BATON ROUGE — Alton Sterling, the black man whose point-blank shooting by white police set off a fresh round of national protest against police aggression against black people, was born and raised in this impoverished and racially divided Louisiana state capital and barely knew a life without police in it.
His mother died when he was 14, and his father by the time he was 19, Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s oldest son, said in an interview Tuesday.
“Alton pretty much raised himself,” she said. And trouble was never far away.
Sterling, who lived a life of poverty and instability, in and out of jail, was in many ways the embodiment of an American — and particularly, a Louisianan — justice system that legal experts say is skewed heavily against black Americans and that protesters have rallied against over the past week.
Two Baton Rouge police officers shot and killed Sterling outside a store here in the early hours of July 5. The incident, caught on video by an onlooker and the store owner, captured national attention and turned Baton Rouge into a flash point for protest and scrutiny of racial disparity in policing.
Police said in a search warrant affidavit released Monday that they were responding to a call about someone making threats with a gun in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Mart, where Sterling sold CDs, and that they moved to restrain him after he refused to comply with their orders. The police said that the officers shot Sterling after he reached for a gun in his pocket.
Sterling left behind five children, the oldest of whom is 15. All have secured legal representation, and at least two are planning to file civil suits against the police, said J. Chris Stewart, who is representing 15-year-old Cameron Sterling and his half-brother, 10-year-old Na’Quincy.
Cameron Sterling told CBS News on Tuesday that he wanted the nation to know that his father was “a good man, no matter what anyone else has to say about him.”
Little is known about Sterling’s life, beyond that it was hard and that he had repeated run-ins with the law.
At the time of his death at 37, Sterling had amassed a 46-page arrest record —with charges ranging from failing to wear a seat belt to burglary and domestic battery. Between stints in jail, he struggled to make ends meet, and each charge carried with it new and hefty fines as well as other requirements such as maintaining gainful employment, which proved difficult to meet.
Sterling never graduated from high school, and despite a court order to pursue a GED or trade school — as well as to pay $50 a month for his own supervision, pay $200 for a special assessment at a high school, pay child support, perform community service and attend the court’s Effective Decision Making School, among other things — as part of one of his early probation rulings, the lawyers representing his eldest son were not aware of whether Sterling ever managed to do that.
A few months before he died, Sterling had moved into the Living Waters Outreach Ministry Drop-In Center, a transitional housing program run by a local Baton Rouge church that houses other struggling men like Sterling — many of them formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated and black.
There, Sterling paid $90 a week for a private bedroom, a building manager said. He cooked for fellow residents, biked to go fishing on the Mississippi River and took cabs to the Triple S Food Mart, where he sold CDs and DVDs, eking out a living and saving money to provide for his children and buy a car, fellow residents and those who knew him said.
His customers spoke fondly of him. “I saw him every day,” said Jaime Triplett, 36, who lives half a block from the Triple S. “He always kept a smile. He was the guy that when people came into the store disgruntled, the owner would say, ‘Big A! Talk to your people.’”
McMillon said she would sometimes chauffeur Sterling around so that he could spend time with Cameron and his other children. On Sterling’s birthday, June 14, he asked McMillon if Cameron could spend the day with him, and “Cameron actually sat out with him and sold CDs that whole day,” she said.
When he went away to jail, he communicated with his son by phone, she said. On several occasions, he took Cameron fishing.
Sterling had talked about wanting to take all of his kids to the movies this Fourth of July, McMillon said. But that never happened. That night Sterling stood in the parking lot of the Triple S, selling CDs, as he usually did. By early the next morning, he was dead, and video of the shooting had spread across the country.
Cameron is now “just coping with the situation and he’s trying to become a normal 15-year-old child again. He just wants to know why? Why did they do that to his Dad?” McMillon said.
It’s unclear what Sterling told his son about his own history with law enforcement and whether he ever warned his son about the police in this town where black residents say they routinely feel victimized by a police force that is predominantly white.
Asked about it on Wednesday after he spoke briefly to the media at the scene of his father’s killing, Cameron stayed silent, his face expressionless and staring straight ahead. Last week, he broke down in tears when he stepped before TV cameras for the first time.
The night of Sterling’s death wasn’t the first time that police say they confronted him about a firearm. On two occasions, in 2009 and 2011, Sterling was charged with being in possession of an illegal weapon, according to his criminal record.
Those times, “he was arrested,” Stewart said. “Not shot.”
Officers Blaine Salamoni and Howie Lake have been placed on administrative leave. The local district attorney has recused himself because of his personal relationship with one of them, and the Justice Department has taken over the investigation.
“We’ll be finding out about these officers,” Stewart said, adding that he was concerned about the implications of one of them, a third-generation police officer, having deep ties to the city and people in power.
A spokesperson for the Baton Rouge Police Department did not respond to questions about the officers’ background.
“Will this family actually get justice when one of the officers who did this is such a fixture in the police department?” Stewart said.