Was police response to East Sacramento Stephon Clark protest an attempt to protect the rich?

This is what demonstrators told us about Stephon Clark protest arrests

After a protest that ended in 84 arrests, activists and protesters describe what went down on the streets of East Sacramento on March 4, 2019, in wake of decision to not charge officers who killed Stephon Clark.
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After a protest that ended in 84 arrests, activists and protesters describe what went down on the streets of East Sacramento on March 4, 2019, in wake of decision to not charge officers who killed Stephon Clark.

They chanted. They gave speeches. They marched.

And for the first hour or so there was little tension between Sacramento police and Stephon Clark protesters Monday as they passed through East Sacramento, one of the city’s ritziest neighborhoods.

The atmosphere suddenly became tense when the activists turned from J Street onto 45th Street, a wide tree-lined boulevard where Ronald Reagan lived in a six-bedroom home when he was California governor.

As nearly 150 marchers made the turn, a man in a yellow ball cap was standing ramrod straight on the sidewalk, extending his middle finger to protesters as they walked by. Approached by a Sacramento Bee reporter, he responded “F--- off” to an interview request, then retreated to the front porch of a large white house, adorned with large pillars and an American flag out front.

Moments later, he gathered several bicycle-mounted police officers.

From that moment on, according to Bee journalists covering the march, the tension between police and protesters ratcheted up. Police reported at least seven cars were vandalized nearby, and a few streets away a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat quickly found himself facing several angry protesters outside Mercy Hospital at 40th and J streets.

The dynamics of the march had now changed dramatically, into what protesters said was an unnecessary show of force by police to protect a predominately white, wealthy enclave.

“It shows you who’s valued in Sacramento,” said Ryan McClinton, one of the activists arrested Monday night.

Sacramento police spokesman Marcus Basquez said the upscale nature of the neighborhood didn’t factor into the decision to aggressively deploy police in riot gear to subdue protesters, 84 of whom were arrested.

“Every protest is unique to say the least,” he said. “You truly can’t compare one protest to another.”

Previous Stephon Clark protests were marked by restraint by Sacramento police, who typically kept their distance from marchers and closed down streets to traffic, allowing large groups of demonstrators to pass through busy intersections. Officers largely didn’t interfere with two of the largest protests last year in which demonstrators effectively blocked fans from entering Golden 1 Center, leading to scuffles and shouting matches.

During a few protests last year, police also kept their distance as individual protesters jumped on and kicked passing cars downtown and shouted obscenities at white-knuckled motorists and passersby. Police also watched from afar last year as a small group of protesters tried to storm the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel downtown before baton-wielding security guards pushed them back. Even a protest that featured a sheriff’s deputy’s patrol vehicle striking a protester in south Sacramento was allowed to fizzle out on its own.

Stephon Clark march in the Fabulous ’40s on Monday, March 4, 2019. The march ended with more than 80 people arrested. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com

But on Monday, police made clear they were ending the East Sac march.

Following the incident with the man in the “MAGA” hat, roughly 100 officers in helmets and riot gear appeared carrying batons, pepper spray, rifles and tear gas. Police began warning over a loudspeaker that marchers were to disperse or face the possibility of being Tased, pepper sprayed, arrested and, possibly, injured.

The police moved in a skirmish line toward protesters, no longer giving them a buffer space, and those who didn’t move quickly enough – including media covering the event on public sidewalks – were pushed by baton-wielding police. An officer with a baton shoved a Bee photo journalist to the ground.

A couple hours later, police arrested 84 people on the 51st Street bridge over Highway 50. Those arrested included several ministers and legal observers.

A Sacramento Bee journalist was detained, his wrists zip-tied behind his back, for an hour before police let him go. Two other journalists reported on social media they had been arrested.

The arrests marked an escalation in police enforcement at Stephon Clark rallies. Police made just a handful of arrests at other protests since the Clark shooting last year.

Police said Monday that vandalism – including protesters keying cars in the Fab 40s neighborhood – prompted them to shut down the protest organized by the The Table Sacramento, an activist group that had billed the protest on Facebook as a “Call to Action: Disobey & Disrupt.”

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn told the City Council on Tuesday night that he wasn’t going to speculate on what happened Monday before the conclusion of an investigation that’s examining hours of body camera footage from dozens of officers.

“I’d be happy to come back in a couple weeks and give an update on what the facts are,” he said.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn speaks about arrests at Stephon Clark protest on March 4, 2019.

Basquez said his office on Tuesday was fielding reports of keyed cars throughout the day, bringing the total to at least seven along the protest route.

On Tuesday morning, an SUV parked on 45th Street – a couple of houses from where the man made an obscene gesture to the crowd – had scratches down the side. Neighbors told The Bee it was one of the cars that had been keyed.

Police said the vandalism prompted the officers in face shields, body armor and carrying batons to herd protesters back to Trader Joe’s and instruct them to disperse or face pepper spray, stun guns and arrest. They were eventually corralled onto the freeway overpass.

Activists such as Berry Accius, Sonia Lewis and McClinton disputed that vandalism happened at all.

“None of that happened. None of that occurred,” said McClinton, who was among those arrested Monday night. “The most that was happening were fliers were put on some cars. That’s not vandalism.”

No one answered the door Tuesday morning at the home where the man made the obscene gesture.

The man’s neighbor, Bruce Starkweather, said the experience came as a jolt to East Sac, which he described as “the pride of Sacramento.” He said it was a disturbing contrast to the crowds that swarm the neighborhood to trick-or-treat on Halloween and for its ornate Christmas displays.

The census block that covers most of the Fab 40s is on average far wealthier – and whiter – than the rest of Sacramento. The median household income is roughly $165,000 a year, three times the citywide median income. The median value of a home in the neighborhood is nearly $630,000. An estimated 71 percent of residents are white; the census estimates there are no black residents.

“What I experienced last night was vile language, angry language, the use of the F-word and numerous other harsh words showing anger towards us as residents,” Starkweather said. “They were wanting us to see what it is like to live in the areas they live in, and for us to be uncomfortable and fearful in our home.... so those of us of supposed privilege should experience it too.”

The tensions escalated further when a Tahoe Park resident named Dan Iverson arrived at 40th and J streets in a “Make America Great Again” hat and quickly found himself facing several angry protesters. The protesters shouted Clark’s name at Iverson and blew whistles before taking the hat off his head. Iverson, who came to the protest with his teen daughter, said he was shocked at the reception.

“I know, I know – why did I come down here wearing the hat? Because – to see what would happen,” Iverson said. “This is supposed to be a freedom of speech rally.”

Tensions escalated further during the march protesting the DA's verdict in the Stephon Clark case when Tahoe Park resident Dan Iverson arrived at 40th and J streets in a “Make America Great Again” hat on Monday, March 4, 2019.

Residents of other blocks said they had learned of the protest via the Nextdoor website, and several said they supported the marchers or simply believed they had the right to express their opinions.

One family standing outside in a yard raised their fists in support of the marchers, and when one young protester ran over and asked to use their bathroom, they took her inside.

McClinton, the activist who was arrested, said the police response was a massive overreaction – and only because protesters decided to protest East Sac.

“There were protests that were held in south Sacramento,” he said. “There were protests that were held downtown, and the moment it hit East Sacramento, it was an overwhelming show of force.”

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Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.