Black man's killing by police shakes La. town
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN and MARY FOSTER
Associated Press Writers
For 73 years before his killing by a white police officer, Bernard Monroe led a life in this northern Louisiana town as peaceful as they come — five kids with his wife of five decades, all raised in the same house, supported by the same job.
The black man's shooting death is attracting far more attention than he ever did, raising racial tensions between the black community and Homer's police department.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped organize a massive 2007 civil rights demonstration in Jena after six black teenagers were charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate, led a peaceful march Friday afternoon in Homer to protest the killing.
"No justice, no peace!" demonstrators chanted. "We shall overcome!"
About 150 demonstrators marched near the neighborhood where Monroe, a 73-year-old retired power company lineman, was gunned down by police last February outside his home during a family cookout.
The half-mile march ended without incident at a park where the longtime civil rights activist told an even larger crowd of almost 400 people that "to shoot an unarmed, innocent man ... is a disgrace."
"We didn't come to the city to start trouble. We came to the city to stop trouble," Sharpton told the crowd. "Let (police) explain why they broke the peace and took the life of this innocent man."
Some white Homer residents said they feared Sharpton's visit would deepen tensions.
Linda Volentine, whose 1971 graduating class at Homer High School was the first to be fully integrated, said the town's race relations have had "ups and downs" in recent years.
"I'm hoping Rev. Sharpton can unite us again," said Volentine, who is white. "But if it's something that is supposed to drive a wedge, it will be harmful to the community, which we don't need."
Sharpton said afterward that he wants a thorough investigation of the killing. The FBI and State Police are investigating.
"We're going to keep coming to Homer until we get justice," Sharpton said without elaborating.
Rendered mute after losing his larynx to cancer, Monroe was outside his home on mild Friday afternoon in February when events unfolded during a cookout. A barbecue cooker smoked beside a picnic table in the yard. A dozen or so family members talked and played nearby.
All seemed calm, until two Homer police officers drove up.
In a report to state authorities, Homer police said Officer Tim Cox and another officer they have refused to identify chased Monroe's son, Shaun, 38, from a suspected drug deal blocks away to his father's house.
Witnesses dispute that account, saying the younger Monroe was talking to his sister-in-law in a truck outside the house when officers arrived.
All agree Shaun Monroe, who had an arrest record for assault and battery but no current warrants, drove up the driveway and went into the house. Two white police officers followed him. Within minutes, he ran back outside, followed by an unidentified officer who Tasered him in the front yard.
Seeing the commotion, Bernard Monroe confronted the officer. Police said that he advanced on them with a pistol and that Cox, who was still inside the house, shot at him through a screen door.
Monroe fell dead. How many shots were fired isn't clear; the coroner has refused to release an autopsy report, citing the active investigation.
Police said Monroe was shot after he pointed a gun at them, though no one claims Monroe fired shots. Friends and family said he was holding a bottle of sports water. They accuse police of planting a gun he owned next to his body.
"Mr. Ben didn't have a gun," said 32-year-old neighbor Marcus Frazier, who was there that day. "I saw that other officer pick up the gun from out of a chair on the porch and put it by him."
Frazier said Monroe was known to keep a gun for protection because of local drug activity.
Despite the chase and Tasering, Shaun Monroe was not arrested.
Monroe's gun is being DNA-tested by state police. The findings of their investigation will be given to District Attorney Jonathan Stewart, who would decide whether to file charges.
"We've had a good relationship, blacks and whites, but this thing has done a lot of damage," said Michael Wade, one of three blacks on the five-member town council. "To shoot down a family man that had never done any harm, had no police record, caused no trouble. Suddenly everyone is looking around wondering why it happened and if race was the reason."
Homer, a town of 3,800 about 45 miles northwest of Shreveport, is in piney woods just south of the Arkansas state line. Many people work in the oil or timber industries. In the old downtown, shops line streets near the antebellum Claiborne Parish courthouse on the town square.
The easygoing climate, blacks say, masked police harassment.
The black community has focused its anger on Police Chief Russell Mills, who is white. They say he's directed a policy of harassment toward them.
The FBI and State Police said they received no complaints about Homer police before the shooting.
Mills declined interview requests, saying he retained a lawyer and feared losing his job.
He and several Homer police officers stood alongside a road as marchers filed by Friday. In a town where many know each other, he shook the hands of several people.
Several Justice Department mediators accompanied Sharpton and the other marchers.
The Rev. Willie Young, pastor of the Baptist church where the march began, said "things begin to happen" when Sharpton lends his time to a cause.
"I want you to meet the new South," he said at the rally. "Things will never be the same. Homer will never be the same."
Shaun Monroe holds a program from the funeral of his father Bernard Monroe Wednesday, March 18, 2009, at his fathers house in Homer, La. For 73 years before his killing by a white police officer, Bernard Monroe's life in this little town was as quiet as they come. Rendered mute after losing his larynx to cancer, the black man's death is making far more noise than he ever did, and raising racial tensions between the black community and the police department. (AP Photo/ Judi Bottoni)
The town square in Homer, La. is pictured Wednesday, March 18, 2009. A police shooting has raised racial tensions in this north Louisiana Town. For 73 years before his killing by a white police officer, Bernard Monroe's life in this little town was as quiet as they come. Rendered mute after losing his larynx to cancer, the black man's death is making far more noise than he ever did, and raising racial tensions between the black community and the police department. (AP Photo/ Judi Bottoni)