Christiaan Mader

Christiaan Mader founded The Current in 2018, reviving the brand from a short-lived culture magazine he created for Lafayette publisher INDMedia. An award-winning investigative and culture journalist, Christiaan’s work as a writer and reporter has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Offbeat, Gambit, and The Advocate.

Can I track my mail-in ballot in Lafayette Parish?

We’re taking questions from readers to help navigate a historically complicated election.

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What prevents double voting?

We’re taking questions from readers to help navigate a historically complicated election.

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Who counts your vote in Lafayette Parish?

COVID-19 didn’t just disrupt our lives, it disrupted our democracy. And the Nov. 3 election is speeding toward us. We’re taking questions from readers to help navigate a historically complicated election.

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Lafayette and Louisiana brace for Delta with resources stretched thin

The gist: With Lafayette Parish under voluntary evacuation since mid-week, most locals have chosen to ride it out. Although downgraded to a Category 2 as it approached the coast late Friday afternoon, Hurricane Delta poses a real threat to a weakened disaster response system. 

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Emergency resources are still stretched by the pandemic and the halting recovery from Hurricane Laura. The mega shelter in Alexandria filled up Friday to a COVID-reduced capacity of 800 people. A second shelter in Bastrop is open, and the state can open a third if need be. Around 10,000 people are sheltered across the state as of early Friday afternoon, the governor announced, including several thousand in hotels after Hurricane Laura. Another 2,000 are in hotels in Texas. 

Facing Laura six weeks ago, authorities worked to avoid using the shelters, shifting tens of thousands of evacuees to hotels in Louisiana and Texas. Many Cameron and Calcasieu parish residents are still unable to go home. 

Hotels were already booked up by those evacuees and by outside utility crews coming into help. “That’s why we stressed earlier to evacuate,” Lafayette Parish Homeland Security Director Craig Stansbury said during a press conference Friday. 

Out-of-state utility companies arrived in force to make quick work of restoring power. LUS announced 600 people in 40 line crews are on hand to repair breaks in the grid. Power was restored quickly in Lafayette after Laura. But thousands who stayed behind in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes went without power for weeks. 

Louisiana’s network of disaster relief organizations is drained. Kim Boudreaux of Catholic Charities of Acadiana describes an “apocalyptic” tone on statewide disaster response calls. Volunteers are few and far between, and meager resources are stretched thin. 

“Every disaster has further complicated our state’s situation,” she says. 

LCG arranged for several buses to take those without shelter to Alexandria. Outreach workers tried to get those without places to go out ahead of the storm. Though LCG anticipated dozens, only a handful took the trip.

Thursday morning, Betty Blaine and Troy Daigle waited to board the transport. Hailing from Lake Charles, they say the high rise they lived in was shredded by Hurricane Laura in late August. After decamping to a Marriott in New Orleans, Blaine and Daigle packed west to Acadia Parish, between Lafayette and their native Lake Charles, to stay in a friend’s camper. Unsafe there, they cast their lot with the critical transport caravan and the shelter in Alexandria. 

“With these hurricanes, you don’t know what they going to do,” Daigle says through a disposable surgical mask. After they ride out the storm, they hope to return to the camper. It’ll be another seven to eight months before their apartment in Lake Charles is habitable.

UPDATE: Higgins ‘did not apologize’ on conciliatory call with Black militia leader he threatened to ‘eliminate’

In a 20-minute YouTube clip shared Tuesday, the two men, both vets, talk in high-minded and spiritual terms about finding common ground and agree to meet this weekend.

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Lafayette Police adopts parts of 8 Can’t Wait police reform campaign

The gist: Updates to policies governing how Lafayette police officers use force will align department practices with a national police reform and racial justice campaign, once the changes are formally approved. A limited ban on using chokeholds and requiring de-escalation strategies are among the revisions adopted by the Lafayette Police Department after several weeks of discussions with a working group, spearheaded by three Black women, convened after the killing of George Floyd. 

