California Forum

The increasingly authoritarian big picture around Stephon Clark’s death

Sheriff’s vehicle appears to have hit a protester at Stephon Clark vigil

A protester at a vigil Saturday night for Stephon Clark appears to have been hit by a Sacramento County Sheriff's Department vehicle. This video was captured at the scene by legal observer Guy Danilowitz.
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A protester at a vigil Saturday night for Stephon Clark appears to have been hit by a Sacramento County Sheriff's Department vehicle. This video was captured at the scene by legal observer Guy Danilowitz.

“Say his name: Stephon Clark,” protesters have chanted, repeatedly, these last weeks, as Sacramento has found itself in the international spotlight over the police killing of an unarmed black man, living with his grandparents in a poor neighborhood of town that, I would guess, most Sacramentans have never set foot in.

There is, in the American legal system, a presumption of innocence. It is, ostensibly, a core part of how the system functions. It, along with such rules as habeas corpus, provides, at least in theory, a bulwark against arbitrary state power, helping to distinguish our rules-based, process-based system from, say, the Philippines or Brazil, or any other country in which extra-judicial killings of the poor, the invisible, the addicted, the homeless, the mentally ill, are tolerated, even celebrated.

As our system becomes more unequal – the richest three Americans are now worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans combined – so the brutality we are unleashing to keep that system functioning intensifies.

Yet there is an informal corollary at work, too, especially in poor and racially segregated communities, or in wealthier neighborhoods when it comes to men of color. Here, a presumption of guilt holds, of young men, especially, being “up to no good,” an assumption that they are, simply by virtue of who they are and not what they have done, dangerous.

It is no coincidence that so many poor people and young men of color are gunned down, tasered, beaten senseless with fists and clubs, by police officers and sheriffs’ deputies. Just as it is not random bad luck that as America’s incarceration system has ballooned over the past four decades, so more and more and more young men of color are spending their formative years behind bars. Just as it is no accident that as inequality has risen, so our default response to the poor has been to demonize them and to punish them for their poverty.

Any social system is a complex set of values and expectations and community relationships, of hierarchies of control, of participation in and exclusion from economic and political institutions. How that system is policed, how those on the edge of that system are treated, both determine and reflect the society’s values.

That’s why, more than a century on, the Victorian workhouses, within which England’s destitute were forced to work long hours in exchange for miserable gruel and cell-like living conditions, remain so etched into folk memory in England. It’s why, I suspect, the prisons and jails, the ghettos and the police killings of our era will, generations hence, occupy a similarly seminal place in how future Americans understand today’s United States.

It is not mere happenstance that, despite the resultant demonstrations, and the ritualistic expressions of remorse and promises to do better from civic leaders and law enforcement chiefs, killings such as that that ended Clark’s young life continue. The Washington Post has compiled a database of recent police killings nationally.

It includes 987 people killed in 2017, 457 of whom were white, and 223 of whom were black – meaning that blacks, as a percentage of the population, were over-represented at least two-fold in these deaths. Similar numbers exist for 2016, and for 2015, and for 2014, and so on. (And, it should be noted, the Post’s numbers are conservative; other estimates – and they are only estimates, since no federal government tracking mechanisms exist for this – put the number of police killings annually considerably higher).

No other wealthy democracy comes close to these numbers of deaths at the hands of police.

These killings, so routine in early 21st century America, are symptoms of a deep societal malaise, a systemic crisis – a peeling back of the veneer of civility and a glimpse of the raw, authoritarian, currents coursing through our body politic and culture. They cannot be understood in isolation from the rise of mass incarceration, and the simply vast numbers of Americans who now spend time either living behind bars or, in the case of prison guards and other staff, working behind bars.

They cannot be understood in isolation from the government’s embrace of torture in the endless wars against terrorism. They cannot be understood in isolation from the rounding up, and deportation of vast numbers of immigrants, the deliberate rending of families by ICE. They cannot be understood in isolation from the rise of “alt-right” movements, and the denigration, by the president and others, of “shithole countries” and those who originated in said countries.

And, in case we here in liberal California were to get smug and say that most often such tragedies, and such inequities, happen elsewhere, think again: The Post’s database shows that, in 2017, 162 of the 987 police killings nationally took place here, in the Golden State. It turns out that, as a percentage of the US population, California is significantly over-represented when it comes to police killings.

We are doing a shockingly effective job these days of dehumanizing entire groups, of rendering their sufferings somehow less meaningful than the sufferings of those with higher, more secure “status” in our system. We are, in essence, saying that the pain of some is less important, perhaps even less painful, than the pain of others, and we are tolerating state-inflicted violence as, somehow, a “price” worth paying for enhancing overall levels of security.

But a young black man’s body bleeds no less calamitously after being hit by eight bullets than does the body of anyone else. A protester in a poor neighborhood hit by a sheriff’s department vehicle that fails to stop after knocking her to the sidewalk suffers no less agony than does any other victim of a hit and run.

As our system becomes more unequal – the richest three Americans are now worth more than the poorest 150 million Americans combined – so the brutality we are unleashing to keep that system functioning intensifies.

“How without barbed wire fences, keep within bounds the growing legion of the damned? To the extent that the system finds itself threatened by the relentless growth of unemployment, poverty, and the resultant social and political tensions, room for pretense and good manners shrinks: in the outskirts of the world the system reveals its true face,” wrote the renowned Uruguayan social justice commentator, Eduardo Galeano, in his essay In Defense of the Word.

Police killings of unarmed young people are the cruelest of these facial expressions. We all, rich and poor, white, black and brown alike, have an obligation to confront this systemic crisis and the collapse in empathy that makes such violence commonplace.

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at sabramsky@sbcglobal.net.

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