Why these 7 activists are still fighting six months after Stephon Clark’s death
Two teenage boys walked home from school through south Sacramento recently, passing the house where Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, was killed by police in March.
On a street that has seen better days, neither noticed the aging brick and stucco home nor the new fence blocking off the backyard where officers apparently mistook Clark’s cell phone for a gun and fired 20 rounds at him, hitting him at least seven times.
One barely knew who Clark was. The other did not.
Kevohn Carter, 14, had heard about the fatal shooting from his uncle, though he was slim on the details, he said. His friend, Demarzea Knowles, wasn’t familiar with Clark’s name at all.
“That’s what my mom (is) talking about,” said Knowles, standing on the cracked sidewalk, wearing a hoodie too hot for the September sun. “She (is) saying I need to watch the news. I guess I do.”
As the six-month mark of the Clark shooting approaches on Tuesday, Knowles’ lack of knowledge can be forgiven by the passage of several low-key summer months. The fierce tensions that grabbed headlines and made the city feel one wrong word away from mass violence in the spring have largely dissipated. Protests with crowds of hundreds shutting down Interstate 5 and forcing Kings fans away from Golden 1 Center have dwindled to a few dozen diehards holding a thrice-weekly cookout in front of the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who gave the eulogy at Clark’s funeral, is long gone.
Like Carter and Knowles, most Sacramentans have stopped thinking of Clark on a regular basis, if they ever did at all.
The calm likely will not last, maybe not even through the week.
The recent shooting of another young black man, Darell Richards, by city police has stoked discontent. Video and audio released Friday shows Richards had what was later determined to be a pellet gun that looked like a Sig Sauer P225 9 mm handgun. But the body camera of a SWAT officer who shot Richards was accidentally turned off prior to the officer firing shots, according to the department, and the camera angles of the other officers involved don’t show Richards being shot. The department disclosed the camera problem in response to questions from The Bee.
At Thursday’s City Council meeting, before the video was released, speakers angry at police yelled profanities until Mayor Darrell Steinberg abruptly adjourned, a scene reminiscent of the days after Clark was shot, when his older brother Stevante Clark told Steinberg to, ‘Shut the f--- up,’ before jumping on the dais.
This week, the California Police Officers Association will hold a statewide gathering downtown, and activists said they will attempt to disrupt it. Alicia Garza, a founder of Black Lives Matter, is scheduled to come, and protesters from Los Angeles have chartered a bus, according to Tanya Faison, founder of the local chapter of BLM.
“We (are) woke, all the way woke,” said Les Simmons.
He is pastor of a church in a converted bowling alley a few miles from where Clark lived and died, and one of the leaders of the protests and vigils that engulfed the city after Clark’s shooting. “There is a waiting, built-up anger,” he said. “That built up anger, we hear it, we feel it. You not only hear it in the faith community, you hear it in the community. You hear it in the high schools. You hear it it in the chatter when you walk around the streets, that there is no justice yet.”
‘No trust whatsoever’
Simmons and others said they are frustrated as much by what hasn’t happened since Clark died as by what has.
Three days after Clark was shot, police released videos, including infrared footage of the moment of the shooting taken by a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department helicopter that first spotted Clark in his neighbor’s yard, and reported he was breaking a sliding glass door with a “toolbar.”
Weeks later, the Clark family hired Florida civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who in turn brought in noted forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu to perform a private autopsy. Omalu found Clark had been shot eight times, six bullets entering through his back as his body spun after the first hit. On May 1, the city took the unusual step of releasing Clark’s county autopsy and a defense of it from an independent forensic pathologist to dispute Omalu’s findings, including where Clark was hit and how many times.
Since then, little information has come out.
Police spokesman Sgt. Vance Chandler said Thursday the department hasn’t completed its internal investigation of the Clark shooting. Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra will both do reviews of that investigation to evaluate criminal wrongdoing by the officers.
Though their staff can take part in interviews and other investigative steps, those legal assessments won’t be completed until after the police finish – and may do little to satisfy critics of the shooting. Under current case law, police officers have significant latitude when using deadly force.
“The very fact that these officers were immediately back on (duty) shows a great degree of confidence by the department that the officers acted appropriately legally and policy wise,” said Ed Obayashi, a use-of-force expert and legal adviser to sheriff’s agencies. “It would be a shock to me if the DA pursued any kind of charges.”
Though long waits are usual in investigations of officer-involved shootings in Sacramento, they beget skepticism.
“Six months is too long for us to be past Stephon Clark without any type of conclusion,” said Faison. “I think they are being strategic on how and when to give out the information. I have no trust whatsoever, more than ever.”
Faison, Simmons and a core group of black activists have become a thorn in the foot of power when it comes to the Clark investigation, seeking to cause discomfort with every step the police and district attorney take. They said the tactic is necessary to keep Clark’s case in the public eye and maintain pressure on the city and Schubert.