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This is the first time LPD has updated its use of force policy since 2014. The changes are largely incremental, as many of the policies outlined by the 8 Can’t Wait police reform campaign used as a north star by the working group were already part of LPD’s general orders. Conference calls and Zoom meetings on the issue commenced in June, just as the nation began to seethe with protests — a movement that touched Lafayette with a round of peaceful marches in early summer. Local calls for police reform have grown louder after Lafayette police shot and killed Trayford Pellerin, a Black man, kicking off intense protests and vocal advocacy that has yet to extinguish. After Pellerin’s killing, the local NAACP demanded LPD adopt the framework and commit to other substantial changes. 

Law student Faith Flugence, who introduced 8 Can’t Wait as the group’s framework, calls the changes a “win” even as they fall short of addressing what she sees as the deeper roots of police malpractice: racial injustice and a lack of accountability when police fail to abide by their own codes of conduct. 

“That’s definitely still yet to be resolved,” Flugence says, reflecting on the changes after a meeting earlier this afternoon. “That’s something that will take a lot of gnawing at. The fact we got policies implemented and got these parties to the table was a win for us nevertheless.” 

Read LPD’s Bias Based Profiling policy adopted in 2010.

Working separately, Flugence and attorney Xavieria Jeffers were connected with neighborhood organizer Alzina Dural, who also sits on the police community relations board, by LCG Chief of Minority Affairs Carlos Harvin. The group met with interim Chief Scott Morgan, who is White, and other LPD representatives to comb through changes in a series of meetings that were at times contentious and mutually suspicious, according to the women who participated. 

8 Can’t Wait was launched after George Floyd’s death. The framework establishes eight no-cost policies advocates say can reduce the number of deaths and injuries resulting from police violence: 

  • Ban chokeholds and strangleholds
  • Require de-escalation 
  • Require warning before shooting
  • Exhaust alternatives before shooting
  • Impose a duty to intervene and stop wrongful violence among officers 
  • Ban shooting at moving vehicles
  • Require a “use of force continuum” to detail force techniques available to police 
  • Require comprehensive reporting of incidents involving force 

LPD’s existing use of policy was implemented under Chief Jim Craft in 2014 and has not been updated since. Here are provisional changes released Thursday. Changes in bold: 

  • Chokeholds are now reclassified as deadly force and reserved as a last resort 
  • De-escalation is now a required procedure in the use of force policy. LPD has trained officers in a de-escalation practice called “Verbal Judo” since the 1990s.
  • Require warning before shooting 
  • Exhaust all alternatives before shooting 
  • A more explicit duty to intervene now requires officers to immediately confront unlawful and dangerous violence 
  • Shooting at moving vehicles is banned in all but “extreme circumstances” (slight revision)
  • Existing use of force continuum is updated and now includes de-escalation tactics (slight revision) 
  • Existing use of force review process remains (slight revision)

Read the LPD’s Use of Force policy adopted in 2014. This is the first time it has been released publicly.

Many departments, like Lafayette, already have policies in place that tick off boxes in the campaign. Created by the police reform advocacy Campaign Zero, the framework was designed as a low-barrier gateway to broader police reform. Many police reform advocates view the changes as superficial, even too easy to adopt, such that police departments are able to boast about progress without commitment to substantial changes.

There are more tweaks to come before the policy is finalized. Jeffers says the group was surprised by LCG’s announcement Thursday. The group had not seen the policies before the press release was published and quickly made headlines in local media. At first put off by the unilateral announcement, both Jeffers and Flugence say they were pleased with what they saw and ultimately walked away upbeat from their meeting Friday. Holding officers accountable is where the improvements come up short for Jeffers, but guidance from interim Chief Morgan on how to press for more changes floored her. 

“I was shocked,” Jeffers says. “It really demonstrated that they’re in this for real.”

Feds grant another $1.4 million to Lafayette for emergency housing assistance

The gist: Identified as a place at “higher risk” for evictions, Lafayette will receive a second and larger round of federal stimulus dollars intended for housing aid during the pandemic. At just under $1.4 million, the block grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development nearly doubles the last allocation Lafayette received, one the Guillory administration used to stand up a small business grant program.

