Former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s life out of office has been pointedly private. Monday night was an aberration.
Johnson made a rare public appearance to host a Q&A at the Guild Theater with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was visiting Sacramento for the one-year anniversary of Stephon Clark’s death. Ticket sales for the Oak Park Speaker Series special installment helped offset costs incurred at neighboring Underground Books, run by Johnson’s mother Georgia West through St. Hope, the nonprofit education foundation he founded in 1989.
When a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man named Michael Brown in August 2014, Johnson quickly coordinated a series of forums in Oak Park that allowed for passionate discussion without devolving into violence. When a grand jury opted not to charge the officer near St. Louis, Sacramento’s first African American mayor called it an “injustice” and “a sad day for America,” words that were met with anger from his city’s police union.
In the year since Clark was fatally shot by two Sacramento Police Department officers in his grandparents’ Meadowview backyard, though, Johnson had remained on the sidelines.
On Monday night, as he called to the podium Ben Crump, the Clark family attorney who also represented the families of Brown and Trayvon Martin, Johnson tied Clark’s death to that of other young black men around the country.
“You see this happening all over the country, far too often ... and then it hits home, right here in our community,” Johnson said as Clark’s mother Sequette Thompson and brother Stevante Clark sat in the theater’s front row. “A native son, a grandson, a father of two. He’s shot in his own backyard, unarmed. Same story, over and over and over.”
The officers who shot Clark believed he was pointing a gun at them, though the item in his hand was later found to be a cell phone. They had chased the 22-year-old into the backyard after he was observed breaking windows. Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert announced earlier this month the officers wouldn’t be charged, leading to protests across the city, one of which ended with the arrest of 84 people in East Sacramento.
“Officers – God bless them who do a good job, we should bless them because they fight for our safety and security, so let’s not lose that – but in this instance, they’re not charged,” Johnson said. “I just don’t want us to lose the moment and the magnitude of this young brother’s life, and we all need to make sure that his legacy lives on. Sometimes we need to do small things, sometimes we need to do large things. Having a conversation today is going to be a little bit of what we can do in our community.”
An Oak Park native who stood out playing basketball and baseball at Sacramento High School, Johnson was the 7th overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft after playing at Cal. He averaged 17.9 points per game and 9.1 assists per game over his 12-season career, but was hampered by lower-body injuries from the 1992-93 season through his 1998 retirement.
Johnson’s two four-year terms after becoming the city’s first black mayor in 2008 were full of headline-grabbing highs and lows. He chaired the 2014 U.S. Conference of Mayors, received tens of millions of dollars in federal housing grants and spurred the city’s downtown development and entertainment efforts, including keeping the Kings in Sacramento through the construction of Golden 1 Center.
He also faced multiple sexual assault allegations, frequently skipped city council meetings and punched a homeless activist who shoved a pie in his face. When voter resoundingly rejected his 2014 “strong mayor” ballot proposal that would have given his office the power over the city’s day-to-day operations, Johnson decided not to run for re-election and began a retreat from public life.
In more than two years since leaving office, Johnson has tweeted all of five times (and not since January 2018), shut down his personal website and declined all interview requests. He took a part-time position in March 2017 with management agency Independent Sports & Entertainment, owned by Sacramento Republic FC lead investor Ron Burkle, but an employee Monday said Johnson left the company some time ago.
“I’ve just been living a quiet life, minding my own business, walking the neighborhood streets of Oak Park,” Johnson told the crowd of about 200 people Monday night. “I see the media and the cameras, and I just go the other direction. It’s been really fun.”
Between the end of his playing days and his pursuit of public office, Johnson dived into his work at St. Hope, including taking over operation of his old high school. Sacramento High was run as a charter school with non-union teachers by the time Clark enrolled in the early 2010s.
Clark ultimately left Sacramento High as a senior and earned a diploma through an adult education program. Johnson is no longer a member of St. Hope’s board of directors and isn’t involved in its day-to-day functions.