Faison has been the most visible in this effort. Three times a week for the past 27 weeks, she and a few dozen supporters have protested in front of the district attorney’s office, calling for the two officers who shot Clark to be charged.
In the first weeks, protesters entered the lobby and surrounded cars in the parking lot. On April 20, Schubert had an 8-foot-tall rental fence installed on a six-month lease that cost $2,094, according to a contract obtained by The Bee through a state Public Records Act request. The rental ends on Oct. 20. Schubert’s office did not respond to inquiries on whether that contract will be extended.
Faced with the barricade, Faison began hauling coolers and a portable grill to the sidewalk out front, turning the event into a block party with kids, music and persistence.
“We are not going away,” said Anita Ross, an author and community organizer who has become active in the Clark issue in recent months.
Ross was speaking from a conference room with cerulean walls in the back of Simmons’ sprawling church. Once a week, a half-dozen black activists meet here to plan ways to keep Clark relevant and remembered, and to strategize their push for greater police accountability and transparency. If Clark’s name continues to be linked with that fight, it will largely be because of this group.
Ross said she became involved in police accountability the day after Donald Trump was elected president, and her 6-year-old son saw a truck flying the Confederate flag. She decided she needed to do something to ensure “he gets to live.”
“He matters and I want him to always know that,” she said later. “These are his formative years and I refuse to allow this city and this nation to give him any message other than he matters and he’s worthy.”
The members of this group have not always been allies. Their goals are sometimes at odds. Faison advocates for an alternative to police, a position that has made her a divisive figure in the city and earned her frequent attacks from SPD Underground, a Facebook page that bills itself as a voice for Sacramento police officers. Simmons wants reform in the existing system, and this summer campaigned for state Assembly Bill 931, a failed measure that would have limited when police can use lethal force.
When Clark was shot, their divisions kept them from coming up with a unified position, said Berry Accius, another member of the loose collective. The meetings are meant to prevent that in the future, and highlight a growing sophistication in their approach.
“We can disagree on a lot of things, but it won’t be a disagreement in the forefront of our people,” said Accius. “We are going to stand with one core mission.”
The smoke and the fire
That mission has evolved beyond law enforcement to a discussion of equity and economics.
“Stephon Clark was the smoke. The fire is this racist city that we live in,” said Accius. “If you live in privilege, you would never think it’s racist. ... When you don’t have to breathe, eat, feel the pain of this community like we do, then the mentality is totally different.”
Meadowview, where Clark lived, is poor. In his immediate neighborhood, a census tract of about 5,500 people, median household income is about $36,000, compared to the countywide median of about $58,000, according to census data from 2012 to 2016.
About 39 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, roughly double the county average. Single mothers are common. About 17 percent of households in the area are run by unmarried women with children, compared to 8 percent of households countywide. Nearly two-thirds of homes are rented, and only about 10 percent of adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree.
Though it is often perceived as an African-American area, its demographics are mixed. Roughly 23 percent of residents are black; 22 percent are Asian, 34 percent are Hispanic and 12 percent are white, according to census data.
But the feeling among some black residents is they bear the brunt of the stigmas of place and poverty – especially when it comes to policing. They want that to change.
“What we (have) been saying for year after year, just be fair,” Meadowview resident Quinton Jackson, 56, said recently.
Jackson was standing in the parking lot of a Food 4 Less in Meadowview while waiting for a protest march to begin. In minutes, he would walk down the middle of Mack Road with a few dozen others, shutting down the busy street. It was the first time he had ever taken part in such an event, but with six black grandkids and feeling that the Clark shooting is “just something swept up under the carpet,” he and his wife, Shirley, decided they had to get involved.
“Give everybody a fair shake. Don’t stereotype everybody,” said Jackson. “Every black man ain’t dangerous.”
If neighborhoods like Clark’s corner of Meadowview continue to lack good schools, jobs and a fair share of services, the people who live in them will never have an equal chance at success, Simmons and others said. Beyond changes in policing, these deeper issues must be fixed, they said.
“We live here, we play here. This is our yard. We raise our kids here,” said Simmons. “Not in 10 years, not in 20 years. Next year, the year after next, we have to see our community thrive.”
The city’s answer is Measure U, a tax initiative on the November ballot that would raise an existing half-cent sales tax to a full cent, with some of the money meant to be used to help places such as Meadowview.
Measure U was a temporary tax passed in 2012 to stave off dramatic cuts in core services like fire, police, parks and libraries during the recession. Its revenues are still critical to keep those departments at their current levels.