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Housing advocates say the money adds flexibility but likely falls short of the overall need. Hundreds of Acadiana households remain in hotels with FEMA footing the bill, although that program is no longer taking on new clients. Sustained unemployment threatens to add more need to a largely under-resourced network of nonprofits, which is coordinating responses not only to the pandemic but also recovery efforts after Hurricane Laura. Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing now has case managers helping those in the hotel program moving into stable housing. ARCH Executive Director Leigh Rachal says the latest round of funding could help that process move more quickly or go toward a longer-term solution. Acadiana’s shelter system is tapped out and stretched to its limits by the pandemic. 

“It’s sort of like a community operating without an emergency room,” Rachal says of the lack of shelter space. “If you have a medical crisis, you need an emergency room. These funds, because they’re so very flexible, provide some opportunity for the community to really think through what we need to do more holistically.” 

Hollis Conway, director of Lafayette’s Community Development Department, says his office is working on a community needs assessment to sort out the best use of the money.

HUD’s messaging on the allocation focuses on housing. In a press release announcing the nearly $2 billion allocation, HUD said it is exhausting what remains of the $5 billion set aside for community development block grants through the CARES to help “places with households facing higher risk of eviction.”

“These funds can help households struggling to meet their rental or mortgage obligations to stay afloat as our nation continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson said in the HUD release.

Communities used funds from earlier rounds to tackle a variety of emerging needs, including housing, business support or to buy equipment like personal protective gear and testing supplies. Lafayette used all of its first grant — $852,000 — on a small business program that has struggled to move cash quickly and widely as promised. LCG has since shuffled around $560,000 in regular federal housing dollars and will chip $100,000 out of the small business recovery program to meet housing assistance needs. 

Louisiana will receive $27 million in this round of block grants. HUD’s release says states received priority for funding based on their level of unemployment and the current severity of their coronavirus outbreaks. Louisiana experienced one of the worst coronavirus rebounds, which has abated in recent weeks. 

Hundreds of thousands in Louisiana remain out of work or underemployed. Around 232,000 Louisiana workers filed continued jobless claims for the week ending Sept. 9. Just over 10,000 people in Lafayette Parish filed continued claims that same week. In May, the state peaked at 321,000 claims. Acadiana’s shelters remain tapped out. This week, the $300 boost to unemployment checks tacked on by the federal government will end, reducing the maximum weekly benefit to $247, among the lowest in the nation. Economists project Louisiana will not have recovered all jobs lost by 2021.

Trayford Pellerin’s family secures commitment from Guillory to see body cam footage in first steps toward reconciliation

The gist: A raw, two-hour meeting between Josh Guillory and the family of Trayford Pellerin yielded a cautiously improved rapport and a commitment from the mayor-president to show the family body cam footage documenting Pellerin’s killing by Lafayette police. The conciliatory meeting, coming two weeks after the 31-year-old Black man’s death, sketched a framework for longer term progress on race and policing in Lafayette. 

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Allowing the family to see the video would help bring clarity and closure to a publicly volatile situation. Through their attorney, Ronald Haley, the family commended Guillory’s efforts at reconciliation. The family has consistently called for more transparency from the administration and investigators, a push that has been echoed and amplified by protestors for weeks. Haley applauded the mayor-president’s contrition, accepting it as sincere, but promised to hold Guillory to his word on several commitments, such that the “olive branch” extended would bear fruit.

“The family got more out of the meeting than they anticipated they were going to get,” Pellerin attorney Ronald Haley told reporters minutes after the meeting. “We have to continue to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire,” Haley said. Guillory accepted an invitation to Pellerin’s funeral this Thursday. 

Guillory’s spokesman says the mayor-president is “hell-bent” on following through. Chief Communications Officer Jamie Angelle tells The Current the administration does not anticipate any roadblocks in showing the family the footage. Should any appear, he says, the public will hear about it from an outraged Guillory. 

A lack of clarity has pulled the story of Pellerin’s death in contrasting directions. Relying on grainy footage from bystanders, locals have seized on unconfirmed details to peg his death as a tragic but justifiable precaution or yet another example of racist and deadly police violence. Outside of investigators, no one has seen exactly what happened to Pellerin, and speculation and anger have run rampant in the vacuum. Haley released the findings of an independent autopsy report this week, challenging the official narrative offered by the administration and state police, which is investigating the shooting, since shortly after Pellerin’s death. Reports by local media seized on details suggesting Pellerin wasn’t tased, which would contradict official reports from the scene and some accounts from bystanders. 

