A candid chat with Stevante Clark about Measure U, Sacramento’s police chief and accountability
Stevante Clark sat alone in church on a recent Wednesday night, wearing a tie and his signature head wrap.
Calm and engaged, he swayed while the choir sang gospel songs at the Calvary Christian Center in north Sacramento. He took notes during the preacher’s sermon. He used his phone to follow along with Bible verses.
It was a striking reversal from his behavior earlier in the year.
Eight months ago, Clark was on top of the dais at City Hall yelling profanities at Mayor Darrell Steinberg. A few days after that during an interview with CNN, he rang a bell rather than answering a question from host Don Lemon.
Weeks later, he threatened a neighbor with a hammer and posted livestream videos on Facebook as he destroyed his roommate’s belongings and threatened to burn the house down.
People took to social media to criticize his behavior, calling him “crazy,” a “crisis actor” and a “one-man show.” Others said he was tarnishing Stephon Clark’s memory. Clark was fatally shot eight times in March by two Sacramento police officers who apparently mistook his cell phone for a gun, the event that led to Stevante Clark’s erratic behavior.
Here is what Stevante Clark wants you to know: The pain of losing his brother was too much to bear. Yes, he had a mental breakdown. No, he is not crazy. Yes, he will continue to speak out.
“A lot of people were talking about him in a negative way,” said Larry Craig-Arriba, a friend and mentor to Clark. “I think these people who are talking had never experienced what he was going through. I think it was a mental breakdown, not an anger problem. ... I think we shouldn’t turn our back on people with mental health issues. Stevante is just one of thousands.”
With enough distance from the loss to manage his grief — though it is still raw — Clark said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee that he wants people to understand how Sacramento handled his reaction after Stephon Clark was killed added anguish to his trauma.
He wants people to know what a bout of mental illness looks like, feels like and means to his future.
“What do you label me as? I lost my brother in a horrific way,” Clark said, sitting at the dining room table in his grandmother’s Meadowview home. A few feet away is the backyard where officers mistook Stephon Clark’s cell phone for a gun before firing on him.
“I’ve done some f----- up things , but I’ve tried to atone for things I’ve done wrong. ... This image of an angry black kid, me, is just something that I would like to escape because I’m not angry. I don’t know why I have to be labeled as crazy or angry or mentally ill, but I take it for what it is. I accept there are things I cannot change.”
Stephon is the second brother Stevante Clark has lost to gun violence. His half brother De’Markus McKinnie was accidentally fatally shot in the abdomen in 2006. Clark was 12 at the time.
“When Stephon died, I had those emotions hit me, like I have nobody,” Clark said. “My brothers were the ones I wanted to get old with. Those are my friends. ... Those are my go-to guys.”
A yellow folder containing newspaper clippings of his family rests in the china cabinet behind him. A shrine decorated with signs and photos of his younger brother is steps away in the living room. He snacks on Oreos during the interview, saying he should stop eating them because they’re made in Mexico, which bothers him because he thinks those jobs should come back to the United States.
Clark, 26, has long been a contradiction to those who know him.
He has a conservative, or at least libertarian, streak. He’s known to go line dancing while wearing a Make America Great Again hat. He raps under the stage name Pharoah Da’Vinci and posts his trademark hashtag #EverybodyLoveEverybody regularly on social media. He’s running for mayor of Sacramento in 2020.
Clark didn’t have a criminal record prior to March 2018. Less than a month after his brother died, he was in handcuffs. Within weeks, he had spent time both in jail and in a mental institution.
Police first arrested him after he caused damage to a north Sacramento hotel room. He was taken to UC Davis Medical Center and put on an mental health hold, under California Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150, which allows law enforcement personnel and some mental health providers to place a person under a 72-hour involuntary hold if the subject is deemed a danger to himself or others. Later, he was transferred to the Sacramento County Mental Health Treatment Center (SCMHTC), a secure mental health hospital.
