Interview: Johnetta "Netta" Elzie & Sharhonda Bossier Discuss the Protests in Baton Rouge

This morning I caught up with Johnetta Elzie and Sharhonda Bossier. Elzie, better known as “Netta,” is a co-founder of Campaign Zero. Bossier is deputy executive director of Education Leaders of Color and was campaign manager for the mayoral campaign of DeRay McKesson. They spoke with me on the phone from Louisiana, where they are participating in protests.

 Johnetta Elzie

Johnetta Elzie

Me: What's the context for protest in Baton Rouge?

Bossier: Just to add some color around the culture of south Louisiana, as someone who has deep roots here, even though I haven’t lived my whole life here. There is a different degree of activism infrastructure here, due to a completely elevated kind of fear. There is a sense of fear that permeates the Black community because of the long, violent, public, unpunished history of racial violence here. That’s in the groundwater. When you think about the way that people mobilize, it’s important to think about the historical context of a place like Baton Rouge, and think of all of the ways that the police have been violent for generations.

This action feels connected to the broader national momentum that has been built. What we are seeing is that people are grateful for the experience from the national movement and are excited to get something launched and going.

 Sharhonda Bossier

Sharhonda Bossier

Me: And what's the view from the ground right now?

Elzie: Gosh. As far as I can see, it’s the same here as it is pretty much everywhere. The energy is from the youth, most of whom are the most disenfranchised in the city. That’s who’s outside, that’s who’s making noise. They are craving guidance and leadership. They want ideas. They want someone that can come up with a plan that they can buy into. They want to engage in things, and take the right actions. The older folks with the resources don’t want to give resources without conditions. The young people, the most disenfranchised people, aren’t receptive to that.

The police here are probably the worst I have ever seen. That’s something, coming from me. I’ve never seen police like this. Here they literally smile with their guns pointed, while they chase Black kids. That’s like a next level evil that I wasn’t ready for. You don’t have to live in the city to police here. That reminds me of Baltimore, where these cops come in from surrounding areas, where they live. You might watch Fox News at home and fly a Confederate flag. Then you come to the city to police black people. It’s frightening. I have never seen police smile while they torture and terrorize black people. It’s scary. But even though it’s scary, it doesn’t stop people from coming out and doing things that can lead to arrest.

Me: How have folks received you?

Elzie: I’ve never heard “Ferguson” used as a curse word so much as by older people! (Laughter) People are like, “We don’t want no Ferguson shit.”

I was like, “Ferguson got results though.”

That was hard to stomach. They only think of Ferguson as rioting. That’s the older, respectable “we have resources” crowd. The crowd that only offers things with conditions

On the streets, though, it’s different. When we were out last night, where Alton [Sterling] was killed, we were talking to this guy who could tell by our accents that we weren’t from here. When we told him we’re from St Louis, his eyes got big, and he like flipped out. I thought it was about to be like an issue, so I had to be on guard. But then the local guy was like, “If you guys are here, this shit must be real.”

And I was like ,“This shit was real before we showed up, you don’t need us to come down and make it real.” It’s unreal the love that the local folks are showing us.

One thing the Ferguson crew learned is that you don’t have to ask permission to protest. There’s a need for folks to do action together all the time. I don’t normally take my grandma’s advice, but she’s a big defender of the idea that, if you’re worried about everyone else’s business, you can’t focus on your own. If I’m worried about what actions seventeen other groups are doing, I can never perfect my own. Some folks don’t understand, that If you just show leadership, and just act like a leader, people will fuck with whatever you’re doing. If you have a plan, if it’s solid, if it’s well thought out? Folks want initiative, not a bunch of older folks screaming, “You voted for me.”

Me: More than a hundred people, including DeRay McKesson, who was released and is with you guys right now, got arrested the other night. Did the district attorney ever charge anybody?

Netta: They charged everyone with the same thing, “impeding the regular use of a highway,” I think, something real crazy like that. But they were all charged with it. It’s like a $250 bill.

Me: How does that compare the kind of treatment you’ve seen in other cities?

Netta: They always find a way to charge protestors with some minor infractions. In St Louis it’s usually “impeding traffic.” We got arrested once for “blocking the regular use of a federal door.” But they just give us all the same charge, no matter how far you are from the door. It allows the police to charge whoever they want.

From a tactical perspective, though, on the back end, nobody [at the jail] was ready to deal with 130 protestors in two hours. When we talk to people like Harry Balafonte, who was involved in the movement of the last generation, he always says it’s smart to flood the system.

Every little part of protest is exposing just how fucked up everything is, from the fines, to the prosecution, to the violence. I don’t know if everyone sees it. If you’re from another place, and you’ve done this before, it’s easy to spot the good things that protestors are doing. They don’t have the language yet sometimes.

Me: What else do folks need to know? It's really hard to sort out what's happening from afar.

Netta: If you are watching the news before nightfall, it will be easy to believe the police narrative. It goes like this: everything was peaceful, then the police just had to react to protect themselves. Everything is peaceful, even after nightfall. The police want to do things in the dark. That’s not new. That’s not different. They wait until it’s dark. I would say it’s smarter to turn off the TV and turn on Twitter or Vine or Periscope. If you’re always reading or listening to the police narrative, you’ll always believe it.