long reach of institutional racism.

It has reached in recent days to Wisconsin after Mr. Blake, 29, was shot in the back on Aug. 23 as he tried to get in his car, his three children in the back seat. Mr. Blake was hospitalized in stable condition, but the shooting, which was recorded and widely shared online, caused Kenosha to erupt in fiery protests and led to a vast national response, including a work stoppage by N.B.A. and other players.

Mr. Pellerin’s death — the third shooting involving Lafayette police officers in five weeks, though the other two were not fatal — has touched off a version of that discussion in Lafayette.

In the heart of town, as Joby Bonin and his sons shoveled sandbags, Mr. Bonin shrugged off the coronavirus as an overblown threat cooked up by Louisiana’s Democratic governor and said he saw the demonstrations as “riots.”

On the other side, Corey Johnson, 47, packed up dozens of sandbags into the back of his pickup. “I think it’s sad what happened to that guy,” he said, referring to Mr. Pellerin. “I think they probably could have done something else. I mean you’ve got seven cops and you’re right there.”

Mr. Pellerin’s family contends that race influenced the violent response from officers, comparing Mr. Pellerin’s situation to a recent episode in which a white man driving a stolen vehicle was arrested after a police chase.

“Conversely, Mr. Pellerin was followed on foot for close to half a mile with zero de-escalation measures taken during that time,” lawyers for his family said in a statement. “Instead, at the end of the pursuit, he was surrounded by numerous officers and quickly shot at, at least 10 times, at close range. Mr. Pellerin will never get the chance to go home to his family.”

A Lafayette hashtag trended on Twitter in the hours after smartphone footage of Mr. Pellerin’s death surfaced. But it didn’t take long for fires in Wisconsin, the crisscrossing paths of back-to-back hurricanes barreling for Louisiana’s coast and the theater of the Republican National Convention to shove Lafayette’s uproar to the margins of national consciousness.

The larger protests that packed streets soon dissipated to scattered bands of demonstrators. On Friday, hundreds of people joined a march organized by student athletes at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, mirroring an athlete demonstration in Baton Rouge at Louisiana State University.

Mr. Pellerin was shot at a gas station on a busy highway that physically divides Lafayette, near a working-class neighborhood dotted with modest family homes. On one corner, a memorial took root with balloons and ribbons, a small and solitary marker reminding those driving by of what had happened just over a week ago.

For some, a sense of weariness had set in.

“You can’t keep up with the stories because they’re happening too fast,” Tameka Therman, 37, said of the violent encounters between African-Americans and the police that have captured widespread attention.

Sylvia Richard, a retired schoolteacher, said she was disheartened as she saw the attention being paid to Mr. Pellerin’s death pale in comparison to other cases around the country.

“I know we’re a small town compared to most, but I don’t think it’s receiving enough attention,” Ms. Richard said. “What happened here mirrors what happened in Wisconsin, but nobody’s really paying attention to it.”

Mr. Pellerin’s family has felt their pain overshadowed, said Ronald Haley, their lawyer, noting that New Orleans Saints players had taped Jacob Blake’s name to their helmets.

“That’s great,” Mr. Haley said of the gesture. “But, man, we have somebody dead two hours away in Lafayette. We need to get them to get behind this family as well.”

Christiaan Mader and Will Wright reported from Lafayette, and Rick Rojas from Beaumont, Texas.

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