Video evidence could shed light on the steps police took to avoid killing Pellerin. Initial statements from the mayor-president, who told Pellerin’s family he had not seen the body cam footage himself, backed the police account of the shooting, claiming police took steps — such as firing tasers — to de-escalate the encounter. The family and social justice activists have contested that narrative, saying it fails common sense. Officers hit Pellerin 10 times in a flurry of gun fire that shattered glass on the door of the convenience store he was trying to enter and then handcuffed him, Haley contends, citing the autopsy report paid for by the Pellerin family. The Pellerin autopsy found no taser markings, but was ultimately inconclusive about whether tasers were used. State police declined to release to The Current the findings of the autopsy produced in their investigation. 

Earlier Friday, Haley rebuked “two weeks of silence” from authorities involved in the Pellerin case. At a press conference called by the local NAACP chapter, Haley challenged elected officials to pressure state police, who are investigating the shooting, to release the body cam footage, security video from the gas station where Pellerin was shot and the 911 call that brought police to the scene. 

“The longer they wait, the harder it’s going to be for each side to digest what the truth is,” Haley said at the Friday morning press conference, saying his efforts were neither “anti police” nor “pro social justice” but fixed doggedly on achieving transparency. 

LPD turned the case over to Louisiana State Police. That’s standard procedure for shootings involving officers in Lafayette and other jurisdictions in the state. At the Friday morning press conference before the Pellerin family met with Guillory, NAACP representatives criticized the arrangement, saying it was being used to shield local law enforcement from transparency. NAACP reps further called for police reform and for the district attorney to prosecute the officers who shot Pellerin. 

Guillory further promised to explore deeper improvements in LPD. Described by Haley as an agreement in principle, Guillory’s commitments set short, intermediate and long-term goals for repairing local law enforcement’s relationship with the Black community. Here, Haley again credited a new face for Guillory, whom he earlier criticized as a mayor of two cities, one white and one Black. 

“The mayor we saw in that meeting was not a mayor of two cities, but a mayor of one city,” Haley said.

Lafayette will put up more to help renters, shifting $100,000 from business relief

The gist: After months of resisting calls to do more to keep vulnerable families housed, the Guillory administration will carve out a small portion of coronavirus relief money for rent and utility assistance. LCG committed Tuesday to shift $100,000 out of emergency funds currently dedicated to its business relief program and repurpose another $300,000 in regular housing program money to rent relief. 

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Most of the money LCG put toward emergency rent assistance has come from shuffling around housing dollars it already manages. The $100,000 reallocation will be cut from the $850,000 federal coronavirus relief grant the Guillory administration and LEDA used to set up, over the objections of housing advocates, the Lafayette Business Recovery Program, which has come up short of its initial promise to help hundreds of small businesses. Another $300,000 would be allocated to rent and utility assistance from the Community Development Department’s regular housing program budget. 

“It’s been difficult to get the funding to these businesses,” Community Development Director Hollis Conway told council members Tuesday night, reiterating that his staff is overtasked in administering the program.

Altogether, LCG has committed $660,000 to direct housing support, including $260,000 the administration offered up as a compromise to housing advocates earlier this year. Leigh Rachal, who heads the Acadiana Regional Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, says that money is only just now hitting the street, and it’s moving quickly.

Lafayette’s business grant program has struggled to get money into the hands of the businesses it was sold to help. Called the Lafayette Business Recovery Program, it combined the $850,000 in coronavirus relief funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a $200,000 matching grant from LEDA, which has managed the public-facing portal for applications. Approximately 1,000 businesses applied. 

To date, 33 businesses have been approved for funding. Sixteen businesses qualified for the more restrictive HUD reimbursements managed by LCG, accounting for $119,000 in grants. Another 17 businesses were funded by LEDA’s funding pool, not burdened by federal red tape, totalling $118,000. Three more applications are pending approval for LEDA funds. Conway said another dozen or so applicants are in the pipeline on the LCG side. It has more than $600,000 remaining to spend. 

