He has become a hashtag and a movement for change. But who was the real Stephon Clark?

Andre Young, 25, leads a march during a Day of Action protest in downtown Sacramento hosted by Black Lives Matter Sacramento and the Anti Police-Terror Project in Sacramento on Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018. They are seeking justice for Stephon Clark who was killed by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard.
Andre Young, 25, leads a march during a Day of Action protest in downtown Sacramento hosted by Black Lives Matter Sacramento and the Anti Police-Terror Project in Sacramento on Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018. They are seeking justice for Stephon Clark who was killed by Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard. rbyer@sacbee.com

Gunned down by police last month in the backyard of his grandmother’s Meadowview home, Stephon Clark quickly became a symbol of injustice and touched off a movement for change.

Once again, an unarmed black man had been killed by officers under questionable circumstances. His death sparked massive protests that have shut down freeways, delayed NBA games and captured worldwide attention.

But who exactly was the handsome, 22-year-old father of two whose easy smile projects from posters and TV screens and the front pages of newspapers?

Clark’s life, like his death, was complicated, according to public records and interviews with those who knew him.

He grew up in tough neighborhoods in south Sacramento, and his father was mostly absent. He and his siblings were raised primarily by their mother and their grandmother. In 2006, when Clark was 10, his stepbrother De’Markus died at 16 after accidentally shooting himself in the abdomen, according to coroner’s records.

Stephon “wasn’t brought up in the best of circumstances,” said Sonia Lewis, Clark’s relative by marriage. “He yearned to be loved. He yearned for family. I think he felt abandoned at times.”

Yet Clark, who was named after his father, Stephen, but preferred to be called Stephon, believed he would make a big difference someday, friends and relatives said.

“He has always been a special person,” said Kiahre Rodriguez-Fuller, a close friend who described Clark as a brother. “He had his challenges, but he was meant to do something in this world, in some kind of way.”

Though some immediate family members declined to speak about Clark, other relatives and friends offered details that filled out a picture of his life. Many knew him as “Zoe,” short for his middle name, Alonzo.

From a young age, they said, he was charismatic and polite. He dressed stylishly, down to his sneakers. Despite an impoverished and sometimes chaotic childhood, he did well in school, and he found joy and distraction on the football field. His brother Stevante said he paid Stephon’s Pee Wee football dues with money he earned from selling newspapers.

Clark (right) graduated from Sacramento High School. Stevante Clark

“He was goofy, he was funny, he was loving,” Stevante said about this brother. “He was a playboy, he was smart, he was an athlete.”

Stephon and his mother, SeQuette, began attending Calvary Christian Center on Sacramento’s north side when Stephon was a child, said longtime pastor Phillip Goudeaux. SeQuette is a graduate of the center’s drug counseling program, he said.

Later, Stephon volunteered with the center’s youth outreach program, “helping to build safe places for children” in the community, said Goudeaux’s son, Nehemiah.

Nehemiah Goudeaux described Clark as a “leader” who tried to lift up others. Once, when one of the center’s young members was rehearsing for a spot on “American Idol,” Clark “stayed with her all evening, supporting her, telling her never to give up,” Goudeaux said.

“Stephon was a good kid, never someone we had to worry about,” he said.

Clark attended Sacramento High School from 2010 to 2013 and “made an impact on everyone he met, including teachers, staff and students,” said assistant principal Patrick Durant. “He was a friendly kid with great manners and a great smile.”

A Sac High history teacher, Paul Schwinn, called him bright and cheerful.

“He got an A on every single test I gave him,” Schwinn said. “Every time he spoke in class, he had the right answer, and he always explained history in a funny, accessible way. He was someone who made first period fun for me and his classmates.”

Rodriguez-Fuller met Clark when the two played football for Sac High. Clark was a cornerback, a defensive specialist who “was never scared to hit,” his friend said. “He laid his body out to get the ball.”

Football “gave him another family, and a purpose,” Rodriguez-Fuller said.

After an argument with his mother, Clark moved in with Rodriguez-Fuller’s family for about a year and a half. The two youths shared everything.

“If I had a dollar, my brother got 50 cents,” Rodriguez-Fuller said. Sometimes, they used that dollar to buy a cheeseburger at McDonald’s, which they would split. Clark tutored his friend in math, even though he was a year behind him in school. To cement their friendship, the two got matching tattoos that read “Loyalty Makes 1 Family.”