Raising it to a full penny was controversial among members of the City Council, who fear voters might balk at the extra money. And because its revenues – expected to be about $95 million annually – go into the general fund, there is no guarantee any money will find its way into disadvantaged areas, making activists wary that talk of equity is a ruse for their votes.
“It becomes another stroke of genius of exploiting (Clark’s) death and utilizing it as a political piece,” said Accius.
He supports Measure U, but calls it “a roll of the dice.”
Steinberg, who is championing the measure, said he understands the mistrust but hopes his record on equity issues will garner some leeway. Now in his second year as mayor, he has brought a grant potentially worth nearly $1 million to the city to jump start an internship program for high-schoolers, helped craft a citywide project labor agreement that will prioritize hiring from targeted zip codes, and backed Advance Peace, a controversial anti-gun violence program meant intervene with some of Sacramento’s most dangerous young men.
For Measure U, he has met with activists and agreed a community oversight committee should be formed to monitor how the funds are used.
“Over the course of my long career I’ve earned trust, but I don’t expect the community to trust. Those may seem contradictory, but I don’t think they are. It’s our job to follow through and embrace being accountable,” Steinberg said. “None of it will be perfect. Measure U is not going to be a cure. It’s not going to be the only thing, but I think it represents the biggest opportunity we’ve had to change generational poverty and trauma.”
Take me to the King
Clark’s grandmother, Sequita Thompson, left town in July.
The intensity of both the grief and attention overwhelmed her. Camera flashes reminded her of the flare of guns firing in her backyard. She worried her weak heart was going to give out, she said.
“We couldn’t even grieve because everyone kept coming, coming over,” she said last week from Southern California, where she has been staying with family. “And I had to get away or I felt like I was going to break down.”
Her mourning swings her from anguish to fury when she speaks of Clark. But she is religious, and often brings the conversation back to her belief that there is a higher purpose behind his death, and that her god is with her.
She saw it in burying Clark – the second grandson she has lost to gun violence, she said.
In 2006, Clark’s brother De’Markus McKinnie died of an accidental gunshot to the abdomen. Stevante Clark, the eldest sibling, wanted them buried near each other, said Thompson, but no plots were available at the cemetery. But Thompson had inadvertently purchased a double plot for McKinnie. Now the brothers lie one atop the other, under a headstone recently decorated with seashells and a Mylar birthday balloon tied to a box of candy to mark what would have been Clark’s 23rd birthday on Aug. 10.
“God always turns the bad into the good,” she said.
On the night Clark was killed, Clark’s 7-year-old sister was entertaining the household by singing a gospel hymn.
“I said, ‘Poppa you’re going to cry,’” she said. “Look at your sister.”
Clark, nicknamed “Big Poppa” in his family, picked up the girl as she sang, “Take me to the king, I don’t have much to bring. My heart is torn in pieces; it’s my offering,” said Thompson.
Clark did cry, she said. Soon after, he left.
“That is the last time we’ve seen him” she said.
Thompson returned Saturday to her Meadowview home where Clark was killed. She still can’t go into her backyard, though Habitat for Humanity has been working to turn it into a memory garden about Clark. But she is ready to speak out.
Her fight is not about politics, though she said she would like the officers who shot Clark to face charges and be removed from the force.
It’s about honoring a young man she loved, and finding meaning inside this perpetual loss.
“I am going to keep fighting until the day I die. I’m going to be there, I am going to be at the protests and everything,” she said. “He’s not going to die in vain. My grandson’s name is not going to die.”
Our Stephon Clark coverage
The Sacramento Bee has been actively reporting on the shooting of Stephon Clark since the night it happened, March 18, 2018. Our police, city, political and investigative reporters, visual journalists, and producers and editors have worked together to bring you the story on an ongoing basis, as well as to provide deeper accountability and analysis.
This work has included interviews with people who live in Clark’s south Sacramento neighborhood, family members, activists, city leaders and police.
We expanded the scope as the Clark story grew, diving into issues about equity in our neighborhoods, law enforcement transparency and police privacy laws in California.
The Bee has also used national, county and local data to give greater insight into Clark’s neighborhood and Sacramento as a whole. This included proprietary analysis of census data as well as local data gathered by Bee staff.
Stephon Clark forum
The Sacramento Bee together with HuffPost will present a forum in Sacramento to help the community discuss the issues it has faced since the Stephon Clark shooting, and to have an opportunity talk about solutions with activists and leaders. The free panel discussion, in partnership with the Sacramento Public Library, will feature an open Q&A session and is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria at the Central Library, 828 I St. We are finalizing details on who the panelists will be and how you can get tickets, and will provide you information in the coming days. This program is part of HuffPost’s ‘Listen to America’ project, during which the news outlet will visit six cities in the western part of the country and co-sponsor events aimed toward fostering conversation about a variety of issues in advance of the 2018 midterm elections.