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Mourners Gather In Baton Rouge, La., To Remember Alton Sterling


We're continuing to follow a fluid situation in Turkey tonight, where there is a military uprising, and the country's leaders are vowing to retaliate. We will keep bringing you the latest on what's happening there throughout the program. Right now, we turn to Baton Rouge. Thousands gathered there today for the funeral of Alton Sterling, who was killed by police last week. Tegan Wendland from member station WWNO reports.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: The funeral comes after a week of heated protests and clashes with police, which resulted in hundreds of arrests. But today, the tone was calm, respectful and somber as people lined up to enter the activity center at Southern University. Karnisha Wiliams was born and raised in Baton Rouge and says she and her family live in constant fear of discrimination and police violence.

KARNISHA WILIAMS: You know I don't know him, but that could have been my brother. That's why I came - because, I mean, he's a person. It's just sad that, you know, in this day and age, we still have to live with stuff like this.

WENDLAND: As the rain fell outside, people streamed in to pay their respects. Williams walked quietly with others to the front of the auditorium to view Sterling's body. Since his death, Sterling has become larger than life. He's come to represent a movement. Huge, colorful posters of his face flanked the stage, which was covered in flowers, and elaborate hearse pulled by a motorcycle waited outside. Thousands filled the bleachers, and a choir belted out Southern gospels.


WENDLAND: Sterling's nephew, Alton Sterling Jr., read a poem.


ALTON STERLING JR: All of us cry tears down our eyes, but the question is why would they kill a father of five? Took the reports of what happened and smeared it with lies, but when God comes to the scene, no one can hide.


WENDLAND: But this moment of community mourning comes as a temporary break during tumultuous times. The investigation into Sterling's death is ongoing. The police involved in the shooting are on leave, and the community has no answers about what happened. Protesters plan to hold another rally tomorrow. And because of this tension and the lack of resolution over Sterling's death, the funeral, in many ways, wasn't about him at all. Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond called for better community policing and political action.


CEDRIC RICHMOND: We have to legislate with the courage to lead the charge to reform this discriminatory system that under-educates, over-incarcerates, a system that perpetuates income inequality.

WENDLAND: Baton Rouge City Councilwoman Chauna Banks spoke directly to Sterling's children.


CHAUNA BANKS: Your future is bright because your daddy's blood is going to make your future bright.


WENDLAND: As Sterling lay peacefully in an open coffin, an impressive list of speakers lined up behind his body on the stage, and the funeral was transformed into a political event. Local congress people, council members and national social justice leaders weighed in, framing his death as a sacrifice for the greater good. The Reverend Al Sharpton took to the stage and roused the crowd with a fiery call to God.


AL SHARPTON: We come this far by faith, leaning on the lord, trusting in his holy word. He never - he never - he never - from the outhouse to the White House, he never failed me yet.

WENDLAND: People wept and hugged each other as they left the church. State and local police patrolled the perimeters and directed traffic. There were no protesters in sight - for now, a city at peace. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.