California Forum

Justice for Stephon Clark must start with righting injustice in Sacramento

Now that Stephon Clark’s family has laid him to rest, many will want a return to normalcy in Sacramento. It’s time to move on with our lives, they’ll say, and put this dark chapter behind us. That would be an injustice, and a civic mistake.

The questionable shooting of Clark in his grandparents’ backyard two weeks ago has prompted, not just outrage at law enforcement, but also an important discussion about race, poverty and inequity – and the policy choices that have left them to fester in neighborhoods like Meadowview, where many residents believe “disadvantage” has become an excuse for overly aggressive policing.

The City Council opened the floodgates when it held a forum last week to try to rebuild trust between police and the public. Hundreds of people showed up, most of them angry and from poor black neighborhoods.

They had a long list of grievances. They complained about the escalating price of housing, stagnant wages and the lack of decent jobs. Others griped about the paucity of investment in their neighborhoods – the failing schools, the underfunded community centers – while downtown and midtown enjoy spruced-up parks, new grocery stores, hospitals and health clinics, and trendy restaurants and bars.

The disparity is an insult, they said, when majority-black neighborhoods struggle with crime and child deaths.

“This city is killing us,” Malaki Seku-Amen, founder of the California Urban Partnership, shouted at the council. Echoed Tanya Faison of Black Lives Matter Sacramento: “It feels like genocide.”

Their cries are not unheard. City Councilman Jay Schenirer, whose district includes rapidly gentrifying Oak Park, shared the frustration in an email to his constituents on Thursday, while also admitting, “I do not have the answers.”

“I hear your demands for equitable treatment, processes, resources, and access for all Sacramentans. How do we bring equitable investments and adequate resources to our struggling neighborhoods? How we make sure any investments made in these communities directly benefit those for whom they are intended?”

It has been a quandary as Sacramento has rebounded unevenly from the Great Recession. Former Mayor Kevin Johnson’s push to make Sacramento a “world-class city,” brought jobs and development, but its visible benefits were mostly downtown. Under his direction, the city sunk $255 million in subsidies into the sparkling Golden 1 Center to keep the Kings from leaving town, and Steinberg has, understandably, maintained that investment.

There are plans to spend another $90 million to expand the Sacramento Convention Center, $83 million to renovate Community Center Theater and another $30 million to open the Powerhouse Science Center. Taxpayers also invested $48 million into the downtown railyard, laying the foundation for a possible Major League Soccer stadium.

These amenities are sure to be boon for Sacramento’s future, but in the category of no good deed going unpunished, they also have made the city more attractive to affluent Bay Area residents, who are moving here in droves and driving up the cost of housing. So is it any wonder residents of Meadowview, Del Paso Heights, Oak Park, North Highlands, Arden Arcade, Fruitridge and Valley Hi feel left behind?

The city’s operating budget also is a bastion of inequity. When voters approved Measure U in 2012 – a half cent sales tax hike to restore budget cuts forced by the recession – the vast majority of the money went to the police and fire departments. In the current budget, more than $35 million is going to police and fire, and only about $2.6 million to community centers, neighborhood services and programs for teens.

During his first year as mayor, Steinberg’s highest-profile initiatives focused on reducing homelessness, a long-neglected problem to which Steinberg could bring expertise, but again, an effort that primarily addressed the needs of residents and businesses downtown and in midtown. More recently, he has been out front on protecting immigrants from the Trump administration.

You can hardly blame him; both are urgent and expensive public policy challenges. But he must now also confront Sacramento’s yawning economic divide. On Tuesday, he told residents who came to the public forum that “you will be heard, and we will be listening.”

But he and the City Council must do more than listen. They need to come up with a smart plan, and make sure there’s enough staff and money to execute it. The business community must step up, too.

A good template could be what the Sacramento Kings are doing with the newly formed Build. Black. Coalition. Together, they plan to create an education fund for Clark’s two boys and, on Friday, they co-sponsored a youth forum in south Sacramento. It’s the first of what will be a a multi-year effort “to support the education of young people” and provide “work force preparation and economic development.”

Also, in some fortunate timing, the city has already started putting together an economic development strategy dubbed Project Prosper that it promises will boost all neighborhoods, especially those with the highest unemployment and poverty rates. To succeed, it must focus on the priorities identified by the community, including the Build. Black. Coalition.

The grief will not end anytime soon for Stephon Clark’s family and friends. The protests will continue, especially given a private autopsy that showed last week that he was shot six times in the back. But this is an opportunity for Sacramento to dig deeper as the investigations into the shooting unfold.

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