Clark left Sac High in his senior year and earned his high school diploma through an adult education program, Rodriguez-Fuller said. With aspirations of becoming a psychologist, he applied to attend San Diego State University, in part because Rodriguez-Fuller was in college in the area. But he never was admitted.

Instead, Clark attended Sacramento City College. There, he took classes during spring semesters in 2013, 2014 and 2015, said Gabe Ross, spokesman for the Los Rios Community College District.

During those years, Clark ran into trouble with the law. Since 2014, he had been charged in four criminal cases.

In 2014, records show, Clark was arrested and charged with felony robbery and assault and endangering the life of a child. He pleaded no contest and spent a year on a Sheriff’s Department work project to satisfy his jail term. In late 2015, he was charged with misdemeanor loitering with the intent to engage in prostitution after sheriff’s deputies stopped him and a woman while they were driving in a “high prostitution and crime area” in North Highlands. He again pleaded no contest.

In 2016, Clark was charged with domestic violence “resulting in a traumatic condition” to the victim. When police arrived, according to court records, they found the woman holding a bag of ice to her face. She said Clark punched her. He pleaded no contest in that case as well. Last year, he was charged a second time with domestic violence. He spent 120 days in jail, was placed on probation and completed a batterer’s treatment program, records show.

Family members and local activists have argued that Clark’s criminal past is irrelevant to what happened to him on March 18, when police fired 20 shots at him after responding to reports of a man breaking car windows. Seconds after officers confronted him in his grandmother’s backyard after a short foot chase, he was dead. Police had mistaken his cellphone for a gun.

“Yes, he got into some trouble,” Lewis said. “But what kid his age hasn’t? He paid his dues, and he was at a crossroads and was making a change in his life. I still can’t believe they killed him.”

Clark’s relatives and friends have said his focus in the months before his death was on his fiancée, Selena Manni, and his two young children, Aiden, 3, and Cairo, 1.

“He was a really good father to those little boys,” Lewis said. “He was hands-on with them. He pranced around with them, showing them off. He was so proud of them.”

Photographs of Stephon Clark, his girlfriend Salena Manni, sons Aiden Clark, 3, and Cairo Clark, 1, are displayed on a table inside his grandmother Sequita Thompson’s home. Renée C. Byer rbyer@sacbee.com

Clark recently had converted from Christianity to Islam, which is Manni’s faith, friends and acquaintances said. He had applied for a job at a Sysco food warehouse. Clark was splitting his time between her home in Elk Grove and his grandmother Sequita Thompson’s home in Meadowview.

Clark was extremely close to Thompson and helped care for her disabled husband, Tommy, whom he considered a father figure, friends and relatives said. “He would take him in and out of bed, things like that,” Lewis said.

Clark uttered his final words to his family moments before police closed in on him, Lewis said. He was tapping on a back window of the Thompson home, trying to alert his grandparents.

“He said, ‘Poppa, Poppa! It’s me, Little Poppa. Let me in!’” Lewis said.

Then the Thompsons heard gunshots.

On a Twitter account linked to Manni, a photograph shows her, Clark and their two boys. Beneath it is written: “Our babies will forever live in you. I love you my sweet angel. Watch over us.”

Police have said they are still investigating but believe it was Clark who was breaking car windows and possibly a sliding glass door of a neighbor’s home on the evening he was fatally shot. Family members and friends have said they refuse to believe it and that it was inexcusable for police to shoot him.

“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time in his own backyard?” Sequita Thompson said to The Bee in a recent interview. “Come on now, they didn’t have to do that.”

Since the night Clark was killed, Sacramento’s streets have been filled with protesters demanding accountability. Clark’s name has become a rallying cry and a popular hashtag on Twitter. His face, ubiquitous on posters and T-shirts, has become an emblem of nationwide demands for changes in the way that police use force, particularly against young black men.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Rodriguez-Fuller said of his friend’s death. “I wish it had never happened. But you know what? All of this could make a difference. Stephon’s face could change history.”

Listen to Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn

Hahn discusses the aftermath of the Stephon Clark police shooting on McClatchy’s “Majority Minority” podcast.

The Bee’s Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report.

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