Clark said it was a degrading experience that gave him his first insights into mental illness and how it is treated.
“Back then I couldn’t admit I was grieving, now I could say that,” said Clark. “That place made me realize I’m not crazy.”
When he became aware he was inside SCMHTC, he had visions of movies he had seen about mental institutions, he said. He decided to try to escape using a cup of juice.
“In my head, I’m like ‘I’m going to take this apple juice, throw it on the ground, watch the doctors come chase me and slip, and run out the door.’ That’s exactly how I pictured it in my head.”
Clark said he got up and started running, throwing the juice. “Three, four nurses fell. Hella hard, too. ... It was crazy, right?”
But as he reached the doors, they slid shut and locked.
“When I got caught, and those guys, they were so mad, I’ll never forget their faces,” said Clark. “I remember the doctor came in calmly, (a) white lady ... She said ‘needle or pill?’ Just like that. And I’m looking at her, cussing. ... And she came a little closer to my face and she’s like ‘No, needle or pill?’
“They gave me a pill and it knocked out like 36 hours of my life, you know what I mean, like I don’t remember. ... It was demeaning, it was horrible.”
Clark was released from the facility a few days later, but was subsequently arrested again after a days-long incident in Del Paso Heights in which he barricaded his street with trash cans and threatened neighbors and a roommate.
This time, he was taken to the mental health ward at the main jail downtown, he said.
“When I went to jail the second time, I was like ‘Yes, thank God, it’s jail. Anything but SCMHTC,’” said Clark. But Clark said he soon saw extreme behavior from inmates that made him question the treatment being given there. Clark said he witnessed inmates eating their own excrement.
“I get it, (the inmate) did some sick things, deserves to be in jail. But, he’s eating his feces every day, come on now,” said Clark. “What the hell are we doing, you know what I mean? ... I heard a (deputy) say, I’ll never forget it, ‘Oh just tell him what the guy does and he’ll be OK with it.’
“It made me upset so I was like, I got a lot of respect for (deputies) in a good way. At the same time, a lot of people aren’t strong enough for jail. A lot of people don’t belong in jail. A lot of people are really sick, and jail doesn’t help sick people.”
Clark said it was this experience that led to his trademark “Everybody love everybody” motto.
“One day I had a revelation in jail. ... In John 15:12, it says ‘Love each other as I have loved you.’ And if you skip down to John 15:18, it says ‘If the world hates you for it, know the world hated me long before it ever hated you.’ So I looked at Jesus paying the ultimate price for those killers (in the mental health ward).
“When I would see them again in jail, I’d be like ‘Nah, man, quit eating your s---, clean up, take a shower,’ like I was bringing people together. They’d be like, ‘Why you doing that?’ and that’s where I started thinking about the ‘everybody love everybody’ thing.”
Clark’s case was eventually sent to mental health court, which will allow him to avoid a criminal record if he completes the program. Clark worked as an armed security guard prior to his brother’s death. The 5150 hold means he is now banned from possessing a weapon, leaving him unable to continue that career. He has found employment working at a nonprofit and announced he is running for mayor of Sacramento in 2020, a move that has drawn criticism and ridicule from some.
“Me running for mayor is my way of putting pressure on the city to do something for my brother’s legacy,” Clark said. “And also keep my brother’s name in their mouth because this is not something I want them to forget.”
Clark is also working on rebuilding his life.
“I felt like people were coming at me with their own agendas,” Clark said. “It was hard for me to know what was authentic. ... A lot of people tried to help and do good things, and the ones I pushed away, I’ve apologized to and asked for forgiveness. And the ones that have stayed with me, I hope they don’t judge me on the past.”
This article was updated Dec. 10. An earlier version incorrectly stated the relationship between Clark and De’Markus McKinnie. McKinnie was Clark’s half-brother. The article also incorrectly stated Clark was unconscious for 96 hours in a mental institution. He was unconscious for 36 hours.