From any point in the throng of masked demonstrators, you could pick out Cory St. Ewart’s flag. It’s an Acadian flag with one provocative difference: a black power fist standing in for the gold star.
Hoisted 15 feet above University Avenue, St. Ewart’s flag swayed from side to side above Sunday’s Rally Against Police Brutality as it detoured to the headquarters of the Lafayette Police Department, briefly pausing traffic twice — once while the crowd moved toward Pinhook Road and again, with the aid of a police blockade, rumbling the wrong way up the street back to campus.
“I take great pride in Acadiana. I’m from Baton Rouge, but I’ve been here for almost a decade. I do think that Lafayette and Acadiana is a very beautiful place. But you’re always looking for more inclusion,” St. Ewart told me, his voice muffled by a black and white bandana when I caught up with him in the middle of the street headed toward the corner of Johnston and University, where the spontaneous march began. Nearby, an organizer in an orange dashiki crackled a command through a bullhorn for the crowd to move back on the curb.
For the most part, the protestors straggled back onto the sidewalk and continued to shuffle north. Since the rally began with a round of speakers earlier that morning, organizers managed to run a tight-enough ship through walkie talkies and clear messaging to the crowds and police.
No one got hurt. No one was arrested.
Commentary around social media since the rally has attributed the rally’s success to a Lafayette exceptionalism, a thoroughgoing belief that things are just different here. Police violence is not unknown in Lafayette, however. Protesting against officer-involved shootings and aggression, the local NAACP has held demonstrations that were not nearly as magnetic as this one in recent years. In 2015, a few dozen protestors gathered in front of the Lafayette Police Department demanding the release of surveillance footage said to be evidence that a man was wrongfully but not fatally shot while running away from police.
“The people are serious,” NAACP Lafayette Chapter President Marja Broussard said Sunday of the difference between this and previous rallies. We spoke as she urged demonstrators to head home once the rally officially ended. The event was co-organized by the Student Action Organizing Committee at UL, the Lafayette Chapter of the NAACP, Sunder Press, Lafayette Tenants Association and Move the Mindset.
Broussard, 58, said only two other rallies in her lifetime measured up to the scale of Sunday’s rally. The difference here is the diversity of the demonstrators. Previous protests in Lafayette of this size were almost exclusively attended by black people, she said. This one was remarkable for its range of identity.
“They want to be involved in the change they want to see. This is different. The cry is much louder now. It’s not just black and brown people here crying out. It’s white people crying out. It’s other leaders in our community,” she said.
While demonstrators sauntered back to their cars parked in and along Freetown, the neighborhood across from campus, St. Ewart lingered a little bit longer to wave his flag on the red brick entryway to UL’s front office buildings. It wasn’t that long ago that UL adopted imagery that acknowledged local African roots in the region in its official seal.
Flags have been weaponized in the American culture war, often creating flashpoints of tension over interpretation and symbolic overtones. One protestor I spoke with commended Mayor-President Josh Guillory for flying the Creole flag in his press conferences; the use of black symbolism in public life, she said, is not to be taken for granted.
An artist, St. Ewart says his comment on the Acadian flag was conceived as a Black History Month art project showcased by local art collective Willingly Rejected. From a distance, it could be construed as a provocative comment on Lafayette’s own troubled history of racial injustice. For St. Ewart, a black man whose real name is Cory Stewart, the ambiguity is the thing, but he’s unequivocal about his local pride and his black pride.
“I thought Black History Month was a perfect time for a new take on the Acadian flag. I have a normal one in my room, and I do take great pride in and love this city and this town. And I love black people, obviously. It’s combining all my favorite things,” he said.