Mayor Kevin Johnson is best known for leading the effort to save the Kings from leaving Sacramento and getting construction started on a new arena to anchor a downtown revitalization.
Johnson is also known as a former elite NBA player and as the first African American mayor in the 164-year history of Sacramento as an incorporated city – though this distinction was an afterthought until last week.
It was then that Johnson took on a new role as the lightning rod for an uncomfortable discussion on race.
Though it’s far from clear whether Sacramento or America wants to have that discussion.
Johnson was strongly criticized for not concealing his disappointment when a Ferguson, Mo., police officer was not indicted for the shooting death of an 18-year-old African American man.
The case of Officer Darren Wilson and the late Michael Brown has polarized America and roiled the relative calm of Sacramento, where Johnson’s views placed him in the racial cross hairs of public scorn for the first time in six years as mayor.
It’s an unusual development.
Though Johnson worships most Sundays at religious services steeped in the traditions of fiery African American preachers, Johnson is not a firebrand.
In fact, early in his first term as mayor, Johnson angered some African American activists for saying some local gang members needed to be “crushed.”
That changed last week.
Johnson said the Ferguson verdict caused him to have a “heavy heart.” He said he was “really disappointed” with the outcome of a Missouri grand jury that sided with Wilson’s version of events.
“This is just a sad day for America, in my opinion, when you think about injustice and all the things that have happened over the history of time,” Johnson said Monday night at St. Paul Baptist Church in Oak Park.
“This one just doesn’t feel right.”
Almost immediately, leading members of the Sacramento Police Officers Association were angry and said so. Social media lit up with scorn for Johnson.
He was accused of being irresponsible and undermining law enforcement with his comments. Some said he had every right as an individual to feel the way he did, but that a mayor of a major city should not have said such things.
Some went much further. On the Facebook page of News 10 anchor Walt Gray, the comments veered toward racially tinged euphemisms.
One man called Johnson a “thug mayor.” Another suggested that Johnson and President Barack Obama should “go back to Africa.”
Johnson doesn’t scare easily, but he told me that he was jarred by the ferocity of some of the comments directed his way.
Beyond the catcalls, a fundamental disagreement was at play. It was exemplified in comments on my Facebook page by people who said that Johnson had “made” the Ferguson event “about race.”
It’s really that basic. If you don’t want to acknowledge that race played a role in Ferguson – a white cop, a dead African American youth and the riots that ensued – then it’s pretty hard to have a discussion about the implications of Ferguson.
In his own comments to the Missouri grand jury, Wilson spoke of being afraid of Brown and of the heavily African American neighborhood where he shot Brown to death. Wilson said that people in that area “didn’t like” the police there.
Racial animus and mistrust in Ferguson is well documented, yet some criticizing Johnson didn’t think he should have gone there.
To his credit, Johnson wants to have the discussion even if others don’t. Though he got with his police union members and assured them that he was not indicting them with his comments, Johnson refused to take back what he said.
“We all know that having real but productive conversations about race is difficult,” Johnson said.
“It requires honesty but patience and understanding from all sides. ... I think I’m in a unique position to facilitate that discussion.”
In the Ferguson case, Johnson is not absolving Brown – who was said to have attacked Wilson, according to the testimony of some witnesses to their confrontation.
In fact, you could say that Johnson’s comments are not as black and white as the opinions of many who either view Brown as a thug or a victim, leaving no room for nuance in either characterization.
“I think I can be both candid about the shortcomings of a legal system that must be improved and simultaneously push back on my community against over-reaction and knee-jerk protestations,” he said.
Lost in the rancor of Johnson comments is that Johnson – and Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. – had been holding community events in advance of the Ferguson grand jury decision, with an eye on maintaining the peace in Sacramento.
“It was not a coincidence that we happened to have scheduled a town hall meeting, in a church, at the exact time the verdict came out,” Johnson said. “It allowed us the unique opportunity to be together as a community and for me to manage both expectations at the front end and reactions at the back end.”
Johnson said that the story in Sacramento on the night of the Ferguson decision was that there was no story: “What resulted was a calm, respectful dialogue unlike a lot of what we’ve seen across America. We did it right.”
Ultimately, the Ferguson case comes down to a disagreement between those who think the shooting death was justified and those who don’t.
Johnson is trying to show that you can support the rule of law while questioning the idea that Brown had to die in this case.
“You can question the process and not indict every police officer,” Johnson said. “There were questions about the (Ferguson) prosecutor from the beginning. They could have replaced him with a special prosecutor. But that by no means is an indictment of law enforcement.”
It’s interesting that politicians are often criticized for refusing to speak candidly while Johnson was excoriated for doing so.
He remains unfazed. “We have to lean in to the conversation,” Johnson said.
“We can’t be afraid or we won’t make progress.”
Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.