If an ordinary picture is worth a thousand words, this extraordinary photograph may be worth an entire novel. It depicts a beautiful young African American woman holding her ground even though confronted by two police officers in riot gear. The shot was taken by Reuters photographer Jonathan Bachman at a Black Lives Matter rally outside police headquarters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 9, 2016.
The woman in the photograph is Leshia Evans. Evans is a licensed practical nurse who lives in New York. She had never attended a protest rally of any sort before, but the death of Alton Sterling had moved her so deeply that she felt compelled to fly to Louisiana to attend this rally.
Evans was one of more than 100 people arrested at that Black Lives Matter rally that afternoon. Approximately 2,000 demonstrators in all participated in the rally. Although the demonstration was peaceful for the most part, at various times the crowd spilled over onto a nearby thoroughfare called Airline Highway, and this completely blocked traffic in both directions.
Protestors chanted, “No justice, no peace!” while police officers watched. Finally, the officers warned that if protestors did not leave the road, arrests would be made. While some protestors withdrew, others did not, and the demonstration escalated into violence.
As Evans later told her friend Natasha Haynes, “I went into the street with my arms crossed and just stared at them. I guess they didn’t like it because they detained me.”
Evans was detained overnight in the Baton Rouge jail before being booked and released on July 10, the following morning.
The rally was held as a protest against the shooting death of Alton Sterling, which had occurred on the afternoon of July 5. The shooting happened after officers responded to an anonymously placed 911 call that reported an African American man was selling CDs outside a small delicatessen while brandishing a gun. When police officers arrived at the scene, they spotted Sterling and assumed he was the subject of the 911 call. The officers tasered Sterling and then wrestled him to the ground. During the resulting scuffle, officers discharged their weapons multiple times, and Sterling later died.
The owner of the delicatessen, Abdullah Muflahi, subsequently told reporters that Sterling was not the person causing trouble during the situation that led to the initial 911 phone call.
Leshia Evans is the mother of a five-year-old son, and it was her fears for her son’s future that prompted her participation in the July 9 rally. Evans does not view the iconic photograph as any kind of personal affirmation. As she posted on her Facebook wall following the incident, “I appreciate the well wishes and love, but this is the work of God. I am a vessel! Glory to the most high! I’m glad I’m alive and safe. And that there were no casualties that I have witnessed first hand.”
After recovering for a day in a Baton Rouge hotel, Evan went back to her son and her home in New York on July 15.
As we have witnessed time and time again, a compelling photograph has the power to change the world. From the horrendous picture of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running down a road after a napalm attack to shots of the American astronauts who became the first men to walk on the moon, powerful images become part of our psychic landscapes where they influence our thinking and change our minds. Surely this photograph of Leshia Evans confronting the riot police in Baton Rouge will join the ranks of such compelling images.