Regulatory snags have slowed the program. Faced with onerous documentation requirements, the vast majority of applicants have washed out of the multi-tiered process. As of mid-August, the program had moved just $26,000 of the federal award. LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux forged ahead to quickly disburse the portion put up by his agency. LEDA’s dollars do not come up with the thorny restrictions that complicate the HUD-funded reimbursements. 

In the end, many businesses will get the help they need to continue operations through the BRP,” Gothreaux said in a statement announcing the latest awards this week. “We won’t have enough funds to help everyone, but we want to assist as many businesses as we can that were forced to close or limit operations due to government orders.”

Council members are pressing the administration to get things moving. City Councilwoman Nanette Cook and Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin both pushed for Conway to get the $100,000 out as soon as possible, angling for an emergency meeting if necessary.

“It failed to get the money out quickly; meanwhile, we’ve got people losing their homes,” Naquin told Conway. 

HUD added more flexibility to the relief funds. But it’s unclear that substantially more businesses will benefit. Under new guidance issued in early August, up to 30% of the award can be spent to benefit workers earning above low to moderate incomes, and businesses that received other federal help can now qualify. A key selling point pushed hard by Mayor-President Josh Guillory, Gothreaux and others was the program would target businesses who had nowhere else to go. HUD’s updated guidance also set a long deadline to spend the money, giving LCG three years to spend at least 80% of its award and six years to spend all of it.

From the jump, housing advocates argued the HUD funds were better used for housing, given added flexibility included in the block grant program, a creature of the CARES Act, intended to get money into renters’ hands and avoid widespread homelessness. A wave of evictions, feared for months by housing advocates in the wake of rising unemployment, has yet to materialize. And this week, the federal government issued a sweeping moratorium on evictions through the end of the year. How that order works in practice is still unclear, and advocates call it a stay of execution — not a solution — on rising housing instability nationally. 

“We haven’t seen the evictions, but we have seen people call for assistance. People are really struggling to make ends meet,” says Rachal.

Guillory’s hole grows deeper with fallout over Hurricane Laura shelters

The gist: In a knee-jerk response to the sight of armed protestors, Lafayette officials stopped ad hoc plans to stand up shelters for Hurricane Laura evacuees with local churches. The decision went viral Saturday when an email to local disaster relief organizations leaked, drawing wide rebuke from critics inside and outside Lafayette. Many read it as a callous denial of help for those most in need — one the administration attempted to justify by citing, without evidence, a material threat to public safety. 

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Get caught up, quickly: Hurricane Laura shattered large parts of Calcasieu and Cameron parishes and scattered thousands across Louisiana, mostly in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Evacuees have been housed in hotels paid for by the state, in a bid to avoid creating new Covid-19 hotspots out of mass shelters. As hurricanes barreled toward Louisiana, protests erupted in Lafayette when police killed a Black man in North Lafayette. Castigating Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s response, activists have demanded his resignation, openly calling the first-term mayor a racist in light of his policies and his cold and fumbling response to the death of Trayford Pellerin. 

CAO Cydra Wingerter asked disaster groups not to set up shelter in Lafayette. In an email that spread quickly on social media and caught the attention of the national press, Wingerter ties the decision to intensifying protests over Pellerin’s death. Armed men circled a demonstration Saturday, without incident, and both government and protest organizers say activists from outside are on the ground, though there has been no evidence of violence associated with them. 

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore led Katrina evacuations in 2005

“This is a serious threat and we must handle this issue before we can care for our neighbors. It goes against what we believe and how we usually respond after a disaster but it would be irresponsible to potentially put others in harm’s way,” Wingerter writes. But her remarks contrast with assurances from Sheriff Mark Garber and others that the situation on the ground is under control. 

To be clear, there are no plans for mass shelters for Laura evacuees in the Lafayette area. South of I-10, Lafayette is too close to the blast zone of the Gulf Coast to safely stand up shelter for families fleeing major disasters like Hurricane Laura, says Melinda Taylor, who chairs Acadiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Mass shelters are planned further north, to avoid compounding catastrophes in the event a hurricane hits while Lafayette shelters thousands. 

