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Home | Newsroom | Access to Justice | On Stephon Clark: The failure of public officials, the power of Black student protest, and the need for systemic reform

On Stephon Clark: The failure of public officials, the power of Black student protest, and the need for systemic reform

Like most people following the Stephon Clark case, I was, sadly, unsurprised by last week’s announcements that neither the Sacramento District Attorney’s office nor the State Attorney General would file criminal charges against the two officers who killed the unarmed 22-year old Black man in his grandmother’s backyard last March.

I watched with horror as District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert delivered her matter-of-fact character assassination of Clark, implying that he was to blame for his own death. I felt sick knowing that Schubert’s words would lead many to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that Clark led a life not worth caring about, or worse, that he somehow deserved to die.

The community’s grief and anger over the agencies’ announcements were compounded by the arrests and detention of over 80 people, including students and faith leaders, who protested the decision in the wealthy neighborhood of East Sacramento. By several first-hand accounts, protesters were trying to return to their cars when police herded the disbanding protesters onto the 51st street overpass with no exit. Journalists from the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Business Journal were among those detained.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn’s evasive and befuddled response to public questioning and criticism of his department’s handling of the protest only deepened the crisis. The D.A.’s decision not to file charges against the protesters is a relief, but in my view, the very least Sacramento leaders should do.

I am a resident of East Sacramento, and I am deeply outraged by Stephon Clark’s senseless death and the failure of leadership, lack of accountability, and re-traumatization of his family and the community that has followed in its wake. But amidst mine and the community’s despair, the movement for true, systemic criminal justice reform presses forward in Sacramento and in California.

Two days after the arrests of the 80 protesters, hundreds of Sacramento area college and high school students walked out of their classrooms and marched to the state Capitol in support of Assembly Bill 392, the California Act to Save Lives. Introduced by Assembly Member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and co-authored by Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), the bill would change the current standard that allows police officers to use deadly force when they have a “reasonable belief” that they are at risk of harm, even if an alternative course is available. Like similar laws in Seattle and other jurisdictions that have reduced dangerous police interactions without evidence of increased harm to officers, AB 392 would only allow the use of deadly force if “necessary.”

What makes the student protesters so compelling is the personal nature of their cause. As they told the Sacramento Bee, they’re also at risk of being killed by the police unless they fight for changes to the system that led to Clark’s death and the many fatal police shootings before his. The students also smartly seek broad reform, like demanding area school districts end contracts that put police officers (“school resource officers”) on campus. Otherwise, benign behaviors of Black students and other students of color will continue to be criminalized, rather than being addressed through appropriate services and restorative practices.

At Western Center, we work regularly to address the racism embedded in our state and federal legal, health, and economic systems. For example, in the past five years, we stopped local governments from unjustly stripping Californians – many of whom are Black and Latinx – of their driver’s licenses, and we co-sponsored a law that dismantles the state’s money bail system, which keeps people (disproportionately people of color) locked up solely because they can’t afford to pay their way out. Currently, we are co-sponsoring a bill that would require implicit bias training for perinatal health care providers to help save the lives of Black mothers in California, because their risk of dying from pregnancy is five times higher than for other groups in the state.

Taking a page from Ta-Nehesi Coates, I trace what happened to Stephon Clark back to this country’s enslavement of Black people and the institutions that followed after abolition, from Reconstruction to present-day racial profiling and deadly healthcare disparities – all of which are structured around white supremacy. As conservative columnist David Brooks recently expressed in a New York Times opinion piece in support of reparations, the “sin” and “injury” of slavery “…shows up today as geographic segregation, the gigantic wealth gap, the lack of a financial safety net, but also the lack of the psychological and moral safety net that comes when society has a history of affirming: You belong. You are us. You are equal.”

I take heart knowing Western Center is part of the ongoing movement that lays bare these injuries and fights for the true systemic change necessary to heal them.