The Shot(s) Heard Around the World: The Lasting Impact of Stephon Clark’s Murder


(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The shots that killed Stephon Clark the evening of March 18 were not confined to his grandmother’s backyard, or even the city of Sacramento. Rather, those 20 shots left an impact felt worldwide in the days following. One of devastation, frustration, and awakening.

The manner in which events unfolded that night exemplify the frustrations millions of Americans hold in regards to U.S. policing. According to reports, police were in search of “a Black man with a toolbar” who was supposedly breaking into cars. At the same time, Clark – unaware of the situation occurring blocks away- was returning to his grandmother’s house, cutting through neighbors’ backyards to enter through the backdoor, as he often had before. Helicopter footage shows that Stephon had already reached his grandmother’s door as officers were guided to him, and was completely oblivious to the fact that officers were hunting him down.

In other words, footage proves that Stephon Clark was not running away from police.

Upon reaching Clark, officers did not identify themselves. Seeing as this occurred in the middle of the night, it can be assumed that Clark had no idea who these officers were. Upon commanding Clark to show his hands, officers gave him less than three seconds to comply before firing 20 bullets in his direction. Their ‘justification for doing so: the fact that Clark was holding a cell phone.

Somehow, within those three seconds, officers were able to conclude that Clark’s white, rectangular iPhone posed a great enough threat to justify rapidly unleashing 20 bullets. As Clark fell to the ground, officers continued to fire bullets into his body. The officers then muted their body cameras and left Clark to bleed out just feet away from his grandmother and little sister. Well-respected pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, concluded it took up to ten minutes for Clark to die.

This recent killing comes on the heels of supposed ‘changes’ made within the Sacramento Police Department. In response to officers’ murder of Joseph Mann in July of 2016, the department took it upon themselves to adopt a new ‘use of force policy, which begins with the claim “It shall be the policy of the Sacramento Police Department that officers value and preserve the sanctity of human life at all times.”

Such a statement begs the question of how exactly Clark’s life was ‘valued’ and its sanctity ‘preserved’ when officers initially lied about the very nature of his murder.  The department initially claimed that Clark was advancing towards them when they fired 20 shots. However a recently released autopsy report shows that of the eight bullets that entered Clark’s body, “Six of the bullets hit Clark directly in the back, with a seventh hitting him in the side of his back.” At a recent press conference, Omalu concluded that “The proposition … he was facing officers is inconsistent with prevailing forensic evidence.”

In response to the crime, demonstrators flooded the streets. Many of the protests were arranged by the local Sacramento Black Lives Matter chapterThe community gathered together to shut down the I-5 ramp, Golden 1 Center, and main streets on multiple occasions. While the point of such disruption went over the heads of many, others responded positively despite being affected. “People are saying it’s irrelevant, because the game has nothing to do with the issue at hand,” Ken Horn reported to KCRA 3 after witnessing the initial shut-down of the Golden 1 Center. “Sometimes it needs to be brought to people’s’ attention because they don’t ever have it placed in front of them and it doesn’t affect them directly.”

Sacramento law enforcement’s disregard for human life was further exhibited when a Sacramento County sheriff police cruiser plowed into a 61-year-old protester on March 31. The victim, Wanda Cleveland, was hospitalized with injuries to her arm and back of her head.

This trend of crimes committed against civilians of color at the hands of law enforcement is not a new development. A widely-publicized 2014 ProPublica report concluded that “young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts: The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.” This disparity can be exemplified through incidents like that in which murderers like Dylann Roof are treated to Burger King by police hours after committing actual crimes.

Why is it that when Stephon Clark held his cell phone, the only thing he was treated to were six bullets in the back?

If Sac PD is to rectify this situation, there must be accountability.  The Sacramento District Attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, must file charges against the officers involved in the killing. Further, the DA must stop accepting unethical donations from police unions, like the $13,000 she accepted in campaign donations just days after Clark’s death. Police departments across the nation need to look into the root causes of these deaths. Were individuals considered by their officers to be ‘too Black’ or ‘too Muslim’? The recent shooting of another unarmed Black Muslim man, Saheed Vassel, seems to point to that very idea.

It is clear that the public will no longer accept gratuitous excuses from those in power. Should no significant systematic changes be made, it is expected that individuals will continue exercising their foundational democratic right:  the right to assemble and demand an end to injustice. If there is no justice, there will be no peace.

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