- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - After police killed a man outside a convenience store and protesters filled the streets, the first black mayor of the Louisiana capital seemed to be conspicuously missing. Kip Holden’s absence was so glaring that demonstrators called for his resignation.

But with the shooting deaths of three law enforcement officers on Sunday, the 63-year-old Democrat has become more visible, standing up for his police force and accepting condolences from mayors across the country, including the leaders of Orlando and Dallas, and from President Barack Obama.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Holden vowed Wednesday to unify Baton Rouge after two weeks of violence and anguish.

The day the officers were killed “was one of the worst days in the history of Baton Rouge” and in his 12 years as mayor, Holden said.

He said he was confident that the city would endure.

“It’s been trying, but I have not shed any tears because I know we will win out,” he said from his downtown office.

Citing the Bible, as he does often, Holden quoted Job: “Yet though you slay me, I will rise again,” he said. “Yet though those officers have been slain, Baton Rouge will rise again.”

The mayor was getting ready to go to church Sunday when he got a call from his sister about ambulances on Airline Highway, a busy thoroughfare.

At the hospital, grief poured out. The mother of a sheriff’s deputy killed in the shootout held a child in her arms and said she didn’t know how she could go forward. The deputy’s young daughter couldn’t believe her father wasn’t coming home.

“Dad’s not dead,” he recalled the girl saying, “and he’s coming home this afternoon.”

The mayor described the experience as “like having your insides ripped out.”

The slayings came only days after five officers were killed in an ambush in Dallas and just over a month since a gunman opened fire in an Orlando nightclub, killing 49 people.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” he said. “We can’t be reliving this stuff over and over again. But yes we were.”

The police force is on high alert, and law enforcement officers from surrounding parishes have poured in to help. Funerals for the officers are pending.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating the killing of Alton Sterling, who was selling CDs in a black neighborhood when he died at the hands of two white officers. His shooting death, caught on graphic cellphone video, sparked days of protests that reverberated around the nation.

Protesters have promised to resume their demands for police reform, and Holden said the city was “prepared for any scenario.”

It’s a delicate time for Holden, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits. Voters will pick a new mayor in November. On Wednesday, he registered to run for a congressional seat.

Albert Samuels, a political scientist at Southern University, said discontent with Holden within Baton Rouge’s black community began brewing before Sterling’s death. For years, Holden enjoyed broad support among African-American voters who backed him in campaigns for the Metro Council, the state Legislature and eventually for mayor-president.

But more recently, critics in the black community have grown louder, complaining that the mayor has neglected north Baton Rouge, the predominantly black area where Sterling was shot. The feeling is that south of Florida Boulevard - the “dividing line” - there are thriving businesses, better streets and more development.

Many African-Americans “have essentially concluded that Mayor Holden has sold the black community out,” Samuels said.

Discontent started bubbling up publicly during a candidate forum last year, when Holden was running for lieutenant governor and was asked pointedly about the lack of economic development for north Baton Rouge, Samuels said.

The mayor has also repeatedly backed the police department, insisting there is no systemic bias in their policing, Samuels said. For many in the African-American community, news that Holden had not reached out to the Sterling family after the shooting was “a bridge too far.”

Animosity toward Holden was common among protesters. At one demonstration outside the convenience store where Sterling was shot, a Nation of Islam speaker said the mayor had “white intestines” and would not be welcome in poor African-American neighborhoods.

Holden said he could not go against his officers.

“Think about it. I’m the boss of that officer,” he said, referring to the officer who shot Sterling. Police were responding to a 911 call alleging Sterling had threatened someone with a gun.

“What it would look like for me … to go and march with the people wanting to kill police officers?” he said. “That would be absolutely insane. That’s stupid. And I would not take that step in any circumstance whatsoever.”

As for officers who may harbor racist attitudes, he said there are few of them.

“I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen,” he said. “But that number would be very, very small.”

___

Associated Press Writer Rebecca Santana in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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