Stephon Clark was gunned down by Sacramento police in the neighborhood where I grew up. Just like him, I’ve stared down the barrel of an officer’s gun, but by the grace of God I’m still living.
When I was 19, I was eating a hamburger in my car after work when out of nowhere an officer placed his gun less than six inches from my head. With his hands shaking, he barked commands at me, but it was all an unintelligible blur. The officer said I fit the description of a person who had just committed an armed robbery. This created more confusion, as I was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt, red tie and a Macy’s name tag on my lapel that read “Kenny.”
Despite following the unwritten guide to being a non-threatening black man – a professional haircut, polished shoes, manicured hands, excellent diction and a modest vehicle with a university license plate frame – I was still seen as nothing more than a worthless black thug by the police.
That happened 29 years ago. Since, I’ve been pulled over or detained more than two dozen times in Sacramento. Unfortunately, this experience is not unique to me, but is representative of how persons of color, especially black men, have been policed in Sacramento for several decades.
That context is necessary in order to grasp the intensity of the anger and sadness surrounding Clark’s killing.
But how is this possible in “America’s Most Diverse City?”
There is a significant disconnect between the self-congratulating progressives living in neighborhoods such as Land Park and East Sacramento and many African Americans, Latinos and Asians in Sacramento. This is something I learned after moving into midtown, where police engagement is strikingly different for many residents.
For a brief moment, I thought my elite education and graduate degree would grant me a new reality. Yet midtown is no Mayberry for black residents, as we still have to make sure we have identification when walking our dogs or going for a run in McKinley Park.
The biggest disconnect is in how police officers are viewed. All of us have heard from our non-black friends that police are wonderful, self-sacrificing men and women. What’s unimaginable to them is that many black men have never had a positive interaction with a police officer on patrol. Sure, we’ve all met friendly and engaging officers at community events, but those aren’t the ones who patrol and detain black men at gunpoint on spurious allegations.
This behavior should evoke outrage from all Sacramentans. Yet Clark’s funeral, which his family opened to the public, drew nearly all-black mourners in a city where the black population is less than 14 percent.
If you have a black family member, friend, co-worker, employer, or neighbor, then you’re also Stephon Clark. If you believe justice should be blind and not racially biased, then you’re Stephon Clark. For our community to thrive, we must all see ourselves as Stephon Clark. His death should keep us all up at night and disturb the very depths of our souls.
In the midst of this tragedy, Sacramento has an incredible opportunity to showcase the strength of its diverse community and lead this nation in a new direction. We have a phenomenal police chief in Daniel Hahn, who is on the leading edge of law enforcement ethics and transparency. But he can’t do it alone.
To move forward, two things must be acknowledged. First, there is a deep level of distrust between the black community and law enforcement. And second, that has been created by the behavior of police. Until we accept those truths, our community will be incapable of the constructive dialogue necessary to move us all forward.
Ken Barnes is a Sacramento business consultant and a former board member of the California State NAACP. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @kenjbarnes1.