“Really, the email was tilting at windmills,” Taylor says. AVOAD has focused its energies on coordinating direct aid like food, medicine and medical care, working to establish a virtual resource center and get storm victims signed up for FEMA assistance. Any mass sheltering plans — the sort that Lafayette set up to receive evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — would be coordinated by Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services or the American Red Cross. “AVOAD doesn’t set up shelter operations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster,” Taylor says. 

The plans Wingerter alluded to involved shelters planned with local churches. Responding to pressure from Rep. Clay Higgins, LCG coordinated with several pastors to figure out if local shelters could be stood up quickly in Lafayette. In an email thread, Higgins dismisses the state’s official response as out-of-reach for most poor families and chided the safety considerations made in light of the still active pandemic. 

“The shelters listed here are pretty much beyond the reach of most Louisiana poor folk. The ones most at risk from a [Category 4 hurricane]. To hell with COVID19. Nobody cares about COVID19 when your singlewide is getting flipped by a storm,” Higgins writes. 

Guillory’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, says plans hadn’t gotten much further than that. In a back and forth with Higgins and his representatives, Chief Minority Officer Carlos Harvin, himself the focus of intense rage among many Black leaders, reports that efforts to coordinate with local churches isn’t getting very far, given logistical challenges. “Wish I had better news,” he writes. Wingerter’s leaked message follows. 

Intended or not, Wingerter’s message reinforced a growing view among critics that Guillory is hard-hearted, incompetent and even racist. Critics across the state have raked Guillory over his handling of the Pellerin shooting, the pandemic and his canyon-wide rift with Lafayette’s Black community. Many drew immediate contrast to the safe harbor Lafayette offered Katrina and Rita evacuees. Denying shelter was seen as another assault on people of color, the most likely population to be a position to need immediate refuge.

“We in no way shape or form have denied any assistance,” Angelle tells The Current. “We’ve granted every request” from neighboring parishes for mutual aid services and more. 

The missteps are compounding already fraught tensions on the ground in Lafayette over the Pellerin shooting. Protests have picked up steam since Hurricane Laura passed through. Black leaders were enraged by Guillory’s first response to Pellerin’s shooting, in which he failed to extend condolences to Pellerin’s family and rushed to back police. Guillory later apologized, after speaking with Black pastors, and offered his sympathies.

Officials have postured chest-thumping strength toward growing unrest. Guillory has twice convened press conferences with law enforcement officials, promising to stand their ground against outside forces. Angelle points to traffic disruption, a break-in at a discount closing store and some small fires set in the Evangeline Thruway median as evidence concern is warranted. The sight of armed men on site at protests “rattled nerves,” he says, “and rightfully so.” 

“We welcome people that stand in solidarity,” local activist Jamal Taylor says. “You can’t say a black person with a gun is an issue. It’s ridiculous.” 

Activists have accused the administration of overreacting to stir up fear among the city’s mostly white, conservative families. A woman barbecuing in protest in front of Guillory’s south Lafayette home was arrested and booked. Police showed up in force to a fake “Antifa” event promoted by a satire site at the Acadiana Mall, the second such reaction this summer. Before the weekend, Guillory signed an executive order prohibiting gathering and loitering Downtown, which protestors immediately read as an attempt to shut down dissent and others have called an attempt to criminalize homelessness. That order, a rehash of an ordinance drafted by Guillory’s legal department, was in effect as demonstrators gathered around the Mouton statue, ringed by men armed with military-style rifles, which authorities did not break up. Guillory is in a deep hole with the Black community. And, in his responses thus far, he seems to only be digging deeper into it.

First the pandemic, then protests and now Laura

The gist: An impending Gulf storm reminiscent of Hurricane Rita in 2005 and scattered demonstrations are splitting public attention since Lafayette police killed a 31-year-old Black man last week. Protestors are working to keep attention on their outrage, while residents reeling from the pandemic and fatigued by years of flooding turn to face another storm.

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Marco and Laura won’t deter Lafayette protestors

The gist: Activists with the local NAACP staged a sit-in at City hall Monday, two days ahead of Tropical Storm Laura’s expected landfall as a hurricane. Jamal Taylor, 33, one of the NAACP organizers, has promised more action in days to come both on the ground and over Zoom, as part of an ongoing effort to demand answers about the […]

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