Protesters mourning the death of Stephon Clark vented their frustration and grief at all the California Highway Patrol officers blocking their path on I Street as they attempted to shut down Interstate 5 on Friday.
But one officer was berated more personally and intensely than any other cop from a special CHP tactical unit wearing riot gear that day.
CHP Sgt. Ron Wade, 45, was the lone African American in a group of roughly 30 officers lined up in formation on I Street near the onramp to northbound lanes of Interstate 5.
While other officers drew the attention and ire of individual protesters, Wade became a focal point. Witnesses said five or six protesters descended upon him.
They called him an “Uncle Tom” and some of the worst names that an African American man can be called by other African Americans. They labeled him a tool for the white man, disparaged his family, his upbringing.
They were protesting the March 18 shooting death of Clark, unarmed and holding a cellphone, at the hands of the Sacramento police. Those who took to the streets eyed the black officer in their path and saw the embodiment of a sellout.
By wearing a CHP uniform, he was viewed by protesters as a traitor to his people, a conspirator in a criminal justice system where young African American men like Clark are overrepresented in fatal shootings by cops.
“It seemed to go on for an hour,” Wade said.
Wade is a husband and a father, a graduate of Elk Grove High School and a CHP veteran of more than 20 years. He took the abuse because that’s how the CHP trained him.
As a member of the Special Response Team deployed during incidents of civil unrest, Wade and his colleagues have been subjected to intense verbal abuse during training exercises at the CHP Academy in West Sacramento.
“Our stoic stance is part of our training,” he said in an interview Monday. “Protesting is their right and it’s not my job to tell them that their cause is right or wrong. It’s my job to keep them safe.”
Wade acknowledged that what he heard Friday got to him. Hurt him. Stayed with him.
“I went through a lot of different emotions, from frustration to anger … At some point I had to let my mind go because I was getting real emotional.”
What was the worst of it?
“When they told me that I wasn’t black,” Wade said. “Because no matter what, I’m always going to be black. I’m on this job to help people, no matter what race they are,”
“In the big picture, I brought it home with me … It was hurtful all the way around. I wanted to tell them, ‘You don’t know me. Get to know me.’”
To know Wade is to understand that CHP training alone did not enable him to keep his cool so he could help keep the peace in Sacramento.
Wade drew upon more personal training he received at home, long before he ever considered being a cop.
He is the eldest son of Ron Wade Sr., a U.S. Navy veteran. His father taught him: “Words are just words.”
Wade needed to learn this because he experienced racism as a young person during the many stops his family made while his father climbed the ranks in the Navy.
“When I grew up, you would be called racial slurs, especially when we lived in South Carolina and North Carolina,” he said.
“But if I got into a fight at school, I had to deal with my father when I got home,” he said. “...To him, the only justification for being physical was if somebody physically attacked you. Words were just words. I think that helped me a lot on Friday, dealing with the barrage I received.”
Wade said he called his father over the weekend, told him what he experienced and thanked him.
“I said, ‘Thank you for how you raised me,’” Wade said. “Because it allowed me to stand there and to be receptive. To hear what they had to say.”
“He said, ‘Good job, son.’ He wasn’t surprised I was able to do what I did.”
Wade allowed people to express free speech. He kept them safe. And he felt compassion for the people venting at him.
“My parents pushed us and motivated us to care for other people,” he said. “I chose the Highway Patrol because we get to do more than showing up after something bad has happened. We help people.”
Wade said he was particularly touched by one young man, in his early 20s, who told him he was a relative of Clark.
“My emotions transitioned from anger to feeling bad. People are standing in front of you crying and they are really upset. You can’t demean it and you can’t question it. You have to be compassionate. You just do.”
Wade said that when protesters realized they weren’t going to access I-5, and when the cameras and media went away, he reached out to the young man who had been calling him names.
“As I was talking to him, his sister was standing to his left and she kind of calmed down. She wanted to hear my words,”
“I told him we couldn’t have a real conversation in this environment. There were things I had to watch and I was responsible for.” Wade said he invited the young man to call him. He wants to sit with him, talk to him, hear him.
Wade said compassion is the only way to solve disputes between people.
“He hasn’t called yet but I hope he does,” Wade said. “I feel like I’ve been given so much by my family that I want to give back. Even that day when I was on the line going through what I went through, I felt like I was giving back.”
“If people vent at us, that’s OK. If nothing else, they had to a chance to vent their frustration and even with all that, they were safe.”