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The story behind the filming of the fatal Baton Rouge police shooting

Family and friends of Alton Sterling, including his cousin Jakayla Sterling, foreground, protest on the corner of Fairfields Ave. and North Foster Drive, after was fatally shot in an altercation with Baton Rouge Police just after midnight, in the parking lot of the Triple S Food Store, Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La. They chanted things including "Hands up, don't shoot!" Officers responded to the store about 12:35 a.m. Tuesday after an anonymous caller indicated a man selling music CDs and wearing a red shirt threatened him with a gun, said Cpl. L'Jean McKneely. [Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP]
Published Jul. 7, 2016

The past few years have seen a marked increase in videos featuring police officers injuring or killing suspects. These videos, which appear on social media and in newscasts, have powered public outcries accusing police officers of undue force.

In most cases, these videos are captured by random bystanders who pull out their camera-equipped cellphones.

In other words, these explosive videos are often the result of pure happenstance.

That was not the case with the first video that surfaced Tuesday afternoon, which showed a white Baton Rouge police fatally shooting Alton Sterling. That video, which caused nationwide outrage after it went viral on social media, was actually filmed by an organized group that specifically seeks out violent crimes with the intention of filming them, not for the purpose of exposing police but to deter young people from crime.

Early Tuesday morning, members of the group, called Stop the Killing Inc., followed a call they overheard on police scanners to the Triple S Food Mart. There, they filmed the shooting that has shaken the nation.

The group's founder, 43-year-old Arthur "Silky Slim" Reed, made the decision to upload the video of Sterling's shooting on social media Tuesday afternoon.

Reed and his team have filmed murders -- or their immediate aftermaths -- for years.

During a phone interview with The Washington Post early Thursday morning, Reed said he and his group of anti-violence activists have filmed upwards of 30 murders in Louisiana since 2001. That was the year he put his violent, criminal past behind him and founded Stop the Killing Inc. in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.

The organization seeks to prevent violent crimes, particularly among black youths, by performing outreach to local schools, prisons, churches and group homes.

"We focus on those individuals in the community to help them from going and getting killed or going back to prison," Reed said.

One of the organization's methods of deterring young people from crime is by filming violent crimes, often murders, and creating documentaries from the videos to show at demonstrations.

His team finds the murders, mostly around Louisiana, by keeping an ear on police scanners for calls that seem to have the potential to end violently.

"We actually create documentaries on murders, and one of the things that we do is we listen to police scanners to go out and film murders," Reed said.

Though it isn't the group's goal, as a result they sometimes film police doing things like "checking cars illegally."

Early Tuesday morning, members of his team -- he wouldn't say who, nor confirm he was present, citing safety concerns -- filmed the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling outside the Triple S Food Mart. After police did not immediately release any footage of the shooting, Reed and his team uploaded the video to Facebook and Instagram at around 5 p.m. Tuesday.

"We see a great injustice, and we wanted it to be known," Reed said. "We're forcefully seeking justice. This is a civil rights movement, and this is the continuation of same struggle that black people have been going through for so many years."

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By uploading the video, Reed could ensure that people would know exactly what happened.

"We don't have faith in the system," he said, citing the Eric Garner case. "We think the system is set up where we're hiring licensed killers."

Reed accomplished what he set out to do -- ensuring Sterling's death wouldn't go unnoticed by the nation.

On the phone, though, he made clear that his organization isn't simply concerned with these sorts of incidents. Instead, it was founded to root out the gang-related crime that he thinks is tearing the black community apart.

"We're showing what's happening to a race of people that are in a civil war that are also in war with everyone else," he said. "Black lives will never matter if it doesn't matter to black people first. If it doesn't matter to black people, why the hell would it matter to anyone else?"

Reed's passion was born from experience.

He grew up in Southside, a poor neighborhood of Baton Rouge abutting Louisiana State University's campus, the neighborhood's shuttered homes a contrast to the 300-year-old oak trees and roar of Tiger Stadium.

At 14 years old, he was sentenced to the Louisiana Training Institute for Boys for two counts of attempted second degree murder. But, as Reed wrote in the bio on his organization's website, he was "taught early in life to be a soldier" and founded the Southside Wrecking Crew gang upon his release.

"Like any soldier, he had found his war," he wrote of his younger self.

For twenty-two years, he lived a tiring life of violent crime and prison stints. According to his bio, he tried every drug he could find, from heroine to meth, and attempted suicide three times.

He was also shot multiple times during his criminal years.

Following a car wreck which only he survived, Reed said he had a vision from God, an epiphany.

"God laid it out to me, all the way through, and I followed through the plan that was laid out in my head," he said of founding Stop the Killing Inc. and beginning to film crime scenes. "I live that vision every day."

On one of those days, Reed found himself face-to-face with an old ambulance left to rust in a junkyard.

"I thought, 'I never had an opportunity to take the ambulance without being shot first," he said.

He now brings that ambulance -- which is outfitted with a 50-inch television monitor, speakers and seating -- to schools and churches. He leaves the lights on, so children "see what goes on in the streets." Then, he has the children sit inside, watching the documentaries he's made over the years -- "To Live and Die In Amerikka" parts one and two.

He said the outreach is difficult, particularly when trying to help those embroiled in gang culture, comparing it to trying to help a drowning man only to be told, "I know I'm drowning, now go away."

While releasing the Sterling video isn't what Stop the Killing Inc. normally does, Reed felt it was necessary in this case.

"This is news, but it isn't new," he said. "This is our third killing here in Baton Rouge by the police department."

He added, "In my mind, it's a national problem."

Since releasing the video, Reed has spent most of his time at the swelling protest and makeshift memorial service outside the convenience store where Sterling was killed.

He's proud of the the scene taking place there. He's proud that in the wake of something so painful for so many, his city gathers in peace.

"It's a peaceful demonstration. That's why we like it," Reed said. "We are proud of what's going on in Baton Rouge."


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